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ATHENS – The women of Afghanistan’s deposed democracy have found a temporary home in an unlikely place: Athens.
In recent months, Greece appears to have welcomed more women fleeing Afghanistan than any other country, which has turned the capital into a remote center of Kabul’s former political scene. In just a few weeks, the city has become the landing place for more than 700 of Afghanistan’s female judges, lawmakers, journalists and lawyers along with their families – the hallmarks of a democratic society no longer welcome after the Taliban’s takeover in August.
They have arrived with the help of NGOs, international aid groups and several individuals who have lobbied directly Greek leaders. Amed Khan, an American philanthropist, is one of these people. He coordinated a week-long effort to bring dozens of female Afghans and their families to Greece after securing almost immediate permission from Greek officials.
“I sent a text message to the wife of the Greek Prime Minister, Mareva [Grabowski], who is an old friend and I told her that I have this situation and that I have nowhere to take them, ”he said. “An hour later, Greece said, ‘Yes, we’ll take them.’ I did not even have to tell them this.”
The same cannot be said of many other migrants seeking Greek coasts – even other Afghans.
For most, Greece’s door to Europe is closed, surrounded by fences and surveillance equipment, guarded by an army of officers patrolling land and sea. Those who do so are likely to find themselves in fortress-like camps surrounded by barbed wire and police. The Greek Ministry of Migration has even put together a media campaign to discourage Afghan citizens from coming to Greece without proper permission, and outline the harsh living conditions in migrant camps.
The two-part system has raised questions about Greece’s swift act of benevolence towards the hundreds of Afghan women. In recent years, the country’s Conservative government has faced harsh criticism from international rights groups over its migrant policy, including allegations that it has abused asylum seekers and illegally deprived them of their right to seek protection. Greek officials, however, claim that they are focused on ensuring that migrants enter the country through safe, legal channels.
“We are working with respected third parties to identify Afghans facing Taliban reprisals,” an official told POLITICO. “The lives of these people were in immediate danger, members of their families have been killed, so we acted resolutely with our partners to bring them to safety in Greece.”
More generally, the official noted that Greece hosts 160,000 refugees and asylum seekers and is “working tirelessly” to treat them: “Greece wants to provide a safe haven for refugees through appropriate channels, but is against smuggling gangs who ruthlessly exploit vulnerable people and risking life. “
The first escape
Back in September, Amed Khan fought to get his first group of Afghans out of the country – six female lawmakers and their families, 53 people in total.
Afghanistan had already fallen by early August. By the end of the month, Western allies had left their last post: a Kabul airport carrying people out on the precious few flights available.
That left Khan without many options.
He needed both a transit country and a final destination for his group. When Iran agreed to serve as a transit country, it presented its own challenges. The country is under severe US sanctions that exclude America as a last resort. Another possible destination – a country that had previously received Afghan refugees – refused to take Khan’s group if they came through Iran, citing strained relations with Tehran.
So Khan opened his Rolodex. Eventually, he hit a well-named name: Mareva Grabowski, the wife of the Greek Prime Minister. He sent the text message.
“A few hours later, I spoke with Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who set up a WhatsApp group to coordinate the operation,” he said.
The exchange opened a road that Khan would use to bring more and more high-profile Afghan women to Greece. The trips included pit stops in a number of transit countries, including Kazakhstan. Khan made an agreement with the Greek government to cover the cost of food, lodging and health insurance for the evacuees.
It was, Khan said, a “flawless partnership.”
And, he added, it reflected an openness he saw from smaller governments that were lacking from the world’s largest economic powers.
“The only political leadership I have seen is from smaller countries like Greece, Albania, Qatar, Northern Macedonia; it is not G7, ”he said. “Many countries made a lot of money in Afghanistan and now they want to wash their hands and look for the next opportunity.”
While most of the Afghan women who reached Greece eventually want to settle in the United States, Mitarachi said Greece is “willing to grant asylum to all of them if their attempts to find alternative housing do not succeed.” for something.”
