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Evacuated from Afghanistan, 20-year-old Refugee and Climber Looks Forward

Sughra Yazdani fled the fall of Afghanistan in late 2021. A climber and involved community leader, her evacuation was made possible by Afghanistan Ascend, Leadership Through Athletics, a not-for-profit female climbing organization. Now, Yazdani hopes to pursue higher education here in the states.

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[IMPORTANT NOTE: Certain identifiable details in this article have been altered or hidden for the safety of the candidate and her family – please feel free to contact me directly for more information]

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It is dark and loud. A line of soldiers hold the North gate of the Kabul airport. Thronging crowds waving papers and phones and yelling in desperation thrust forward tickets, visas, permits, and recommendation letters that are supposed to grant entry. The soldiers don’t read anything, and they don’t let anyone through. They push back, and then, as the crowd surges forward, the soldiers begin shooting at the ground. People scream and scatter. Sughra Yazdani and her father lose each other. He is diabetic and she is alone on the side of the road in the dark, worried about him. It was she who insisted they try to escape, and now he is in danger because of her. Over and over he does not answer his phone, and there is nothing she can do but wait. Finally, he finds her. They return home. They agree they will not try the airport again.

Yazdani is a 20-year-old refugee who fled the fall of Afghanistan to Taliban rule in late 2021 and who is now safely within the United States.

I was introduced to Yazdani through a mutual contact at the BBC World News. Though Yazdani and I have yet to meet in person, we are both climbers. Since 2019 she has been a participant in a women’s outdoor activity group called Ascend: Leadership Through Athletics. “Climbing is my favorite sport because it saved my life. I was evacuated from Afghanistan by Ascend,” she told me. I’ve spent the better part of the last three months talking with her regularly and doing what I can to help from a distance as she’s been attempting to start her new life here in the United States. A huge part of that will be helping her find a way to continue pursuing her education.

[Also Read: “We’re Going Dark”: A Women’s Outdoor Leadership School in Afghanistan Needs Our Help]

Ice Climbing with Ascend in Bamyan province. Sughra descends on the left. (Photo: Sughra Yazdani Collection)

The bus stops just short of the airport, then turns around, again. The riders are taken to an apartment in Mazar that’s just barely better than the wedding hall they had been stuck in last time this happened. There are too many people in a small space and they are cold and they are not allowed to go outside. There are no beds or blankets or pillows. There is not even enough water.

Education is extremely important to Yazdani, and she’s proven that over and over through her academic performance (84.15 GPA) and dedication to extracurriculars. In addition to her own success, she has continually found ways to help others, including tutoring younger students in several grades while she was in school. When she graduated high school in 2017, she was forced to begin working instead of pursuing higher education. She began to teach, stepping easily into leadership roles where she could help those around her. She acted as an academic mentor for nearly 20 students and a prefect for nearly 500, overseeing, counseling, managing conflict, and helping with work quality and review. She also trained and led Tabloo (performative storytelling dance) groups for school events. She reviewed student diaries, assisted with writing homework and grammar, organized English materials for teaching new students, and taught English classes. She also reached out to young women who had been deprived of education, sharing motivational stories of strong women like Muniba Mazari and Malala Yousufzai—Pakistani activists for female education and empowerment—and encouraging them to return to academia.

Four different days they are taken to the airport and given plane tickets, and then the Taliban comes and cancels the tickets and sends them away. Sometimes the Taliban takes someone from the group. They are moved at night to another apartment, then another. A pregnant woman slips and falls and gives birth prematurely, she and her baby wailing on the floor. Yazdani doesn’t see what happens to the baby–she thinks it lived, but both baby and mother were in bad shape. Finally, after a month, some of the group manage to get on a plane and it actually takes off, and Yazdani is on her way to Doha. 

