‘Day by Day, I Realized I Have the Freedom Here’

Marwa Rahim began the day preoccupied with something very different than war. She had bought a new pink-and-white dress for the return of in-person medical school, and it needed to be pressed. Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, had reliable power only in the middle of the night, so she set her alarm for 2 a.m., ironed her dress and went back to bed.

When she awoke at 7 a.m., she saw the text from a friend: The Taliban were advancing, fast. Marwa put on her dress anyway, hoping she might still make it to class.

Chaos came instead. Kabul fell with a speed that stunned the world, forcing Marwa and her family to make a split-second decision. Because her brother, Najim, is a reporter for The New York Times, they all potentially faced the threat of Taliban reprisals. So they raced to the airport in the hope of getting one of the last flights out of the country.

More than 120 people — present and former employees of The Times’s Kabul bureau over the 20 years of the American occupation, and their families — made the same choice when the Taliban took over last August, rushing to the airport to flee. Once there, Taliban fighters beat them with rifle butts and clubs, as the men in the group formed a circle to protect the women and children. Marwa and the others narrowly made it out of the country days later.

Throughout it all, Marwa wore her new dress, which ended up in tatters.

“I still have that dress. I will never throw that away,” she recalled from her new home in Houston. “The only thing that I carried with me is my backpack, for my entire life, only one backpack. I just left everything,” she said, including the stethoscope her father had bought her to encourage her to become a doctor.

A year after the fall of Kabul, the speed that their city, their country and their lives collapsed stuns even the most fortunate Afghans. Marwa, 22, was part of a group The Times evacuated to Doha, Qatar, and then to Mexico City, where the Mexican government provided refuge for hundreds of fleeing journalists and aid workers. Finally, the group was accepted into the United States and went to Texas, joining one of the biggest waves of immigration to America since the Vietnam War.

I was part of The Times team that helped with the group’s evacuation and resettlement. In total, we evacuated more than 200 people from Kabul, with the remainder accepted in Canada through a referral program run by the U.S. State Department.

Adjusting to life as a refugee has meant starting over in a new language that has rendered many prior skills — and often, degrees — almost moot. It has also been a great equalizer, leveling hierarchies that once divided the group between the Afghan journalists and the drivers, gardeners and cooks who worked alongside them. And it has profoundly changed the roles of men and women.

One of the greatest legacies of the American occupation of Afghanistan was expanded access to education for women and girls. Those gains were hard fought, especially as some family members resisted and the war interrupted their studies. But Marwa, her sisters and countless other Afghan women became or trained to be doctors, lawyers, ministers and journalists. The sudden evacuation upended it all.

Initially, the women in our group were almost invisible. Fatima Faizi, a journalist who had long refused to accept Afghan societal norms, was a notable exception. But many of the other women barely left their hotel rooms in Mexico City and Houston, while the men assembled for meetings about next steps. Few of the women spoke English. When I went along to help the group find apartments in Houston after they were initially rejected (for lack of three months of pay stubs), only the men came along.

“We were just in the hotel, sitting in rooms. We didn’t do anything without my brother, like in Afghanistan,” said Mursal Rahim, Marwa’s sister, who had fought many obstacles to complete law school in Kabul. “It took time to say, ‘OK, I will do this. I will do this, not my brother.’ Day by day, I realized I have the freedom here.”

Eventually, many in the group settled into an apartment complex in Houston, which has a history of welcoming refugees. Catholic Charities, a relief agency, agreed to keep them together. Many hadn’t known one another before their escape. But the women met in the courtyard every night, sharing information about what was happening back home, as some of the worst fears of Taliban control came true.

Bit by bit, the women have emerged. The initial shock of the evacuation has turned into a resolve to take advantage of a freedom they never felt in Afghanistan. (Snapshots from college essays that Mursal, Marwa and other members of The Times group wrote are included below).

Mursal is wearing hijabs full of color, instead of the black that some insisted upon back home. The women are growing accustomed to wearing whatever they want, and going where they please. Even among those not trying to go to college, the ambition is palpable. At a recent meeting, every woman raised her hand when asked who wanted to work. Attendance at an English class at the apartment complex is almost 100 percent, including some women who were never taught to read.

