On the morning of August 19th, Sayed Khanoghli, an Afghan refugee and Chairman of the Youth at Amnesty International, watched a video from Afghanistan. It showed a young girl of only thirteen in abject terror as she is being pried out of the arms of her mother by a Taliban fighter. The child is screaming to be left alone as she is violently pulled away and forced out of frame. This is the Taliban they claim has changed.
The Taliban has been establishing its rule over enormous swaths of Afghanistan for months. Starting in the countryside, district after district fell to the Taliban until the capital of Kabul was finally captured on August 15th, signifying the toppling of the civilian government. At first, people spoke of a strange calmness in Kabul, no doubt due to the presence of countless members of the international media on the ground. It was ultimately the scenes of chaos at the Hamid Karzai Airport showing people so desperate to flee that they clung to the sides of departing planes, that finally caught the attention of the world.
A family in peril
After journeying through numerous countries and spending months in an Icelandic refugee shelter, Sayed is now settled in Reykjavík and pursuing film studies. His family, however, remain in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where they face imminent danger of retaliation and death, as do untold numbers of other Afghan families.
“Since 2001, my entire family has been involved in the government. I grew up in a very politically minded family that always stood up for what was right—and that really cost us,” he says. Detailing his personal losses, Sayed continues, “I have a brother who’s almost four years older than me. There was an attack on our house and he was paralysed permanently, just for the reason that my family was involved in the government. Another attack on my family happened in 2016 when my uncle was shot in front of my eyes.”
Sayed’s family is just one example of the countless vulnerable people who will fall through the cracks of Iceland’s new plan for accepting Afghan refugees. The government has agreed to receive up to 120 individuals, focusing primarily on government workers and students involved in Icelandic projects, as well as a fortunate few whose residence requests have been approved but are unable to secure their own passage. Sayed’s family, however, don’t qualify under those conditions, leaving them helpless in their attempts to flee the danger closing in around them.
“They just need to figure out who my family is and in a matter of seconds, my whole family can be massacred.” Sayed reflects. “It really has cost us, like everyone in Afghanistan who was standing for the people’s rights and wanting to educate people about the things that are going on.”
Despite claims that the Taliban has shifted their stance on women’s rights, Afghan women and girls are already facing abhorrent abuses under their new rule. Sayed explains, “They have made an announcement in my city stating that we have to put a sign on our house that we have a young girl who is eligible for marriage. I have three nieces who meet their requirements. So if they get in there they can do anything to them. And who’s going to answer for it? No one. There are no police you can complain to and there is no government you can go to. There is nothing you can do,” he declares. “Since last week, I just feel terrible. I just don’t know what to do.”
Taking action for Afghanistan
With the stakes so high, Sayed, who has become a voice of activism in Iceland, continues to urge the government to halt deportations of individuals at risk of being sent back to life-or-death situations. He’s also calling for the government to accept at least 100 refugee families—not only the 120 individuals they’ve pledged. Along with talking to news outlets and spreading the word on social media, Sayed also created a petition on change.org through his organisation, Samstaðan, to push the government to expand its acceptance of Afghan refugees. Opportunities for donation to the organisation will be forthcoming. At the time of writing, the petition has 788 signatures. In addition, Sayed hopes to see Iceland help fund their resettlement and provide them with adequate support upon arrival.
“I know the Icelandic government can provide better conditions for refugees in the camps. If you go to these camps, you’ll feel disgusted. That’s not a place that human beings can live. If they’re not providing a good place for refugees to live, at least they can provide a temporary work permit so they can work during the asylum process and they can live a better life during that time,” he says.
Responsibility lies not only with the government, Sayed emphasises, but with citizens and residents of Iceland. “We’ve put out a petition for people to sign and we’re going to start a fundraiser for the ones who’ve been displaced. I really want people to donate to them,” Sayed urges, “I want them to at least educate themselves and their families on the subject — that way people can try to understand the situation. I want them to know this is still the Taliban from the 1990’s, it’s no modern version like they say. They’re still killing innocent people. They’re destroying homes. They’re burning houses. They’re still doing all the same things.”
But time is of the essence—every day the Taliban tightens their stronghold on Afghanistan with the entire country now under their control. Human lives are being lost as Iceland resists instituting a more comprehensive plan on Afghan refugee acceptance and resettlement.
When speaking of his new home Sayed concludes, “We need their help today, I don’t want them to leave us alone.”
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