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Afghan student succeeds in leaving her country after 6 failed attempts, plans to return to Singapore for studies

SINGAPORE — An Afghan student waiting to return to Singapore has finally succeeded in leaving Afghanistan on her seventh attempt.

The Taliban maintaining order after a distribution of food in a park in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept 24, 2021.

The Taliban maintaining order after a distribution of food in a park in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept 24, 2021.

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  • She had made five unsuccessful trips to the airport and also tried to leave by land
  • After more than a month, she finally left via the Afghanistan-Pakistan border
  • The feeling was bittersweet, she said, as she had left her home, friends, behind
  • Life under the Taliban was worsening, with women’s rights continually trampled
  • Advocacy for Afghanistan will continue wherever she goes, she said


SINGAPORE — An Afghan student waiting to return to Singapore has finally succeeded in leaving Afghanistan on her seventh attempt.

Soraya’s attempts to leave — the first five times via the airport and then later twice by land — had been more than a month in the making, since the Taliban took over the capital, Kabul, on Aug 15.

The 20-year-old had been studying in Singapore since 2018 at a local university, but then was in Kabul when the takeover happened. She is under a pseudonym for safety reasons.

Soraya, her mother and her brother had only made it into Islamabad, Pakistan on Sept 19, after crossing over the land border long after the conclusion of US evacuation missions in Afghanistan on Aug 31.

Despite the successful evacuation, Soraya told TODAY over a virtual interview from Islamabad earlier this week that she had mixed feelings about leaving her country.

“I'm very happy that my mum and brother are safe, but I feel that I probably shouldn't have left the country,” she said. “I have friends who are still stuck there and the Taliban are still in power.”


When Soraya last spoke to TODAY on Aug 25, she said that her family already had small bags prepared to leave for the airport anytime. Her family had linked up with several international humanitarian organisations, who had arranged transport to get them out.

That same afternoon, just half an hour after the conversation with TODAY, her family got the call to leave. They sat in a bus of about 60 other evacuees headed to the airport, and when they arrived, there was an excruciating wait.

While waiting, some Taliban members boarded.

“There were a few Taliban who came inside the bus to check... so everyone just started covering their faces, including myself, because I heard that was safer,” she said.

There was also the news of the suicide bombings that were happening at the airport, for which terror group Islamic State (Isis) later claimed responsibility.

“We were close to the airport and then I heard that there were Isis people trying to commit suicide, and this came from reliable sources,” she said. “We were very worried.”

On her first attempt, she spent more than 12 hours waiting outside the airport in the hot sun, but was unable to get into the airport and board a flight to safety.

“The Taliban didn't let our bus go in, they were giving us many different reasons, so I'm not sure why exactly,” she said.

Over the next five days before the Aug 31 deadline, Soraya and her family tried to enter the airport four more times on buses. Each time, they were met with similar obstacles, having to wait between 12 and 24 hours outside the airport, before having to return home.

“I’ve had friends who were on the bus for 48 to 72 hours before they finally made it into the airport,” she said.

As the days went by, the Aug 31 deadline elapsed and Soraya and her family were still stuck in Afghanistan.

“So many people were just left behind, but we didn’t give up,” she said. “Nobody really knew if there was any hope because all the borders were closed.

“We got a little bit of hope again when we were told that we were going to be taken to Pakistan by land.”


The first attempt to leave Afghanistan by land happened earlier in September. The family left in the wee hours of the morning to take the five-and-a-half-hour drive by car from Kabul to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“It was horrible, there were Taliban there and they were beating people up,” she said. “There was screaming, it was hot, it was really dusty and dirty.”

Her family waited at a holding area at the border, and that was where one Taliban member used a belt to hit some of the evacuees, including her brother.

“The Taliban guy was trying to get them in order, but people were already behaving orderly so it didn’t make any sense,” she said. “That's what the Taliban were doing, it was very normal.”

Her family waited unsuccessfully for about 11 hours at the border before they left for home.

Undeterred, the family tried again on Sept 19. They left Kabul at 2am in the morning, and arrived at the border at about 7am. This time, they were allowed into Pakistan.

“This time, I didn’t see any violent Taliban,” she said. “There were a few of them who just looked at our documents and then let us cross without really asking me anything.”

After a three-hour wait at the border as their documents were processed by Pakistani officials, they were finally out of Afghanistan.

“We went to the other side and we had a bus waiting for us,” she said. “We did a Covid test and now we're staying in a hotel.”


In her last few weeks in Afghanistan, the situation changed for the worse. Soraya and her mother were not allowed to return to work the entire time.

Her mother, who had a senior position in her office, had effectively lost her job.

“(The Taliban) just told her, ‘you stay at home until we let you know when you’re going to come back’. Later on we heard that women who were working in similar positions either had to resign or they would be fired.”

Soraya was also not allowed to go back to work at a media company.

This has been a similar tale for other Afghan women.

Soraya recalled her encounter with a Taliban member when she returned to her office to collect her belongings.

“I had a mask, I had my glasses on and I was wearing a scarf but one of them actually shouted at me to cover my face,” she said. “How else should I cover my face?”

She added that the Taliban had also started to impose more of their own laws on Afghans, such as not allowing girls to return to school. The Ministry of Women's Affairs was also “completely dissolved”.

“The last month I have just been observing things fall apart, which is quite devastating,” she said.


Now that she is out of Afghanistan, Soraya and her family are applying for humanitarian visas.

“We have a few different options like Germany, Austria and the US, and maybe also Australia,” she said. “We're hoping to leave soon.”

She plans to eventually return to Singapore to continue her studies.

She was supposed to graduate next year, but several factors, including the situation in Afghanistan, means that she will now graduate in 2023.

As a physical sciences student, she plans to find work in a science lab. Alternatively, she also has an interest in working in the media industry.

Soraya said that leaving her country under such circumstances has given her the motivation to continue speaking up for it.

Even before the Taliban takeover, she had been active on social media talking about issues that Afghans — especially the women there — face. When she was still in Afghanistan, she had to operate under a pseudonym on these platforms, so that her family would be safe.

She has also been helping Afghan youths who want to go abroad for college with their school applications.

“Those are the activities that I will continue to do for the country and I will be trying to help as many people as possible… in any way I can.

“I think I will be advocating for Afghanistan, working for my country, my entire life.”

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Afghanistan Kabul Taliban student women Covid-19

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