This interview was made after we received the open letter by female local staff of German organizations and (women’s rights) activists who have worked in Afghanistan. You can read the letter here.
Amena Rahemy, 29 years old studied journalism, business administration and has a degree in leadership from an American Institute. Amena worked for international organizations and started her first job at the American Development Agency USAID, she was also working for UNHCR and the German development bank KfW.
In Afghanistan, she opened her own shop and hired women shopkeeper. Amena was also helping women to find their way into University.
She was involved in volunteering activities, like collecting secondhand clothes for people in need. And she had to sell and close her shop in 2021, after collapse of her country.
When we spoke to Amena she spoke on behalf of a group of women, all former local staff working with German organizations. The group is trying to raise attention for the difficult situation of Afghan people in Germany and get people in charge to act on it. Many women supposed to be “save” in Germany cannot feel that way as long as their family members are still endangered. Many women suffer from having to worry about their loved ones every day many of them suffer from mental issues consequently. And the issue of mental health illnesses created many health problems for single girls here. I know someone who is in hospital for long time, an old woman who died after being long time in hospital. When we are struggling with lots of mental problems, we cannot be useful for the society. There is the permanent fear of hearing terrible news about family members, friends, former colleagues and in general of people they had to leave behind. The fear is real as Afghanistan is far from being save for those related to people who have worked for foreign organizations.
Amena, in what conditions are your family members living now in Afghanistan?
After I arrived in Bremen, the Talibans went three times to my family house. After the third time, my family decided to leave the house and move. My siblings are not able to continue their studies anymore. My family members cannot go out to their normal life. My mom and my sisters are forced to wear burqa (total covering scarfs) and need to be with a man to leave the house and go to markets. In fact, they often need the help of a friendly men in the neighbourhood.
In November 2021 my aunt invited my sisters and other female members of my family to have a family reunion. Apparently the neighbours called the Taliban to tell them there was a female gathering at my aunts place – maybe even a safe house for women to hide. They might have told the Taleban perhaps to improve their own situation perhaps to be treated better. Anyway, they arrived soon and within a few minutes the street was full of Taliban. There must have been a lot of confusion and panic. My aunt’s husband tried to help some girls to escape from the back of the house, but by trying he was seriously hurt. My aunt tried to explain that all women were family and they told her that they will be back to check again in few minutes, and if nothing changes, they will face serious consequences. My uncle sent an ambulance to take out my sisters from that house. It is one of the safest ways to escape as the Taliban do not check the ambulances often. However, the whole situation was really stressful and people have a lot of panic as they don’t know what the Taliban could do.
I personally heard uncountable bad stories since I’ve been here. A lot of my friends from the university told me that Taliban are killing women students and even put dead bodies in classrooms to scare all women that try to go back to study. The same even happened in schools.
Therefore, I’m always very sad, very nervous and unsure about what is going to happen. Honestly, I have spent several months just crying lacking the energy to even get up from bed. A lot of other women of my group are dealing with depression and other mental issues and many need help and treatment. At some point I decided that I need to do something, I have no other choice, so I started fighting for help together with other woman. However, it is incredibly hard.
Can you stay in touch and always have up-date news from people?
Sometimes we have problems because the connection in Afghanistan is not always working well, but I can stay in touch at least. But that’s not the same for everyone: one of the women of my group lost contact to her family probably because of the Taliban.
Who did you leave behind in Afghanistan and do you remember the last day before you were separated?
I left 4 brothers and 5 sisters, 6 nephews and two brothers in law. But also, my grandparents, my mom’s siblings, and their families. All of us were living close by together as a family. The last time I remember seeing them was when we met to watch a film, our home was prepared like a cinema, very full of many people. But it’s not just my family I left behind it is my whole life so far. I left my shop, my business, my car that took me 10 years to collect money for and that gave me independency. I left a lot of friends and colleagues from work and University. Unfortunately, most of them continue living in Afghanistan, fortunately others had the chance to move in other countries. Still we are separated now through the whole world, we lost the connection that we had before. I especially worry about my grandparents. I have spent my life more with my grandparents than with my parents and I was my grandfather personal caretaker. In this moment he is very sick, he lost his memories but still remembers me and is crying for me every day. I am very important to him, he misses me taking him to eat ice cream, to have picnics on the hill from where you can watch the whole city. He doesn’t understand why it is not possible for me to visit him anymore. It is not easy for both of us.
Do you think Europe played an important role in what happened in Afghanistan?
From the political point of view, I can’t tell because I don’t have a deep knowledge about it. However, from a societies perspective it has to sides. It was helpful what they did over years because they build schools and infrastructure where all of us went to study and supported us economically. At the same time, I have the feeling they didn’t really care about my country nor respected our culture or religion. There were nightclubs, excessive use of alcohol, things that are not accepted in our country. Things that made it hard for people to trust the foreign organization and things that also put those people working for international organizations or European institutions in danger as we were associated with them and then exposed to risk when the Taliban were back in power.
Have you ever regretted having worked for international organizations?
I feel guilty because I feel like I exposed my family to risk, working for international organizations. One of my sisters is a teacher, the other one is a doctor. I was the only one working with foreign organization. It’s not a secret that the Taliban promote a very bad image of the occidental countries and of those who were working for them. We are considered being like them. There is a part of me thinking I am happy to have worked on good things, I helped a lot of women with my work. I loved to support them having a good future to give a good future to their children. But now the situation is completely different, and it feels like there is not enough left from my work. Those organizations should have taken more responsibility for us and their role in Afghanistan. As we always were at risk working for them, we are still. They should have done more to protect us.
