Afghan evacuees enjoy Albania but have eyes set on Canada
GOLEM, Albania — One Afghan teacher calls Albania a "paradise" while a former Afghan government official cannot get enough of "the freedom" that exists in the tiny Western Balkan country where they were evacuated to after the Taliban took over their homeland.
Others are more pensive. An Afghan woman who mentored orphan girls deplores the end of her project and the fate of her former students and women under their new Taliban rulers, while a businessman misses his company back home.
All of them are in limbo, waiting for a visa to the United States at the Kolaveri tourist resort on Golem Beach, 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the Albanian capital, Tirana. And all share a common dream: to go from the U.S. to Canada, where they hope to build a better future.
The resort shelters 571 Afghan evacuees plucked from their "fearsome and chaotic" country, as Fareidoon Hakimi, who has become the community's leader, described Afghanistan.
A group of 125 Afghans, including judges, cyclists, journalists, TV presenters, human rights activists, family members of Afghan diplomats, artists, law enforcement officers and scientists landed in Albania on Oct. 13, assisted by IsrAID, an Israeli aid organization.
Albania has sheltered up to 2,000 Afghan evacuees, all housed in hotels and resorts. They are supposed to stay there for a year or so until U.S. authorities finish processing their special immigration visas.
"The Albania country in the world / Its soil is like paradise," was part of a poem that 61-year-old poet and teacher Sadiq Zarei wrote and recited to visiting Associated Press journalists. "They saved shama'il and all of us," it ends, referring to a collection of sacred tales about the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad compiled by a 9th-century scholar.
Hakimi said everyone at the resort could now pray in peace there or go to a nearby mosque, especially on Fridays. Albania's 2.8 million people are predominantly Muslim, living in harmony with Orthodox and Catholic communities.
Hakimi, a 36-year-old former public administration adviser at a province near Kabul, spoke for hours about the saga of how they fled Afghanistan.
"People never expected this to happen suddenly," he said of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Along with his wife, his 2- and 5-year-old sons and his mother, Hakimi reached Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, where they tried to cross into Tajikistan. There were about 125 people like him whom the Taliban tried to stop. After many days, they went to the Mazar-i-Sharif airport, flew to Tajikistan and had to wait for three days inside the terminal until Albania offered them visas and IsrAID chartered a plane.
At the resort, Hakimi and 17 other section leaders are working nonstop to supply food, entertainment, psychological support and other basic needs for the relocated community. He and others enjoy the freedom they have been given and praised the warmth of the Albanian staff.
"We would hardly pass this difficult moment without their open-hearted welcome," said Hakimi.
At the fenced and guarded beach resort, children play while elders stay at the coffee bar, walk around or stroll on the beach. A young Afghan woman studies on a laptop. Many get together in groups to spend the day in Tirana or the nearby city of Durres.
When Mohammad Javed Khan, who worked as a clerk at the Afghan parliament, was asked what they found in Albania, his immediate answer was "Freedom."
"The freedom which every human needs; relaxation, sleep," he said. "We can sleep without fear."
Security and fears about family members were top concerns for Afghans seeking to flee. Khan, who arrived with his wife and 3-month-old daughter, said he has finally relaxed.
"No one will take our daughter," the 27-year-old said. "No one will carry out suicide bomb attacks. ... We ran away because there was no security."
Leqa Fahimi arrived with her husband, 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, who misses home and wants to return. In Afghanistan, she worked with an international non-governmental organization taking care of orphan girls.
"I taught them about kindness, about friendship, self-confidence, how to share their own story to the world," Fahimi said, adding in a desperate voice: "We had lot of activity for the girls. And now ... I don't know where they are."
The evacuees try to keep themselves busy, helping the resort staff and each other, organizing sports activities or entertainment for the children.
Hakimi is expecting the confirmation of a special application visa by the U.S. government.
"We have all the good things here that we had lost back at home," he said. "But I want to go to Canada, where my brother and sister are."
The same with Fahimi, the poet-teacher, and the clerk, Khan.
"We would love to go to Canada because Canada has the best immigration policies and part of my family lives in Canada," said Khan.