How do you keep more than fifty children safe and occupied in scattered locations, when the Taliban are searching door to door? The leader of the AFCECO Safe House program describes what it took.
Sahar, a graduate of more than a decade of AFCECO programs and herself now a dentist, a wife and mother to a toddler, took on the necessity of immediate care for AFCECO’s young and at-risk students in September 2021. Her tasks ranged across the full array of services AFCECO needed to provide that Fall, then focused on the long-term need for managing several safe houses.
First she helped older girls, musicians, and artists, who were most at risk. AFCECO and the Afghan National Institute of Music helped some of the musicians leave the country for safety in Portugal. Other partners worked with AFCECO to help students reach Albania and France. AFCECO staff, many of whom needed and received help themselves, supported graduates in university as well as the younger students. Some of the high school-age girls were so emotionally devastated by the brutal Taliban takeover that they needed to be hospitalized. Students of all ages received help with housing, food, medical care, passport and visa applications, and, most important, education.
Below, Sahar describes her experience leading what became the core of AFCECO’s ongoing work to provide a home and safe space for education for young people in need, especially girls with no access to school: the Safe House Program.
After the creation of the first safe house, my hectic and dangerous work began. With fear and threats and tens of other issues I tried to keep busy and give emotional support to four of the musician girls. I couldn’t sleep through the night and always asked my husband what if the Taliban broke into our house and questioned us about the girls who we were not related to at all and lived with us together? What would be our answers? How would the Taliban react?
After monitoring the situation of the girls, who critically needed our support, we created several other safe houses in Kabul. Before operationalizing the safe houses, we first created a team of several people to work on two main issues: safety and education.
Our team immediately started looking for new houses in relatively safer areas which were a lesser focus of the Taliban. We repeatedly told the girls to be careful in not giving out any information to people and neighbors and reminded them to stay cool in case the Taliban broke into our houses.
After moving the children back from provinces, we divided them in groups of six to seven in each house.
After two months into Taliban regime, things seemed to be calmed from the outside but unfortunately this was not the same for me and AFCECO’s team. We had to organize and manage everything under immense mental and emotional pressure. AFCECO musician girls, until their departure months later, lived in my house which had turned into one of the safe houses. My husband and I tried to decrease their emotional stress by keeping them busy with various activities. To the neighbors, we had introduced the girls as my and my husband’s sisters. As per the Islamic law, a young girl living with another person that is not related is not only unacceptable by the Taliban but it is also unacceptable to the regular people too.
Based on the safety protocol we told the girls they should not go out unless in exceptional situations. We bought them burqas and If they had to go out they covered themselves completely and wore masks too. Even though I was incredibly stressed with fear, I needed guidance and to support myself, I started reading books on psychology to learn how to deal with difficult situations and how I could best support the girls.
We worked on an educational plan. In the first few months, alongside the online English courses, we hired personal teachers for the homes too. The smaller girls were enrolled to the classes after the schools opened for girls under grade six.
Six months ago, Taliban started searching homes for the second time. This was terrifying for all of us and we could not do anything about it. We prepared ourselves and told the girls to stay calm to avoid suspicion. The search went without any incident.
After the Taliban took power, the women were the first group to stand up and protest against Taliban’s medieval and misogynistic rules but were suppressed and beaten immediately from the start. Taliban searched the houses of suspected civil right activists that organized the protests and arrested and detained many of these women. They were released after being tortured. I was terrified that in case of a mistake from the girls or house parents the neighbors would suspect and report us to the Taliban. If the Taliban suspected and searched our safe houses, they could arrest us and accuse us of being civil rights activists.
Even though we encouraged the girls that if we stayed alert and followed the safety tips, we could avoid any unfortunate incident. Thankfully no incident has occurred till this moment and I am hoping this will always be the case.
I alongside a committed team of AFCECO staff were able to create and manage our safe houses. Everyone involved in this truly did an excellent job so our girls could continue their education. The past year has changed my life. I feel proud of myself and my colleagues in Kabul for being able to continue our work despite fear and anguish.