Winnipeggers born in Afghanistan fear what Taliban's return to power will mean for women

From her home in Winnipeg, Sadaf Saberi has watched the Taliban regain the power they once held in Afghanistan and worries what will come next for those who live there.

'Sad to see my homeland, compatriots, friends, family ... living in such a hard time,' says Winnipegger

A young woman wearing a black headscarf smiles at the camera.
Sadaf Saberi, 21, is studying engineering at the University of Manitoba. She started classes this September. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Sadaf Saberi is living her dream. 

The 21-year-old graduated from high school in Winnipeg in June, earned two scholarships and just last week started studying engineering at the University of Manitoba. 

She remembers the day she found out she had been accepted into the university's engineering faculty.

"I was just jumping around being so happy and, like, even dancing," she said.

The journey hasn't been easy. 

Saberi was born in Afghanistan. Her parents have told her that from the time she was five years old, she was eager to go to school.

But that enthusiasm couldn't protect her from encountering the belief education isn't for girls, or experiencing what it was like to have her school threatened by the Taliban, who by that point had been removed from power but were still a danger.

She remembers hearing the sound of a gun, then realizing her school was the target, she said. 

"We decided to just escape from the back door of the school and go to home, and tried to not go to school [for] a couple of weeks and stay at home to be safe," she said. 

"Absolutely I was scared. I was really scared."

Now living in Winnipeg with her family, she's watched the Taliban regain the power they once held in Afghanistan and worries what will come next for those who live there.

A crowd of women hold signs as they protest.
Women rally to demand their rights under the Taliban rule during a protest in Kabul on Sept. 3, 2021. A Winnipeg woman born in Afghanistan said she's worried about the Taliban's return to power. 'You work hard and in a matter of seconds, everything is taken away from you — especially for women,' she says. (Wali Sabawoon/The Associated Press)

"To be honest, it's really sad to see my homeland, compatriots, friends, family and other innocent people living in such a hard time, trying to just survive."

She fears what it will mean for women, their right to education and their right to work. 

"I'm feeling so bad for all those women in Afghanistan."

For Seeba Wahabi, watching what's unfolding in Afghanistan is like watching the country go backwards. 

"Taliban taking over, it's like history repeated itself," said Wahabi, who was born in Afghanistan but moved to Manitoba with her family in April 2008. 

"You work hard and in a matter of seconds, everything is taken away from you — especially for women." 

A woman wearing a blue face mask sits in front of a laptop computer.
This picture was taken last September when Seeba Wahabi was in Toronto working to help those who recently fled Afghanistan settle. (Submitted by Seeba Wahabi)

The Taliban have said women will be able to go to university, but there will be a mandatory dress code. Women and men will be separated and an effort will be made to ensure women are only taught by other women.

Wahabi believes the Taliban's promises of greater respect for women's rights won't be the reality women will eventually face in Afghanistan.

"There will be women beaten up if little bit of their hair is showing.… [The Taliban] will be very picky to make sure that everybody eventually gives up coming to university," said Wahabi.

"They will say 'you're allowed, these are the guidelines' — but it will not be in practice. It will not happen."

Right now, Wahabi, who works with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, or IRCOM, has been in Toronto for more than a week, working to help those who have recently fled Afghanistan settle.

"I think most of the families that are here are traumatized," she said, and have arrived with almost nothing.

"So for them to genuinely meet another Afghan that speaks their language, that knows them just community-wise, it really brings a positive feeling."

A group of people in black veils sit in a lecture hall.
Veiled students hold Taliban flags as they listen a speaker before a pro-Taliban rally at the Shaheed Rabbani Education University in Kabul on Sept. 11, 2021. '[The Taliban] will be very picky to make sure that everybody eventually gives up coming to university,' says Seeba Wahabi, who was born in Afghanistan and now lives in Winnipeg. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

She estimates the team has helped roughly 1,000 people since she's been there, "providing any support we can."

She remembers what it was like when her family arrived in Winnipeg more than a decade ago. 

"We thought it was heaven," she said. "It was a beautiful feeling…. There was a lot of hope." 

Last month, the Canadian government said it plans to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Afghans threatened by the Taliban and forced to flee Afghanistan.

Wahabi said there are people who may not be eligible to come under the current plan but are still in danger. 

"I hope Canada could … bring in more — more than the 20,000," she said.

People sit on walls, crowded together, on an airfield.
Crowds of people wait outside the airport in Kabul on Aug. 25 in this picture, obtained from social media. Saberi and Wahabi both say Canada needs to take in more people fleeing from Afghanistan. (David Martinon/Twitter/Reuters)

Wahabi knows of two families who have fled Afghanistan in recent weeks and are now in Manitoba. 

"I came to just save my life and have a good life that I think … all human beings deserve," said Saberi.

"So my message for them is just to be thankful of what they have, be thankful of coming to Canada and having all these opportunities… Try to grab all these opportunities." 

Saberi's family fled Afghanistan when she was about 10 years old. They spent seven years living in a bordering country before moving to Winnipeg three years ago. 

Arriving at age 18 had its own challenges, such as getting used to a new school, getting caught up on class credits and learning English. 

"It was just really hard for me, and I kind of felt shy and felt insecure about English and talking with others and having friends and things like that."

But she didn't give up. 

"I remember I read about two, three books in a week that could help me improve my English," she said. 

Like Wahabi, Saberi wants the government to make it easier for people who want to flee Afghanistan to come to Canada. 

In the meantime, Saberi's message to those in Afghanistan is not to lose hope. 

"Try to believe everything will get better."

Winnipeg women born in Afghanistan fear Taliban's return to power 'like history repeated itself'

2 years ago
Duration 3:07
As families that fled Afghanistan arrive in Manitoba, people with loved ones still there have been watching with great concern as the Taliban reclaimed power.