‘We don’t want dark days’: Afghan refugees in Utah express fear over Taliban’s takeover

They distrust the Taliban, but say the people of Afghanistan have changed in the last 20 years.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hanifa Javadi is a refugee from Afghanistan, living in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.

For the last week, watching the news from her native Afghanistan, Safoura Noori has been having nightmares.

“It’s been, for days, like she’s been living in hell,” said her daughter, Safia, who translates for her mom.

Safoura, 47, would flash back to life more than 20 years ago, fleeing the Taliban, which killed members of her family. Safoura took her children — Safia, now 24, was 2 years old at the time — to Iran, where they were refugees before coming to Utah nearly nine years ago.

“She could not sleep the night. She said that when she was sleeping in the night, all those dreams come to her,” Safia said of her mother. “She’s so worried about her family, and the other people there. … She’s so worried, not only for her family but for everybody. She experienced it one time, so she didn’t want the other people to experience it again.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Safoura Noori (front) and her daughter Safia Noori, are refugees from Afghanistan, living in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.

As Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government crumbled before the approaching Taliban forces, Afghan immigrants and refugees in Utah have been watching the news, talking to people still there, and remembering why they left.

Hanifa Javadi, who escaped Afghanistan when she was 7 and has lived in Utah for five years, recalled the way the Taliban treated women when they were in control of the country before.

“[Women] have to wear a burqa,” said Javadi, now 34. “They cannot work on the outside. They have to stay home. They cannot study. They say the woman can study through sixth grade, and at 12 or 13, they have to marry.” Javadi said she was married off at 13, when living in Iran — and briefly moved back to Afghanistan.

“When the Taliban came, they brainwashed all the men, especially the older men,” said Javadi, who speaks English and Dari, and sometimes used Safia Noori as a translator. (The three women know each other through the refugee support organization Women of the World.) “They don’t want women to have freedom. If you’re a woman, you should be like someone’s wife, someone’s daughter. You don’t have your own identity. You have to be always with the men.”

A different Taliban?

Aman Raheemi, 37, left Afghanistan nine years ago, and arrived in Utah five years ago. Though he said “it’s very soon to talk about Afghanistan,” the first days of the Taliban’s re-emergence provided some small signs of hope.

For example, Raheemi said, a Taliban spokesman told American media that the new regime would forgive Afghans who worked with the U.S.-backed government.

“This is a kind of sign of change in the Taliban system, in the Taliban view,” he said.

Also, Raheemi has watched some recent Afghan television broadcasts, and noticed that they played music — once forbidden by the Taliban — and allowed a presenter who was clean-shaven, something the “old” Taliban wouldn’t tolerate.

Afghanistan’s people “are not the 20-years-ago people,” Raheemi said. “They are the people of new technology, of social media. … Afghanistan is a new generation, more open-minded.”

Another student living in Utah who was born in Afghanistan is less optimistic. This student — who asked to be referred to as Karim, because he still has family in Afghanistan and doesn’t want them to be targeted — said he’s heard from people in his old home that the Taliban are still up to their brutal old ways.

“They’re doing a lot of stuff that social media is not reflecting at all,” Karim said, adding the positive image the Taliban is attempting to present is designed to appeal to foreign governments — whose recognition the Taliban needs to cement its hold.

Karim left Afghanistan with his parents for Utah in 2018, because his father worked with the U.S. government. He said the Afghan government’s fall was predictable.

“Everyone expected this to happen one day, but not this quickly,” Karim said. “Nobody expected it to happen in a couple of weeks.”

Raheemi said people in Afghanistan are “in a little shock right now” and it will take time — maybe weeks, maybe months — to see what the Taliban will do.

“It’s like we’re in a coma right now,” Raheemi said. “Either we are dying, or we’re going to get back to life.”

Safia Noori, like her mother, doesn’t trust the reports that the Taliban is softening in its extremism.

“They want to say they are changing, that they’re not like the Taliban from 20 years ago. But that’s not true,” said Safia, who works as a lab technician in a medical clinic.

Twenty years ago, Safia said, “once the Taliban came, nobody had the choice. There wasn’t any social media to speak about them. Right now, we have the news, we have social media, … and we can tell everybody how terrible the Taliban is.”

Javadi, who has her own tailoring business and hires other refugee women, said she was encouraged by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s offer to allow refugees from Afghanistan to relocate in Utah. However, that only helps a small fraction of people.

“How much refugees can they take? Like a thousand, two thousand, three thousand?” Javadi said. “They cannot take all Afghans from Afghanistan.”

Javadi said she hopes for good news from Afghanistan.

“We don’t want 20 years ago to come back again. So many people have sacrificed to have a life. We don’t want those people, the people who died, we don’t want their blood to be for nothing,” Javadi said. “We don’t want dark days. We want bright days.”