Before being forced to flee Kabul as the Taliban returned to power, Maryam Nabavi was a print and radio journalist.
Her courageous reporting focused on democracy and women’s rights—particularly education for girls—in what was still a firmly patriarchal society.
Now a year on since the fall of the Afghan capital, Ms Nabavi is gradually getting used to a new, freer and more secure way of living with her son and husband in their adopted country: Australia.
However, the restrictions on the rights and freedoms imposed on women and girls in her native land continue to haunt her from thousands of kilometers away.
At the moment, she’s busy caring for her young son and learning English but she’s keen to restart her career.
She said she missed the purposefulness and excitement of her life as a reporter in Afghanistan.
“Since I came to Australia, I am not the same person anymore,” she said.
“The first days when I came here were very difficult for me. I spent days and nights crying and a deep sense of emptiness took over my whole being.”
Ms Nabavi is one of thousands of Afghans who have embarked on new lives in Australia, while grappling with the emotions of fleeing their country on the heels of the abrupt US withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power on August 15 last year.
According to the Department of Home Affairs, 5,929 permanent humanitarian visas were granted to Afghan nationals between August 15, 2021, and the end of July this year.
However, almost 50,000 applications on behalf of more than 200,000 people have been lodged in that time and only another 31,500 places are available over the next four years.
After the crumbling of the Western-backed democracy in Afghanistan, the landlocked country witnessed a brain drain on a massive scale.
It shattered the aspirations of many young professionals like Ms Nabavi, who have been dreaming big for their country.
“All the years of studying and working hard got ruined,” she said.
“I didn’t know how to deal with these problems until I managed to see the positive side of my story with the help of a psychologist in Melbourne.”
A risky journey for the future of Victoria
When Lina Safi arrived in Australia from Afghanistan last year, it was a homecoming of sorts.
In 2011, she won an Australian Development Scholarship award to get a master’s degree in education.
She named her first child — who was born when she was studying in Australia — Victoria.
Back in Afghanistan, she put the qualification to use working in the Ministry of Education.
Ms Safi and her family’s journey out of Afghanistan last year was harrowing.
“Something that made us determined to survive during this risky journey was the future of Victoria,” she said.
“I am not going to describe in detail those two nights that we spent at the border [between Afghanistan and Pakistan].
“[It was] probably the worst experience of our life [and one] that we will never forget.
“Finally, we crossed the border on the morning of the third day, where a representative of the Australian embassy in Pakistan was waiting for us.”
Ever since, Ms Safi has been flourishing on personal and professional fronts, having secured a job in with a Victorian government department.
“There are many Afghans like me, with limited resources available, but skills and experience to offer, along with a determination to repay Australia for the haven that we have been provided,” she said.
Afghans highly educated, experienced
John Gelagin is the chief executive of Career Seekers, a non-profit organization that supports Australia’s humanitarian arrivals into professional careers.
He said recently arrived Afghans would make a major contribution to Australian society, if given the opportunity.
“The Afghan refugees that we are seeing at the moment are highly educated, with experience working in senior roles in the public sector and with international aid agencies,” Mr Gelagin told the ABC.
He added that one of the challenges for this group was the relatively small size of the Australian public sector, meaning that — in most cases — they will need to leverage their skills gained in the public sector into private sector roles.
“Although many of these people are still on their journey towards restarting their professional careers, we are seeing considerable goodwill on the part of employers in Australia towards Afghan refugees, recognizing both the circumstances they have endured and also the contribution they can make,” Mr Gelatin added.
He said that, among the recently arrived Afghans, were medical doctors, engineers, academics, IT professionals, accountants, senior team leaders and project managers.
“The caliber of their skills, knowledge and experiences has been impressive, and would be a welcome asset to Australia’s economy,” Deakin University research fellow Luke Macaulay told the ABC.
‘Australia is a land of opportunity’
Mir Ehsanullah Adeeb — who had an important role with Afghanistan’s Environment Protection Agency before coming to Australia — is already making a contribution to his new home.
Within months of his escape from Afghanistan, Mr Adeeb secured a post with a leading engineering firm.
“I am happy and proud to mention that I restarted my career in Australia in the sustainability team of one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the history of Victoria, which is conforming [to] my vision for my career life and giving me peace of mind while performing my job,” he said.
“Australia is a land of opportunity for everyone eager to chase their dreams and find their interest to build a bright future for the community and their own self.”
However, a year on since their departure from their home country, the dreams for a peaceful life remain paramount for this young lot of refugees now resettled in Australia.
As Ms Nabavi explained: “I always miss my country, the memories never leave my mind … my biggest wish is that the darkness will turn into light, and one day my country will be free, and there will be smiles on the lips of my compatriots again.”