Afghan family’s double ‘miracle’
For Afghan refugee Atefa Ibrahimi, arriving in Australia has been a double miracle.
The first piece of fortune was being able to get her family into Kabul’s airport to escape the brutal clutches of the Taliban. The second was life-saving brain surgery that her father underwent just days after arriving.
Atefa’s father Khan Ali had been sick since 2019 suffering headaches, low sodium levels and disorientation.
But his condition was not diagnosed until he arrived in Melbourne after being evacuated from Kabul along with thousands of others fleeing the Taliban.
He had a tumour on his pituitary gland which would have ultimately killed him. Last month it was removed by brain surgeons at Melbourne’s Cabrini Hospital.
Atefa, who worked in public affairs at the Australian embassy in Kabul, this month shared her family’s remarkable story with iMPACT magazine.
Khan Ali is now recovering after spending 35 days in hospital.
“He has been sick since 2019 but when we came to Australia we got a diagnosis for the first time,” Atefa said.
“It was a tumour on his pituitary gland. It’s been a really difficult time for us with a lot of things going on and having to take care of our family,” Atefa said.
“We were happy to at least get a diagnosis and see dad get really good care. If we had stayed in Afghanistan, he would not have received the care and treatment he has,” she said.
Atefa and her family arrived in Australia on September 5 and entered hotel quarantine in Darwin. Ten days later her father’s health began to deteriorate.
When they arrived in Melbourne on September 19, Khan Ali was almost unconscious. Two days later he was rushed to hospital in an ambulance.
“I called my case manager and the nurses arranged an ambulance to take him away. It was very difficult for us culturally. In Afghanistan we would have travelled with him but because of COVID we couldn’t,” Atefa said.
“But we trusted the health system here and the doctors and nurses have been very kind to my dad,” she said.
As she speaks, Atefa and her sister Rabia pour tea from an ornate old silver teapot given to them by a volunteer mentor shortly after they arrived in Australia.
“Serving tea and offering hospitality is important to Afghans so we wanted to get a nice teapot and our mentor found us one,” Atefa said.
Atefa and her family moved from their home in Wardak Province in 2001 because of the worsening security situation and as a refuge from nomadic groups who harassed and attacked them and their village annually.
“We moved to Kabul and we had normal lives. I was working with different national and international organisations including the Australian embassy,” Atefa said.
But that all changed in August this year when the Taliban took control of Kabul.
As the Taliban took full control of the beleaguered nation on August 15, Atefa and her family navigated their way through a series of militant checkpoints and made it to Kabul’s international airport.
There, they saw suicide bombing attacks, tear gas and human stampedes but eventually made it into the safety of the airport terminal.
Atefa says the family were in danger because of her work and her activism in human rights movement, and particularly women’s rights.
“Lots of people knew me because I was managing small, grassroots projects across the country. I also ran a library which was very popular in poor communities where minority groups such as Hazara and Shia lived,” she said.
Her mixed ethnicity also made her family a target for the Sunni-dominated Taliban.
“I have merged ancestry with a Hazara mother, a Qizilbash father and a Pashtun grandmother. That put our family at risk, particularly because of the Hazara and Shia connection,” Atefa said.
The family made three separate attempts to get into the airport on three separate days.
“Getting into the airport was a miracle. The first time we tried there was gunfire and confusion. It was hopeless and a risky time for us.
“The send time we spent a whole night at the gate we were told to go to but it did not open. We didn’t see any hope at that point and we went home because we had a new born baby with us and my father was ill.”
Atefa then waited for instructions from the embassy that would be their last chance to reach safety.
“We waited all night for a message but there was nothing and we felt in danger. Eventually, the next day, we went back to the airport.
“We had to go through checkpoints. At one point a Taliban militant pointed a gun muzzle at my kidneys and said ‘get lost or I’ll kill you’. He knew I was a woman when he said this. He seemed to be kind because I was helping my old dad,” Atefa said.
At 11pm Atefa was able to contact some American friends who guided the family to gate that would accept them.
Atefa and her brother plunged into a sewerage drain to be able to get to the gate.
She had taken with her a prized Australian embassy notebook which she hoped would act as a sign to help her get through airport checkpoints.
“My ID card was so small it was hard for people to see, so I took along my notebook. We also had an umbrellas as a kind of code – but none of this worked.
“We also called out a pre-arranged code word for a long time but nothing happened,” she said.
Eventually, Atefa called her American friend who spoke to the soldiers on the gate and got the m inside.
“It was a miracle. We were really lucky,” she said.
“My brother went back for the rest of the family and, in all, 14 of us made it into the airport and we were transferred to the Australian camp.
“Our ordeal lasted almost a week. I was very worried about my dad who was very ill. I didn’t want to take him on the journey but I had no choice. We feared that people left behind would be taken by the Taliban,” Atefa said.
Using her Australian embassy notebook, Atefa has recorded some of her thoughts during her traumatic journey from Afghanistan to Australia.
She titled the first page in Persian language as “Notes of a girl who might become a refugee…”
On August 14 she wrote ‘‘Today I decided I must leave Afghanistan and that is the most difficult decision I am making. Spoke with friends to help me prepare a letter to help me get out.’
‘We may go with family or without family; or we may die.’
‘You live or you die; how traumatic it is. The Taliban is here bringing insecurity. How did we get to this point?’
Days later she wrote ‘Finally I became a refugee. We are still travelling. But not at home yet? Now I am in the Australian camp at Dubai’.
Atefa says she dreams a peaceful life and global identity in Australia where she is not discriminated based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion nor anything else.