When the Taliban took over Kabul in August, like millions of other Afghans, it came as a shock to me. In the early days of their rule, the office of the Daily Outlook Afghanistan newspaper, where I worked as a reporter, was closed and a number of my colleagues decided to leave the country immediately.
One of them, Alireza Ahmadi, with whom I had worked for four years, lost his life trying to do so. On August 26, he flew to Kabul airport to board an Italian military flight to Rome, but fell victim to an Islamic State suicide bomber in Khorasan province, ISKP (ISIS- K) who blew himself up in a crowd of Afghans waiting to evacuate.
When I learned of his death on social media, I went numb and burst into tears. His death made me lose my peace of mind. I kept imagining the same fate for myself.
Over the next few months, I kept trying to find a job in hopes of staying in my home country. I did some reporting for foreign media but I couldn’t find a permanent job. Working as a journalist has never been safe in Afghanistan, but under the Taliban it has become extremely difficult. Media outlets were shut down one after another; journalists were beaten and tortured; and the freedom we once had to go out and report was clearly gone.
Unemployment and lack of security made me think about leaving the country and Iran seemed like the only immediate option I had.
On January 25, me and two friends left to go to the Iranian border. The plan was to apply for a master’s degree in a third country, such as Turkey or Germany, and then try to get a visa from their consulates in Iran. If that didn’t work out, we planned to seek informal employment in Iran.
And so we joined the massive exodus of Afghans, who, driven by job loss and starvation, left the country in droves. When we reached the Islam Qala border post, there were hundreds of people trying to cross the border. Men, women and children stood in long lines with heavy suitcases, waiting for their passports to be stamped and their luggage scanned.
Afghans crossing the borders have become a lucrative source of revenue for Iran, as obtaining a visa costs between $87 and $130. It is issued for a maximum period of three months and to renew it, you have to pay again. Afghans must also pass a COVID-19 test to be allowed to cross, which costs around $10.
We were lucky that day: it took us five hours to get through border security and passport control; we had heard that the process could take up to two days, depending on how busy the border was.
Once in Iranian territory, we went to the city of Mashhad. On our first day there, we visited the Imam Reza shrine, a holy place for Shiites, and had breakfast at a nearby restaurant. As we got up to leave, an Iranian restaurant patron said, “Oh, thank God you didn’t commit a suicide bombing!
I couldn’t believe my ears. It was painful to hear such acrimonious words from another Muslim.
In the days that followed, I heard many stories from other Afghans of how they had been treated with disrespect. There seems to be little acknowledgment that Iran, too, has been involved in the conflict in Afghanistan in some way and is not just a passive host of Afghan refugees.
Currently, there are some 3.6 million Afghans in Iran, but only 780,000 have been granted refugee status. The vast majority of them live in poverty and struggle to survive, earning the bare minimum through backbreaking labour. Among them are many educated Afghans who have taught at universities, worked for NGOs or the state bureaucracy.
I am one of them.
After spending a lot of money in Iran, I started looking for a job as a laborer, because working in an office is not really an option for Afghans in Iran, even if they have the qualifications. I now have to worry not only about my expenses, but also the visa renewal fee, which I have to pay every 45 days and which can cost up to $100 if I use an intermediary to facilitate it.
In the meantime, I am also awaiting a response from the Turkish Consulate in Mashhad. When I arrived I tried to apply for a student visa after being accepted into a private Turkish university and paying the admission fee. It took a month to be able to submit my documents, as many Afghans were also queuing to do the same.
Now I have been told that I have to wait another few months for a visa application to be answered and the chances of getting a visa are very low given the large number of Afghans trying to enter Turkey .
I feel lost and hopeless as I struggle to survive in Iran. I had hoped that I could find a well-paying job and send money home, but I failed. My heart aches whenever I think of my two little girls and the goodbye I said to them a few months ago. Wiping away their tears, I had promised to send money, so that they could have a comfortable life.
Talking to my family was difficult. They complain of struggling to make ends meet, as food prices soar, and of lingering insecurity, as blasts continue to occur. One day the Taliban came to search our house and searched through my books and personal belongings, allegedly looking for weapons.
Like many Afghans in Iran, I face a terrible dilemma: to stay in the country and continue to struggle with poverty, destitution and constant insecurity about my legal status; return to my country and face starvation and violence; or risk my life and embark on a dangerous journey west.
I realize that now, for much of the world, we Afghans have become faceless numbers, statistics that UN officials blurt out while warning of impending disaster in Afghanistan. But we are not. Each of us has a story worth hearing and a life worth living with dignity and security. We don’t deserve to be forgotten and ignored.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.