Five Afghan women moved into a sparsely furnished apartment this month on the edge of Fairfax County, strangers brought together in a strange new land by shared suffering and sorrow. It is a quiet place, with bare walls, near-empty cupboards and mattresses pushed together on the floor, and at night, there is almost always someone crying.
In one bedroom, Qandigul Rahmani, 62, mourns the death of her husband, a military officer killed during Afghanistan's civil war. She sleeps with two daughters, but nearby is a photo of a third child, a son who was taken away by soldiers soon after the radical Taliban militia took over. She has no idea what happened to him.
In the other bedroom, young Roya Hanifi comforts her weeping mother. Hanifi was 16 the night three years ago when the Taliban came and dragged away her two older sisters. Her father and brother tried to stop them--and were shot to death. She watched their blood seep into the living room carpet, then helped her mother bury them.
"My mother, she doesn't sleep now," Hanifi said. "She stays up all night, worrying and crying. She worries about my sisters, and she worries about what will happen to me here."
Twenty years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused an exodus out of that nation, including a large wave that eventually settled in Northern Virginia, a new group of Afghan refugees is arriving in the Washington area. This time, they are almost all women fleeing the country's new Taliban rulers, who imposed a radical brand of Islamic law that bars women from schools and work and requires them to wear the all-enveloping burqa veil when out of their homes.
Washington has long welcomed the children of war: the Vietnamese, the Ethiopians, the Salvadorans, the Somalis, the Iranians, the Kurds, the Bosnians. These Afghan women are just the latest arrivals, with stories as desperate as any of those who came before.
The region already is home to one of the largest and most vibrant Afghan communities in the United States, second only to San Francisco's. Between 1979 and 1993, as Afghanistan fought the Soviets and then fell into civil war, tens of thousands of Afghans arrived in the United States, and as many as 30,000 settled in Northern Virginia.
Slowly, they built the institutions of a community. They rented space at a Masonic temple for services, then opened a new mosque in Annandale. Their children learn Farsi at the Afghan Academy, a weekend cultural school, and the community supports several newspapers, cable TV and radio shows.
The refugee flow into the United States climbed as high as 4,000 a year during the 1980s, then dropped sharply when the Soviets withdrew. The United States essentially stopped taking refugees from Afghanistan in 1994, though factional fighting there continued.
Then, the Taliban emerged and rolled across the country, seizing control of the capital, Kabul, in 1996. As reports of human rights violations trickled out, the United States slowly began admitting refugees again, bringing in 88 last year and 364 this year. Next year, 1,500 to 2,000 are expected, officials say, and a large number of them will be resettled in Washington.
These new refugees suffered many more years of turmoil than those who preceded them. Most are women, often widows, many of whom have been separated from other family members, yet they have received much less public attention.
"In the 1980s, there were fund-raising galas all over Washington to help the Afghans settle in. The Afghans were fighting on the front lines of the Cold War, and there was tremendous sympathy," said Daoub Yaqub, senior associate at the nonprofit Afghanistan Foundation. "Now, people think Afghanistan is no longer relevant to U.S. policy. What's been forgotten is the human tragedy. . . . We have a moral and historic responsibility there, but we've walked away."
Even within the local Afghan community, support for the new refugees has been limited. Some in the community back the Taliban regime, while many others are focused on sending aid to the 2.6 million refugees in Pakistan and other neighboring countries. Still others are so discouraged by their nation's plight, "they don't even want to know what's going on," said Mariam Nawabi, a lawyer who is active in the community.
But a few local Afghans have reached out to the refugees, determined to make it easier for these women to begin new lives. Among them are Zohra Javid, 36, and Zekia Ahmadzai, 27, two sisters who remember searching through trash for discarded furniture when their family arrived in Alexandria in 1983.
Last week, Javid put up seven Afghan women in her Springfield town house while they searched for housing. Two of them, whom she picked up at the airport and helped find jobs at a McDonald's, are still staying with her. She works at a Hecht's department store and spends the rest of her day driving Afghan women to appointments with social workers, registering their children for school or trying to find them jobs.
"I call my friends, and a lot of them are willing to help," she said. "We empathize with how much they've gone through. We went through some of the same things, but they really grew up with war, and it's very different."
