It’s been days since Wajma and Axana Soltan have been able to sleep. Since the Taliban began to fall on Afghanistan, the sisters have thrown themselves and turned and feared for their families every night. Sisters Soltan – Axana, 24, and Wajma, 27 – are Afghan refugees who left Afghanistan in 1999 to escape Taliban rule. About a decade later, they settled in the Richmond, Virginia region.
Now, 22 years later, Axana and Wajma feel hopeless and numb, unable to process the reality their relatives are experiencing. And that they were able to escape.
“I’m just worried about them,” Wajma said. “At this point, I do not even question their education. I’m just worried about their safety – if they are to be alive.”
Most of the Wajma and Axana family live in Mazar-e-Sharif province. As the Taliban began taking control of cities around the country, their family fled to Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. But when they got there, they realized that the embassies were closed and that there was no way to get a visa.
“Our last conversation was with my 17-year-old cousin. She cried her eyes out,” Axana said. “And she said the Taliban said they wanted to marry younger girls. And she said, ‘I just want to commit suicide; we can not be here.’ Then we lost the internet connection. “
The sisters say the Taliban’s rapid progress was appalling for all Afghans, but especially for the younger generation – like their 17-year-old cousin – who had never lived under their control. In the last 20 years since America invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, there has been a US presence in the region. Much had changed. Women were given rights; they were allowed to go to school, leave the house without a male family member and have jobs in such far-reaching sectors as journalism and politics. According to the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, literacy among young people increased by almost 30 percentage points for men and almost 20 percentage points for women. Even mortality for children under the age of five decreased by more than 50%, and life expectancy increased 16% to 65 years.
And the Soltan sisters were part of that change.
After their family escaped the Taliban, they lived in a camp on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan for six months. Eventually, their family went to Tajikistan and then to Uzbekistan, where they spent several years as immigrants. The family registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to come to the United States; in 2008, when Axana was 12 and Wajma was 15, they were approved to go to America.
As they moved from city to city, it was the kindness of UNICEF or the United Nations Children’s Fund, an agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental assistance to children around the world, that helped them through. The Soltan sisters promised that if they were ever able to give back, they would do so in the same way that UNICEF provided for them.
Three years after moving to the United States, Axana founded an organization called Enhancing Children’s Lives, a foundation dedicated to providing education, advocacy, medical care, and meal nutrition for low-income children worldwide. Wajma is the founder of the medical branch of the organization. It officially became a nonprofit organization in 2015 when Axana was a sophomore in college. ForbesWomen highlighted the sisters in an article last year for their work in making Covid-19 masks for cancer patients.
Their non-profit organization has collected donations and supplies for children around the world. Perhaps their most notable achievement was building a library in 2014 for young women and girls in Kabul, near the Syed Al-Shahada school. Axana said the library had been a haven for thousands of women and girls who learned to read and write.
But then many of these girls were injured – and three of them killed – after a bombing at Syed Al-Shahada school. In addition, the Soltan sister’s library was destroyed. The Taliban denied involvement; however, the former presidential palace in Afghanistan blamed the killings on the group.
“We feel hopeless about the future. I have fought for Afghan women and children and provided humanitarian aid, but I am at a point where I am just pessimistic about the future,” Axana said. “I can not see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
As the Taliban began to overtake Afghanistan, Axana and Wajma tried to jump in – collecting donations to provide relief to those fleeing the regime. But they lost contact with the members of their organization on the spot, who wanted to help them carry out the project and distribute the aid – and they have not been able to get in touch with them since.
A spokesman for the Taliban said the new regime would respect women’s rights “within the norms of Islamic law” and freedom of the press, as long as it did not “run counter to national values”. The spokesman also said the Taliban would not seek revenge against those who worked with the previous government or foreign governments.
Abbe Alavi, a 32-year-old Afghan woman living in South Jersey, said she will believe it when she sees it. She has been able to contact her family, who live in Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, what she has heard every time she picks up the phone makes her discouraged.
In the last few days, Alavi said, her family in Afghanistan told that the Taliban took their neighbors’ two daughters. She also said the Taliban killed her third cousin, a 17-year-old, for previously working with Americans. Situations like these make Alavi and her family feel hopeless.
Alavis’ family fled Afghanistan in 1988. They fear for their family who are left behind, remembering the Taliban’s ultra-conservative Islamic views, which included strict restrictions on women as well as public stoning and even amputations.
“No matter what you hear, no matter how many peace promises there are, I do not think it matters,” Alavi said. “It’s just a proud thing to be in love with his homeland and see this happen, and it’s discouraging, and everyone denies it and rejects it outright.”
Despite popular rejections and protests, the Taliban announced the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate Afghanistan, the former name of the country under Taliban rule, before the US invasion. The Soltan sisters fear that this regime change will not only affect Afghanistan – but will affect the world.
“It will be a training ground for Al Qaeda and terrorist groups,” Wajma said. “So this can definitely have an impact globally.”
“Afghanistan’s future is uncertain at this time.”
There are several organizations that collect donations and work to help people in Afghanistan, including UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Rescue Committee.