This woman fled the Tal­iban

“Un­der Tal­iban rule, girls were for­bid­den to play sports, go to school or work.”

Glamour (South Africa) - - Glamour Relationtips -

Car­pets hung from the win­dow, plung­ing the cramped room into dark­ness, while the stench of urine and sweat per­me­ated the air. We had been held in a mosque on the out­skirts of Moscow with no shower and one clogged toi­let for two weeks. Ba­bies cried as refugees hud­dled to­gether ex­chang­ing hor­ror sto­ries of the jour­ney from Afghanistan. I was con­stantly anx­ious, sleep­ing in my three pairs of trousers be­cause our smug­glers had threat­ened to leave any­one be­hind who wasn’t ready to move at a sec­ond’s no­tice.

I was nine when the Tal­iban seized con­trol of my prov­ince in Afghanistan – and ev­ery­thing changed overnight. I wasn’t al­lowed to leave the house un­ac­com­pa­nied and had to wear a burqa wher­ever I went. I found it cum­ber­some, but it did pro­tect me from the stares of the Tal­iban mil­i­tants who pa­trolled Kabul. When my cousin was caught wear­ing nail pol­ish at a mar­ket, she was flogged on the street.

Un­der Tal­iban rule, death by ston­ing was com­mon, and peo­ple were sum­moned by speaker to gather at the sports sta­dium to watch. Girls were for­bid­den to play sports, go to school or work. In­stead, I swept the car­pets at home and did laun­dry by hand. If we had guests, I’d make the tea. But I wasn’t al­lowed to be seen or heard. Once my friend Jas­min came over and cracked a joke that made me laugh – and my fa­ther whipped me as pun­ish­ment.

I al­ways felt lost. Per­haps be­cause my mother was killed in a car crash when I was two, leav­ing me to be raised by my fa­ther’s first wife. I felt aban­doned, like I didn’t be­long. At night, I’d dream of fly­ing to other coun­tries or walk­ing un­der a rain­bow, as leg­end has it that if you do, you can change gen­ders. Just like the boys, who had so many more priv­i­leges, I wanted to ride a bike. When I grew up, I wanted to be an as­tro­naut, search­ing for life on another planet.

A ter­ri­fy­ing jour­ney

All I re­mem­ber about the night we fled Kabul is the blue tarp of the truck and the eight of us – me, my fa­ther, step­mother, brother Salim, sis­ter Mina, and her hus­band and their two ba­bies – cow­er­ing be­neath it. Two days later, we ar­rived in Mash­had, Iran, where we were put up in a room with a gas stove, one chair and four beds. I was ex­cited at first. My fa­ther had de­scribed the trip like an ad­ven­ture – we’d travel by train, bus and car, and see 10 coun­tries to reach Ger­many, where my brother and cousin lived. I was 13 and had watched cu­ri­ously over four weeks as my fa­ther sold off our pos­ses­sions to raise the al­most R73 000 per per­son needed to pay the smug­glers. We were on our way to a bet­ter life, he told me.

On our last day at home, I in­sisted on pack­ing a scrap­book filled with my friends’ draw­ings. And in the 26 days we waited in Mash­had to be taken by bus to the Rus­sian border, I thumbed through the book over and over, al­ways com­ing back to a sketch of a but­ter­fly – the Afghanistan sym­bol for love.

In the weeks that fol­lowed, our jour­ney con­tin­ued to the mosque in Moscow and on through Be­larus, Ukraine and Hun­gary, by car and on foot. I have snatches of mem­ory, like the night when Rus­sian sol­diers barged into the mosque and told the men to go out­side. They were forced to strip in the snow and were searched for money. On another night, some­where in the Czech Repub­lic, we waded knee-deep through the snow. We walked for hours un­til we came to a river where smug­glers pulled us across, four at a time, us­ing a tyre and ropes. My body shiv­ered from the swim, but my fa­ther was like a pro­tec­tive lion – a side of him I’d never seen be­fore.

I knew we’d reached Ger­many when, from our hid­ing place in the back of a truck, nearly seven months since leav­ing home, I could see the Ger­man flag flut­ter­ing off to the side of the road. “Look, beau­ti­ful Ger­many! We’re here!” I screamed, yank­ing off my head­scarf. The driver left us at a petrol sta­tion in Bavaria where my cousin would meet us. Fi­nally, safe in his flat that night, I was the first to take a bath. As I scrubbed away the grime, the wa­ter turned black.

