The Taliban Takeover Six Months On: Mrs Rafai’s Story
By Kai Hopkins, Head of Humanitarian Programmes
The room is sparce. An old, donated sofa, a threadbare rug, and a small noisy fridge. No pictures, no toys, no real sign that anyone lives there. But Mrs Rafai does, along with her three children. She sits quietly watching the snow gently tumbling down outside. For the first time since arriving to Turkey, having left Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban’s swift takeover in August last year, she is alone. Her three boys are outside for the first time in five months, and it is making her very anxious.
There are a number of reasons why someone would flee their home. War, persecution, hunger, despair. It turns out all these reasons are relevant when it comes to Afghanistan, and sadly all of them were fundamentally behind Mrs Rafai fleeing her homeland. But framing it as a ‘choice’ is misleading. It is often said that as humans we make about 35,000 choices a day – some small, some big. However many choices you might make today, from when to cross the road, to what to have for dinner, it is unlikely any will involve fleeing the place you were born in, and the people you love. So why did Mrs Rafai do it? Not because she had a choice, but because she didn’t.
It started about ten years ago when her husband vanished. To this day she doesn’t know what happened to him. Without knowing if he was dead or alive, she was left to raise her young children alone. She lived in fear that whatever fate met her husband was waiting for her close at hand. In August 2021, along with so many others, this fear – something she has lived with for years – overwhelmed her. She had no alternative. She did not want to leave, she did not want to run, she did not want to take her children on such a dangerous and risky journey, but she felt like she had no choice.
Given the well-publicised account of Afghanistan’s descent since August, you would be forgiven for thinking she was one of the ‘lucky ones’. And on one level, you can see why – she is no longer at risk from the Taliban. Her fear however lives on, the Taliban replaced by another force, one who could also rip her world apart. For weeks the snow has been falling in Kayseri in central Turkey. While other teenage boys are out playing in it, throwing snowballs, The Rafai boys sit at home with their mother. As unregistered refugees they have no rights – they cannot go to school or access health care – and if found by the Turkish authorities would be removed to a Government-run camp that sits ominously in no-man’s land between the Turkish and Iranian border. From there, the best they could hope for would be repatriation to Afghanistan. And so, they stay inside, living in their small, sparce room. I say ‘living’, but it is not as you or I would recognise it.
I have met others like Mrs Rafai since being here in Kayseri. Kids at home instead of at school. Whole families huddled in one cold bare room. A few can earn a little by working illegally in one of the many factories on the outskirts of the city, but are taking a huge risk each time they do so. But then, what choice do they have? Like these others in Kayseri, as well as other Afghans I have met in Turkey, Mrs Rafai has a stoicism that you can only admire. But it doesn’t hide her fear. As she looks out of the window, she explains why her children are risking everything to be outside for the first time.
One of her sons needs urgent medical care. He cannot speak Turkish and cannot go a hospital. There are however a few migrant health centres, offering very basic services to those who have no other option. And so, as the temperature dial sits well-below zero, Mrs Rafai’s son, accompanied by his brothers have braved the journey to wait in line. Mrs Rafai is horribly torn, a parent’s instinct to care and protect pulling her in two completely opposite directions.
Unfortunately, we cannot help Mrs Rafai, not really. She is caught in a geo-political void, the victim of two regimes – the Taliban on one hand, and an impenetrable bureaucracy on the other. All we can realistically do is help with the basics, which can help sustain her until she can hopefully start properly living again. With our partners the International Blue Crescent and the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association, we are providing emergency food supplies and critical winter items, such as coats and boots. We are also redoubling our efforts to those in Afghanistan, many of whom are also in desperate need of food and clothes.
I wish we could do more, but thanks to the generosity of our supporters, we are already making a tangible difference. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to, need to choose to support where and how we can. My only hope is that one day, Mrs Rafai will also be able to regain some control over her and her family’s lives.