The Afghan environmentalists who fled the Taliban and now live happily in Mexico


They traveled 14,000 kilometers to save themselves from jail and death. With the help of American and Mexican colleagues, they now live in a couple of apartments in the Historic Center. This is the story of how they did it.

While fleeing from the Taliban, Nasrat repeated a phrase: “I have to stay alive, I have to stay alive.” “In Afghanistan we lived in fear,” says Nasrat, recalling that August 2021 when the Taliban regime entered the capital Kabul. “I couldn’t stay in my house or stay in one place for many days because there was a direct threat against me. When the Taliban came to power, everyone in my community knew that I worked for an American organization so it was very possible that they would come to my house and arrest me.”

Nasrat looks out the window from his apartment in Mexico City.
Nasrat looks out the window from his apartment in Mexico City.NAYELI CRUZ

Nasrat is not a politician but an environmentalist who graduated from Kabul University with a master’s degree from India. He had not committed any crime but was a target for the fundamentalist regime for the simple fact of working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an NGO based in New York and belonging to an ethnic minority called the Hazara, which has historically been attacked by the taliban “I was the main target in my family and that is why I went from house to house, with friends or relatives. I never stayed in my home for a long time or I did it very rarely, sometimes I went at night and very late. I would just go home, visit my family, and then go to other places.”

For Nasrat, persecuted and afraid, there was no other option but to leave Afghanistan. “I had to flee Kabul. It was something terrifying but I could not allow or accept the risk of staying because my family depends on me… so I had to stay alive”, says Nasrat while looking towards the window of an apartment located on the fourth floor of a building in the Historic Center of Mexico City.

The Mexican city is the place where Nasrat takes refuge today. Here he lives together with his wife, his three children and the families of 5 other environmentalists who just a year ago traveled through the Wakhan mountains to rescue the snow leopard, a magnificent cat of which only around 140 specimens remain.

As if it were a commune, these families share four apartments in this building from whose windows you can see the typical electrical spare parts shops. Together they manage to cook Afghan food (blueberry rice is essential) and learn Spanish through a peculiar language triangulation: they have a teacher with whom they go from Afghan to English and from there to Spanish.

Nasrat has breakfast with his wife Zohal Jahed and their children Ahmad Sajed Jahed, Ahmad Fayeq Jahed and Ahmad Fayez Jahed in their apartment in Mexico City.
Nasrat has breakfast with his wife Zohal Jahed and their children Ahmad Sajed Jahed, Ahmad Fayeq Jahed and Ahmad Fayez Jahed in their apartment in Mexico City.NAYELI CRUZ

After one of those classes and to thank those who made it possible for them to leave Afghanistan, they narrate how they went from being rescuers to rescued, from protectors of endangered animals in the snow-capped mountains of Central Asia to protected ones who take refuge in the crowded and chaotic center of Mexico City.

Run or die

María is 24 years old and the baby she is currently expecting (and who will most likely be born in Mexico) is the only certainty she has about her future. While she lived in Afghanistan, she had a defined project: graduate, travel, study a master’s degree in India and return to her country to practice her profession, but the entry of the Taliban regime caused a radical change in those projects.

Afghan women in their new building in Mexico City.
Afghan women in their new building in Mexico City.NAYELI CRUZ

“The big risk for me is that I belong to a minority group, the Hazara, and the Taliban eliminate minority groups from government and politics. And the other big risk is that I am a woman and they do not allow women to go out to go to school, university or even have a job.

Maria is married to Hashim Rooyesh, an environmentalist specializing in climate change who was collaborating, like Nasrat, with the WCS in Afghanistan. Hashim was doing a study on pasture and animal protection in the Bamiyan Plateau when the Taliban entered Kabul, the city where he lived with his wife.

It was a difficult moment because memories of the several times that his ethnic minority has been victimized by fundamentalists flashed through his mind. “For a long time the Hazara have been destroyed and attacked by the terrorists, if I mention all the attacks we suffered you would probably be shocked . One of the largest was in an educational center where a course was given to young people under the age of 20 who were studying for the modernization of the country. They were attacked on September 30; 35 died and more than 100 were injured.” The terror of living in that terrorist regime prompted the couple to take the same path as Nasrat: flee Afghanistan.

That same decision was also made by Ali during a morning in which he received a call from his family while doing field work in the mountains, as a bird and cat conservationist. “I got a call from my family asking ‘where are you Ali? You have to come home because the Taliban have entered the city.’ During that time, terrible and stressful situations happened.” Ali, like Nasrat and Hashim, is a WCS contract environmentalist. His work as a bird rescuer made him a Taliban target for working with foreigners and belonging to the Hazara.

Flags of Afghanistan and the United States made by refugee children in Mexico City.
Flags of Afghanistan and the United States made by refugee children in Mexico City.NAYELI CRUZ

From that call, Ali and his family moved to Ghazni (a city south of Kabul) to evade the Taliban, but they soon realized that escaping was impossible. “Most of the time I stayed inside the house because if the Taliban find you on the street, they check your phone and find out the foreign people you work with and then they kidnap you and put you in jail,” says Ali, who today He occupies one of the apartments in the Historic Center with his wife and their five children.

the painful list

August 2021. US troops evacuate Afghanistan , clearing the field for the return of the Taliban. In the collective memory remains the image of Afghan men and women clinging to the fuselage of the last military planes in which US troops left the country. Ali is blunt in remembering him. “Most people rushed to the airport; children, women, men, government officials, people running to the airport to try to escape.”

