Helping A Friend Escape The Taliban Was The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

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I took this picture in Kabul, in the Spring of 2007. The little girl in this picture is unrelated to this story, except that she also touched my heart. Watching her sort through the trash, and how her face lit up with excitement at finding this piece in her hands, whatever it is that I’ll never know — which quickly after was thrust into her pocket with the fury of someone who has had things taken from her, left a mark on me.

Her eyes are exactly the color of hazelnuts, but perfectly almond-shaped. If I drew her face she would look like a big eyed Keane character, and I would swear the eyes were not out of proportion. I could almost understand chivalry when I felt how hard it was for me to watch her cry. And, in this context, a confusing sense of gender and identity made sense.

Being an American woman in Afghanistan is a fictional third gender — neither restricted by the rules of being female, nor given the full authority or responsibility of being male.

I was raised in a family that valued achievement and service. I grew up believing that there is a right way to do things. At twenty-eight, I moved to Afghanistan really believing that I could do something to prevent women from dying in childbirth.

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At thirty-six I found myself still working in Afghanistan, traveling in and out — and spending more time out than in, nursing a broken heart.

After an hour together, not drinking tea in the courtyard of my hotel, she finally told me — her family was getting death threats. She didn’t know where else to turn.

This wasn’t my first exposure to the brutality and vulnerability of being born an Afghan in Afghanistan — to what it might be like to live in a society without a government. Two summers before my friend had broken down after a meeting where she seemed distracted.

Her sister had arrived at their home early that morning after being beaten by her mother-in-law. She was beaten with a hammer, and then fled — leaving her eighteen-month-old child, walking the streets without a scarf, or the protection of a mahram (male escort), alone, in the middle of the night.

The family took her in, fixed her up, and then sent her back. She couldn’t get divorced, because that is a great shame for the family — and too big of a risk in the fragile social fabric and volatile state of the country. And they couldn’t go to the police, because the rule of law wasn’t strong enough to protect women like her.

The threats might have been related to this family dispute — that side of the family was connected with the Taliban. I didn’t push her to tell me. Her dad told her it was because she worked for us.

After six weeks of living in secrecy, and moving houses. Of threatening notes left on the door of the home where they could no longer live, they fled.

Punishment for those who have worked against the Islamic Emirate is death. We will not let you go.

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Punishment for you and your family is death for writing stories against Sharia on the Internet.

You will be finished with your family for betraying us.

You are ungodly and a traitor. How long will you be hiding? Your death is around the corner. You will be dead soon.

I made a Youtube video, and asked friends to donate. In two days we raised more than two thousand dollars. The love, the support, and the encouragement was intoxicating.

As my friend and her family boarded the plane, I felt that we could really do this. That we had tackled the first, the most formidable step towards a future of safety — I believed the world would surely rise to meet us and that this courageous act of faith would be rewarded, and the path would unfold.

I remember she wanted a plan, what would happen to them after they fled? I told her I didn’t know, but if their lives were in danger it didn’t matter. They just had to leave, and then figure it out.

Six months and eleven thousand dollars later, my friend chose to return to Kabul.

She could no longer take the stress of trying to feed her family without a job or the legal ability to work. She had no hope that the UN process would feed them before they starved. In Kabul, she was a highly sought after professional. The leadership position of her choosing, to serve in her field, was literally calling her, begging her to return.

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She hoped her family could stay, and seek asylum, and that she could send them money to live while they waited. But the UN denied their applications, and they all had to return to Afghanistan.

The hardest part, in fact the only really hard part, was watching them go back. Accepting that I, toom am helpless to change the systems of oppression that she and millions around the world suffer. I cannot understand the full context of my friend’s life, because I am an American. I might never understand exactly what happened — and I know that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that she is alive. What matters is that she knows she is not alone. What I learned the hard way, is that I cannot fix this.

I’m learning to not turn away. I’m learning to meet my own fear and shame of not being able to save her, of asking people to fund something that wasn’t sustainable. I’m learning to let her suffering touch my heart, and keep showing up.

While I would prefer to change the world, while I would prefer to share the privilege of my American passport, all I was ever really doing — was being a friend.

I believe it matters that we take a moment to consider every Afghan, and every life that is — in this moment — living without safety, and that we continue to show up for life with this tenderness in our heart.

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Meghann McNiff is a professional coach and co-founder of the Seattle Coaching Collective. Connect with her here.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.