One Afghan refugee on her ‘desperate hope’ for her homeland, life in the U.S.

Correction: The transcript for this segment has been updated to reflect that Muqaddesa Yourish was working with Lapis Communications at the time of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, and not for the government. The NewsHour regrets the error.

Thousands of Afghan refugees are now in the process of settling into American life following their evacuation from Afghanistan when the Taliban took control of the country in August. Those refugees are mostly scattered among eight military bases around the United States. But approximately 10,000 have resettled in different communities. Nick Schifrin has the story of one such Afghan refugee.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thousands of Afghan refugees are now in the United States, following their evacuation as the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Those refugees are mostly scattered among eight military bases around the United States.

    But some 10,000 have been released and resettled into different communities.

    Nick Schifrin has one of their stories.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the morning of August 15, when the Afghan government still led the country, Muqaddesa Yourish was where she always was on Sunday, a workday, in her office.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish, Former Senior Afghan Government Official:

    I was in office when my mom called me and she wanted me to be home. And I told her, listen, I have to be in office because I have to wrap up a couple of things, so I might be home around 6:00. And then she told me that it's over.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For 20 years, Yourish had worked to create a modern, inclusive Afghanistan. She'd been a public servant, a former deputy minister of commerce, an NGO leader, a voice of her generation.

    But, that day, it all unraveled. The Taliban seized the presidential palace, the city, and the country. Yourish and her family moved from house to house to avoid Taliban fighters now on patrol.

    Did you feel like your life was in danger if certain members of the Taliban found you?

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    Once they took over, reports started coming in of them trying to identify former government officials.

    We left our entire house because we didn't have the time to pack it. I wish that I would have just taken a final look at our house, and at my room, my books. I just didn't have the chance. You know, I only had a couple of minutes to pack my entire life in a suitcase.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Like so many, she rushed for the airport. She was one of the lucky ones. She got through the chaos and onto a flight destined to the U.S.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    I think that's when it hit me that I was leaving and I was flying out and leaving my soul back in the country.

    So, everybody that I knew who was boarding the plane with us were crying, every single person. It's the first time I'm talking about this, and it's not easy. It's not easy to try to leave home, everything. And nobody does it unless and until they fear for the safety of themselves and their family.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Six thousand and eight hundred miles away, in rural Wisconsin, lies Sparta, a town of 10,000, where American flags fly on Main Street and nearby Fort McCoy has stood sentry for more than a century. It became Yourish's temporary home, a spartan sanctuary disconnected from the life she had to leave behind.

    Recently, Fort McCoy invited a pool camera to film Afghan refugees' life on base. There are more than 12,000 refugees here, half children. They take classes, eat food now certified halal, and live in barracks usually reserved for service members.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    The spaces are certainly shared. We — you don't get to have your private room. So you have to put up with the fact that you will be sharing your space with other families.

    And we certainly feel grateful for the generosity and the warmness and the hospitality that we have received here. The bigger question for all of us here is, how do we — what will the future hold for every one of us? And to try to think of just equipping yourself with the with the right tools to start a new life over, when you already had one.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The old way of life is being attacked. Some Taliban fighters have beaten women for protesting. The Taliban detain Afghans they accuse of being criminals, sometimes parade them in the streets.

    In the central square of the western city of Herat last month, they hanged a man from a crane.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    Every day, it brings a new atrocity that the Taliban have committed, making sure that women disappear from the public spaces, and then to look back and know that you were actively part of creating that progress.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And now a second catastrophe, economic meltdown. Banks don't have cash. Families are selling furniture, so they can buy food. The Taliban government can't pay people's salaries. And the U.S. and its allies are refusing to release billions of dollars in reserves.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    I would like to call on the world to tell them that the people of Afghanistan don't deserve being punished like this, and that, if anything, in the past 20 years, the people of Afghanistan have shown the resilience that the world might not have known.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Resilience from two decades of progress in 16-year-old Maram Atayee's piano virtuosity, millions of Afghan girls who embraced education as soon as the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, and independent TV channels watched by millions.

    This weekend, after our interview, Yourish and her family resettled in Washington, D.C.

    Hillary Rodham Clinton, Former U.S. Secretary of State : We feel very lucky to have Muqaddesa Yourish.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And she received an award from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for being a change-maker.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    Join me in my desperate hope for the country, because to be able to do anything, you first need to believe in something, and I still believe in my country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yourish insists that she and other Afghans who had to flee are no victims. And on that final day in Kabul, she realized she needed to either get busy living or get busy dying.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    Dying is not always physical. If I would have been back home right now, I just would have been a silent observer. To me, that is gradual death in itself.

    When the Taliban took over, I think I had two choices, to stay and die, or try to leave, keep my voice, be here on this show, and try to continue to do my work and advocate for an Afghanistan that I think the people of Afghanistan deserve to live in.

    And I decided, and I chose to stay alive and I chose my voice. One clarity that I have is that anything that I will do will be in the hope that that will take me back home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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