It’s been days since Wajma and Axana Soltan have been able to sleep. Since the Taliban began descending on Afghanistan, the sisters have tossed and turned, fearing for their family every night. The Soltan sisters – Axana, 24, and Wajma, 27 – are Afghani refugees who left Afghanistan in 1999 to escape the Taliban regime. 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 for them,” Wajma said. “At this point, I’m not even questioning their education. I’m just concerned for their safety— if they are going to be alive.”
Most of Wajma and Axana’s family live in the province of Mazar-e-Sharif. When 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 there was no way to obtain a visa.
“Our last conversation was with my 17-year-old cousin. She was crying her eyes out,” Axana said. “And she said that the Taliban said that they’re going to marry younger girls. And she was like, ‘I’m just going to commit suicide; we cannot be here.’ After that, we lost the internet connection.”
The sisters say the quick rise of the Taliban was horrifying for all Afghanis, but especially for the younger generation — like their 17-year-old cousin — who had never lived under their control. For the last 20 years, since America invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, there has been an American presence in the region. Much had changed. Women gained rights; they were allowed to go to school, leave the house without a male family member, and hold jobs in sectors as far-ranging as journalism and politics. According to the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction, literacy among young people rose by nearly 30 percentage points for men and almost 20 percentage points for women. Even the mortality rate for children under five years old fell by more than 50%, and life expectancy rose 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 of 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 U.N. Refugee Agency to come to the United States; in 2008, when Axana was 12 and Wajma was 15, they were approved to go to America.
While they were moving 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 aid to children worldwide, that helped them through. The Soltan sisters vowed if they were ever in the position to give back, they would do so in the same way that UNICEF provided for them.
Three years after moving to the U.S., Axana founded an organization called Enhancing Children’s Lives, a foundation dedicated to providing access to education, advocacy, medical care, and meal nourishment to low-income children worldwide. Wajma is the founder of the medical care branch of the organization. It officially became a nonprofit in 2015, when Axana was a sophomore in college. ForbesWomen featured the sisters in an article last year for their work making Covid-19 masks for cancer patients.
Their nonprofit has collected donations and supplies for children around the world. Perhaps their most notable accomplishment 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 refuge for thousands of women and girls who learned to read and write.
But then, many of those 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 been fighting for Afghan women and children and providing humanitarian relief work, but I’m at a point that I’m just pessimistic about the future,” Axana said. “I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
When the Taliban started overtaking Afghanistan, Axana and Wajma tried to jump into action — they collected donations to provide emergency humanitarian aid to those fleeing the regime. However, they lost touch with the members of their organization on the ground who would help them execute the project and distribute the aid — and they haven’t been able to get into contact with them since.
A Taliban spokesperson said the new regime would honor women’s rights “within the norms of Islamic law” and press freedom as long as it doesn’t “work against national values.” The spokesperson also said the Taliban would not seek revenge against those who worked with the former government or foreign governments.
Abbe Alavi, a 32-year-old Afghani woman living in South Jersey, said she’ll believe it when she sees it. She has been able to contact her family, who live in Kandahar and Kabul, Afghanistan. Sadly, what she’s heard every time she picks up the telephone leaves her disheartened.
In the last few days, Alavi said, her family in Afghanistan told her 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 have Alavi and her family feeling hopeless.
Alavi’s family fled Afghanistan in 1988. They fear for their family who is left, remembering the Taliban’s ultra-conservative Islamic views, which included severe restrictions on women as well as public stonings and even amputations.
“No matter what you hear, no matter how many peace promises there are, I don’t think it means anything,” Alavi said. “It’s just a proud thing to be in love with your homeland and then for this to happen, and it’s disheartening, and everyone’s in denial about it and rejecting it outright.”
Despite people’s rejections and protest, the Taliban announced the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the former name of the country under the Taliban rule, before the U.S. invasion. The Soltan sisters fear that this regime change won’t only impact Afghanistan — but will impact the world.
“It’s going to become a haven of training for Al- Qaeda people and terrorist groups,” Wajma said. “So this could definitely have an impact globally.”
“The future of Afghanistan is uncertain at this point.”