Build­ing a new life

Af­ter ap­ply­ing for refugee sta­tus, we were given hous­ing in Sch­wal­bach am Taunus, near Frank­furt, be­fore set­tling in a refugee com­mu­nity in Kas­sel, where we lived in a con­verted ship­ping con­tainer. It had two rooms – one for Mina’s fam­ily and one for us – shar­ing a bath and kitchen with other fam­i­lies. Salim and I at­tended school and I learnt Ger­man quickly, trans­lat­ing for my

par­ents. Once a week, a so­cial worker would stop by with sweets and clothes, prais­ing me if I got good marks.

I was com­pletely mes­merised the first time I saw a fe­male po­lice of­fi­cer – I couldn’t be­lieve a woman could hold such a po­si­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, my fa­ther wasn’t al­lowed to work be­cause of his refugee sta­tus. It was frus­trat­ing for him, and he’d of­ten sit home, bored. I washed dishes in a pub for pocket money and did our shop­ping over­whelmed by the choices, like the 20 dif­fer­ent kinds of yo­ghurt with fruit.

When I was 16, I was in H&M when a woman came up and told me I could be a model. I was so sur­prised – I’d never con­sid­ered my­self to be beau­ti­ful. The woman turned out to be a for­mer beauty queen and model scout. She sug­gested I should get my pic­ture taken and ac­com­pa­nied me to her agency, where I was told I’d need a port­fo­lio. But when I asked my fa­ther, he said no.

In some ways, it was as if I’d never left Afghanistan. I wasn’t al­lowed to go out with friends or use the in­ter­net, and my mo­bile was mon­i­tored to make sure I wasn’t talk­ing to boys. When my older sis­ter an­nounced she’d found an Afghan man for me to marry, I knew I needed to find a way out. The thought of a forced mar­riage re­pulsed me, so I fled to Stuttgart, where I had a friend, Björn, whose fam­ily agreed to let me stay.

Leav­ing home in the fog at 5am – and leav­ing my fam­ily be­hind – was harder than flee­ing Afghanistan, but my de­sire to live freely was stronger than any­thing I’d ever felt. A friend drove me to the bus sta­tion, and I sat in the back of the car with a blan­ket over my head. Me­mories of hid­ing in a car on the way to Be­larus sprang into my mind and I was fright­ened, won­der­ing what the con­se­quences would be if I got caught. I’d brought shame to my fam­ily.

I was soon learn­ing to swim, play­ing bad­minton and go­ing to the movies with friends – all the things I’d been for­bid­den to do. Grow­ing in con­fi­dence, I found a pho­tog­ra­pher on­line to take my pic­ture. He saw my po­ten­tial and let me pay the R27 500 fee in in­stal­ments. On the day of the shoot, I took Björn with me for sup­port. I barely recog­nised my­self with my shiny hair and pink lips. It was a new me and I couldn’t stop star­ing at this beau­ti­ful, smil­ing girl.

The face of free­dom

At 18, I was signed by an agency. I was sent to Mi­lan, Rome, Lon­don and, in 2003, the fur­ni­ture maker Bretz put me in their cam­paign. Soon I was liv­ing in Paris do­ing fash­ion edi­to­ri­als pos­ing for Joop!, Air­field and Bre­itling, and earn­ing more money than I ever thought pos­si­ble. I had so many sto­ries I wanted to tell my fam­ily, like the night I sat at a table next to Jay Z and Beyoncé in a New York club. I’ll never for­get be­ing at the train sta­tion in Stuttgart and see­ing my first ad­vert in Vogue for Bogner. I couldn’t get over how far I’d come; free­dom had never felt so good.

Still, I couldn’t shake the guilt – know­ing I must have caused my fa­ther a great deal of pain. In 2004, a year af­ter I’d left, I phoned him, want­ing to make peace. We met that af­ter­noon and cried as we held each other. I told him how sorry I was, and he re­alised that times have changed. He ac­cepted my life as a sin­gle woman in Ber­lin who goes out danc­ing and laughs – wildly.

At the be­gin­ning of my ca­reer, my agent would some­times ask me to say I was Brazil­ian, think­ing I might scare off clients if they knew where I was from. But I re­fused. I’m proud of my Afghan her­itage and have al­ways been warmly em­braced by the fash­ion in­dus­try. When I watch footage of the refugees ar­riv­ing in Europe to­day, it breaks my heart. I feel their pain. It will take time to put the trauma they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced be­hind them. Ev­ery time I see a photo of my­self on a bill­board, I don’t just see a pretty pic­ture; I see the re­sult of sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion and strong will. I’ve dis­cov­ered that any­thing is pos­si­ble when your life has be­come in­tol­er­a­ble.

In Afghanistan at age nine. On an edi­to­rial shoot in Switzer­land.

Lin­gerie shoot “I was proud to be able to pose with­out feel­ing ashamed.”

BBC doc­u­men­tary “They were re­port­ing on my life.”

Bon­nie cam­paign “I re­ally felt as if I was on the right path here.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.