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ATHENS â€” The women of Afghanistanâ€™s deposed democracy have found a temporary home in an unlikely location: Athens.
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 Kabulâ€™s former political scene. In just a matter of weeks, the city has become the landing place for more than 700 of Afghanistanâ€™s female judges, lawmakers, journalists and lawyers, together with their families â€” the hallmarks of a democratic society no longer welcome after the Taliban takeover in August.
They have arrived with the help of NGOs, international aid groups and several individuals who lobbied Greek leaders directly. Amed Khan, an American philanthropist, is one of those individuals. He coordinated a weeks-long effort to get dozens of female Afghanis and their families to Greece after securing almost instantaneous authorization from Greek officials.
â€œI texted the Greek prime ministerâ€™s wife, Mareva [Grabowski], who is an old friend, and I told her I have this situation and I donâ€™t have anywhere to take them,â€ he said. â€œAn hour later, Greece said, â€˜Yes, we will take them.â€™ I didnâ€™t even have to pitch this to them.â€
The same canâ€™t be said for many other migrants seeking Greek shores â€” even other Afghans.
For most, Greeceâ€™s door to Europe is sealed shut, surrounded by fences and surveillance equipment, monitored by an army of officers patrolling the land and sea. Those who do make it are likely to find themselves in fortress-like camps rimmed with barbed wire and police.Â The Greek Migration Ministry has even 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 two-tiered system has raised questions about Greeceâ€™s swift act of goodwill toward the hundreds of Afghan women.Â In recent years, the countryâ€™s conservative government has faced strident criticism from international rights groups over its migrant 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.
â€œWe are working with respected third parties to identify Afghans facing Taliban reprisals,â€ a government official told POLITICO. â€œThese peopleâ€™s lives were at immediate risk, members of their families have been killed, so we acted decisively with our partners to bring them to safety in Greece.â€
More broadly, the official noted, Greece was hosting 160,000 refugees and asylum seekers and is â€œworking tirelesslyâ€ to process them: â€œGreece wants to provide a safe haven for refugees through proper channels, but is against smuggling gangs ruthlessly exploiting vulnerable people and risking lives.â€
The first escape
Back in September, Amed Khan was scrambling to get his first group of Afghans out of the country â€” six female lawmakers and their families, 53 people in total.
Afghanistan had already fallen in early August. By the end of the month, Western allies had abandoned their final post: a Kabul airport ferrying people out on the preciously few flights available.
That left Khan without many options.
He 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 â€” a country that had previously been taking in Afghan refugees â€” balked at taking Khanâ€™s group if they came through Iran, citing strained relations with Tehran.
So Khan opened his Rolodex. Eventually, he hit on a well-placed name: Mareva Grabowski, the Greek prime ministerâ€™s wife. He sent the text.
â€œA couple of hours later, I was talking with the Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who set up a WhatsApp group to coordinate the operation,â€ he said.
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, including Kazakhstan. Khan made a deal with the Greek government to cover the cost of food, lodging and health insurance for the evacuees.
It was, Khan said, a â€œflawless partnership.â€
And, he added, it reflected an openness he saw from smaller governments that was missing from the worldâ€™s biggest economic powers.
â€œThe only political leadership Iâ€™ve seen is from smaller countries like Greece, Albania, Qatar, North Macedonia; itâ€™s not the G7,â€ he said. â€œA lot of countries made a lot of money in Afghanistan and now they want to wash their hands and look for the next opportunity.â€
While most of the Afghan women who made it to Greece want to ultimately settle down in the U.S., Mitarachi said Greece is â€œwilling to provide asylum to all of them, if their attempts to find alternative accommodation doesnâ€™t materialize.â€
A two-tiered system
Greeceâ€™s benevolence cuts against the broader perception of the countryâ€™s stance on Afghan migrants.
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 moves build on a record that human rights that organizations frequently criticize. 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 â€œpushbacks.â€
The issue has become a testy one for the Greek government. Just last week Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis grew irate with a Dutch journalist who bluntly accused him of lying about pushbacks.
After noting he respected the Dutch culture â€œof asking direct questions to politicians,â€ Mitsotakis fired back: â€œWhat I will not accept is that in this office you will insult me or the Greek people with accusations and expressions that are not supported by material facts.â€
Greek border guards, Mitsotakis argued, were saving people in peril.
â€œWe are doing this every single day, rescuing people at sea,â€ he said. â€œWhile 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.â€
Twenty years â€˜disappearedâ€™
Just outside Athens, Homaira Ayubi sat in a beachside cafÃ© in the small seaside town of Agioi Theodoroi. She drifted back to her time in Afghanistan, where she worked as a member of parliament and a mathematician. She recalled what had now been lost.
â€œTwenty years of fighting for the Afghan girls just disappeared,â€ she said.
Tears welled up in her eyes.
â€œI donâ€™t have anything in Afghanistan, a car or a house,â€ she said. â€œI didnâ€™t cry for that, but I cry for the Afghan girls.â€
The Talibanâ€™s swift takeover had shocked Ayubi, she said. But, she added, the western allied response was also shocking.
â€œAs always, the EU and the U.S. were saying they will help us to fight and will not leave us to the Taliban mercy,â€ she said. â€œBut when the Taliban took over, it was not only U.S. and EU, but all our neighbors closed their doors.â€
In Afghanistan, Ayubi had been the chairwoman of the legislatureâ€™s anti-corruption caucus. It was corruption, she said, that caused the government to shatter once cracked. It was a warning she tried to convey directly to the U.S. Congress in 2014, when she was invited to meet with lawmakers.
â€œThe funds, which were supposed to be directed for womenâ€™s education or other programs, were ghost money,â€ she said. â€œThey were multiplied to zero.â€
Still, Ayubi plans to move to the U.S. and use it as a base to try and change the political situation back home. If the Taliban falls, she expressed hope about returning to Afghanistan eventually.
Yaldan Nasimee, 30, was a judge back in Afghanistan. When she heard Kabul had fallen to the Taliban, she rushed home, grabbed a burka to cover herself and went into hiding with her husband and children. Now, temporarily placed in an Athens hotel and pregnant with her fourth child, Nasimee is trying to determine where she can settle and fully integrate.
â€œWe had higher expectations from the Western governments,â€ she said.
Ayubi and Nasimee are, however, in the minority. They got out. Thousands and thousands of their compatriots who fear the Taliban have not.
Khan urged governments to go further. Donâ€™t just let in the high-profile Afghan women pushed out during the takeover, he said.
â€œYou hear from women like a janitor, or a dentist, regular people who are not in anybodyâ€™s priority list, but they are in the same boat,â€ he said. â€œThey signed up to the same vision that the U.S. came up [with] and described 20 years ago.â€
Back at the beachside cafÃ©, Ayubi warned of what will happen if the international community doesnâ€™t come together and accept a broader array of Afghans trying to escape Taliban oppression.
â€œYou cannot take all 34 million out of the country, but those that are in real danger and want to leave should be distributed to countries across the world,â€ she said.
She recalled the 2015 migrant surge during the Syrian civil war, which sent over a million people fleeing across land and sea to Europeâ€™s borders. Within months, EU countries had fractured over the issue, squabbling with each other and incidentally fanning the flames of an ascendant, hard-edged nationalism.Â
â€œYouâ€™ve seen what happened with Syria. You wonâ€™t be able to stop them. They will come through the sea that you see here behind,â€ she said, gesturing toward the water, calm for now.