Sharbat Gula, the child in the unforgettable National Geographic cover from 1985, whose “haunting eyes tell of an Afghan refugee’s fears” was evacuated to Rome last week. She’s about 49 now and the mother of four children.
Gula’s story has become symbolic of the challenges Afghan refugees face. She’s been living the precarious life of an Afghan refugee since she was a child – first displaced by the Russian war in the 80s, then by the U.S. invasion in 2001, and now by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
For years, she was the unnamed “Afghan Girl” photographed by Steven McCurry in a Pakistani refugee camp in 1984. No one knew who she was until McCurry sought her out in 2002.
In 2014, she resurfaced in the news when Pakistani authorities accused her of buying a fake Pakistani identity card and ordered her deportation. She had been living in the shadows, like millions of other Afghan refugees in Pakistan who did not want to “voluntarily repatriate” to Afghanistan under the U.S.-supported government at the time.
After she appeared in the news, she was flown to Kabul where the Afghan president hosted her at the presidential palace and handed her keys to a new apartment.
But like many others, her peace in Afghanistan was short-lived. Italy has said it organized her evacuation after she asked them for help. In a statement, the Italian government committed to assisting her get settled in her new country.
Thousands of Afghans are also banking on the same commitments made to Gula. Since August, 22,000 Afghans have been evacuated to 24 countries in the European Union. Many of the these countries had supplied troops to coalition forces in Afghanistan since 2001.
VICE World News spoke to several Afghans who have been in limbo for months since being evacuated out of Afghanistan into Europe. They have meagre food allowances, they lack access to mental health support, and they don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Afghan refugees being processed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Sep. 8. Photo: Olivier DOULIERY / POOL / AFP
Last July, Mursal Sayas was living the life many young Afghans aspire to. She had just bought herself a car, was a master trainer for the Humans Right Commission in Kabul and was almost done with her last semester of graduate school at the University in Kabul.
Then she became one of the “lucky ones,” because she had the connections to leave it all behind when U.S. troops withdrew and the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
Sayas was evacuated to France on Aug. 21, where she spent 15 days in quarantine in Paris before being sent by the government to a camp in Saint-Florentin.
“I left everything behind and even my new car. Now I am living with other illegal refugees from Somalia and Morocco in a shared flat full of insects. It’s like a dustbin,” Sayas told VICE World News. “I am the only Afghan in the whole camp here. The other Afghans are in other camps.”
She hopes other Afghan refugees are faring better in other camps. “I have not received any clothes. They allocate only 4 Euros for food per person.”
She may be safe from violence, but Sayas is also starting to feel desperate about her circumstances. “I am in a very bad mental situation. I’d prefer to be in Afghanistan and in a war zone, not in this condition which I am living in now.”
Sayas is hopeful that the French government will start her asylum processing soon so she can work and even study, too.
Arian Afshar is hopeful, too. Back in Kabul, he was a movie director and producer who worked on TV series and commercials. He was evacuated to Rome and transferred to Turin city, where he is now living in a church. His stay is facilitated by a company to which the government has outsourced dealing with refugees.
“The life conditions here and in Afghanistan are very different. The government is trying to provide good facilities for us, but it will take time. We are in a church. It’s calm, and I am living in a shared room with another Afghan refugee,” Afshar told VICE World News.
Like Sayas, he is only allotted about 4 Euros a day, except it isn’t paid in cash. They are escorted to a supermarket once a week to get 25 Euros worth of groceries.
“Physically, I am well but mentally and emotionally, not at all,” Afshar said. “I am thinking about how we lost everything, and things were destroyed, and I have not received any psychological support here.”
Afshar has started learning Italian in classes provided by the government. It’s a step towards making a life in Italy. “Regarding the visa process we don’t know too much but they said, the Italian government will process residency of every person based on the capabilities they have.”
Nesar Ahmad Mahmoody was working for the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO), a global intergovernmental organization, as a translation manager and was evacuated to the Netherlands on Aug. 23. “I am being provided with meals, clothing, hygiene products and other essentials in kind. No cash or language support yet,” Mahmoody told VICE World News. “The food is provided by the government, other support partially by NGOs, I assume. I feel better mentally, improving emotionally and feel well physically.”
Although his daily needs are taken care of, Mahmoody worries about his future. “They haven't shared much of the plan unfortunately. I am not sure when I am moving or where. I am not sure if I will be given a visa. I was not told whether I'll be able to work,” he said.
An Afghan refugees camp accommodating thousands of evacuees is pictured on Sep. 6 at the largest US air base in Europe, in Ramstein, Germany. Photo: Olivier DOULIERY / POOL / AFP
Feroza Rahimi was also working for an international organization in Kabul and then evacuated to Belgium after the Taliban takeover. “The situation is not easy at all. Here are people who have spent years in the camps, and they told us that they will speed up the process of our refugee cases, but time will make it clear if they will treat us like other refugees for years,” Rahimi told VICE World News.
“Mentally and emotionally, I am not well. I am nervous about all the relatives and friends I left in Kabul,” she said.
“I hope we get permission to work, and that the process completes soon, so that we could be able to work and integrate into the community here.”
Ali Haider was working as a coordinator in a security consultancy in Kabul. He was evacuated to Paris, where he now lives in the Aurore camp with many other refugees.
“The life situation for single people is not easy in the camps,” Haider told VICE World News. He shares a room with four other refugees from different countries. Everyone is expected to cook their own food.
“We don’t have food, and the government pays us 200 Euros per person every month,” Haider said.
“We don’t have any psychiatrist, and language lessons are not available here in our camp,” he added. “Emotionally, I am under pressure because I had a very good life in Kabul.”
After Neman Noori, a photojournalist from Afghanistan’s Bamyan province, was evacuated, he spent 12 days in an American camp in Spain before he was sent to live in a refugee camp in Hanover, Germany on Sept. 15.
“It’s obvious – being a refugee is not easy. I left my family and everything in Afghanistan, and when I follow the news, I am really nervous about my family,” Noori told VICE World News.
“The life situation is good here, but we need clothes because the weather is cold here and we only came with the clothes we were wearing. They brought some second-hand clothes, and I waited for two hours, but when my turn arrived, all the clothes were taken,” said Noori.
The authorities took their passports upon arrival. Uncertain whether she would be granted a visa to stay permanently, Noori’s future seems up in the air.
“We don’t know what is next,” he said.
Correction: This story originally spelled the photographer's name incorrectly. The correct spelling is Steven McCurry. We regret the error.
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