‘We are the flour between the two mills’

We have a saying in Afghanistan: People age according to the pain they experience, not the number of years they live.

A year after evacuating Kabul when the Taliban overran the city I’ve called home for nearly a decade, these words come back to me every time I look at my face in the mirror. My hair has turned gray, the wrinkles on my forehead are deeper. When I sent pictures of myself to my mother, who still lives in Afghanistan, she wrote, “What have you done to yourself?”

On August 15, 2021, the morning started as a normal work day, but in a few hours my family and I had to pack our lives into our backpacks and leave the country. We left behind everything from diaries and books to family photos.

My life and the lives of millions of other Afghans were turned upside down.

We are still trying to understand what happened. We ourselves are the most visible reminder of how suddenly our lives change on a summer’s day – a reminder that we still exist even when we feel so alienated in new lands that don’t look like the home we ran away from.

I am in the United States now, and although I am physically safe, my psychological health is anything but. Things are very different here, and I don’t know how most things work: Where do I park? How do I pay my bills? And, by the way, how does American health insurance work?

As we climbed into the packed American cargo plane that seemed to scream as it took off from Kabul International Airport, the American soldiers on board gave us their seating positions but did not reveal their lives. how hard i will soon become.

So now I need to work hard to avoid missing out on my rent payment, otherwise I won’t be able to rent again. Did you know when you rent a house or a car, they check your credit score? But when you are brand new to the country, you don’t have.

A feeling of loneliness enveloped me, and I thought it might stay here for a while. Life in America seems too personal. The people I see bobbing on the street are happy to be alone. They don’t have big families like we did in Afghanistan. They don’t see their loved ones as much as we do. They seem too busy – too busy to make a meaningful connection with someone like me.

In Afghanistan, everyone follows the custom of greeting before actually conversing. “How are you? How’s your family? How’s your work?” We always laughed about it in Kabul, but now I miss it immensely.

This has been a year of worry, anxiety and sadness for so many Afghans. And with the distance between my new American neighbors and myself almost tangible, I reached out to my Afghan friends who were scattered around the world.

They, like me, have invested so much in a government and way of life that we never expected to collapse, or leave the United States behind when the Taliban shut down.

When I asked my friends how they were a year after we ran away, their answers brought tears to my eyes. I have never been known as an emotional person, and am almost proud of myself as a stoic person. Even when I was little, my parents took me to the doctor because I never cried.

But now, almost no one I know in Afghanistan or outside the country is doing well.

And I cried. Often.

Khalid Abidi, a classmate of mine, is leading a large project for Afghanistan’s state-owned electricity company. He performed very well in his career before the Taliban took over.

Although he received several offers to work abroad, he preferred to stay in Afghanistan. But last month, he told me he lost everything after the new Taliban government canceled the project.

Khalid is still in Afghanistan. He couldn’t find a way to leave.

“I could have aged 100 years,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep for days and nights, I was mentally ruined.”

“There is no life and no future in Afghanistan, it is total darkness here.”

Orooj Hakimi, a former Reuters journalist in Kabul who fled to the West, is grappling with similar issues. She told me, “I worked so hard for freedom of speech and invested a decade of my life. “But with the Taliban takeover, I lost everything. It hurts so much, it hurts like I can’t describe it in words.”

Orooj, 33, said she has aged a lot over the past year. Grief over the fall of Afghanistan was evident on her face shortly after the fall of Kabul. The gray hairs grew in seemingly overnight, she said, and when she FaceTimed with friends and family, they continually introduced changes to her face.

She lived in Kabul, and would dine around a single table in her parents’ house most nights with her mother, father, siblings, and often extended family. But now her loved ones are scattered across three different countries. “My sisters are stuck in Afghanistan, my parents are in Pakistan, and I am in another corner of the world.”

Orooj first experienced refugee life as a child in the 1990s. Her father was employed by the Soviet-backed government, and when the Taliban took over in 1996, they were forced to leave Afghanistan. Last summer, she once again took refuge in the same country, Pakistan.

“The past year is like a hundred years to me,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot and I’ve lost a lot.”

A lot of the friends I talked to felt the same way. As the anecdotes add up, I can’t help but think of another saying we have in Afghanistan: We are flour between two mills.

I shudder to think of my generation being ground to a powder, squeezed between the fear of asylum while watching the Taliban ravage the country we grew up in.

But for now, all we can do is wake up, look at ourselves in the mirror, and hope that today, even just a little, will be better.

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