These sisters fled Afghanistan, hoping to find safety. Now they fear war in Ukraine



“Now, we are in the middle of nowhere,” says Shagufa. “We just came out of a single trauma, and I think we are going to face another trauma.”

The pair are torn between their yearning for the past, the loved ones they left behind, and their fears for a deeply uncertain future.

Fazila, 26, and Shagufa, 24, are the youngest siblings in a large family. Members of the Hazara ethnic minority, their roots are in Bamyan, central Afghanistan.

Despite the trials and tribulations of daily life in Afghanistan, the sisters describe their life before last summer as “the golden days.”

They were enrolled in university and their day jobs as flight attendants allowed them to travel widely. At work, Fazila says she met everyone from former Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the Afghan pop star Aryana Sayeed.

When the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15, 2021, they felt they had no choice but to leave.

“We had no other option,” recalls Shagufa. “We had to catch a flight and flee. And that was it. If we had any other option, we would definitely choose another option rather than be a refugee or end up here.”

The sisters intended to go to Islamabad in Pakistan but arrived at Kabul’s airport too late. They found themselves caught up in the chaos of thousands of people trying to get out of the country.

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“The feeling at that time was horrifying,” says Shagufa, describing the huge crowds of Afghans, all desperate to flee. “We were all terrified and clueless, because we didn’t know where we were going.”

The sisters say that, together with some work colleagues, they made their way to a plane parked on a remote part of the tarmac. They had no idea where it was headed until minutes before take-off.

“We were hopeful. It’s like, ‘Ah, finally! We made it,'” says Shagufa, sighing and dropping her head in mock exaggeration.

But the relief of escaping danger soon gave way to the hard reality of life as an asylum-seeker in a strange country.

Shagufa and Fazila say they have struggled to find jobs in their field, despite being permitted to work.

A new life in Ukraine

Fazila and Shagufa were among a group of 370 Afghans who arrived in Ukraine on evacuation flights in August 2021, according to Ukraine’s State Migration Service. Definitive figures are hard to come by, but activists estimate that around 5,000 Afghans live in Ukraine.

On arrival in the country — one that they had never been to before — they say authorities took them to a housing facility for migrants some two hours north of Kyiv, close to the border with Belarus.

Two weeks later, thanks to the help of a friend who works for a Ukrainian airline, they were able to move into a furnished apartment in a modest housing block on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv.

But the sisters say they now doubt whether leaving Afghanistan was the right decision.

“If I would know that living life here, (that) it would be such a challenge and so difficult, I would not choose to be (a) refugee. Believe me. Never,” says Shagufa.

The sisters say they are expecting a decision on their asylum application soon.

The Haidary sisters have filed for asylum in Ukraine and are expecting a decision within weeks.

But with their application still pending, they say they have struggled to find work in their field — despite having Ukrainian documentation allowing them to get jobs. They say they are only able to afford the rent on their apartment with help from an uncle who lives in Germany.

Beyond an initial grant of 3,200 Ukrainian hryvnia (around US $112) when they first arrived in Ukraine, they say they have faced consistent indifference from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

“They are pretending that they are helping us,” said Shagufa. “But in reality, it’s nothing. When you want to go to them or … when you want to talk with them … it’s totally different.”

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In a statement to CNN, Victoria Andrievska, a spokesperson for UNHCR Ukraine, said that it “provides legal assistance to some 300 Afghan asylum seekers, and also provides financial support in the form of an allowance granted for newly arrived asylum seekers.”

UNHCR also clarified that while it expresses “solidarity” with countries that took in Afghans last summer, it “was not involved in the evacuation of Afghan citizens who have assisted foreign governments or military forces in Afghanistan,” and that it was not responsible for visa arrangements.

And yet despite the hardship, signs of joy — and the strength that the sisters give each other — remain.

When, at the start of our visit, Fazila introduces herself and says she lives in Kabul, the sisters break down in uncontrollable giggles. Shagufa prods her with delight: “You live in Kabul?!”

Uncertainty amid tensions with Russia

Now the sisters face the same uncertainty as everyone else in Kyiv. For the moment, things are calm and life is going on as usual, but the possibility of imminent war is growing — at least according to foreign leaders.

US President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Russia has more than 150,000 troops massed on three sides of Ukraine.
Russia denies that it is planning to attack, but the United States believes an invasion could be underway even before the Winter Olympics in Beijing end later this week.

Recent intelligence from the US and its allies suggests Kyiv could be among Russia’s targets.

“The worst part of this is (how) to handle our family in Kabul,” says Fazila. “They are having their own problems in Kabul as well. But it hurts more that they thought that we are safe here.”

To stop their mother, a widow, from worrying about them, their siblings have instituted a “family protocol” barring their mother from watching the news.

“Just my brothers know what’s happening here,” says Shagufa. “But my mother, no. We are pretending that everything is good, everything is fine. Of course, she is a mother. She has her own fears regarding us, especially for her two girls. “

“We were worried about them,” says Fazila. “And now we are worried about them, and as well, ourselves.”

If the invasion does come, they have no plans for escape. They say they are too frightened to try and cross into Poland or another nearby country.

Shagufa and Fazila worry what will happen if Russia invades their adopted home, Ukraine.

“We are not brave enough to cross the border, otherwise we would love to go there,” says Shagufa.

The sisters say that they have had no assurances of help from the UN.

UNHCR told CNN it recognizes the Haidary sisters’ “anxiety,” along with that of other Ukrainians; it said it was urging the Ukrainian government to include refugees in its contingency planning.

When they escaped from Kabul, the sisters thought they were among the lucky few. Now they’re not so sure.

“I am not ready again to go through it,” says Shugufa.

Journalist Olga Voitovych contributed to this report.


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