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From Taliban Rule to Career and Motherhood in America

Frishta Mirbacha* has lived many lives in her thirty-some years.  Born in Kabul, she suffered under the Taliban, fled to Pakistan as a refugee, and eventually had the opportunity to resettle in the United States.

It's 4:58 p.m. on a Friday in Washington, D.C.  Frishta (pictured on the right) adjusts her herringbone suit and tucks back her cropped auburn hair.  She straightens her desk so it is neat as a pin--the way accountants like it--and finishes the last of her Kavha tea so that she can head home to her 20-month old daughter, Farah.  "Every moment at work I miss her," she says.

A new mom, Frishta works full-time while attending school.  She is about to graduate with a degree in accounting--a moment she has waited for her whole life.  Quite a different life from where she began.

As a child in Kabul, Frishta,  her five sisters, and a brother were raised to value education.  Both of their parents are still teachers. Theirs was one of the many progressive Muslim families in Kabul suffocating for years under totalitarian control—first Soviet and then Taliban.

Frishta grew up with the sounds of rockets whizzing overhead. The Soviet Union invaded Kabul in 1979, when Frishta was just in grade school.  They seized control of the city, ruling brutally for nine years.  

Ten years later the Mujahedeen, a U.S.-backed insurrection movement, forced the Soviets out.  The lack of government structure created a power vacuum, allowing a militant Islamic faction to take over, the now-infamous Taliban.  Frishta was just 21 years old.  The vibrant blues and burnt oranges of her city were replaced by a blackness that enveloped the city. Black turbans filled the markets, black curtains covered every window.  Sand from the streets left a thin film of dust on everything, bringing an element of griminess to Frishta's beloved Kabul.

"It was a dark time for Afghanistan," explained Frishta.  "The Taliban took away our art, our education…our life."

They forced women to wear the burka, a full body-covering sheath that offers a heavy mesh screen from which the wearer can barely peer out into the world.  Because she and her sisters did not own any burkas, they had to borrow them from neighbors before stepping foot outside the house.

At 5’ 10”, Frishta towers above most Afghani women.  When she first put on her neighbor's burka, her arms and legs jutted out awkwardly, like a child who has outgrown her clothes.   The experience was further humiliating because the Taliban guards easily recognized that they had forced an educated woman to cover herself.  "They felt so powerful," said Frishta.  "I couldn't see anything, couldn't breathe."

The Taliban's presence demoralized her once successful and happy family.  Several of her close relatives were killed, and other members of her family were in grave danger.  So, early one spring morning, well before dawn, her family fled to Pakistan.  Their journey was incredibly risky: if caught, they would likely face execution.  Two days of travelling in a truck, tractor, and boat (along with the help of many bribes), they finally crossed the border to safety.

Frishta and her family fled to Islamabad, the bustling capital of Pakistan.  Though she no longer faced the iron-clad rule of the Taliban, Frishta found it difficult to adjust to this new place.  She wanted to study business but was not allowed to attend school because she was a refugee.

Frishta began working with a nonprofit organization that provides aid to refugees, particularly focusing on children.  She witnessed first-hand how less fortunate refugees struggled to live, without homes or even clean water to drink.  "It was really painful to see my neighbors living this way," she said.

"The refugees had the most horrible life--without healthcare, education, access to drinking water."  They constructed homes from mud, usually with a tiny window to look out into the barren camp.  Large families often lived in one central room.  Poor Afghan refugees were stuck at home because they didn't have the necessary documents to move around.  They couldn't afford to bribe police either.”

In 2000, the U.N. refugee agency resettled Frishta and her family to Richmond, VA, where they were finally able to pick up the pieces of their former life and start over.  Many Americans volunteered to help them adjust to this new environment.  They taught them how to drive, use the public library, and set up a bank account.  "Americans were incredibly helpful and hospitable," she recalled.

Then came the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.  Frishta was devastated by the inhumanity of the attacks, yet felt like she was suspect simply because of her Muslim identity.  She began to notice uncomfortably long stares at her hijab( head scarf), during class.   Her parents asked her to stop wearing her scarf so she wouldn’t stand out.  "I stopped wearing it, but I felt so guilty because I felt like I was disrespecting my religion," she said.  "As Muslims, [my sisters and I] were questioned a lot."  She was in school at the time, and students would ask her questions like: "Why would Muslims do such a horrible thing?" and "Do you know Osama Bin Laden?"

Frishta understood their frustration, though felt it unfair to stereotype her as a fundamentalist.  She got the chance to represent herself, in her own voice, through the help of none other than Oprah Winfrey.  Along with several other Afghani women, Frishta spoke about her experience on Oprah's "Inside the Taliban" special, which aired one month after the terrorist attacks.  She explained what her life had been like under the Taliban:

"It was a nightmare for women--the worst time of our life," she said.  "I had heard stories about their brutality, but never thought it would happen to us.  They ruled with an iron fist, forcing us to stay at home.  We weren't allowed to work, go to school, or even go shopping without a man to accompany us.  It was unacceptable for our family, as educated women.  There was no life for us, no hope…no one would want to live like this."

Today, Frishta is an accountant with a refugee agency in Washington, D.C.  She anticipates great changes to come for Afghans under President Barack Obama’s Administration.  He was the first president to include all religions in his Inauguration," she said.  “It means a lot to me that he recognized Muslims because we have suffered so much."  She hopes that President Obama will pay attention to refugee issues and take steps to ease their problems.

It is 5:45 p.m. when Frishta arrives home to see her daughter.  After feeding her and giving her plenty of kisses, Frishta draws her cell phone to call her sister in Kabul.  She often worries about her safety, as civilian casualties have surged in recent months.  Her sister shares news about how the Taliban has steadily regained power, making it unsafe for her children to go to school.  As darkness once again encroaches on Kabul, Frishta wonders if she will ever be able to return home.

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Read more success stories from resettled refugees around the United States >>

*Names have been changed to protect family members still in Afghanistan.


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