‘Driven by hope.’ An Afghan refugee fights to save her sisters.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Halima Bahman co-founded the Hazara Women's Organization in Canada last year. Since the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the Canada-based group has quickly pivoted to fundraise for Hazara families in safe houses and help them with translations and documents they may need to resettle in Canada.

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Halima Bahman was just 11 years old, living in northern Afghanistan, when she survived a massacre of her fellow Hazaras, a minority ethnic group, at the hands of the Taliban, in 1998.

Later she fled with her family to Canada. Now she is devoting herself to helping Hazaras in Afghanistan who are once again under threat from the Taliban, trying to find them safe houses, and smuggling them out of the country.

Why We Wrote This

Members of Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic minority are at special risk of oppression. A Hazara refugee in Canada is making sure they are not forgotten.

She says she swings “from being very hopeful that I can do something … to feeling helpless.” But she has at least been in touch with the Canadian immigration minister, and helped persuade him to put the Hazaras – Shiite Muslims in an overwhelmingly Sunni country – on a priority list for evacuation.

“I’ve lived everything close to death that the people are experiencing right now,” Ms. Bahman says. “So I’m just driven by hope, hope that we can save someone’s life.”

As a young girl, Halima Bahman was forbidden to peer round the thick blankets her mother had placed over their windows, but she often took a quick peek anyway.

It was 1998. The Taliban had taken over her town in northern Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif, staging a massacre of her fellow Hazaras, an ethnic minority. 

One day, from a second floor window, she was watching her neighbors flee in their cars over the hills when one vehicle was struck by a rocket. Inside was her childhood friend, Hafiza.

Why We Wrote This

Members of Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic minority are at special risk of oppression. A Hazara refugee in Canada is making sure they are not forgotten.

Shaken as she was at just 11 years old, living through a killing spree that took thousands of lives, Ms. Bahman forgot Hafiza. For over 20 years, as she fled to Uzbekistan, then moved to Austria and eventually to Canada, she never thought of her friend’s face or demeanor, so pale, so quiet and calm.

She didn’t even recall her name – until this August, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan and the trauma and loss she had felt as a young girl swept over her in a rush of grief.

Today, that pain is fueling her determination to identify and protect vulnerable Hazara women and children who face an increasingly desperate situation under Taliban rule.

It has been heartbreaking and exhausting work, she acknowledges. “I go through different emotions,” she says, sitting on the back deck of her home in the comfortable neighborhood of Vaughan, north of Toronto. “From being very hopeful that I can do something now that I’m an adult and I’m here, not like the last time when I was a kid, I was just helpless.

“But then feeling really angry about why this happened … to feeling helpless again, like there is so much need and I cannot do much.”

Moving heaven and earth

Ms. Bahman has been an activist on behalf of her minority since arriving in Canada nearly 15 years ago. The predominantly Shiite Muslim Hazaras, who some say are descended from Genghis Khan’s army, often have Asian features and have suffered persecution in Afghanistan for over a century.

The “Hazara” label was almost used as a swear word, she says. “You’re ugly, you’re Hazara; you’re backwards, you’re Hazara,” she heard as she grew up.

The Sunni Muslim Taliban was particularly brutal when it ruled in the 1990s, and international human rights groups have issued dire warnings about the Hazaras’ safety now, threatened by both the government and a rival Islamic State affiliate group.  

Before the fall of Kabul, Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced a program to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Afghans. Priority groups included those who had helped the Canadian army and religious minorities such as Sikhs and Hindus.

But not Hazaras. Ms. Bahman decided to do something about that.

As images of desperate Afghans pushing their way onto evacuation planes in Kabul shocked viewers around the world in August, she joined a group of refugee advocates and successfully pressed for a meeting with Mr. Mendicino. He was persuaded that Hazaras should be listed, and promised that Canada would “move heaven and earth to help.”

But as the details of how the program will work are developed, Ms. Bahman is keeping up the pressure, which is key to the Hazaras’ protection, says Stephen Watt, a leader of the refugee cause in Canada.

“It’s hard to make the case that these are people in need of help if you don’t know about them or their unique history of persecution,” he says. “Halima is both extremely articulate about the situation as an advocate and is somebody who personally experienced one of the worst massacres of Hazara history.” 

Driven by hope

Ms. Bahman says her advocacy work grew from her direct exposure to terror in Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban had threatened to kill every male Hazara between ages 7 and 70, and rounded up thousands of them. She once visited a holding center, she recalls, and still thinks about what may have happened to them.

In Canada, she began working with women specifically because of the discrimination they have long faced, and co-founded the Hazara Women’s Organization last year. “Being underprivileged or being oppressed is not something you should be ashamed of. It’s something you have to address and change,” she says. “There is so much beauty in being Hazara.”

She says that when she first arrived in Canada she often found herself the only woman at the table. But that has started to change, with a new generation of Hazara refugees in Canada who are today responding to the crisis. Tahira Razai is one of them.

“Women have always been oppressed. They have always been pushed down and told ‘you can’t do it; you can’t lead the community,’” she says. “Once given the opportunity, [women] will show they can do it.” She met Ms. Bahman at a demonstration in Toronto to bring attention to the plight of the Hazaras, and the two women continue to work together. 

Their priority now is to find safe houses for the Hazara families in Afghanistan with whom they are in touch, and to try to arrange their clandestine escape from the country. They have not yet succeeded in this, but the need is urgent: The women’s WhatsApp channels are full of grim news about the disappearance and death of their fellow Hazaras, including some of Ms. Bahman’s own family.

“I’m here in my warm home with food. Nothing is my concern. Safety, nothing,” says Ms. Bahman. “I have lived everything close to death that the people are experiencing right now. So I’m just driven by hope, hope that we can save someone’s life.”

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