Seated in the back of a vehicle on a dusty highway in eastern Afghanistan, Maryam Masoomi sits quietly next to her mother. Her hair is tucked neatly under her hijab, a mask pulled up over her mouth and nose.
As a Taliban soldier approaches the vehicle, she is careful not to make eye contact.
With a gun slung across his body, the soldier presses Masoomi’s brother, who is in the passenger seat. “Where are you coming from? Where are you going?”
The brother does his best to be vague. He shows the soldier the contents of their bags, sparsely filled with a second set of clothes and a Qur’an.
Once the family is allowed to continue their journey, tears of relief flow from their eyes.
Masoomi and her family are part of an international operation to help more than 400 people flee the Taliban, many connected to a school in Kabul known for having progressive values.
These teachers, students and their families are desperate to get out of Afghanistan.
And dozens of other families just like theirs are in cars behind them, racing toward the Torkham border crossing into Pakistan, hoping to make it to safety.
Listen to the documentary ‘The girls who escaped the Taliban’ from The Doc Project:
I. Life in Kabul
Masoomi, 24, was the assistant music director at Marefat School, an internationally recognized institution on the outskirts of Kabul that championed freedom, democracy and the rights of women and girls.
Before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, approximately 4,000 students attended the school, located in an impoverished neighbourhood that primarily serves Hazara people, some of the most persecuted people in the country.
The school was founded in 2001 after the Taliban first fell, with hope it could educate future generations of women and girls whose parents struggled through decades of war and restrictive laws. The school served a mix of boys and girls — a rarity in a country that limited the education of girls for decades.
Students at Marefat School were not only encouraged to reach their potential, but also to question authority. Many excelled in sports and music.
Masoomi, a former student who went on to teach at the school, often took centre stage with a group of 22 singers she led — an all-female collective called the SA musical group, or Sound of Afghanistan.
Though she is not much older than her students, Masoomi cares deeply for each one of them.
The girls, who describe themselves as like sisters, are seen as leaders by many.
“We give people [the] sound of the girls and [the] sound of the women. That they want peace, and they want a free life,” said Zainab Nazari, a 13-year-old who sang alongside her closest friends as part of the group.
But after the U.S pulled its troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban seized control of the country, all of Marefat’s students were made a target — especially the school’s young female singers.
The students are featured in videos produced at their school’s television station, called SA TV, which remain on the internet, with thousands of views. They also sang and spoke on a school-produced radio show called Radio Marefat.
Marefat produced these TV and radio shows to reach people in Afghanistan — and outside of it — to share messages about education and human rights.
And the world was taking note of the remarkable work being done at the school to educate some of Afghanistan’s women and girls; the school received ample international media coverage and its founder was nominated for the Global Teacher Prize, seen by some as the Nobel prize for teachers.
That acclaim now came at a cost, as the voices and faces of the SA musical group were easy to recognize, including by the Taliban.
“I just think that they will find us, they will kill us,” said Masoomi.
II. The escape
Masoomi was working in the school’s television studio when a colleague charged in, saying the Taliban was moving into Kabul. She quickly packed her bags to leave.
“It was … shocking news for everyone and there was … panic everywhere. And we just got our bags and then just ran away, from work to our home,” she said.
“On the way, when we looked at the people, all the people were very upset and very frustrated. Hopeless.”
At the same time, one of her students, 14-year-old Muzhgan Samim, was writing exams. She had to walk home in her school uniform, making her a visible target to the Taliban.
“I was in trouble and it was so dangerous for us,” she said.
Both made it home safely.
Immediately, Masoomi and her students deleted all of the text messages and videos stored on their phones, erasing any evidence that would suggest they were educated or singers. Masoomi burned her teaching certificates.
“No more I can go to school. No more I can read, write. I will be at home and I cannot do anything,” recalled Tamanna Sarwari, 15, another student and singer.
In the weeks that followed, the women and girls of Marefat school stayed in their homes. It was too dangerous for them to walk the streets of Kabul.
But elsewhere, a small group of people was mobilizing to get the young women and their families to safety as quickly as possible.
“They really embodied the progressive Afghanistan we wanted to achieve in our lifetime,” said Mohammad Behroozian, a media and communications consultant from Afghanistan who now lives in Chicago. “Everything that, in today’s Afghanistan, will put you [at] risk.”
The group — made up of eight influential people in the U.S. and the U.K., who worked as lawyers, journalists and human rights activists — would become known as the 30 Birds Foundation.
They started raising money and planning a route for the students’ escape, reaching out to ambassadors, diplomats and others with influence. Everyone was in a different time zone, so they would often plot in the middle of the night.
“Some of us in our pyjamas, some in our beds, looking at our spreadsheets, tracking who is where and what experience they have had on the road, relaying messages to the following groups,” Behroozian described.
The students were told to pack a small bag, with only two items of clothing.
“The only thing that I wanted to take with me was my diary notebook,” said Sarwari. “But unfortunately, I couldn’t take [it], because they said for us [not to] bring too many bags because there’s no space. I just have my two dresses, nothing else.”
Each student would wait for instructions to be sent via text message, deleting it immediately after reading. And then one by one, the families started to leave Kabul.
Zainab Nazari, another one of the singers who fled Afghanistan with her parents and older brother, remembers the terror she felt during the harrowing journey.
