The survivor

Arash Jafari was wanted by the Taliban. Education was his escape.

Arash Jafari is a graduate student in the Department of Political Studies at USask. (Photography: David Stobbe)

In late October 2021, Arash Jafari reached the Torkham border crossing and joined the massive crowd of people seeking escape from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

He spent the next 48 hours in line as tens of thousands of people slowly walked to the Pakistan border, sleeping wherever they found room.

“The night was too cold and everybody—frustrated. Families, children crying. That was the end of the world,” Arash said.

If his students in Kabul had seen him then, they might not have recognized him. He had grown out his beard and dressed in traditional Afghan garb for the trip, his life savings hidden in cash within his clothing. His story was that he was a farm worker looking for employment in Pakistan.

Should he be questioned, Arash hoped the Taliban would see only a quiet, conservative Afghan farmer. If they learned the truth, he would certainly be killed.

Arash—now a 33-year-old graduate student in the University of Saskatchewan (USask) Department of Political Studies—was born in Afghanistan and raised in Iran.

Politics and international conflict were always part of his world. He grew up hearing stories from his father, a former mujahid, of battling Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As a young adult, Arash studied political science at a university in Mashhad, Iran, and earned his bachelor’s degree.

It was 2013—well into the United States’ military mission in Afghanistan. Arash was 22 and filled with an optimism about his birth country that he now views as naïve.

“(My studies) made me very idealistic and hopeful about Afghanistan, because America was there. And not only me: so many people in Afghanistan, folks all over the world, … we were hopeful,” he said.

Against his father’s advice, Arash became determined to return to Afghanistan and serve his country.

“My father told me, ‘I fought in that country. I know there is something wrong. That country will never be built.’”

Arash went anyway. In Afghanistan, he found work as a field researcher, an installer of antenna systems for the Afghanistan military and a translator for the United States Army.

While traveling with the American military, he survived attacks by Taliban insurgents and was present for interrogations of captured Taliban soldiers. He came to understand the Taliban’s tactics, motivations and structure. He saw how local corruption and support from neighbouring countries empowered the group.

Arash’s jobs took him to every part of Afghanistan and he was shocked by the conditions he saw. In some remote villages, he witnessed 10-year-old girls forced to marry 70-year-old men, and worse things that he prefers not to talk about.

He now realized how little he had understood about the country of his birth.

“When you’re in class, you just learn it theoretically, but when you’re on the ground—that’s the reality. That means killing, the blood on your face of your friend. That’s the reality.”

Arash’s work with the American military ended in 2016. He left for China to pursue graduate studies in international relations and returned to Afghanistan in 2018 with a master’s degree. He took a job as a politics lecturer at Kateb University in Kabul, but knew that he could have no long-term future in Afghanistan.

Dr. Colleen Bell is an associate professor in the Department of Political Studies. (Photography: David Stobbe)
Dr. Colleen Bell is an associate professor in the Department of Political Studies. (Photography: David Stobbe)

In the spring of 2021, as the United States and its allies began to withdraw the last of their troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a major offensive. Taliban forces retook large parts of the country with a speed that stunned most people in the West.

Arash was not surprised. Nor was Dr. Colleen Bell, a faculty member in the USask Department of Political Studies.

When the United States and its allies, including Canada, launched those operations (in Afghanistan), they essentially helped to generate a domestic insurgency in the country. And of course, the Taliban and other groups in Afghanistan had a long history of essentially having a problem with foreign intervention and occupation. So in many ways, I think those actions actually emboldened them,” said Bell, who specializes in theories of war and security.

Before and during the withdrawal, the Afghan government and its security forces were not given the support they needed to withstand the Taliban, added Bell.

“They had reasons, in fact, to cooperate more than to resist.”

By this time, Arash had been contacting universities overseas for almost a year, hoping to be accepted into a graduate studies program. He knew that education was his best chance at escaping Afghanistan and focused his search on universities in Canada: a country he knew by its reputation for good government and good people.

On Aug. 12, 2021, as Taliban forces were nearing Kabul, Arash sent an inquiry to Bell in Saskatoon about the USask master’s program in political studies. Through email, they had a typical discussion of admission requirements and funding options.

Three days later, the Taliban attacked Kabul.

“I’ll never forget that day. That was a Sunday, 11:30,” said Arash. “It was midterms. One student remained in the class. Suddenly the (security guard) opened the door and said, ‘Hey, teacher, you’re still here? Taliban entered. Go to your home. Close the door. Or go to airport, whatever you can do.’

“I went out (and saw) people running. Not jogging. Running. Everybody. Because those people who were in Afghanistan before, they remembered the last time that the Taliban took Kabul.”

During its previous takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban conducted mass bombardments of Kabul and massacred civilians in the streets of other cities. As it seized control in 2021, the group unleashed reprisal killings, but this time it was more discriminating.

Arash’s life was in danger not only because of his work as a translator for the Americans, but because of his status as a secular academic. He no longer considered himself Muslim. In his classes at Kateb University, he allowed his female students—over the protests of other students—to remove their hijabs in the classroom.

Some of his former students had radical beliefs. Some were now Taliban soldiers.

