Afghan activist in Virginia caught between heart and homeland as peace talks begin with Taliban
By JOANNE KIMBERLIN | The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot | Published: October 11, 2020
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — From a house in Newport News, Sarina Faizy watches events on the other side of the globe. A foot in both worlds. A knot in her stomach.
Faizy is grateful, warm, bubbly with energy and ideas.
She’s also homesick, lonely and an old soul at 22.
As historic peace talks play out in Qatar and the U.S. withdraws troops from Afghanistan, she worries she might never see her homeland again.
She’s safe right now, living here temporarily as a student. But back home, she defied the Taliban.
Faizy helped the Americans and pushed for women’s rights and girls’ educations. As a teenager, she became the youngest woman to win a seat on a provincial council.
Now, a twist of war has landed her enemies — once the target of the U.S.-led invasion — in official negotiations to share power with the Afghan government.
They’re in her country to stay, which she finds unthinkable.
She’s faced death threats, survived an IED attack that left scars on her belly and a chronic ringing in her ears, and absorbed the shock and grief of a long list of the lost.
A matter-of-fact litany accompanies a flip through her photo album.
“He’s dead … she’s dead …”
When people part in Afghanistan, she said, even if it’s only for a few hours, “we say goodbye like it might be forever.”
Outside the windows of the house in Hidenwood where she rents a room, all is quiet. Shiny cars are parked in front of expensive homes. Towering trees frame lush lawns.
“It’s so peaceful here, it doesn’t seem real,” she said. “When I go for a walk in this nice place, I still look over my shoulder.”
No matter how much Faizy likes America — and she does — she remains driven to help her own people, faithful to her own land.
But with the way things are going, it could be even more dangerous for her there. She doesn’t believe the Taliban will curb their extreme views, oppression of women or violent lust for revenge, despite what’s being promised in Qatar.
“They have the wrong interpretation of the Holy Koran,” Faizy said. “So many things. For one, a Muslim should never kill another person — non-Muslim or Muslim. We are all brothers and sisters. When America leaves, all the problems will be back. And there will be no big shoulder for us to turn to.”
She gets it. After nearly two decades of fighting, the U.S. is weary of pouring lives and money into Afghanistan, where a long-running civil war created a haven for the terrorist cells behind 9/11.
As our exit looms, though, her friends and family say conditions are grimmer already. Fear and crime mushroom. Jobs and optimism dwindle.
It’s enough to leave the U.S. wondering what it has accomplished.
Ask that question of Richard McNorton, an Army colonel at Fort Eustis who knows Faizy from his five tours in Afghanistan.
“When I see young people like her, it makes all the treasure and blood sacrifices worth it,” McNorton said. “She gives me hope for the future of Afghanistan.”
One Sarina inspiring a multitude of Sarinas.
A force more enduring than bullets or bombs.
'Trying to be a bridge'
The house where Faizy lives has a backyard pool. She doesn’t know how to swim. Afghan girls — particularly those from her highly conservative tribe, the dominant Pashtuns — aren’t allowed to. Even the most wholesome swim attire is considered too revealing.
But every now and then, when no one is around, the lure of the cool water wins. She holds her nose and sinks to the bottom, staying as long as she can, trying not to feel guilty about indulging in such small freedoms.
Faizy is wary of becoming “too American,” a label that could sap her influence back home. The year and a half she’s been in the U.S. has smoothed out her English, though her tongue still catches on trickier sounds, like “th” — a stranger where she’s from. She’s adopted Western clothes — stylish but modest. In public, she’s scrupulous about wearing a hijab, the customary headscarf of Muslim women.
“My scarf is also a reminder,” she said. “It keeps me close to my culture.”
As a female activist from a rigidly male-ruled society, she’s learned to walk a fine line. Press, but not too hard. Talk, but not too much. Stretch boundaries, but not too far.
“It’s not only the men who resist change,” she said. “Women have a hard time, too. Many have been brainwashed to believe women who are educated or go to work should not be respected. But how can you have a good country when half your people have no equality? No voice?”
Faizy was molded by her late mother — a doctor from the comparatively progressive capital of Kabul — and her father, who did not make his daughters cover themselves in head-to-toe burqas and permitted them to attend school despite pressure to do otherwise.
Kandahar, where Faizy was raised, is a southern province — high desert, mostly rural and a bedrock of Pashtun culture. It’s also the traditional stronghold of the Taliban, a fundamentalist faction that took over most of the country in 1996, the year before Faizy was born.
Embedded in the Taliban’s harsh code: no schooling for girls.
Faizy was only 4 when the U.S. and its allies arrived, driving the Taliban out of the city where her family lived.