“We are in the hotel, and [the] Taliban [are] coming to our hotel and searching,” she said, recalling that she was crying. “And I think … they come to kill us.”
The students and their families would be stopped by Taliban members several times as they travelled from Kabul to Mazar-I-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan, where 30 Birds had arranged chartered flights.
Then the Taliban took over the airport, and the flights were cancelled.
“It was very difficult, to put it mildly,” said Behroozian. “The sense of having this huge mission, this huge desire to save these people in a situation where the levers are really out of our control.
“We do not control how the roads work. We do not control how security works. We are in unfriendly territory.”
The students and their families next hired taxis to take them back to Kabul, before travelling east, to Torkham, on the border with Pakistan, where 30 Birds had arranged travel documents to permit all the students and their families to cross into the neighbouring country.
Those documents were accepted, and officials let them in.
Masoomi and her family crossed first. Shortly after, she was joined by many of her students, including Samim, Sarwari and Nazari.
“It was [such a] beautiful moment,” Masoomi said. “I just feel that I was born again. Everyone was so happy.”
III. Safe in Saskatoon
The students and their families would remain in Islamabad, Pakistan, for a month before some members of their group learned they would be granted asylum by the Canadian government.
In October 2021, approximately 250 people connected to the Marefat school flew into Saskatoon, just ahead of a brutally cold winter. But another 200 remain in Islamabad, including more than 60 young women and girls without any family.
The families moved into apartments scattered across the city, and the children were enrolled in different schools across several different neighbourhoods.
“I am always thankful of God that I am here. I have this opportunity, from all the millions of people that [are] in Afghanistan, we had luck that we are here,” said Samim, who escaped with her mother, grandmother and two sisters.
While the change was difficult, the students say they feel safe here.
“I was happy, and also unhappy,” said Sarwari, who escaped with her parents and four siblings, including her youngest brother, who is 18 months old.
“Happy because if I can go to another country — I can read, I can study, I can improve. But unhappy because I leave my country, and now I will miss my country, because I have lots of good memories there.”
Sultan Ali Sadat, a human resources director with Saskatoon’s Open Door Society, came to Canada from Afghanistan in 1998. He would religiously watch the SA singers on YouTube every night before bed.
He remembers the moment the mayor of Saskatoon and staff at Open Door Society were asked by the federal government if they had the capacity to welcome 200 people from Afghanistan connected to the Marefat School.
“I said, ‘We have the capacity to settle 1,000. Just bring them in,’” he said.
Sadat was able to call many of the students by their first names when they arrived at the Saskatoon airport, and as he got them settled in hotels over the first couple of weeks.
Welcoming them to Saskatoon was bittersweet, he said. While Sadat was happy to be able to provide support to the members of a singing group he admired, he recognized that their arrival meant they could not continue their work as leaders and advocates for a free and safe Afghanistan.
“This group, they’re all educated and the majority are very young — under 25. So they have lots of energy,” he said.
IV. Those left behind
Today, Tamanna Sarwari is a Grade 10 student at a Saskatoon high school; she has a new pink notebook where she jots down memories from her life in Kabul and outlines her dreams for her new life. But she admits she still longs for Afghanistan — and the people left behind.
“Sometimes, when I think about the country … I think about the people who are there, who have a bad situation, the girls that can’t go anymore risk the school,” she said.
The Taliban has backed away from a promise to allow girls older than 11 to attend school, and restricted women in the workforce. They’ve also reinstated the wearing of a traditional burqa, and decreed that women can only leave their homes alone if absolutely necessary. Male relatives will be punished if women do not comply.
Masoomi, too, feels torn between her new life and the one she left behind.
She’s working at a local coffee shop, saving up to buy her family a car. She’s also volunteering at a community radio station, hosting in her language of Dari and playing music from Afghanistan. She hopes to one day be a journalist.
But she says she is reluctant to post photos on social media, knowing others were not as lucky and didn’t manage to escape. She’s also constantly concerned about the more than 60 girls and women who remain in Islamabad.
No one is certain when they will all be together again.
“This is by no means a safe home for them to stay … for much longer. The security risks persist in Pakistan,” said Behroozian.
He said 30 Birds is working non-stop to advance those students’ applications, seeking to fundraise more than $4 million to bring them to Saskatoon, though the process to privately sponsor refugees can be sluggish.
The mayor of Saskatoon has written to the federal government, asking that the process be expedited.
The foundation has also received support from The Prince’s Trust, a U.K. charity supported by the Prince of Wales. In May, 30 Birds arranged to have Masoomi and a few of her students travel to Ottawa to meet Prince Charles during the royal visit.
30 Birds has further received support from activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres has tweeted about the foundation’s fundraising efforts to reunite the Marefat students in Pakistan with their friends in Saskatoon.
And as those students settle into their new lives in Canada, they’re all focused on their studies, grateful to be able to attend school every day.
They dream of being lawyers, educators and businesspeople who will continue to fight for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.
“This is an exceptional community,” said Behroozian. “And had events gone in a different way in Afghanistan, these girls would have been leaders of our country.”
Written by: Leisha Grebinski | Edited by: Amy Husser | Photographer: Don Somers | Artwork by: Ben Shannon | Lead Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Documentary by: Leisha Grebinski and Alison Cook