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Greece Becomes Safe Haven for Dissident Afghan Women

Hellenic President welcomes Afghan dissidents
The President of the Hellenic Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, welcomed female Afghan dissidents to Greece. Credit: Greek Presidency

Athens has become a temporary haven for Afghan women who served a now deposed democracy. Following the Taliban takeover in August, remaining safe in Afghanistan was no longer an option.

Female Afghan judges and former members of parliament, together with their families, totaling 700 people in all, have arrived in the country since September and are now living in safety in Greece.

Afghanistan’s female judges, lawmakers, journalists, activists and lawyers were no longer welcome after the Taliban takeover in August. They arrived in Greece in a quiet, complex — and dangerous — operation as legal refugees following the fall of Kabul. Some of them came to Greece as recently as Monday, on a special rescue flight.

In October a small group of female Afghan dissidents met with both Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the President of the Hellenic Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai hailed Monday’s rescue flight as a success. The plane, carrying dozens of Afghan women, including activists who worked alongside her plus an ex-Government minister and top anti-Taliban lawyer, landed in Greece on Monday.

Yousafzai stated that the flight that helped Afghans escape the Talbian brought hope and safety. “Today’s arrival provides hope and safety for so many incredible, vulnerable Afghans, including women’s rights advocates, journalists and Malala Fund partners,” Yousafzai stated. “I’m grateful to Prime Minister Mitsotakis and the Government of Greece for their support.”

More than 100 Afghans believed to have been in danger of the Taliban were granted temporary shelter Monday after being evacuated on the special flight to the northern city of Thessaloniki.

Greek officials said that Afghanistan’s former minister of borders and tribal affairs, Mohibullah Samim, was among the 119 passengers on board.  Other passengers included a lawyer who had prosecuted suspected Taliban fighters, women’s rights activists and a female judge.

The passengers will stay in Greece until they are able to travel on to other countries, including the United States and Canada.

For the majority of refugees, however, the Greek pathway to Europe has been sealed shut. Greece is surrounded by fences and surveillance equipment, monitored by an army of officers patrolling the land and sea. The few refugees who arrive on Greek shores are likely to find themselves in camps that are similar to prisons as they are rimmed with barbed wire and police guards.

Greece Benevolent to Female Afghan Refugees

Greece’s benevolence toward these high profile female Afghan dissidents contrasts significantly with the country’s stance on the many illegal migrants from that country that have streamed into Europe in past years.

The Greek Migration Ministry has put together a media campaign to discourage Afghan citizens from coming to Greece without proper permission, outlining the austere living conditions in migrant camps.

The Greek government has faced criticism from international rights groups over its migration policies, including allegations that it has mistreated asylum seekers and illegally deprived them of their right to seek protection. Greek officials, however, argue they are focused on ensuring migrants enter the country through safe, legal channels.

The Greek Foreign Ministry stated Greece was “committed to hosting a symbolic number of Afghan citizens who advocate the values of freedom of expression and equality.”

According to the Ministry, they are working with respected third parties to identify Afghans who are facing Taliban reprisals. Family members have been killed and of course these individuals are also at risk. Working with partners, they have brought these individuals to safety in Greece.

Greek PM “Proud” to welcome Afghan women to Greece

Mitsotakis welcomed a group of female Afghan lawmakers on October 15. The PM tweeted, “Greece is offering safe passage and temporary accommodation to women that served as parliamentarians and judges in Afghanistan, as well as their relatives. Their lives would otherwise have been threatened by the Taliban. I am very proud of the action we are taking.”

The government has taken a tough line on immigration, saying that it is determined to prevent a large number of Afghans from reaching the European Union member despite the unfolding crisis.

Greece has stepped up security at its eastern border to avoid a repeat of the uncontrolled immigration wave of 2015. At the time about a million economic migrants heading for more prosperous European countries entered illegally from Turkey. Despite fears, Greece has not yet seen a large influx of Afghan refugees attempting illegal entry recently.

Greece currently hosts 160,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Providing a safe haven for refugees through proper channels is challenging for Greece as it combats against gangs of smugglers, ruthlessly exploiting vulnerable people.

After Afghanistan fell to the militant Taliban regime, Greece began swiftly amassing patrol units and erecting surveillance systems to intercept any Afghans fleeing to the EU. They leaned on the EU itself to help foot the bill, even though Brussels refused.

The move was criticized by human rights organizations. The European Commission has repeatedly called on the Greek authorities to look into reports and videos showing officials turning away asylum seekers arriving at its borders, an illegal process known as “pushbacks.”

Recently Mitsotakis fired back at a Dutch journalist who bluntly accused the PM of lying about pushbacks.

“We are doing this every single day, rescuing people at sea,” he said. “While at the same time, yes we are intercepting boats that come from Turkey, as we have the right to do in accordance with European regulation, and waiting for the Turkish Coast Guard to come and pick them up to return them to Turkey.”

In recent months, Greece appears to have welcomed more women fleeing Afghanistan than any other country, turning its capital city into a remote hub for Kabul’s former political scene.

PM’s Wife Assists Afghan Women Refugees

Ironically, it was Mitsotakis’ wife who facilitated a haven in Greece for Afghan women.

High profile female Afghans in peril have arrived with the help of NGOs, international aid groups, and several individuals who lobbied Greek leaders directly.

Speaking to Politico, Amed Khan, an American philanthropist, explained how he lobbied an old friend who carried some political clout in Greece. “I texted the Greek prime minister’s wife, Mareva (Grabowski), who is an old friend, and I told her I have this situation and I don’t have anywhere to take them,” Khan stated. “An hour later, Greece said, ‘Yes, we will take them.’ I didn’t even have to pitch this to them.”

