afghan refugee experience

I Am an Afghan Refugee. Here’s How I Fled and Made It Through Taliban Checkpoints.

Home is somewhere you escape to, not escape from, but I knew that I had no choice but to leave mine.

“The Taliban has entered Kabul and everyone is trying to escape. Let’s go home,” my colleague said, his voice trembling. It was a Sunday morning, the day Taliban fighters seized Afghanistan’s capital—my home. 

There was an air of fear and worry in our office when we learned about the Taliban takeover. On my way there that morning, I noticed crowds of people waiting in front of banks to withdraw their money. What’s going on? What should I do? I thought, anxiety growing inside me. 


My flatmates called to check in on me, and they, too, felt threatened. One of them was a university lecturer who had abruptly ended her class; the other worked for the government and was forced to leave her office and walk home. Her worn-out running shoes broke on the way and she arrived at her house barefoot. 

My colleagues and I were told that the safest place to be that morning was our office. We waited there for three hours, eventually leaving at around 2 p.m. Four of us rode a co-worker’s car, and I sat in the front seat the last time I was able to do so as a woman in Kabul.  

As we made our way home, I saw army vehicles heading to the presidential palace, and crowds of people running to their homes. By then, President Ashraf Ghani had left, and my heart ached to see my country change right before my eyes. 

I had nightmares that night. I couldn’t sleep or stop my tears from falling, crying for every woman who was in the same situation as me. I am a well-educated professional woman, a kind of lifestyle that is against the Taliban’s extreme views. When Afghanistan’s government collapsed, so did millions of people’s hopes for a better future. 

I was very young when the Taliban rose to power in the ‘90s. We lived in Ghazni, about 130 kilometers away from Kabul, and my family ran a grocery store. We led a quiet life, but Taliban fighters beat up and detained my dad twice, likely because we’re part of the minority Shia Muslim community. I remember visiting him in prison with my uncle. Another time, they beat my mom right in front of me while we were out shopping, all because she went out in public without a man accompanying her. 


After the Taliban was ousted in 2001, I started to believe that things would get better. I went to university, lived alone in Kabul, and supported my family. Seeing the Taliban back in power, and women’s rights threatened once again, felt like everything I achieved in the last 20 years would disappear. I feared for my independence and for my family’s safety. Home is somewhere you escape to, not escape from, but I knew then that I had no choice but to leave mine. 

“Home is somewhere you escape to, not escape from, but I knew then that I had no choice but to leave mine.”

Upon hearing about the situation in Afghanistan, friends from different parts of the world offered to help me and my family escape. I eventually received an evacuation letter from Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but going there was a challenge on its own. We would have to go through multiple checkpoints just to get to the airport, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy. 

My mom and siblings had arrived in Kabul by then, while my dad and brother drove to the city from Ghazni the day after I received the evacuation letter. We rented a car and headed to the airport at 3:30 that afternoon. With the internet unavailable near the airport gates and checkpoints all over the city, we didn’t know how to get to our destination. 


There were thousands of people at the first checkpoint—men with their families, women holding their babies, and young boys and girls pushing each other to pass the pickup truck used as a gate, as young Taliban fighters carrying whips and guns pushed them back. I thought of going home but I needed to  fight for my family, too. 

My dad took the lead. With my family’s hands clasped with each other’s, we forced our way past the guards who tried to intimidate us. A member of the Taliban with blue eyes and a black turban pushed the crowd and shouted, “You are United States slaves,” before pointing a gun at us and saying, “Go back, otherwise I will shoot you.” He laughed right after, as if it was all a joke to him. 

My father, mother, and sister were the first to get through. I was left in the crowd with my three brothers, including the youngest in our family, who is only 10 years old. One of the young men guarding the gate let him sit on the truck they used to block the way and he eventually passed the checkpoint. They let me and my eldest brother pass too, but not before a guard kicked my other brother on the chest and threw him into the crowd. It took a few minutes for him to stand back up with the help of the crowd. 

afghan refugee experience

My father sustained bruises after he was beaten by the Taliban. Photo: Sheren Adel

It was a similar situation at the second checkpoint, where we joined the rest of our family. We gasped for air as we continued to make our way through the sea of people. By the time we got close to the second gate, it was already 9 p.m. and the guards told us that it was already closed—we had to stay the night. There, I was able to observe the Taliban closer than I ever did before. 


A Taliban member picked on a young vendor and challenged him to bring back a bottle of cold water in 24 hours. Another, who was chewing gum and had saliva around his mouth, shouted just to scare us, his voice like a wolf’s. I watched another beat people up. 

I couldn’t sleep then. None of us could. The Taliban fired bullets into the sky and pointed their guns at people. They beat whoever tried to move, so we sat on the ground waiting for the sun to rise on Kabul and our family. 

We got through the second checkpoint after 15 hours, at around 7 a.m. the next day.

My father suffers from a heart condition and was exhausted by the time we got to the third and last Taliban checkpoint. “Let’s go back,” he told me. I pleaded with him to wait a little longer. We were at that checkpoint for five hours, walking until we reached the last gate. 

afghan refugee experience

These containers were the Taliban’s last checkpoint. Photo: Sheren Adel

We arrived at the airport after 22 hours without any sleep, and finally met the British and Spanish soldiers who would eventually help us leave Afghanistan. Only a container separated the foreign soldiers and the Taliban, but the difference between the two sides was like the distance between the sky and the earth. There, finally on the other side, we could let our guards down. 

afghan refugee experience

Foreign soldiers distributing water beyond the Taliban checkpoints. Photo: ​​Sheren Adel

We stayed at the military camp in Kabul Airport that night. The next day, we took a Spanish military plane to a stopover in Dubai, then another aircraft to our final destination, Spain. 

afghan refugee experience

Inside the Spanish military plane, traveling from Kabul to Dubai. Photo: Sheren Adel

The Red Cross emergency health team welcomed us upon arrival in Spain. They brought us to the refugee camp where I saw hundreds of young Afghans who had fled the country in search of safety, just like me. I met a 27-year-old dentist who had recently started his own clinic, but said that he had to leave Afghanistan for his family’s safety. 

afghan refugee experience

The refugee camp in Spain. Photo: Sheren Adel

afghan refugee experience

The dining area at the refugee camp in Spain. Photo: Sheren Adel

afghan refugee experience

Families wait in the refugee camp for a bus that will take them to their new homes in different parts of Spain. Photo: Sheren Adel

After spending the night at the refugee camp, a government organization took my family to our new apartment, in a place close to the sea. I thought about how strangers have treated us like humans, while fellow Afghans beat and fired at us like animals. 

As I sit on the balcony of our new home, my heart aches for every Afghan, especially women, who are convicted to life under the Taliban’s shadow government. The Taliban doesn’t believe in women’s rights or freedom of speech. I once interviewed a Taliban commander who refused to take a photo with me, a journalist, saying that they’re not allowed to take pictures with women. I realized then that their beliefs have not changed. 

No one can predict what will happen to those left in Afghanistan, but I hope the international community takes action, just as others did for me. 

The author’s name has been changed for their safety and protection.