We didn’t go to Germany. We didn’t leave Kabul. We stayed through the Taliban years, and my parents brought their six children up in our small house, and my father planted a garden. He raised it out of the sandy soil behind our home, transforming that emptiness into lush green space, growing fruit trees and planting vegetables that we’d harvest with great joy.
We stayed through the fall of the first Taliban regime in 2001, we stayed through the subsequent years as the world’s attention spotlighted my country, and when my siblings and I finally did leave Afghanistan to pursue higher education in the United States, my father remained behind, right where he’d always been.
I would call him from college, and my father — my mentor and personal hero, a man who so proudly and publicly educated his Afghan daughters — would tell me what he told my brothers and sisters: Afghanistan needs you. When your education is complete, come home and serve your people.
And that’s what we did.
Now it’s 2021, and the Taliban has come again. On one of those final days in Kabul last month as I worked to evacuate the members of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), my boarding school for Afghan girls, I went one last time to my parents’ home — the home I grew up in.
My father’s garden has evolved over time. He’s retired, and his garden is the place where he reads and writes and now nurtures mostly flowers. He has some that only open their petals at sunset, and whenever I’ve come to visit in the past he would always want me to stay, through sundown and night’s coming, to watch the flowers open. He would laugh, his eyes on me, seeing my enjoyment of their beauty.
The garden is empty today. When I went to see my parents, my father told me he wasn’t leaving. We’ve lived through waves of war before, he said, and we’ll ride this wave out, too. I admit that I lost my temper. It’s different now, Dad, I said. What I do exposes you. My work with SOLA puts you at risk.
I forced my parents to leave Afghanistan. My father lived his entire life refusing to be a refugee. I turned him into one.
What a person physically carries, as a refugee watching their country recede through the window of a plane, is often nothing more than what she can hold in her hands. That’s the weight that’s easy to put down.
I’m fully aware that some Westerners see refugees as a burden, in all senses of the word. We can prompt politicians to claim that a country must “protect itself from a wave of migrants,” as the president of France recently stated. We can also prompt roughly 70 percent of Americans to say that the U.S. government has an obligation to help find new homes in the United States for those Afghans who worked for a democratic Afghanistan.
To all, I say: Please don’t see us as your burden. See us as what we are: Afghanistan’s great loss. Coming among you now are journalists and entrepreneurs and artists and dreamers, the skilled backbone of the young democracy that has been ripped from our nation. The builders of a future now being dismantled, brick by brick and life by life.
The things we carry are forever. They are our burdens — but we are not yours. Just in my immediate SOLA community I see such exceptional talent: English-speaking Afghans with a background in adolescent education, in counseling, in IT … We are part of the brains that have drained away, out of our country and into so many others.
We are the departed, our home blanketed in night, and in my father’s garden flowers are opening, untended and unseen. Afghanistan needs you, he used to tell me. Come home and serve your people.
I haven’t forgotten, Dad. I never will.