But they remained formidable in the countryside and “many people still followed their culture,” she said. “Men would come and say things to my father, like ‘your girls will get married. They don’t need to go to school.’ But I give him credit. We didn’t get a lot of support, but at least he didn’t stand in our way.”
Her mother died of an apparent heart attack when Faizy was 10.
“I was motivated by her to help others. She opened a clinic in our house for women. They had no one, since women aren’t allowed to go to men doctors and there aren’t many women doctors. My mother taught them about health care and birth control. Some husbands appreciated that, but some were angry.”
By 12, Faizy was juggling school and odd jobs to help support the family. At 14, she applied for a position at a Kandahar media center opened by the International Security Assistance Force, the coalition overseeing the military mission in Afghanistan. The Taliban had crushed all traces of an independent press, leaving no structure for getting factual information to the people.
McNorton was responsible for setting up the media center. Hiring women was a priority, an example for integrating them into public life.
“Sarina was our first female employee,” he said. “She started working with reporters, setting up news conferences, handling queries and social media. It was very dangerous for her to do that. We had to take a lot of security precautions for her coming to and from work, providing her a driver and things like that.”
Faizy was willing to take the risk. The paycheck felt great and the work important. She was not dismissed as “just a woman,” she said; instead, her insights and opinions were sought. She rubbed elbows with all sorts of people and spread her wings, even volunteering with the National Democratic Institute, an international nonprofit that promotes openness and accountability in government.
“That time was really, really important for me,” she said. “All those experiences and ideas and points of view.”
Faizy was exactly what the center was looking for, not just to fill its jobs but to mentor and develop, McNorton said.
“We focused on getting young people in there and we dug deep to find them,” he said. “They’ve lived in a culture of war but they’re not part of the old regime. They’re not jaded. They’ve broken free from being connected to certain groups or tribes. They want peace and transparency.”
But after two years, Faizy resigned, concerned she was ruining her reputation.
“I was accused of working for foreigners, not for the people. They said it on live TV. I told them Americans are serving and dying for us — our people are serving and dying, too — I’m just trying to be a bridge. Americans have a great life. They don’t need anything from Sarina.”
By then, however, she had bigger plans.
'The female voice of Kandahar'
In Faizy’s photo albums, one picture tells the tale. There’s Faizy, all 5 feet 3 inches of her, cloaked in traditional Afghan clothing, surrounded by hundreds of men at a shura — a town hall-type gathering.
She was there because in 2014, she’d knocked on enough doors, talking about peace, education and rights, that she won a seat on Kandahar’s 19-member provincial council.
A handful of women had won other spots, but they’d been largely snubbed by male members. And none had been elected at just 16.
“The men told me my mouth smells like milk still,” Faizy said with a grin.
It also wasn’t unusual for them to tell her to shut up.
“I was a little girl fighting with all these men,” she said. “When I look at these pictures, I can’t believe I was doing that.”
Patience, persistence, a thick skin — she’d wait until the men talked themselves out before respectfully insisting on her turn. She spoke politely, calmly, logically, with her hands clasped properly in her lap. No nail polish or mascara nor any distracting hint of “cute.”
“I needed to be taken seriously. No wrong kind of attention.”
When her male counterparts became blustery or indignant, “I will not lower my eyes and my head. That can be dangerous, yes, but I will look back in their eyes.”
Gradually, some men began listening to her.
When McNorton encountered her again during his 2016 tour, “Sarina had become the female voice of Kandahar. A real influencer for peace.”
She took her first trip to America that same year, part of a State Department-sponsored exchange that hopscotched across several cities. She knows that the U.S. has plenty of its own problems, but she sensed an air of “possibility” in this country.
“And when I woke up in the mornings and knew I just go out and walk down the street and get something to eat — I didn’t have to wait for a man to walk with me, or a bulletproof car to take me or someone to bring food to me — I felt so independent!”
It’s hard to recall exactly when the death threats started at home, or who was behind which ones. They arrived by letter or email or in menacing voices on the phone.
“ ‘You are a little girl and we can do things to you,’ ” she recited their basic message. “ ‘If you’re not scared, then we will hurt your family. You will be responsible, not us. This is the last warning.’ ”
She was targeted for a range of perceived offenses, from her provincial council role to the fact that she dared travel to the U.S. or show her bare face in the media — a disgrace.
Turning up the heat were enraged husbands and fathers of individual women Faizy was helping, using her law studies at a college in Kandahar: abused women, bartered women, women trying to escape with their children or their lives.
“On the wedding night, in some rural areas still, they put a gun under the pillow,” Faizy said. “If she is not a virgin, her husband can kill her or send her home to her family so they can kill her.”