In September, Khan was scrambling to get his first group of Afghans out of the country — six female lawmakers and their families, 53 people in total.

Kahn needed both a transit country and a final destination for his group. When Iran agreed to serve as the transit country, that presented its own challenges. The country is under strict U.S. sanctions, ruling out America as a final landing spot.

Another possible destination, a country that had previously been taking in Afghan refugees, refused to take Khan’s group if they came through Iran, citing strained relations with Tehran.

Khan reviewed his contacts. Mareva Grabowski, the Greek prime minister’s wife appeared.  He sent her a text message.

“A couple of hours later, I was talking with the Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who set up a WhatsApp group to coordinate the operation,” Kahn stated.

The exchange opened up a pathway that Khan would use to bring more and more high-profile Afghan women to Greece. The journeys included pitstops in a number of transit countries. Khan made a deal with the Greek government to cover the cost of food, lodging and health insurance for the evacuees.

Kahn said it reflected an openness he saw from smaller governments that was missing from the world’s biggest economic powers.

“The only political leadership I’ve seen is from smaller countries like Greece, Albania, Qatar, North Macedonia; it’s not the G7,” Khan stated. “A lot of countries made a lot of money in Afghanistan and now they want to wash their hands and look for the next opportunity.”

While most of the Afghan women who made it to Greece want to ultimately settle down in the U.S., Mitarachi said Greece is “willing to provide asylum to all of them, if their attempts to find alternative accommodation doesn’t materialize.”

Women Imprisoned While Criminals Set  Free

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, hundreds of female judges went into hiding. The Taliban had opened prisons across the country, freeing the very men those same judges incarcerated.

Under a temporary visa scheme, the Afghan women judges were guaranteed food and shelter by the Greek authorities, in conjunction with various charities, for 14 days. After the two weeks were up, the future was unknown. The judges were advised to begin making applications for asylum in a third country.

Three women, speaking to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency, who have fled Afghanistan and have sheltered in Greece during the last few weeks, described their experiences.

Allia Popal and Ferozan Easar Qasimi were judges for more than ten years, until the Taliban returned to power.  Both Popal and Qasimi specialized in civil law and often dealt with family or commercial law cases.

“In many societies, we have the phenomenon that everything is connected with men and they have more power in decisions,” stated Popal. “This is, even more, the case in Afghanistan. But, what was particularly interesting to me was that Afghan women were changing and in the last few years I was working, women were starting to react when, for example, a husband was abusive, violent or even addicted to drugs. The woman would come to court, to express her complaint, to divorce.

According to Popal, the dowry, the sum of money or a gift of value, is still a prerequisite for a marriage to take place, and women in Afghanistan now claim this compensation if the man fails to meet his obligations to the family.

For Popal this means that “women had begun to learn their rights and to speak. They felt freer. This was something huge and very important, a first step. In Afghanistan, women do not leave their homes easily. And yet these women not only came out but also took the second step, to come to court and claim their rights.”

Even before the fall of Kabul, when the return of the Taliban was looming, Qasimi began receiving threats because she was a female judge. “I was receiving threats on my phone. My family, my two sisters, who were activists, and my brother, were also in immediate danger. Only one managed to leave for America on August 31.”

According to Qasimi, her siblings “are hiding and my parents are left behind, in our house. Because the Taliban can not find me and my brothers, they put pressure on my parents, who are also in danger at all times.”

Even the trip to Greece was a huge risk. The Taliban stopped Popal as she tried to reach the airport, checking to make sure she was accompanied by a man. Popal stated “by chance a cousin of mine was with me and so I passed.”

The journey to Greece entailed a middle of the night pick-up point, an overland journey through the desert for hours. The drive was rife with Taliban checkpoints, where armed men would inspect the travelers. Most spent days in a safehouse, until finally they were taken to an airstrip. As the aircraft took off, the entire cabin erupted into tears, overwhelmed by making it out.

Homa Ahmadi was a member of the Afghan parliament and a lawyer. “In Afghanistan, women have done their best for the last twenty years to bring security to the country and reach every level of education. In the economic field, in the political field, in the social field, we worked very hard, just like the men of the family, we took the same steps to achieve the level we wanted.

“Even in business. In Afghanistan, many women have lost their husbands and now they themselves undertook to support the family, they had important responsibilities. I was one of them, I did the best I could to defend the weak citizens and the country,” Ahmadi stated.

Before escaping to Greece, the Taliban took Ahmadi’s home and planted a bomb in her car, and eventually killed people working to protect her as an MP. “They took everything I had in my life. For many years, the Taliban targeted Afghan politicians. It’s against anyone involved in the political process because the Taliban are against justice, against freedom, against democracy, against women’s rights,” stated Ahmadi.

The three women testify that, even before the Taliban, in order to succeed in their positions, they took great risks, made a lot of effort, while their families made great sacrifices in order to support them and now, those who are left behind, pay the price.

Until the fall of Kabul, they had made plans for a woman to be promoted to one of the nine seats on Afghanistan’s Supreme Court and had just won membership in the International Organization of Women Judges. According to Popal, “now the picture is completely different. Women now have to have permission or a male relative to accompany them even if they are going to do daily tasks, such as going to the market.”

“If you are a woman, the Taliban will stop you. Suddenly everything stopped. All our efforts stopped. To be honest I have no hope for Afghanistan right now. It happened in one day, I think I am dreaming, that I will wake up and it will be a bad dream. I’m shocked,” stated Qasimi. “I pray to God to oust the Taliban. There is no way to do anything like that. Nothing was left. Please help our families. Do not forget them and do not forget our male colleagues.”

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