Mursal, 26, is determined to return to university so she can become a lawyer here. That has been her ambition since she was a teenager, when she saw women who were unable to get divorces or any representation in the legal system.

“We will study. It doesn’t matter how long it will take or how hard it will be,” said Mursal, whose mother, Gulalai, was a longtime advocate for education in rural Afghanistan. Mursal and Marwa’s oldest sister, Malalai, earned an M.B.A. in India.

But now they are all starting over because their Afghan credits, and even degrees, are not easily transferred, and in raw moments, Gulalai cries when she thinks about her life’s work being extinguished by the Taliban.

Ian Bickford, president of the American University of Afghanistan, said the determination of the Afghan women in the group was no surprise.

“The younger generation of Afghan women are the most ambitious and engaged cohort of students I have ever worked with, in any country at any time,” said Mr. Bickford, who is working to open a new campus in Qatar, and has worked closely with Bard College, which is supporting almost 100 Afghan refugees. Mr. Bickford’s university is also working to set up remote education for hundreds of women still in Afghanistan. “They grew up with an idea that they refuse to give up on, which is that they have agency and deserve equal opportunity and education.”

Samira Rustami, 20, grew up in a home where education was so discouraged that her mother often tried to destroy her books. Samira eventually learned on Facebook about a cultural exchange program in India that offered a full scholarship and got one.

She returned home after three years and was looking for a job when Kabul fell. With fluent English, she now wants to become a nurse. She recently had a baby, but is undeterred.

“For me, being in the U.S. is a big opportunity,” Samira said. “Everyone is free. We can do whatever we want. Even my mother, she cannot stop me anymore.”

The struggles are many, for both men and women. Admitted under a program called humanitarian parole, the families spent months waiting for the paperwork that entitles them to benefits and the ability to work and make money. They now have to apply for asylum, which is not guaranteed. The guilt, over leaving loved ones behind and whether they made the right decision to come, nags. A number of the children show signs of trauma from the evacuation.

What happens next is far from obvious. Many of the men went to work at Amazon warehouses, where they were put on overnight shifts that lasted 13 hours, from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. Some dropped out. Others have taken tests to become truckers. One of the bureau’s former chefs got a job at a trendy Houston restaurant, but the bus trip is an hour each way. He’s trying to learn to drive and recently got a car donated by a Texas charity.

Many of the younger people are applying to colleges. But getting admitted to a university has not been easy; their English isn’t strong enough and many colleges have been unwilling to waive their requirements for full proficiency. Scholarship money is scant and it’s unclear how they can afford the costs if they do get in. Some in the group have received positive news in recent days, but many details remain to be worked out.

Lynette Clemetson, director of the Wallace House Center for Journalists at the University of Michigan, pushed hard to get the university to support two Afghan journalists, and their families, with housing and intensive English.

“My position has been, you don’t start by asking, but by saying, this has to be done,” said Ms. Clemetson, adding that the U.S. has a special obligation to the Afghans who grew up during 20 years under the occupation.

Omar Ahmadi, 26, has been looking for a college. He and his two brothers, Bilal and Shabir, liked working at Amazon, but they had to leave recently because their father, a longtime chef of the Kabul bureau, wanted to move to Virginia to be with family there. The brothers, who all graduated from college in Afghanistan, agreed that only one of them could continue their education full time because the other two would need to work to support the family.

Marwa, the medical student, is now working at The Gap at a Houston mall. Talking with a customer recently, Marwa explained that she was a refugee from Afghanistan. The customer exclaimed that she, too, was a refugee — from Ukraine. The two women began crying together.

“We were on the same page,” Marwa said. “I said, ‘I really feel sorry about Ukraine.’ She said, ‘I really feel sorry for Afghanistan.’”

Marwa said her friends in Afghanistan are amazed that she is allowed to work at a Gap, as women are not allowed to be shopkeepers there.

“I want to go back because I don’t want to leave the women in Afghanistan alone,” Marwa said. “They need someone to encourage and support them, and show them that they are not alone.”

Reporting was contributed by Steven McElroy, Anna Nordeen and Victoria Dryfoos.