Faizy befriended an unlikely protector: Kandahar police chief Abdul Raziq.
Raziq, a general in the Afghan army, was a ruthless warlord suspected of numerous human rights abuses and of lining his pockets with kickbacks. But he was powerful and despised the Taliban, who’d killed his father and uncle.
“People are complicated — not totally positive or negative,” she said. “I can only say he was an ally to me and other active females. He supported us and told us to come to him if we needed anything. People were scared of him.”
Patrick Stevens, a retired Army colonel who’s now an instructor at Joint Special Operations University in Tampa, Fla., met Faizy at a peace shura that helped pave the road for today’s talks in Qatar.
After six years of working in Afghanistan, Stevens was struck by what he saw.
“When she had her chance to talk, she was respected by the men,” he said. “This girl is not intimidated by anything. She’s a fireball.”
In 2018, when Faizy was 19 and on her way to a village meeting, her car rolled over an IED.
“I’m not sure it was meant for me, but they knew I was coming. I heard a big sound in my ears, then just buzzing. It was so light and then so black. My soldier was injured and I woke up in the hospital.”
She never found out who was behind the bomb. Those questions find few answers in Afghanistan. Sleep was harder to come by after that. She became sensitive to light. The buzzing persisted in her ears.
Eager for a break, Faizy was accepted into a two-part program for female leaders at the George W. Bush Institute. That October, she boarded a plane for Dallas for the first, monthlong segment. She immersed herself in the fellowship and developed a taste for country music.
“I’m serious,” she said. “The whole cowboy culture, the boots, the way they talk. I just love it.”
Raziq was assassinated while she was gone, killed by an insider attack at a meeting full of officials, including some high-ranking members of the American military. A Taliban infiltrator posing as security opened fire on Raziq, then sprayed the group with bullets, wounding Kandahar’s governor and an American general.
“After he was killed, I wondered, ‘Should I go back?’ But I believed maybe his brother or someone else would protect me.”
Shortly after her return, though, someone broke into her family’s house and stole only Faizy’s laptop. Everything felt like it was going backward, edgy and depressing.
When the second segment of the Bush program rolled around in March of last year, Faizy was ready to go.
Not making plans
The WE Lead program nurtures promising female leaders from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan.
Typical participants are midcareer, between the ages of 25 and 45.
But “given all her work, Sarina had quite a bit of experience despite her relatively young age,” said Farhat Popal, a senior manager at the Bush Institute. “We look at the potential of individuals to facilitate sustainable change.”
When the program was over, Faizy hit pause. She was exhausted, torn, trying to decide her next step.
“I needed time for myself, to think about what Sarina wants,” she said. “Some calm; since the IED, I still need pills to sleep.”
She headed for the East Coast, where she knew some folks. Eventually, she decided to pursue her master’s degree in international law, enrolling at the College of William & Mary under a partial scholarship. She’s surviving on her savings, hoping to patch together tuition money as she goes.
Faizy has lost her seat on Kandahar’s provincial council.
“Men on the council leave the country for long periods and no one cares,” she said. “But because I am a woman, with no support, I was forced to resign.”
Patricia Gossman, an Afghanistan expert with Human Rights Watch, said the few gains women have won easily could become casualties of the peace talks because the No. 1 goal is stopping the bloodshed.
“The patriarchal system is well-entrenched in Afghanistan,” Gossman said. “It’s not something the Taliban invented.”
In negotiations, the Taliban is offering to let women engage in public life as long as they don’t try to become chief judges or heads of state, “but people say all sorts of things when they’re bargaining,” Gossman said.
Faizy expected to return after spring graduation. She dreams of opening a women’s center, of returning to her fold of family and friends. She pines for the familiar: the clamor of Kabul’s bruising traffic and the haunting call to prayer of Kandahar’s mosques, the aroma of kebabs sizzling on the fires of street vendors or the simple taste of homemade naan.
“But I don’t plan right now. So much depends on the talks. I might be freer to help from here.”
With nearly 10,000 followers on Facebook, she’s trying to maintain her own voice. During the pandemic, she’s been posting reminders about hand washing and social distancing, but “my people have so many big problems it’s hard for them to even think about such things.”
Her future is as complicated as her country. She’d like to get married someday but worries that a husband from her own culture won’t allow her to work and a husband from another won’t understand the depth of her calling.
McNorton, the colonel at Fort Eustis, said he believes Faizy will be an important leader in her country some day, inspiring others. And even with U.S. troops leaving, America will remain committed to supporting the seeds planted in people like her.
But if the Taliban comes calling in the night, it’s chilling to know that backup will be 7,000 miles away.
So Faizy waits, itching to help but helpless, trying to fit in here but not too much, longing to go home but at what price?