OXFORD, England – Five days after the Taliban took Kabul, Summia Tora began to fear that her father would never leave Afghanistan. She had been up almost round the clock getting him on an evacuation flight. But without a special immigrant visa, he didn’t get a call from US officials offering a coveted seat on a military plane.
“That’s when it really hit me, and that was the first time I sat down and cried,” Ms. Tora, 24, recalled the story last week. “Because I realized there was no way out for my father. He was stuck.”
But Mrs. Tora’s father had one advantage that thousands of other desperate Afghans did not: His daughter was a Rhodes scholar, the first ever elected from Afghanistan. She was able to use her connections at Oxford University and with a foundation funded by Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, to accommodate her father and an uncle on a non-U.S. military flight that left Kabul on September 24. August left.
In the coming days, Ms. Tora expects to be reunited with her father in Southern Europe. (She asked not to reveal his full name or exact whereabouts to protect his safety.) And she’s already identified her next mission — after earning her master’s degree from the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford in two months — one of which she said she could occupy her for “most of the rest of my life.”
Ms. Tora is starting an organization to help evacuate people left behind in Afghanistan and resettle Afghan refugees in Qatar, Albania and elsewhere. She called it the Dosti network, a name she used for an earlier initiative that educated Afghan and Pakistani girls and young women about feminine hygiene. Dosti means friendship in Urdu.
While Ms Tora said she was deeply grateful for the extraordinary help she received for her father—and recognizes the value of dramatic stories like his—she said she was determined to shift attention to the more mundane of ordinary things. Getting Afghans the paperwork they needed. to start a new life.
“We need to think about the people we left behind and ask tough questions,” Ms Tora added. “These are people who don’t have the right documents, don’t have a Rhodes scholar as a daughter, don’t have a network in Oxford.”
She is one of the few known Afghan-led efforts to get people out of a country where they no longer feel safe. Some are supported by wealthy Afghans who have offered the use of airplanes in cities like Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and elsewhere. Others are supported by foreign benefactors, such as Mr. Schmidt’s foundation, Schmidt Futures, which organized the airlift of 150 people and hopes to evacuate more people.
Some groups are counting on the resumption of commercial flights from Kabul airport. Others explore overland routes to Pakistan or other neighboring countries. Most operate under the radar to avoid retaliation by the Taliban.
“It feels like the Afghan diaspora has come together out of a sense of helplessness,” said Yalda Hakim, an Afghanistan-born BBC journalist who runs her own foundation that helped evacuate Mrs Tora’s father, as well as helping three female students. place. from the American University of Afghanistan on the same flight.
The hurdles to future evacuations are high: The Taliban’s increasing hold on Afghanistan means more and more checkpoints along roads leading to the border. With no US soldiers securing the airport and air traffic control operations still being restored, flights from Kabul are currently not an option.
“Even if commercial flights resume,” Ms Tora said, “the passengers will still have to be vetted by the Taliban. There’s no guarantee they won’t hurt anyone.”
Her father’s story illustrates the risks. The day after he was finally able to enter the Kabul airport, she said, a Taliban fighter came to look for him at his home. Ms. Tora’s father, a dried fruit and nut wholesaler, was known for working with contractors for the United States Agency for International Development.
In addition, her higher profile said of her work with Afghan and Pakistani girls, as well as a GoFundMe account she set up to raise money to help her father evacuate, raising more than $50,000 – all of which made him a figure of importance to the new rulers of Afghanistan. The Taliban detained one of Ms. Tora’s father’s best friends, but he was released a few days later.
“There was a lot of noise that I built up around my father,” said Ms. Tora. “That’s why I couldn’t sleep, eat or do anything because I knew that if anyone among my family or friends was harmed, it was because of the work I did.”
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Even after her father arrived at the airport, he spent three days in a stifling terminal as Mr. Schmidt’s team struggled to arrange a flight. At Oxford, Mrs. Tora ignored an offer from a private military contractor to give him a seat for $60,000.
She has few illusions about the challenges ahead. Ms Tora’s family, who is Uzbek, had fled Afghanistan once before, in the 1990s when the Taliban seized power after leaving the Soviet Union. She spent her childhood in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, living in a one-bedroom house that housed four families, before winning a scholarship to a high school in New Mexico. She then attended Earlham College in Richmond, Ind.
Ms. Tora initially refused to even apply for a Rhodes scholarship, given the legacy of his namesake, Cecil Rhodes, the 19th-century imperialist whose white supremacist views are seen by some as a precursor to apartheid.
But she reasoned that she could use the prestige and connections that came with the scholarship, which was originally limited to men from the United States, Germany, and the Commonwealth countries, to further her work with refugees from Afghanistan, a country known as the graveyard of the rich. .
“Cecil John Rhodes wouldn’t be happy about this,” she said, bursting into a rare laugh.
In 2019, Ms Tora spent five months in Greece, volunteering in reception centers for Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. Before the fall of Afghanistan, she planned to return to Pakistan to work with refugees. Now, she says, she could travel anywhere in the world where Afghans await resettlement.
“The whole story about this crisis is one of compassion for the Afghans,” Ms Tora said. “What we deserve is equal dignity and respect.”