As Masouma Tajik walked the narrow, medieval streets of Lviv, Ukraine, on Thursday, she was struck by the similarities to what she saw in Afghan cities before their fall to the Taliban. “There is an eerie silence I remember that had taken over Kabul in the night before August 15,” she said, referring to the day the Taliban seized the Afghan capital.
“I went outside to buy something to eat, but everything was closed. I went to Western Union to get money, and they didn’t have cash… just like in Kabul on the day of the fall,” she said. “There were no supplies, and banks didn’t work.”
But perhaps the most striking parallel was how swiftly the conflict in Ukraine escalated, Tajik said. “I did not realize it would happen this fast. This is Europe. But it is like Kabul all over again,” said the 23-year-old data analyst. “It doesn’t feel like it is real.”
As Russian troops invade Ukraine, Tajik, like hundreds of other Afghan refugees, finds herself in the middle of a war, just mere months after having escaped an another.
Over the past two weeks, Tajik, like thousands of Ukrainians, has moved from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to the western city of Lviv and is now heading further west with the hopes of crossing over into Poland. “I left Herat and thought I was safe in Kabul, and then [the Taliban] came there too,” an exasperated Tajik said. “Now the same thing is happening here, I escaped from Kyiv to Lviv, and now I am looking for ways to leave this place.”
Even before the Taliban marched into the Afghan capital last summer, Tajik had already been displaced once. A resident of Herat province, she was forced to leave her family home and escape to Kabul when the western province collapsed under repeated Taliban fire on August 12, 2021. “When the Taliban started to take over the country, I knew they would target women like me. I am an educated and working woman, the sole breadwinner of my family. They won’t accept a woman like me,” she said. “My first thought was how would I support my family, who will look after my siblings? I had plans to continue my education, what would happen to that?”
While waiting for the United States to let her enter the country legally, Tajik was accepted, with a full scholarship, to Rutgers University in New Jersey, and she hopes to start in the fall.
On the morning of August 15, as Taliban fighters were making their way through the streets of Kabul, Tajik packed a small bag and headed to the airport with her friends. “It was chaos, but we stayed there for two days before the Taliban came and beat us and made us leave. It took us two more attempts, and several lashes from the Taliban to finally get inside the airport, where we received help,” she said.
Ukrainian forces in Afghanistan loaded Tajik and 95 other Afghans into a plane and dropped them off to the safety of Kyiv. “We don’t abandon our people and help others. Working on further evacuations,” Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, tweeted at the time.
Now six months on, Tajik is reliving some of her worst days, stranded in a foreign country during a foreign war and facing an uncertain future. “When the Taliban came. they whipped me, now the Russians are coming with their weapons, and I don’t know what they will do,” she said.
Many Afghan refugees have joined the thousands of Ukrainians fleeing westward. While the neighboring countries of Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary have intermittently opened their borders to offer shelter to the Ukrainians, it is unclear if Afghans, particularly refugees without proper documentation, will be shown the same welcome. Non-Ukrainians presenting themselves at the border have reported mistreatment at the hands of Polish border forces. With only an expired Afghan passport, and a suspended appointment for visa application from the US Embassy in Kyiv, Tajik was very worried about whether neighboring European nations would allow her safe refuge. “When the Taliban beat me that night, it felt like I couldn’t breathe. But the moment I arrived at the hotel in Kyiv, I felt like I could finally exhale. I was breathing again,” she said over the weekend. “And now, I have the same feeling again of the night I was beaten by the Taliban.”
Many Afghans who were hastily evacuated to Ukraine haven’t received documents to confirm their refugee status or are awaiting for other countries to process their asylum cases. While exact figures aren’t public, a number of Afghans eligible for the US Refugee Admissions Programs were waiting in Ukraine for Washington to determine their cases.
When asked prior to the invasion about the threat Afghans faced in Ukraine, a US State Department spokesperson said, “We are working intensively across the interagency to develop the necessary capabilities to support processing for Afghan travelers in third countries who may be eligible for onward relocation and entry in the United States. And we are coordinating closely with the US embassies in these host countries on next steps.” They did not clarify the fate of those cases who sought support in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Afghan embassies in the region that continued operating independently after the fall of the Afghan government have been working to help their citizens. “It has been so hard; we have had many Afghan students have been reaching out to us,” said Tahir Qadiry, the Afghan ambassador in Poland, adding that they were seeking permission from the government to allow Afghans passage across the border. “The good news is that we were able to get many of the students into Poland. They are in a reception center that is set up across the border where they are being provided support.”
Like many Afghan diplomats around the world, Qadiry has continued to operate an “independent” diplomatic mission, despite the collapse of the last Afghan government. They work in a limbo, disconnected from the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
In the Czech Republic, Afghan ambassador Shahzad Aryobee shared similar views. “We have received hundreds of calls and messages for help from Afghans in Ukraine. They are in a lot of fear, and they tell me their situation is not at all good,” he said. “Afghans calling us to tell me they are being shelled and receiving rocket fire. They are in the middle of a battlefield.”
But limited resources and lack of funds have restricted their services. “It has been an absolute challenging time for us. We have reduced our staff from 15 to four people. I have canceled all our diplomatic residences and the embassy building. We are working from a residential area; my staff and I are facilitating small operations from one tiny office,” Aryobee told us, adding that they are working without pay.
Inundated with pleas for help from Afghans stranded in Ukraine, Aryobee and his colleagues set up a help line to document cases of fellow Afghans in distress. While he is uncertain of how many Afghans were in Ukraine when the war started, Aryobee shared that they have received over SOS messages from over 200 Afghans in Ukraine, with more calls coming in all the time. “At the moment we have no resources to support them, but we are working hard to find solutions to help them. We are working on creating a communication strategy to send a note verbale [a diplomatic note] to the ministries here, to the UNHCR, to the other NGOs requesting their help,” he explained.
The ambassadors-in-exile are also using every political and diplomatic relation they’ve cultivated over the years to advocate for their fellow countrymen. They have also mobilized the local Afghan diasporas to support the twice-displaced Afghans. “Because on our own we have nothing to facilitate them; we can’t book buses or help get the air or train tickets,” Aryobee explained. “But what we can do is raise awareness and seek permission for them to cross the border into one of the neighboring countries. That would be a big success.”
Yet Afghans stuck in Ukraine still feel helpless. “Nothing is in my control and things are falling apart. And it isn’t even my first time—this is my second time in six months escaping war,” Tajik said, on Saturday, as she tried to reach the Polish border. Two day later, she successfully crossed into Poland, after hours of waiting in queues of fleeing Ukrainians. She said, “I can finally exhale again!”
But as Tajik joins the thousands of Ukrainians on their journey into exile, she feels a bond with the people who saved her in her darkest days. “My heart breaks for the Ukrainians, and as an Afghan, I can relate to them, I feel their pain,” she said. “I really hope that Ukraine doesn’t turn into another Afghanistan.”