We have a saying in Afghanistan: People age according to the grief they experience, not the years they live.
A year after evacuating from Kabul as the Taliban swept through the city I had called home for nearly a decade, these words come back to me each time I look at my face in the mirror. My hair has gone gray, the lines in my forehead are deeper. When I send pictures of myself to my mother, who still lives in Afghanistan, she writes, “What did you do to yourself?”
On Aug. 15, 2021, the morning began as a normal work day, but in a matter of hours my family and I had to pack our lives into a few backpacks and leave the country. We left everything behind, from diaries to books to family photos.
My life and the lives of millions of other Afghans were turned upside down.
We are still trying to make sense of what happened. Our physical selves are the most visible reminder of how our lives changed so abruptly on a summer day — reminders that we still exist even though we feel so foreign in these new lands that are nothing like the home we fled.
I am in the United States now, and though I am physically safe, my psychological well-being is anything but. Everything is so different here, and I have no idea about how most things work: Where do I park my car? How do I pay my bills? And, by the way, how does American health insurance work?
As we clambered aboard that hulking U.S. cargo plane that seemed to scream as it took off from Kabul International Airport, the American troops aboard told us where to sit but failed to disclose how difficult our lives would soon become.
So now I need to work hard to avoid missing my rent payment, otherwise I won’t be able to rent a house 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 one.
A feeling of loneliness looms over me, and I think it could be here for a while. Life in America seems so focused on the individual. People I see bobbing down the streets are happy to be on their own. They don’t have big families like we did in Afghanistan. They don’t see their relatives as much as we did. They seem so busy — too busy to make a meaningful connection with someone like me.
In Afghanistan, there are greeting customs everyone follows before actually having a conversation. “How are you? How’s your family? How is your job going?” We always laughed about it back in Kabul, but now I miss it dearly.
This was a year of anxiety, worries and sorrows 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 have been scattered around the world.
They, like me, invested so much in a government and way of life that we never expected to collapse, or for the United States to leave behind as the Taliban closed in.
When I asked my friends how they were doing a year after we fled, their responses brought me to tears. I was never known as an emotional person, and almost prided myself on always being stoic. Even when I was a child, 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 cry. Often.
Khalid Abidi, a school friend of mine, was leading an enormous project for Afghanistan’s state-owned electricity company. He was doing very well in his career before the Taliban takeover.
Despite receiving several offers to work abroad, he preferred to stay in Afghanistan. But last month he told me he had lost everything after the new Taliban government canceled the project.
Khalid is still in Afghanistan. He can’t find a way to leave.
“I may have aged 100 years,” he said. “I can’t sleep for nights and days, I have been destroyed mentally.”
“There is no life and future in Afghanistan, it is complete darkness here.”
Orooj Hakimi, a former journalist with Reuters in Kabul who fled to the West, is wrestling with similar problems. “I have worked so hard for the freedom of speech and invested a decade of my life,” she told me. “But with the Taliban takeover, I lost everything. It is so painful, as painful as it is not possible to describe with words.”
Orooj, 33, said she aged much in the past year. The grief of the collapse of Afghanistan became visible on her face soon after Kabul fell. Streams of gray hair sprouted seemingly overnight, she said, and when she FaceTimed with friends and relatives, they kept bringing up the changes in her face.
She had lived in Kabul, and would have dinner 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 the life of a refugee as a child in the 1990s. Her father had been employed by the Soviet-backed government, and when the Taliban took over in 1996, they were forced to leave Afghanistan. Last summer, she again had to seek refuge in the same country, Pakistan.
“The past year feels like a hundred years for me,” she said. “I went through so much and I lost so much.”
So many friends that I talked to feel the same way. As the anecdotes added up, I couldn’t help but think of another saying we have in Afghanistan: We are the flour between two millstones.
I shudder thinking about my generation being ground into powder, wedged between the anxiety of being refugees while watching the Taliban dismantle 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, if even for a little bit, will be better.
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