[Also Read: Sasha Digiulian: “Women Climbers Need Your Help Fleeing Afghanistan”]

Sughra near the mountain top. Of the group of 50, only five made it to the summit, and Sughra was one of them. She said it was a memorable day. (Photo: Sughra Yazdani Collection)

While teaching, Yazdani continued to pursue further education-related opportunities. She participated in two Model UN conferences and in 2019 she won the Best Diplomats Award. As part of the three-day Future Leader Summit in Mazar, her group created and submitted a proposal on Sustainable Development Goals centered around supporting pregnant women and mothers as the basis for a strong society.

In Doha they give her a toothbrush and a bed with a pillow and blanket. After a month of swishing her mouth with salt water, the toothbrush is a great luxury and she runs to brush her teeth. There is food and water here, and they are allowed to walk around the camp, though the mood is listless–people in transition, traumatized by what they’ve just been through and unsure of what comes next. There are lines for everything and nobody has enough of anything, but at least they feel safer. Yazdani misses her family. She becomes friends with another girl from Ascend she hadn’t known before. 26 days later, Yazdani is on a plane to America.

As a member of Ascend, Yazdani participated in climbing, yoga, and other fitness activities. She trained for and took part in intense group mountaineering excursions that required planning, logistics, bravery, and stamina. They also required ignoring local customs and the intimidation methods some country denizens used to try and prevent the group’s outdoor activities. Climbing made Yazdani feel powerful and strong, and she felt it was important to take these trips. At great personal risk she and the other girls in Ascend completed expeditions, finding strength within themselves and demonstrating the potential of Afghan women to the media.

The camp at Fort Dix in New Jersey is similar to Doha, but with cold weather and cold rain instead of desert heat. The lines for supplies are not very organized and so some people get several jackets and pairs of shoes and other people get none. Yazdani’s sandals are no match for a New Jersey winter. A month later, on Black Friday, a kind woman comes and takes her from the camp. She buys her some clothes and a phone and a basic laptop, and then sends her to a house in Virginia. 

Yazdani pushed for progress for women in Afghanistan in other ways as well. She co-founded a cycling group called Unbeatable Bikers, which was focused on women’s right to cycle. In only three months they grew membership from 10 to 270 members. As part of their mission they were part of a large campaign against air pollution. Hundreds of people cycled together holding signs and wearing shirts with messages of protecting the environment. Unbeatable Bikers was the first women’s cycling group in Afghanistan and, even as co-founder, she had to hide her activities from her family at first, as it was not seen as acceptable for women to ride bikes.

Sughra leading some of the Unbeatable bikers as part of the Environmental Campaign they joined. (Photo: Sughra Yazdani Collection)

The house in Virginia is needed for another refugee family, so Yazdani is moved again, this time to a house in North Carolina. She reaches out to her BBC contact who reaches out to her friend who reaches out to me. We talk and she tells me her dream is to attend college at Columbia University in New York. She researched the business school and feels it would be the perfect place for her to continue the higher education she was denied in Afghanistan. I review her essay and she sends in her application. 

For a typical Western candidate, a stellar academic record with lots of leadership roles and extracurriculars may be table stakes. In Afghanistan, participation in many of these activities as a woman was difficult, dangerous, and punishable. Yazdani valued her education and physical activities and wanted to help others experience them as well, so she was willing to take the risks.

Currently Yazdani is in North Carolina waiting to hear back from Columbia and researching more schools, scholarships, and jobs to apply for. She is able to get around with public transportation, and a local climbing gym, Triangle Rock Club, has gifted her and several other Afghan Ascend girls free memberships so they are able to exercise and get to know the climbing community. She also has been gifted a used bicycle by one of the neighbors, and she is excited to be able to cycle again. In late February she started a part time job with the Durham Performing Arts Council, and she has already won a Spotlight Award for being a good employee. She is grateful for everything, but school is the true goal for the next part of her life, and her focus remains on pursuing higher education.

