Postcard from Istanbul: Why I had to flee Afghanistan

Somaia Valizadeh, an Afghan journalist, describes building her new life in Turkey since escaping the Taliban.

The World Today
Published 30 September 2022 Updated 18 December 2022 2 minute READ

Somaia Valizadeh

Journalist

I am alone in a room with my books, phone and laptop. Most of the time I read.

I arrived in Istanbul in November 2021 on an education visa. I had intended to pursue a second degree in Turkey when I was living and working in my hometown in Herat, but my plans were interrupted when the province fell to the Taliban. As a female journalist, I won awards for my reporting that exposed Taliban violence against the military and civilians, corruption and human rights abuses.

But when the Taliban came to the province, I had to flee to Kabul for safety.

When the Taliban began house-to-house searches, I knew I had to hide

I spent five months hiding in Kabul. When the Taliban began house-to-house searches under the pretext of looking for weapons, I knew I had to hide. They searched areas where they suspected their opponents and critics were living. Many people, including women, were arrested.

They came to my home three times, but I had already moved to a relative’s house. My cousin would go to the shops for me and buy me food. When I did leave the house, I wore a different hijab so no one would recognize me. I stored my work and education documents between my pillows.

Before this mess, I had planned to continue my work as an investigative reporter after getting my degree. My aim was to work with media organizations to provide journalism training. I wanted Afghan journalists to contribute to the country’s democracy through their work.

When I read the news that Ashraf Ghani, the president, had fled the country and the Taliban had reached the gates of Kabul, it felt as if my life ended in a moment. But I kept going. In hiding, I worked on my scholarship application for a master’s degree course in Istanbul.

When I first arrived in Istanbul I lived in a dormitory with 30 Turkish students, whose language and culture I did not know. But I studied English, passed the exam and was awarded a scholarship to join the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration.  I am now in my second term.

Because of the Covid pandemic, I left the dormitory and am now living with three Afghan immigrants. Istanbul is a big city housing people from all over the world. But Afghans suffer in ways other immigrants don’t. Most travelled to Turkey seeking asylum from Taliban violence.

Afghanistan has gone from an optimistic democracy to hell on earth

After the Taliban’s return to power last year the lack of jobs, security and freedom forced many Afghans to leave the country. There are no smiles in Afghanistan any more, and it is a desperately sad place. It has gone from an optimistic young democracy to hell on earth.

Here in Turkey, I meet refugees who face similar problems and uncertain futures. The Turkish government only issues visas to students, leaving many Afghan asylum seekers without documentation. They are socially isolated, hiding at home and at work in fear of the Turkish police. They face violence, mistreatment and deportation. By July, more than 35,000 refugees had been sent back to Afghanistan since the start of the year.

After I complete my master’s degree my student visa will expire, and I, too, will have to leave Turkey. But I cannot return to Afghanistan.

Despite these problems in a turbulent life, I still intend to pursue my education. I spend my days mostly reading books, writing essays and listening to the news. I don’t want to lose this educational opportunity. My future depends on it. I feel it is my primary responsibility to give the Afghan people a voice and share their stories with the world.

After this degree, I want to study human rights and research journalism more deeply. I want to provide educational opportunities for young people, especially Afghan girls.

Education is power. It is a colourful ink that makes life glorious and beautiful.