Doha, Qatar – Inside a muted-grey, nondescript compound in the Qatari capital of Doha, urgent efforts are under way to ensure the immediate safety of hundreds of Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban and to secure their future.
Since the Taliban overran the Afghan military and government about a week ago, the international airport in the Afghan capital of Kabul has been crowded and chaotic with people desperate to flee Afghanistan.
Many fear the Taliban’s hardline interpretation of Islamic law will come at the expense of women’s rights and freedom of expression.
Some lived through a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and they are risking everything to escape so they do not have to live through it again.
The rapid pace of events has led to Qatar taking a crucial role in two separate evacuation processes.
As part of a United States-led and managed evacuation process, Qatar is temporarily accommodating 6,000 Afghans in its Al Udeid and As Sayliyah military bases until the US can resettle them.
A second evacuation scheme is a Qatar-led process from start to finish. The majority of the refugees will likely be resettled in another country, though some may remain in Qatar.
The first step takes place in Qatar’s embassy in Kabul, which remains open and functioning. A screening process takes place before Afghans seeking to flee the country can secure permission to travel to Doha.
So far about 800 people have been processed through this plan; most are female students, families with kids, or journalists.
Lolwah Rashid Mohammed al-Khater, Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, has personally overseen the plan from a room in the compound dubbed the “operation room” or “control centre”.
The compound has a doctor on site 24 hours a day, access to PCR tests, and daily events for kids – with an ice-cream stand that opens daily at 5pm.
“This is a process handled from A to Z; we make sure it is as safe as possible,” al-Khater told Al Jazeera.
“Currently this compound is almost at capacity; it hosts around 500-plus people. We are preparing another compound as a contingency plan, and it’s expected to house even more people.”
The brand new compound is one of several built as accommodation before Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Some of the refugees staying at the compound shared their experiences of fleeing Afghanistan and their hopes for the future.
‘All our rights are gone’
At apartment 21, Al Jazeera was greeted by a lady who agreed to tell her story. She quickly ushered us in to escape the unforgiving summer heat outside.
She apologised that the room was not as tidy as she would like it to be as her husband quickly put fruits and water on the table for the guests. To conceal her identity, she chose to use the name “Mariam”.
In Afghanistan, she was an access and representation advocate for people with disabilities, especially women. She worked directly with various non-governmental organisations.
Her husband was a dentist. He showed off pictures on his phone of cases he worked on, showing dramatic before and after shots of people’s smiles. They have three kids.
As Mariam’s family watched province after province fall to the Taliban, her families’ fear for her safety grew. One morning Mariam had set up an entire breakfast spread on the main table but she had reached a breaking point of fear; the family made a dash to Kabul airport with just one extra outfit for each of her children. The food remained untouched on the table.
Mariam’s family tried to enter Kabul airport for three consecutive days but were unable due to the chaos. She had completed the necessary documentation and knew her name was on an evacuation list, and eventually managed to successfully plead with Taliban members on patrol near the airport to let her pass.
Despite finally getting on a flight to Doha with her family, Mariam feels a degree of guilt. She has already heard stories of female friends back home turned away by the Taliban from their workplace or those who fear going out in public under the new rulers.
“The Taliban separate women from society. We cannot have a developed society without the contribution of women,” Mariam said.
“One of my friend’s [Facebook] posts said we [women] died already. All of our rights are gone.”
Mariam fears all the work she has done in Afghanistan will be scrapped now that the Taliban is in power. She insists what the group says in public is different from what it practises on the ground.
There have been reports of the Taliban conducting door-to-door searches looking for people who have worked with the previous government or foreign entities.
“The Taliban have changed, but they are not better,” she said.
“Before they killed people who worked with the government and NGOs. Now they are doing the same thing but not showing the world.”
‘We left everything’
In another block in the compound, a group of seven women in their late teens to early 20s share an apartment. They are among the 167 female students who live in the compound.
Some met when they arrived in Doha, others were classmates back in Afghanistan. Three agree to speak under anonymity, as all have families still trying to get out of the country. They choose the names Grace, Ayshia, and Nimaar.
“We left everything, all of our past, all of our memories,” Grace said. “Everything that we did in the whole 20 years [of our lives] just passed like a second right in front of our eyes.”
The group projected a strong and confident voice when speaking of their experiences, something they say the Taliban fears.
Grace said open-minded and educated people pose an indirect threat to the Taliban, and that she would not take their reassurances at face value.
“They will do anything to stop confident women. They are scared of us because we are the generation that grew up in the 21st century,” Grace said.
The young women are eager to discuss their goals and ambitions despite a dinner delivery sitting on the table for the last 30 minutes getting cold. Most say they want to pursue further education to help themselves and their country.
As our team leaves, we jokingly ask: “So who’s the mother-hen of the house? Who keeps you all in check?”
Ayshia quickly responds, with a playful smile: “No one, we are all leaders.”