Arash made it home safely that day and his correspondence with Bell took on a new urgency.

“I’m really desperate about the current situation of Afghanistan. Every day, so many unimaginable dramatic scenes have happened in this country. All the universities, banks, etc. have been closed and there isn’t any possible hope for the future of this country,” he wrote on Aug. 23.

Bell—who is also the graduate chair of her department—scrambled to verify Arash’s eligibility for the USask program and see him admitted outside of the usual intake period. Staff in the College of Arts and Science stretched university procedures to their limits to hasten his acceptance and secure him funding. Arash worked to obtain the necessary documents as society collapsed around him.

With reports of the situation in Afghanistan dominating the news in Canada, correspondence with Arash brought the turmoil close to home for Bell and the college staff members.

“We’re all watching this very difficult violence and disaster unfold—one which I personally see Canada, the West, as implicated in. And you have a person who’s saying, ‘Can you get me a ticket out of here? Could you help?’” said Bell.

“Sometimes you get these opportunities in your career to do something that maybe can make a real difference for somebody.”

Crowds of people at a checkpoint at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, seeking evacuation from Afghanistan on Aug. 21, 2021. (Photography: U.S. Marine Corps; usage does not imply or constitute U.S. Department of Defense endorsement.)

Arash was accepted as a USask graduate student under a full scholarship, but getting out of Afghanistan was a greater problem.

In the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, Arash spent several days and nights at Kabul’s airport unsuccessfully seeking a flight out of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans hoped to escape the same way, and few were granted tickets. Some desperate people clung to the sides of departing aircraft and fell to their deaths as the jets took off.

Arash was on the waitlist for a U.S. program to evacuate vulnerable residents from the country, but his approval never came through. With Bell vouching for him to the Canadian government, he applied for Canada’s refugee program. He never heard back on his application.

For two-and-a-half months, Arash lived in limbo in Kabul as the Taliban consolidated power. Finally, in October, he received a hurried phone call from someone at his former employer.

“I am calling everybody,” he was told. “Escape.”

The company, a provider of logistics services to the U.S. military, had coordinated Arash’s work as a translator. Taliban soldiers had just arrived at the business with a message: You work for us now.

Arash’s name, and the names of many others who had helped the Americans, were now in the hands of the Taliban.

Arash fled. A bribe to a bank employee allowed him to withdraw some money and hire a car to take him 200 km east to the border crossing at Torkham. With his cash and his cover story in place, he joined the queue to enter Pakistan.

At one point during his two days spent in line, Arash pulled out his phone to check the time, only to see it instantly confiscated and pocketed by a Taliban soldier. The phone was a painful loss, but he knew better than to protest. The Taliban would find nothing incriminating on the device; he had wiped everything before leaving Kabul.

Arash made it across the border to sanctuary and stability in Pakistan. He lived for the next six months in Islamabad while awaiting the study permit that would allow him to travel to Canada.

Rents in the city had risen dramatically following the influx of Afghan nationals, and Arash’s money soon ran out. He relied on financial support from his friends around the world, many of whom he’d met during his studies in China.

“I found out who my best friends were in that time,” he said.

Arash’s study permit came through in April 2022 and he immediately booked a flight to Canada. Bell paid for the ticket from her own research funds.

On April 25 of that year, Arash arrived in Saskatoon. During his first visit to the USask campus, he individually thanked all of the people who had helped get him to Canada. Finally, he met Bell in person.

“That’s the first time I don’t know how to thank someone,” he said. “She did everything for me.”

Arash began graduate studies at USask in the fall of 2022. His research, under Bell’s supervision, focuses on why the U.S. counterinsurgency failed in Afghanistan. He is still deciding his future and adjusting to Canada’s culture.

He thinks it’s unlikely he’ll ever return to Afghanistan.

“I am in paradise,” Arash said. “I see humanity here. People do not want to cheat each other. People are nice, kind, human.”

(Photography: David Stobbe)
(Photography: David Stobbe)

Arash sends money to charitable causes in Afghanistan but struggles with what to say when people back home ask his advice. The best answer he can give is to seek education.

“For Afghanistan, for the whole future of the country: education. There is no other way.”

He urges Canadians to support scholarships and opportunities for Afghans to study in Canada—especially women and girls, who have been denied access to higher education by the Taliban.

“In those 20 years in which western countries had Afghanistan, apart from all difficulties and problems, there was hope. For a generation, they studied, they had free mass media. Now, just in one day—shut down,” he said.

But Arash doesn’t want others to despair for his country.

“There are so many things that I can cry about Afghanistan, but crying doesn’t solve any problem.”

Those who know him in Canada are struck by his sense of humour and positive outlook despite the trauma he has seen.

“He’s obviously a survivor. And he has a way to find the light in experiences that are quite tragic and difficult. I think that’s an incredible skill and gift to have as one moves through life,” said Bell.

Arash attributes this to his experiences back home. Afghanistan taught him to take nothing for granted.

When he was a translator, Arash often traveled through war zones with foreign journalists and civilians. Horrified by the brutal conditions and the recurring threat of death, they would ask how he could remain happy in that environment.

“OK, tomorrow maybe I will die,” he would answer. “So what—today I shouldn’t be happy?”

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