The 28-year-old Fulbright semi-finalist didn’t expect the response he got after tweeting a photo of his paltry meal as an Afghan refugee at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Hamed Ahmadi posted the picture – showing two small pieces of chicken, a few slices of fruit and bread – to prove to people that life as a refugee was neither glamorous nor coveted.
Instead, responses included taunts and demands that he be more grateful or “go back to Afghanistan.”
“The point of that tweet was not ... to be complaining, to be very critical,” Mr Ahmadi told The Independent. “I was just describing a situation of Afghan refugees that are in the situation that they never really wanted to be in.
“I had a pretty good job back in Kabul. I had a decent life. I had my family,” he said, adding: “I was forced to flee Afghanistan ... if I had more space [on Twitter], I would have added more explanation – because I wanted to say that this is the refugee life. And we need to be patient.”
Further details about Mr Ahmadi’s own story would very likely silence any detractors or trolls claiming that Afghan refugees are only after a better life.
The journalist and scholar, who spent the past five years in Kabul with his parents and siblings, did not want to flee Afghanistan – and certainly didn’t want to leave his family behind.
His brother died two months ago as a special ops fighter with the Afghan National Defence Forces combatting the Taliban. Another sister died last year of Covid. Still another sister, who is pregnant, is currently in hiding from the Taliban because she had been a member of the Afghan police force, he said.
Mr Ahmadi’s own social media presence as a blogger working with foreign NGOs, however, left him in peril as the Taliban retook control of his country.
“I used to travel to different provinces of Afghanistan and interview people and cover day-to-day stories of Afghans at the grassroots level – and how they ... resolve their conflicts,” he told The Independent. “Basically, most of the stories were about how people approach conflicts and peace-building at the community level.”
He added that he felt he needed to leave his home because he felt “that I was in danger, because I had a very strong social presence. I had a very bold social media appearance when I was doing my job. I was going to these unsafe provinces back in Afghanistan and also unsafe villages.
“I had a lot of pictures doing jobs with Americans, with Germans, so I was kind of in danger – because you cannot trust the Taliban. They definitely claim that they’re not posing any threat to Afghans who worked with international NGOs and foreigners ... but we hear stories that they’re seeking reprisals and revenge, especially [against] journalists. That was an active threat for me. So I couldn’t just simply sit and see what’s going to happen to me.”
Mr Ahmadi was helped out of the country by the American NGO he’d worked with previously. He and other fellows waited three days to get allowed through the airport, then made it onto a US military plane. They went to Qatar, then Germany, then DC, then Texas.
He’s always dreamed of coming to the US and had repeatedly tried through impressive academic channels – but never wanted to first arrive like this.
“I was so excited about coming to the United States as a student,” he said. “But now, trust me – I’m not that excited ... to be in the United States because of this whole situation. Everything happened so fast, and I don’t really feel like I’m in my dream country.”
That sense of surrealism and dashed dreams is compounded by multiple other factors. He’s worrying about family and future while grateful to be safe as he shares tiny meals with thousands of other refugees with inadequate toilet facilities and sleeping arrangements in makeshift military tents.
A spokesman for Fort Bliss told The Independent that the base was responsible only for infrastructure - providing the “arms and back” emergency facilities were built on - but did not keep lists of refugee names or numbers. He directed queries to federal agencies, with the State Department also declining to give specifics.
“Due to the complicated nature of these evacuations and to protect the privacy and security of the arriving Afghans, we are not providing specific numbers at locations on arrival times/airports/carriers, housing locations, processing timelines, or onward destinations,” a spokesperson said.
More than 100,000 Afghans have been helped out of the country and US military installations are currently housing an estimated 30,000, CBS reported earlier this week.
Mr Ahmadi told The Independent that he and others are giving interviews, personal histories and biometric information as US authorities try to clear them for longer stays in the country.
“People are uncertain,” he told The Independent. “People are confused a little bit about the process. They’re uncertain about their future. My friends are very educated people; they have worked with international organisations ... these are the top people that came here in this camp – but you can see the uncertainty when they talk about their future in the United States.”
He said that fluent English speakers with advanced degrees from Afghanistan are struggling – “let alone people who are not educated [and] just had the chance, they got lucky and came here. They have not worked with Americans or foreigners or any international NGOs before. They just got lucky and they speak zero English.”
Everyone misses their stranded families back in Afghanistan, he said, while worrying nonstop.
“I have mixed feelings sometimes,” he said. “I feel that sometimes I had the privilege of fleeing Kabul ... and then I feel guilty [about] leaving everyone behind who are really in danger.”
His tweet about meals on base may have earned him attention, but food is pretty low on his list of worries, Mr Ahmadi said, as he re-evaluates his life view while still hoping for a better future.
“My field was peace studies and conflict resolution,” he told The Independent. “Now that the government collapsed and the Taliban took over ... I’m not hopeful about Afghanistan’s future, at least [over the next] 10 years.”
He wants to get a job in America, continue his studies and build a new life – but his experience has left him seriously disillusioned when it comes to peace and conflict resolution.
“I cannot see a point of where I should study that field again,” he said.
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