Yazdani’s academic and extracurricular record is even more impressive when you consider the personal hardships she faced and see how she has demonstrated exceptional bravery and selflessness. Throughout her life, she’s deferred her own aspirations to provide for her siblings and ailing father. She grew up extremely poor, even by Afghan standards—losing her mother at a young age to a tragically preventable illness, which her family could not afford to treat. She was left to help support her family and raise her younger sibling, first while her father was gone working alongside the Americans, and later once he was home, but too ill to work at all. Despite their attempts to leave together, her family was left behind after the fall of Afghanistan, and they remain at risk.

Yazdani’s father helped American soldiers for many years, most recently at the Ramrod base in Kandahar–one of the most insecure provinces in Afghanistan. He had become too ill to work, and because he had helped the Americans, he had been in hiding. When their neighbor was arrested by the Taliban, he realized he had to take the risk of running.He managed to escape to Pakistan. Yazdani is glad he is safe, but her siblings remain behind and in danger, and she wants to do what she can to help them become Humanitarian Parolees and evacuate to America. She wants to be with them, or at least, for them to be anywhere that is safer. She is looking for any leads for an immigration lawyer or anyone who can help. This issue becomes ever more pressing as the Taliban is now searching house-to-house, taking weapons and arresting people who helped or were associated with the Americans–people like Yazdani’s father. The word on the ground in Afghanistan is that another war is coming, and soon.

Now that Yazdani is starting over in the US, she finally has the opportunity to work towards her dream of becoming a successful businesswoman and helping others who are living in poverty around the world. Growing up in such unstable countries has given her a global perspective far beyond that of most 20-year-olds and with that knowledge and this opportunity she wants to make the most of her life and help as many people as she can. To that end, she wishes to major in Psychology with a concentration in Business Management, followed up by a Master’s in International Affairs. She feels this combination of degrees will prepare her to be a strong, internationally-minded female leader and representative of Afghanistan. 

Though she is safer and has some support, Yazdani and many of the other girls rescued from Afghanistan still have a long way to go. The government benefits they are living on are not large and will expire in June and, as a Humanitarian Parolee, Yazdani’s options for work and school are somewhat limited. There are movements in the process to grant Yazdani and others like her longer term residency and support to make it easier for them, but nothing is guaranteed. For now they are young, traumatized, separated from and concerned for their families, largely alone, and trying to establish their lives in a new country. 

One of the largest differences for Yazdani in America so far has been the experience of day-to-day security. She says: “My whole life I’ve lived in insecure areas of the world, like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where when we used to go out of our house, we had no guarantee we’d be back home. Nobody did. When I came here, I’d see people here living their childhood—–they don’t have to have these worries. It made me feel very bad at first, to think about what I’d been through and what my family and friends had been through. I mean, I’ve seen some movies of other ways to live, but it isn’t the same as seeing it in person. You hear about such things, but when you come into a place where there are no exclusions, where everybody is educated and there is security, it’s very different.”

“But I can’t blame people in Afghanistan. It is not safe there. And most people there have not traveled–they don’t have any information about the world. Probably half the people in Afghanistan are depressed but they don’t even know what depression is. They just work. Nobody shares their feelings with their families. I used to feel bad about my parents but now I understand them. People do what they have to do to survive, this is how the world is. And I feel bad about my sister and brother and my friends, because most of them had big dreams, wanted to do a lot of things, but now they are stuck at home, and cannot do anything. So, it is very difficult.”

In addition to the search for an immigration lawyer to assist with her siblings, we have set up a Go Fund Me for Yazdani to help with her college applications, lawyer’s fees, and necessaries that she currently has no way to pay for. Any funds beyond what Yazdani needs will be donated to Afghan Ascend to help other girls who have been evacuated from Afghanistan or who are in the evacuation process.

Says Yazdani: “I believe God is always with me even if the circumstances are against me. Time passes and I consider this dark time like the darkness of a room before a birthday surprise. It takes time but I will stand up again and shine, because my family is my motivation and my faith in God is my strength so I can do anything in the world.”