The young Afghan Shahla Rajabi in her building in Mexico City.
The young Afghan Shahla Rajabi in her building in Mexico City.NAYELI CRUZ

These environmentalists who live in Mexico today were caught in the middle of that reality. “We communicated with several conservationists to try to get out but there were no flights, the airports were closed,” Ali summarizes. His story changed thanks to a chain of humanitarian aid, from fellow environmentalists to lawyers, who mapped out his escape route in a plan that began in September 2021. The final destination was originally the United States, but humanitarian visas in that country are a process. long.

The first link in that chain of aid was Tatjana Rosen, a colleague working in the Caucasus who, along with Alex Dehgan, had collaborated with Afghan environmentalists. “When we saw that the situation was deteriorating, we decided to join forces to help them,” says Tatjana Rosen. The first thing was to make a list. It was also the most painful because only wives and children fit into the plan of salvation.

Tatjana and Alex began to contact more environmentalists but also lawyers to help them. When all the families had their passports they realized that the next phase of the plan was even more dangerous. “Afghanistan’s borders were closed by land and the airports were closed. The only option was to reach Pakistan or Iran and then travel to another territory. But we needed to know how to get around in Afghanistan with the passports. Traveling by day meant exposing yourself to a greater risk of being arrested.”

Thus December arrived, still without an escape plan but convinced that the only possible life was far from Kabul. There were still more links in the humanitarian chain missing, keys in the plan of how and where to flee.

First the explosion, then the nightmare

Hizbullah Adib speaks softly. His voice is lost in the corridor between the apartments they share in Mexico, which have an air of Mexican cinema from the nineties. But Adib was not always taciturn and withdrawn: Before the Taliban entered Kabul, he was an enthusiastic young tour guide in the Badakhshan mountains, a province much visited by foreigners re-creating the Silk Road.

The young Hizbullah Adib.
The young Hizbullah Adib.NAYELI CRUZ

At what point did his character change? When a bomb exploded near his head and prevented him from jumping the wall of the US embassy in Kabul, in August 2021. “Many Americans came on vacation and were my clients, so I was on the exit lists of many embassies. I tried to get into the US one but there was a huge crowd. We were there for four days until a huge explosion happened. I lost some friends there, the American soldiers wouldn’t let us in, and we ended up in the middle of the war. It was horrible”.

Since then, nightmares have constantly awakened him: he remembers his friends who, like him, were left in the middle of the fire. It was August 18. “The explosion hit my head. I couldn’t hear and I lost my sense of smell for a week.” What followed was trying to escape through the airport but it was just as useless. Adib looked doomed.

Until he received a message from Tatjana, who had managed to register him on the list of Afghans who would leave as part of an agreement with the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Through a body of lawyers, the second link in the humanitarian chain, plane tickets were obtained for the environmentalists and their families to fly to Iran and Turkey.

“I looked at my children and saw that they were happy”

One day in September 2021, Wali’s three daughters came home from school crying. They had not been allowed in because they were women. “I knew the Taliban and their ideology against women’s education. I tried to mentally prepare my daughters but at that moment, seeing them cry, I thought: ‘How are they going to survive without education?’, it was a shock”.

A death threat also hung over Wali because he was an official during the 20 years of anti-Taliban governments. He was never a politician, but rather an environmentalist who became Vice Minister of the Environment, but in the eyes of extremists, he was a collaborator of foreigners. “Those two issues, particularly the future of my daughters…it was a kind of pressure on me to think about what would happen to them.”

Wali lived the same situation as the rest of his colleagues: seeking help, not being able to process passports, thinking about crossing overland to Pakistan… all of this was impossible. Here appears a new link of humanitarian aid that made it possible for these environmentalists to travel 13,000 kilometers to land in Mexico City. Rodrigo Medellín, the Mexican bat biologist, got the international affairs and human rights office of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue safe conduct for all of them.

Afghan families in Mexico City.
Afghan families in Mexico City.NAYELI CRUZ

“It was Undersecretary Martha Delgado who helped me give them consular support as soon as they arrived in Tehran, Iran. Mexico does not have a consulate in Iran, but she has many contacts with other embassies and they received them there, and they gave them support. They were able to get them into the Tehran airport, which is also difficult, and then the Mexican consul in Istanbul received them at the airport and transferred them from one plane to another,” Medellín explains.

At every scale, there was always the fear that they would be arrested. The first group finally arrived in Mexico on February 23. Delgado and Medellín received them at the door of the plane and they were treated according to protocol. A second group arrived in March. In that contingent Wali arrived with his wife and his eight children. “We are a large family,” he says with humor.

“When I arrived in Mexico, tears almost came to my eyes. I remember very well that the sky looked blue with some clouds, there was a pleasant wind and at that moment I saw that my children were looking at the people working, men and women, with no difference between them. I looked at my children and saw that they were happy.”

The Afghans keep their eyes on the future and hope that the same thing that kept them safe in Afghanistan will allow them to have a happy ending on their journey through Mexico. And that is understood when you hear a phrase that Wali recites a couple of times. “I am a Muslim, I come from a Muslim people and Muslims always believe; all the time we have faith; so I’m sure something good will happen.”

And he repeats it: “I am a Muslim and I have faith.” Nasra, by the way, is today proof of that faith: along with his family, he is the first to have obtained a humanitarian visa in the United States.