Afghanistan: lifeline for refugees as world becomes ‘numb to the human crisis’

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistSunday 31 July 2022

The humanitarian crisis continues to escalate in Afghanistan almost a year after the Taliban takeover. Of those that fled, many have spent months in limbo waiting to hear where and when they will finally resettle.

Greece quickly became the hub for Afghan women who managed to escape the Taliban. In 2021, around 30 per cent of the asylum seekers that entered Greece came from Afghanistan, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

The International Bar Association played its part in evacuating vulnerable female members of the legal profession and at-risk groups to safety in Greece after months spent in hiding. But for many the waiting was far from over.

Khatera Saeedi, a former journalist and humanitarian worker, is one of the 103 evacuated Afghan families. She arrived in Athens on 24 October 2021, alongside her mother, sister and two children. Their flight included judges, prosecutors, human rights activists, defence lawyers and politicians. All of them had been forced to leave behind family members with no certainty of ever seeing them again. ‘It was the most shocking period of our life,’ she told Global Insight. ‘It is out of expectation and no words can express our feelings. It was not easy for anyone – men or women – particularly for a lot of active women.’

Saeedi says adjusting to their new life in Athens was extremely challenging. Prior to leaving Afghanistan, she was offered a top position at UN Women in Kabul. Yet, suddenly, like other refugees arriving in Greece, she was unable to work for at least six months until her registration with the Greek authorities was complete. She spent the intervening period doing voluntary work for local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) supporting refugees.

Everyone had this feeling that they had lost everything, that there were no more opportunities… these workshops started to build up their strengths, giving them hope

Khatera Saeedi
Afghan refugee and former journalist and humanitarian worker

As the women waited for news of their final destinations, some were referred to in-country counsellors through the help of local NGOs. However, a lifeline was granted when Jane Shackman, a psychosocial trauma consultant from the UK, approached the IBA's Human Rights Institute to offer her services pro bono.

Shackman, who has considerable experience of supporting people in the aftermath of conflicts, helped to design seven three-hour workshops for 51 women focusing on their experiences, acknowledging what they had left behind, as well as highlighting coping strategies and helping them build resilience as they prepared for their new lives abroad.

Shackman was keen to create a safe space for psychosocial discussion from the outset. ‘I had been told the women needed to work on trauma, but within the first hour of the first workshop we banned the word trauma because that's such a kind of Western label,’ she says. ‘We just used the word ‘stress’ because we all understand that – we can all get stressed. So I tried to normalise their reactions whilst also acknowledging the magnitude of what had happened.’

This was key, she says, to helping the women work through the significant challenges they were facing. ‘I do know from experience that in exile, if you leave your country, you leave your job, you leave everything,’ she says. ‘I hoped to remind people of their skills, their strengths and their amazing qualities that they bring with them and that they'll take with them into the future.’

Shackman says it was also important to give them back a sense of control. ‘In exile, you have it all stripped away from you,’ she says. ‘In the workshops I wanted to give them as much choice and control as possible, whilst also introducing ideas and managing and containing their emotions and feelings.’

By the time the workshops took place in May, many of the families had already received news of upcoming flights to third countries. Others, like Saeedi, were still anxiously waiting for updates. She says the workshops came at just the right time to help women like her feeling in limbo. ‘Everyone had this feeling that they had lost everything, that there were no more opportunities according to the cultural barriers and to the expectations,’ she says. ‘They were really stressed and that was the moment when these workshops started to build up their strengths, giving them hope and providing them with an opportunity to feel positive again.’

Shackman effectively utilised resources, including those brought from the UK and ideas familiar to the women from Afghanistan and neighbouring cultures to help them feel more relaxed and comfortable discussing what were often deeply personal and painful experiences.

The workshops concluded with a get-together for all participants. In many respects, says Saeedi, it was a celebration, both of what the women had overcome and a going away party. Saeedi and her family finally flew to Canada on 13 July. Of the almost 500 people that fled Afghanistan and found safe haven in Athens, the vast majority have now resettled in Canada, and others in Australia, Germany, the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Iceland. Nine families are still waiting for news of their onward travel. IBA efforts to get the remaining members of the Afghan Bar Association out of Afghanistan continue.

World events have caused the international community to become ‘numb to the human crisis in Afghanistan,’ says Karl Waheed, founder of Karl Waheed Advocats in Paris and Chair of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee. He’s concerned it will become increasingly difficult for ‘public opinion to stay focused on Afghans who are still at risk and need to be evacuated to potential host countries’ as international attention continues to be diverted away from their plight. ‘It is very good to know that the IBA is still staying focused on the need to help Afghans at risk,’ says Waheed.

Image credit: Ajdin Kamber/AdobeStock.com

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