On the side line

Mateen Aqmal and his family grapple with the crisis in Afghanistan and what it means for his relatives still living there



August 15, 2021: Screens glare with the shouts and clamor of a crowded terminal in Kabul as every major news outlet breaks the news: Afghanistan falls to the Taliban as U.S. troops withdraw. And when senior Mateen Aqmal gets home after a block of Pre-Calc/Trig, his dinner table buzzes with commotion.

“It happened so suddenly,” Aqmal said. “My cousins said that the Taliban were coming in 90 days, and then we went to bed, we woke up in the morning and suddenly, they had taken over. It was something that no one really expected.”
Mateen’s mother, Soraya Zahir, echoed her son’s sentiment. They’ve been watching the news as a family—following as the United States negotiates and signs treaties with the Taliban, all while anticipating a takeover—but it was “shocking” to see how quickly the country fell.

“People had hoped that the Afghan military was going to defeat [the Taliban],” Zahir said. “When the news kept track of their movement [throughout the country], it was ten, five, six provinces a day. Even when they were surrounding Kabul, people said, ‘Oh, no, they’re gonna fight,’ and within a couple of days the city had fallen.”

Much of Aqmal and Zahir’s family immigrated to America from Afghanistan over the past 30 years, but they still maintain close contact with extended family members who still live there. In fact, Zahir is in the process of helping her uncles and their families flee the country.

“It’s not easy to get them out. It’s not just like they could just leave Kabul; there are no flights coming or going. They have to go to a neighboring country—most likely Pakistan—but they don’t even know what will happen when they get there,” Zahir said.
In mid-August, thousands of Afghan refugees poured into foreign nations. Countries such as Turkey and Greece have set limits on the amount of refugees they are admitting, and Zahir says that families are worried about leaving their loved ones.

“Governments want people for their workforce,” Zahir said. “They want young people to come in, so they’re not accepting [many] seniors. The problem is that a lot of families don’t want the younger generation to leave their elders behind.”
Within their family, the ongoing conflict is something that Aqmal and Zahir discuss “every day.”

“For Afghans who live in America and Europe, we can’t really do anything. It’s a helpless feeling,” Aqmal said. “It’s like when you’re playing in a sports game and you get injured, and you have to watch the game from the sideline. You can’t do anything, so you just have to watch your team lose.”

While keeping an open dialogue about the conflict, Aqmal has noticed that discussions about the Taliban takeover have been received with various levels of alarm from his relatives. He explained that every Afghan immigrant comes from a specific time period, and their “era” impacts their level of attachment to the issue.

“For Afghans there are a few generations [with shared experiences]. It’s not just one war, it’s many different ones. My family came over during the war with the Russians. There’s also the generation that came during the civil war after [the Soviet-Afghan war, from 1996 – 2001]. There are those who moved during the time of the U.S. War in Afghanistan [2001-2021], and then the ones who came now. So obviously the ones who came now are going to care the most. The farther back you go, the more American you are, so you don’t have as much connection,” Aqmal said.

Being so far away from the conflict in Afghanistan means that students are “seeing from their phones” instead of it being something that they have to confront.

“[The conflict in Afghanistan] doesn’t impact [RUHS students] directly. But for some, there’s family, there’s culture. That could be you, and that could all be erased,” Aqmal said.

Unfortunately, American students “can’t do much to help,” Aqmal said. Posting on social media increases exposure, but ultimately any efforts do “little” to spark real change.

“It’s not gonna be like the Taliban will sign petitions [for peace], like, ‘Oh, okay’ and be done. When the government was still there, it might have had some effect because they could rally soldiers. Now you can raise awareness, but it doesn’t do much. That’s why a lot of people here feel powerless. No matter what you do, you can’t directly impact the conflict,” Aqmal said.

There are no solutions, but Aqmal stays informed as much as he can. Tolo News and Ariana News are both relatively neutral Afghan media sources that he recommends for anyone wanting to keep up with the developments in Afghanistan.
“You wish you could do more, but the reality is that you can’t. You’re benched,” Aqmal said.