Ahmadzai got her start in social work at age 10, when she served as the family's interpreter and filled out her mother's welfare forms. Now, she is a refugee worker for the International Rescue Committee and has helped resettle more than 20 Afghans this year, including some women who lost limbs during the war.
"My co-workers say, 'Don't take it personally.' But it's very difficult. It hurts you. It's your country. It's your people. And as a woman, it all comes together and breaks you down," she said. "They're victims of war, they've been through trauma, and they just want to sit and cry. But you have to push them to start a new life."
The process can be difficult. She found Roya Hanifi, 19, a part-time job at Hecht's, but she is the only one in the apartment who is working and the only one who speaks English. Like the other women, Hanifi is haunted by the past.
She remembers what life was like before the Taliban: Her father was a government official, her brother an engineer; her sisters had jobs teaching and working in an office. She had skipped a grade, finished high school and was starting engineering classes at Kabul University.
Then the Taliban took control of the city. Television and music were banned. Girls' schools were shut down, and women were barred from working and forced to wear the burqa, a garment her family didn't even own. Men were told to grow long beards. For a month, the Hanifis stayed home.
But then Hanifi's mother, Mastura, took ill, and the sisters ventured outside to buy medicine. That night, five Taliban men showed up at their house to take the women away. Hanifi's father and brother tried to stop them.
"The Taliban shot them in front of my eyes and my mother's eyes, and then they took my two sisters with them," Hanifi said in a recent interview, her mother sobbing beside her. "There was nothing to do. There were no doctors, and they were bleeding on the carpet."
The next morning, Hanifi and her mother buried the men in their yard; neighbors were too afraid to help. The pair then fled to Pakistan, where they struggled to survive for three years. In September, they came to Washington.
Hanifi hopes to fulfill her father's dream and become an engineer, but she never wants to return to Afghanistan: "I hate it there. I don't want to hear the news from Kabul or about the Taliban. I can't."
Among the first of the new refugees was Nazira Karimi, 31, a prominent TV reporter in Kabul who fled to Pakistan before the Taliban arrived but kept reporting from there on the plight of Afghan women. When she began receiving death threats last year, she fled to the United States.
Here, she found a job as a waitress in Chevy Chase and began volunteering on one of the Afghan TV programs. People recognized her and called to inquire about missing relatives. But Karimi had her own relatives to worry about.
Taliban soldiers targeted Karimi's family to get to her, and her relatives fled in different directions. She'd receive calls from them in the middle of the night, relaying their whereabouts. One night, her mother phoned to ask her to return and turn herself in for the sake of the others. After agonizing over what to do, she got help from the Feminist Majority Foundation, which pressured the U.S. government to admit 16 members of the family, who arrived in Washington in early September.
Many new refugees decline to be interviewed, saying they fear for the safety of relatives left behind. Others want to speak out about conditions in Afghanistan.
One of Karimi's sisters, Freshta, 24, told how a friend was punished by the Taliban for arguing with her husband: They covered her with a burlap bag, released a cat into it and poked the animal so it would scratch her.
Maryam Shams, 21, another refugee, said women resisted the Taliban in her city by arranging clandestine classes for girls and organizing an underground library to circulate banned books. She said she escaped when her mother arranged for her to marry an Afghan man who lived in Germany, a man she had never met. But the man physically abused her. Her aunt, who lives in the District, helped bring her here.
"I wish there was more support for these women, from our community and the larger American community," said Ahmadzai, the refugee worker, who lost relatives during the Soviet invasion. "We went through a lot, too. But we were lucky. We were very lucky."
CAPTION: Qandigul Rahmani arrived in the United States in September with two daughters. Her husband died in the civil war, and her son was abducted by the Taliban.
CAPTION: The family of journalist Nazira Karimi was under threat in Afghanistan, and she was able to get 16 family members out, including mother Nafisa Karimi, left, sister Sultana Karimi and niece Fatana. At right is Nazira's daughter, Benazir Wakil, 9.
CAPTION: Roya Hanifi tells of the attack on her family as her mother, Mastura Hanifi, weeps. Roya's father and brother were shot to death, and two sisters were abducted.
CAPTION: Refugee Maryam Shams, 21, tells aunt Zieba Shorish-Shamley some of what she experienced under the Taliban.