As an example: for covid I was supposed to work from home, but I was worried because I would have put my family in danger as many people would have known where I lived. I had worked from home for more than one and half year, since beginning 2020. And in June 2021 I was relocated to Kabul. And in return (7 July 2021) I refused to continue working from home. And finally in August it was approved for me to rent an apartment by KFW. My family’s identity was only a protected because I was careful, I am not sure it will be enough for the future though. For other women in the group that is not the same as the protection of foreign organizations was not enough.
I am also personally disappointed of people I worked with. During the tense situation, and the evacuation moments (the first days of the first week after collapse in the military camp) I was supporting my organization with the logistic without any previous agreement. And it was not my task, but as they requested, I accepted the unofficial tasks which was not in my contract. In this time my boss was writing me “I am proud of working with you”.
However as soon as I told him I am in Germany now and that my family members are in danger, and I need help to raise attention to that in Germany he stopped answering me and ignored my messages until today.
To whom is your request addressed to?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance. We have worked for German Organizations. I personally had to support the evacuation process, which has put me in more danger again. Germany wouldn´t have managed their work in Afghanistan without people like us, they weren’t able to evacuate without us. They owe us answers and support to keep our families save now.
What would you like to happen in the short term and in the long term?
The first thing, of course, is to bring my family here, and I hope the German government can listen to our requests and respect our country in the future if they still want to work in Afghanistan. Especially since it is the cause of all our problems right now.
What kind of support do you need right now in Germany?
The financial aspect now does not matter much to me even if it is still a problem. What I would really need, psychologically, is more protection from the everyday racism and people that don’t respect me with everything that happened. A bus driver once didn’t stop because I was wearing hijab and was the only one in the stop. I have difficulties talking to doctors about medical problems I have as no one wants to speak in English. I needed an operation, and I could not understand the statements that I had to sign at the hospital because the doctor refused to translate it to English. Only after insisting very strongly someone started talking to me in English, they were perfectly able to. When I tried to rent a house, the agencies refuse to help me as I am supported by Jobcenter. I would like to work but I am not allowed until I speak German. I am not receiving replies to my emails because they are in English. I just don’t have the energy for those things with everything else. What I also notice is that as so called migrant we are in second place here. They think we should work in unqualified jobs, jobs that they find no one else for as the jobs are not good. In my country I am one of the best qualified and competent employees and I did already work for German organizations. What I have built as a career all this time is destroyed in this way.
Since you came to Germany, have your families received any kind of support or protection in their cities? Do they still live in the same houses?
No support from no one. They moved to another part of the country.
How many other families were divided during the evacuation?
I have no idea in general but only in my group we are 70. But there are other groups of Afghan men who will be more than 100 here alone.
Do you think that the Ukrainian emergency has put what is happening in Afghanistan in second place?
Unfortunately, yes, the city of Bremen wrote to get support from the Bundesregierung by evacuating our families and about our situation in general. The request was rejected for now because of a lack of capacities. The reason was that the situation of Ukraine had priority.
Even on the individual level, to rent a house or have an appointment with the doctor, the usual answer I get is always “wait because for now we are busy with the Ukrainians”. They should create more capacities in general as it is not fair to other people needing support.
Very often we hear promises on TV that „the families of the evacuees and those who work for international organizations will have priority“. How do you think it is possible to evaluate the priority in the best way?
Priority is guaranteed based on the position covered within the organization. And often also those who are the favorites of german employees or team leads.
Since I arrived, I have been told there were no more evacuation flights but after I joined the Afghan women’s group, I heard that some families have been reunited. We do not know exactly who is supporting these families, how and why not others. There are no lists to add the names of our family members, there is no transparent system.
When I was about to be evacuated, I asked to add my family to the list. They told me that if I keep asking this, they would remove my name from the list as well. I felt threatened, so I didn’t asked until I was here.
Where can your relatives turn to in Afghanistan if they are in immediate danger?
There is no place to ask for support.
If your relatives arrive here, do you think Germany could be a country where you can build your future?
If I have my family here, I believe that I will have more support and more peace of mind. I would like to live without the permanent fear again. I am willing to live here and build my future here. I am already learning German with everything happening and I am looking for work. I would like to start my own business again and actively participate in society. But first I need to know my loved ones are safe.
What do you mean with “we could observe that many other local forces, human rights activists and journalists were brought to Germany together with their whole family including their parents and sometimes even with their married sons and daughters.”? Who are these persons and what is the difference between you and them? Are they men?
To me it seems like men are favored right now. Also, people who have worked for Germany are not in a great position. In Hamburg and Berlin, I met women who were evacuated because they are human rights activists or lawyers or artists and asked the foreign ministry directly to be evacuated with their families. We had to ask our organizations and couldn’t communicate directly to the foreign ministry. At the beginning some of us were evacuated with the help of our former employers but now they don’t support us anymore. No one feels responsible for our situation. The Taliban believe that since we have worked for international organizations, they still support us, and we have a lot of money. Our family members are kidnapped because of that. The truth is we need support as the organization we have worked with have brought us here and then left us alone with all problems. Still, they are taking no responsibility for protecting the people they worked with. As they would need to care which I assume they never did.