We met on a rainy evening in the park next to the seaside. It was a warm rain, but it was enough to drive all of the evening strollers out of the park, so we had the park to ourselves. A strong wind blew the drops sideways, but we found a pagoda sheltered by a tree, where we could sit out of the rain. Neither of us had an umbrella, and I noticed that Anisa’s windbreaker looked wet.
“You look wet, are you cold?” I asked after we took a seat.
“No, I’m fine. This jacket is actually waterproof.”
I sat down across from her, and as we huddled in the rain I learned that she was from Western Afghanistan,
“Okay, let me know if you get cold. Now, about your story. Let’s back up a bit. Tell me what you were doing before you decided to leave Afghanistan.”
She was from western Afghanistan, near the border of Afghanistan and Iran. When she was growing up, because the educational opportunities were better in Iran, her parents sent her to school at a regional city in eastern Iran. She was 16 at the time. In addition to the general studies there, she also did some technical studies like computer networking, and she earned various Microsoft certifications. By the time she was 18 or 19 years old she’d not only completed the normal high school curriculum, as well as mastering technical courses in computer programming and networking and earning various Microsoft certifications. When it was time for her to find her first job, it was quite easy. She was in high demand and went to work setting up and running the computer systems for a company in Iran.
I asked her again about her age at that time, figuring that I had misheard. It would normally take about ten years to get the kind of education and experience she was describing. So I asked her about it.
“No, no, I was nineteen at that time,” she told me.
I realized that I was sitting across from one of the smartest people I knew.
One of her first jobs was setting up and running the computer systems for a company in Iran. She did that for a couple of years. Then she returned to returned to Afghanistan in 2001 or 2002, shortly after the U.S. invasion, to take a job with the U.N. setting up computer systems for the refugee office in western Afghanistan. She soon moved up into an administrative position in the refugee office.
“That was shortly after the U.S. invasion, correct?”
“Yes,” she continued. “The U.N. ran a refugee office in western Afghanistan. Shortly after the invasion, the U.S. was hiring Afghans to staff the local office. I applied. My main qualification was my technical computer experience.”
Setting up the computer systems took about six months, and then she took an administrative position in the refugee program.
I remembered that Rory Stewart book, The Places Inbetween. He had walked across Afghanistan shortly after the US invasion. That means about the same time he was walking, Anisa was working at the UN.
I realized I was sitting across from someone who had actually lived the events I had read about.
I thought of Ismail Khan, whom Stewart had mentioned in his book, a local war lord who was fighting against the U.N. control of the region. At the time of the US invasion, Khan controlled the borders of western Afghanistan. He had his own import taxes. He was basically running his own regional government when the U.N arrived to take over the administration of the whole country. Not surprisingly, Khan and the U.N. butted heads.
I wondered if she had run into Khan. So I asked.
“Of course, Ismail Khan,” she nodded quickly. A look of fear and disgust crossed her face.
“He attacked the office regularly,” she continued. “A couple of times while I was at work, he shot rockets at us. I’d be sitting at my desk, and rockets would explode outside or crash into the building walls.”
“Once some of his soldiers made it past the security gate. They stormed into the building, running around with their machine guns. I ducked under my desk and hoped not to get shot.”
I watched the woman sitting before me before me as she talked. Not only was she smart, she was brave. She hadn’t stayed away from her country that was a war zone. She had returned to it, taken a job there. Now I could start to connect her the story with my own images of refugees: people fleeing war. But in my mind, refugees were unwashed masses with blankets and no shoes, escaping the chaos in war-torn countries. This was a woman in her early 20s with a desk job, typing at a computer.
“One day some of the soldiers followed me as I walked home from work. They started harassing me, but some neighbors broke it up. However, then the soldiers followed me at a greater distance and saw where my family and I lived.
“I could deal with rocket attacks at work, but when they knew where my mother, brothers, and sisters were, that was enough. For months my family had been saying, ‘No, no this is our home. We want to stay here.’ But finally that became, ‘Okay, let’s leave the country. The time has come.’”
The refugee image in my mind includes dramatic midnight escapes, fleeing the country on foot. But that’s not what they did. They basically took one bus to Iran, and then another one to Turkey.
“We found our way to the eastern Turkish city of Van, where we lived for about two years.
“I got a job helping other refugees with their own resettlement. And then, after the big earthquake in 2012, my family once again did not feel safe, so we moved further west here, to Mersin. And that’s how I came to be here.”
By that time it was getting late, and the blown rain was starting to soak our table. We stood up, said goodbye, and I leaned into the wind and walked back to Melih’s apartment, all the while thinking, “See the world as it is, not as you think it is. Don’t ever forget that.”