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