A two-stage system
Greece’s goodwill runs counter to the broader perception of the country’s attitude towards Afghan migrants.
After Afghanistan fell to the militant Taliban regime, Greece quickly began assembling patrol units and building surveillance systems to intercept all Afghans fleeing to the EU. They relied on the EU itself to help pay the bill, even though Brussels refused.
The measures are based on a record, like human rights, that organizations often criticize. The European Commission has repeatedly called on the Greek authorities to investigate reports and videos showing officials rejecting asylum seekers arriving at its borders an illegal process known as “pushbacks”.
The issue has become a trial for the Greek government. Last week, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis became angry at a Dutch journalist who even accused him of lying about pushbacks.
After noting that he respected Dutch culture “asking direct questions to politicians”, Mitsotakis shot back: “What I do not want to accept is that in this office you will insult me or the Greek people with accusations and expressions that is not supported by material facts. “
Greek border guards, Mitsotakis claimed, rescued people in danger.
“We do this every single day and save people at sea,” he said. “While at the same time, yes, we intercept boats coming from Turkey, which we have the right to do in accordance with European rules, and wait for the Turkish Coast Guard to come and pick them up to return them to Turkey.”
Twenty years ‘disappeared’
Just outside Athens, Homaira Ayubi sat at a beach café in the small seaside resort of Agioi Theodoroi. She drifted back to her time in Afghanistan, where she worked as a Member of Parliament and mathematician. She remembered what had now been lost.
“Twenty years of fighting for the Afghan girls just disappeared,” she said.
Tears welled up in her eyes.
“I have nothing in Afghanistan, neither a car nor a house,” she said. “I did not cry for it, but I cried for the Afghan girls.”
The Taliban’s rapid takeover had shocked Ayubi, she said. But she added that the Western Allied reaction was also shocking.
“As always, the EU and the US said they will help us fight and will not leave us to the mercy of the Taliban,” she said. “But when the Taliban took over, it was not just the United States and the European Union, but all our neighbors closed their doors.”
In Afghanistan, Ayubi had chaired the anti-corruption meeting of the Legislative Assembly. It was corruption, she said, that caused the government to collapse once it collapsed. That was a warning she was trying to give directly to the U.S. Congress in 2014 when she was invited to meet with lawmakers.
“The funds that were supposed to go to women’s education or other programs were ghost money,” she said. “They were multiplied to zero.”
Still, Ayubi plans to move to the United States and use it as a base to try to change the political situation at home. If the Taliban fall, she expressed hope of returning to Afghanistan in time.
Yaldan Nasimee, 30, was a judge back in Afghanistan. When she heard that Kabul had fallen to the Taliban, she hurried home, grabbed a burqa to cover herself, and went into hiding with her husband and children. Now, temporarily housed in a hotel in Athens and pregnant with her fourth child, Nasimee is trying to figure out where she can settle down and fully integrate.
“We had higher expectations from Western governments,” she said.
Ayubi and Nasimee, however, are in the minority. They escaped. It has thousands and thousands of their compatriots who fear the Taliban do not.
Khan urged governments to go further. Do not let the high-profile Afghan women in during the takeover, he said.
“You hear from women like a janitor or a dentist, ordinary people who are not on anyone’s priority list, but they’re in the same boat,” he said. “They signed the same vision that the United States came up with [with] and described 20 years ago. “
Back at the beach cafe, Ayubi warned of what would happen if the international community did not come together and accept a wider range of Afghans trying to escape Taliban repression.
“You can not take all 34 million out of the country, but those who are in real danger and want to leave should be distributed to countries all over the world,” she said.
She recalled the wave of migrants in 2015 during the Syrian civil war, which sent over a million people fleeing over land and sea to Europe’s borders. Within months, EU countries were divided over the issue, arguing with each other and, incidentally, breathing into the flames of a rising, harsh nationalism.
“You have seen what happened to Syria. You will not be able to stop them. They will come through the sea as you see here behind,” she said, waving at the water, calm for now.