Note: to mark the one year anniversary of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the stories of eight Afghan women produced in different countries, will be published in Farsi and English by Rukhshana Media. These stories were first published by the Time Magazine in collaboration with Rukhshana Media and Pulitzer Center.
Hasina Najibi and Raihana Rahimi
Fort Myers, Florida
By :Farahnaz Forotan
Afghan Air Force pilots Hasina Najibi and Raihana Rahimi met last year in Dubai when they attended an aviation training. The two women, who are both 25 years old, immediately clicked and became close friends: they shared a passion for the skies and the freedom they felt when soaring through them. Growing up, they both had to fight to earn that right. For Najibi, an ethnic Pashtun, the fear of her relatives and neighbors discovering she was a pilot made her go to work disguised, in large sunglasses. Rahimi often faced discrimination in the armed forces for belonging to the minority Hazara community. The two women were preparing to return to Kabul from the United Arab Emirates when the Taliban captured Kabul. They frantically told their families to burn their uniforms, pilot IDs and diplomas, fearful that members of the Taliban would take revenge on their families. Najibi watched on a video call as her mother set her uniform alight. “All my dreams were on fire, and I was just watching,” she recalls.
Despite the Taliban’s pledge of “amnesty” for those linked to the ousted Afghan government, members of the security forces were already being threatened.
Now, in the sweltering heat of southern Florida, the women have switched their uniforms for aprons, and wait tables in a strip mall. Their biggest dream: to return to the skies.
What do you miss about Afghanistan?
Hasina: I miss the dreams I had when I was in Afghanistan. I miss being a soldier. I will never forget the day I graduated from the air force academy. That lovely feeling has stayed with me—of wearing my uniform, of feeling that I had a country.
Raihana: I miss my military uniform. I miss my homeland and my class, the sense of being a soldier. Of belonging to a country. I miss my mother.
What has surprised you about where you live now?
Hasina: The streets, the people, the food, even the trees—nothing is familiar here
Raihana: How far we are from home. In the early days, Hasina and I would look at a map of the world from time to time. We’d look at America, and then Afghanistan, and we’d get a scary feeling of being so far from our home.
What do you do to relax?
Hasina: We like to remember how things were—our classmates, our teachers. We had so much fun. But now when we tell our stories, everything seems so surreal, like a dream. We don’t notice the passage of time and all of sudden we realize it’s two or three o’clock in the morning. Sometimes we worry we are losing our minds. But then we laugh about it.
Raihana: Sometimes, in the evenings, we put a rug under the tree [by our apartment]. We drink tea and talk about our life back in Afghanistan. We talk about our academy, our classmates, and our dreams of flying.
When you think of Afghanistan’s future, what comes to mind?
Hasina: Nothingness. When I think about Afghanistan, a dark emptiness forms in my mind. It’s like looking at a dark, deep well with a monster lurking at the bottom. These days, I only think about survival. In Afghanistan, everyone thinks about survival. Of our families, our friends.
Raihana: I think about Afghan women, and how they should not be forgotten. They lost everything they had. Their lives, their rights and their dreams are now being held hostage. Sometimes I feel this situation is not going to last. I think one day Afghanistan will be liberated and we will return to our country. Oppression and injustice never last long. How can a regime that ignores half of society survive?
What food from home do you eat most often?
Hasina: I miss Bolani Kachaloo (potato-stuffed flatbread). The food here is strange and unfamiliar. We drink a lot of green tea and eat dried fruits.
Raihana: I used to eat a lot of ashak (herb-stuffed dumplings) in Afghanistan. I love ashak. I’m not used to the food here.
Describe your favorite possession that you have with you. Why is it so special to you?
Hasina: I have my air force badge, which is very special to me. The day we flew from Dubai to America they told us we could only take one suitcase with us. I packed a set of Air Force uniforms, my flight booklet and a few other small items from my time in the military.
Once when I felt homesick, I opened my suitcase. I was happy to have brought those things with me. Seeing my uniform gave me the hope that I might be able to study again here and become a pilot. My uniforms give me strength to do everything I can to go back to school and become a pilot. I know I have a lot of hardships ahead of me. But I will not give up. Every time I get tired, I think about that uniform and I feel like I can handle anything.
Raihana: I brought my flight notebook and a set of pilot’s uniforms with me. I brought only one suitcase, and inside I packed my youth – my joys, my sorrows and my homeland in the same suitcase. But I can’t look at my uniforms. I’ve hidden them in the suitcase. I don’t think I have the strength. It is not just a uniform to me. It was once my strength, and today it is my weakness. When I wore that uniform, I never thought a day would come when I couldn’t bear to look at it. Today, in place of my military uniform, I wear a restaurant apron.
Choose one word to describe yourself.
Hasina: In free fall.
What word comes to mind when you think about the Taliban?
Raihana: Never on my side.
Where do you see yourself in one year from now?
Hasina: All I dream of is returning to my studies. I hope that by this time next year, I’ll be closer to my goal.
Raihana: I am so far away from my homeland, everything is new here. I lost my life but I won’t lose my hope. I am determined to find a way back into my profession. This is the dream that keeps me alive. Even though I sometimes feel exhausted, I tell myself I’ll find a way. Back in Afghanistan my family and even my teachers at times would tell me piloting is not for me. I always felt the discrimination. But I succeeded there. I am sure I can succeed again.