By Sophie Hurwitz
Moji Sidiqi, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Afghanistan 21 years ago, says that some of her family members back home have gone into hiding since last week’s Taliban takeover.
For Sidiqi, that means it is all the more important to use her voice as a human rights activist in this country. Along with other Afghan women, she organized a rally Sunday in support of taking in more Afghan refugees and advocating for peace in the country, in which the United States has been engaged in 20 years of war.
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page released a joint statement August 17th saying they are “ready, willing, and prepared to lead the nation in inviting these Afghan SIV holders to our community.” SIV is the Special Immigrant Visa program, through which the U.S. Department of Defense will be relocating about 20,000 Afghans to the United States. Jones and Page estimate that up to 1,000 of those refugees will be coming here, as a few families have already arrived this past week.
The International Institute of St. Louis will be handling refugee resettlement in St. Louis. There’s some historical precedent to this effort: St. Louis has the largest Bosnian community in the United States thanks to local resettlement advocacy in the 1990s. There is also a smaller Afghan community here already, many of whom came to St. Louis as refugees earlier in the 20 years of war the country has experienced.
Above all, Sidiqi remembers feeling the humidity when she got off the plane from Afghanistan at the age of 9, she said. The air itself was like nothing she’d felt before, prompting the nervous child to run back into her mother’s arms on the airplane.
“Like, I took a deep breath, and it made me feel stuffy and choked up. And I ran back to my mom! I was like no, we’re going back,” she said.
But she settled here, and established herself as a human rights activist and organizer within the Afghan community.
“There’s a deep cut in the heart and the spirit of the Afghans, both in Afghanistan and outside,” Sidiqi said. The Taliban took over in Afghanistan for the first time in the late 1990s, as the Soviet Union withdrew from the country. Then, the United States engaged in a protracted war with the Taliban, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars — only for the Taliban to easily take over this past month.
“For this to happen now? It’s like the wound has been reopened,” Sidiqi said. “But it hurts more now because it’s like, so all that for what? All that for this? And now and now we’re back to square one or maybe possibly worse.”
So, seeing last week’s photos of cargo planes full of Afghan people—and those who were not able to get on the planes and died in the attempt—weighs heavily on Sidiqi.
“I thought…they’re going to open the doors, and they’re going to come somewhere, and they’re going to start a whole new life of struggle in a land where they’ll forever be foreigners, like me.”
Regarding the community’s reaction, “Everybody’s very scared,” Sidiqi said.
She has been fielding calls from local Afghan people afraid for their families all week.
“Kind of like a pandemic for the Afghans, again. Especially for the women because now the women, they’re like, hold on. Can we go outside? Can we not go outside?” she said.
Sidiqi added that she doubts the Taliban’s recent statements regarding a more lenient attitude on women’s rights.
“You guys are killing people on the street, brutally! So where does the compassion come from, for women? I’ll believe it when I see it.”
At Sunday’s prayer vigil, she and others led members of the local Afghan community and allies in gathering outside City Hall. They wrapped themselves in the Afghan flag, and prayed for peace. Imam Ahmad Durrani and Reverend Darryl Gray led the prayer.
Arbila Hatifie, who like Sidiqi came to St. Louis as a refugee from Afghanistan 11 years ago, spoke at the rally. She says she’s lost contact with her family back home, who are being cautious with their communication out of fear of being tracked by the Taliban.
“I could not be more proud of our international community, and the Afghan community, for standing this beautifully united today,” she said. “I came here for the same reason my people are fleeing their country today. I left Kabul…because I was a victim of the Taliban, because I had no rights as a woman. I left my country and I left my homeland, because I had no voice.”
Many of the people marching chanted that the UN and United States should “sanction Pakistan,” a call that has gone out online in recent weeks due to Pakistan’s perceived role in funding and training Taliban soldiers. Others simply emphasized that they wanted peace.
President Joe Biden said Monday the United States had airlifted more than 11,000 Afghans to safety. And, as far as those coming through St. Louis go, the community is already mobilizing to help: the International Institute and Beitumal House of Goods, a charity run by the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, are accepting donations for the new St. Louis families coming now.
Lisa Grozdanic, of Beitumal, says that the organization has been ramping up its efforts to provide furniture needs, dry goods, and — critically — Halal meals to incoming refugees, though they have not worked with the three families who have arrived in St. Louis so far. She says her work serves as both a way of meeting basic needs, and a method of welcoming Afghan refugees to the local Muslim community. They’ve worked with Muslim refugees from “all over,” Grozdanic said: Palestine, Syria, Pakistan. “We show them where the mosque is…we just do a lot of interacting with the families,” she said.
Arrey Obenson, President of the International Institute, said at Sunday’s rally that he will do everything in his power to make St. Louis a welcoming home for these refugees.
“Our hearts are broken for everything that’s happening in Afghanistan now,” he said. “We will do what we can, where we are. We are advocating to provide support to any of the Afghans that make it here to St. Louis. We are hoping that hundreds, and maybe thousands, can get out of harm’s way and make it to this community that is already vibrant with your presence here.”