Keeping Our People Alive

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

As a child, Mohsin Jamal was terrified every time the sun set in his neighborhood in western Kabul. The Taliban would roam the streets at night, abducting young boys and interrogating them about where to find the weapons that belonged to the local militia. Whether or not the boys cooperated, the outcome was the same: their bodies would be dumped outside of their houses the next morning. Decades later, in August 2021, Jamal ran through Kabul’s streets searching for his own children as the Taliban invaded the city. He moved past throngs of anxious, crying, and confused people, desperately hoping that his kids were still alive.

Jamal was born in Kabul in 1986, when the city was engulfed in the Soviet-Afghan War. His family was Hazara, an ethnic minority indigenous to Afghanistan that speaks Hazaragi, a dialect of Persian, and largely adheres to Shia Islam. Due to their Eurasian facial features and Shia identity, Hazaras have endured racism, religious persecution, and genocide in Afghanistan for centuries.

“The persecution of Hazaras has been going on for over 300 years,” Jamal says. “In the late 1800s, we had a king named Abdur Rahman Khan. During his reign, it is said that sixty-two percent of Hazara community members were killed or sold as slaves to foreign countries. Girls were also forcibly married to members of other groups. This persecution has increased since the late 1800s and continues today.”

Growing up, Jamal and his family members were discriminated against and shot at; several of his relatives were killed. Because of their facial features, he and other Hazaras were called “the grandchildren of Genghis Khan” and taunted to “go back to Mongolia.” They were also restricted from many jobs and jeered as “porters,” the implication being that Hazaras were only fit for menial or servile tasks like carrying someone else’s luggage.

On top of this discrimination, Jamal had to contend with surviving the many wars that plagued his country. In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan after a decade of conflict, and its enemies, Islamist militant groups known as the Mujahideen, began fighting the Soviet-backed Afghan government. In 1991, the Mujahideen overthrew the government and splintered into rival factions. These militant groups started fighting amongst themselves, and civilians were quickly caught in the middle.

“One morning, my mother, siblings, and I were eating breakfast at home. The bread and milk were on the tablecloth when suddenly everything went dark,” Jamal says. “I didn’t see anything. It was so dusty. I could only hear the voices of people crying. After a while, when the dust was gone, I saw that our house had no windows anymore. I looked outside and our front gate was gone. Three rockets had landed in our yard, but fortunately, nobody was hurt.”

In 1995, the Taliban, a jihadist movement that grew out of the Mujahideen and harbored vicious hatred toward Hazaras, conquered Kabul. The following year, the militant group took over the country. The Taliban were brutal toward Jamal’s people, relentlessly abducting and murdering Hazara boys.

“I was ten, and I could not sleep at night because I had to hide on my roof from the Taliban,” Jamal remembers. “If you were inside and the Taliban came in, they would take you away. I heard screams from every street around us.”

Jamal’s mother told her children to leave Afghanistan by any means necessary, and in 1996, Jamal and his brother fled to Pakistan. They found work in a carpet-weaving factory in the city of Peshawar, and a year later, they moved to the city of Quetta, which had a large Hazara population.

“Living in Pakistan was the first time I [didn’t hear] anything discriminatory said against me,” Jamal says. “In my neighborhood, everyone spoke Hazaragi. We were all Hazaras, and we felt at home there.”

After years of working, studying, and learning English in Pakistan, Jamal returned to Kabul in 2005. He came back to a changed country: the United States had ousted the Taliban regime in 2001, establishing a new Afghan government in its place. This new government granted civil rights and legal protections to Hazaras, allowing them to advance through Afghan society for the first time.

“We had a lot of rights. Many non-Hazaras came to see that, ‘Oh, these people are also living in Afghanistan,’” Jamal describes. “‘They have been persecuted for centuries and nobody knows much about them.’ We were finally allowed to go to school and university.”

Taking advantage of his newfound freedom, Jamal enrolled at Kateb University in 2008, studying International Relations. Wanting a job that was related to what he was studying, he applied for a position as an English-language news reporter in 2010, while he was still a university student. After a successful screen test, he got the job.

Working in the newsroom was very difficult. Day after day, Jamal and his fellow journalists saw graphic footage of explosions, women crying, and dead bodies. This violence was also right next door: in 2011, the Taliban bombed the British Council office in Kabul, which was across the street from where Jamal worked. He was at home and rushed to the scene, covering the terror attack in real time.

“I had to go past many security checkpoints outside of the building. I had to walk two kilometers just to get to the area,” Jamal says. “I reached my news office across the street from the British Council, and once I got there, there was an explosion every other second. Every explosion would shake the building.”

Jamal quit his job as a news reporter and graduated from university in 2014. That same year, large numbers of U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan, giving the Afghan government the responsibility of maintaining security. As American soldiers left, Hazaras were attacked and persecuted in greater numbers. Their protections, which were enforced by the United States’ presence, were diminishing.

Over the next seven years, Jamal’s life changed drastically. He married a woman named Khatima, started a family, and earned a master’s degree in Security and Politics. By 2021, Jamal was working for a company that did contract work for the U.S. Department of Defense. Since he had worked in that position for over two years, he was eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which was issued to Afghan citizens who helped the U.S. government and military. Jamal successfully applied for an SIV in the summer of 2021, hoping to travel with his family to the United States.

However, Jamal, his family, and the rest of the Hazara community were in grave danger. The Taliban launched an offensive in May 2021 that reconquered large swathes of Afghanistan, and on August 15, 2021, they invaded Kabul. People were panicking in the streets, and Jamal rushed around the city, looking for his children.

“The Taliban were entering Kabul from the western gate. I was worried about my two kids, who were in first grade and kindergarten. After searching for them, I went home, where I found that my wife had already brought my sons back from school.”

Jamal and his family gathered their passports and a few belongings, desperate to escape Afghanistan and the resurgent Taliban regime. After over a month of failed attempts to leave the country, they finally flew out on October 1, 2021.

“We were shaking until our flight left Afghanistan,” Jamal remembers. “We were nervous that the plane would turn around to take us back, but it did not.”

Jamal and his family flew to the United Arab Emirates, where they stayed in a refugee camp with thousands of other people. Months later, they were approved to immigrate to the United States, arriving there in April 2022 and eventually moving to Oregon. Jamal now works as a case manager for Salem For Refugees, helping refugees like himself get acclimated to American life.

Jamal has so much to tell his young children about his difficult experiences in Afghanistan. Yet, he knows that they won’t be able to fully understand until they’re older. For now, he is raising them to be proud Hazaras and Americans. He wants his children to keep their people’s language, history, and legacy alive while also positively contributing to their new home.

“We are very close with other Hazara families in Salem, Oregon, and the rule in our home is that everyone speaks Hazaragi,” Jamal says. “I hope that my kids will study at the best universities in the United States without any of the discrimination and violence that I faced in Afghanistan. I hope they will become their own men in the future, work very hard, and help our new country.”