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1.7 Million Refugees Are Crossing the Border and I Am Here to Witness It

My name is Payvand Seyedali, and I'm the new Country Director for WFWI, Afghanistan. I have spent my career in service of women and girls, honored to fight for their rights and support their access to services in times of need. I am overjoyed to have joined the Women for Women International team, but my first month on the job has been far from easy.  

As you likely know, Afghanistan is still reeling from the earthquake on the west side of the country, in Herat, which killed close to 3,000 people—80% of them women and children. In the past weeks on the east side, Pakistan announced plans for a mass deportation of around 1.7 million Afghans living illegally within their borders. 250,000 returned last week, according to the IOM. Some returnees have spent their lives in Pakistan, with few links left in Afghanistan. Others have moved more recently, for refuge, opportunity, healthcare, and girls’ education. Afghanistan remains the only country in the world where girls are legally barred from school above grade six.

Torkham 2
Trucks are filled to the brim in Torkham as thousands of Afghan returnees make their way back. 250,000 returned last week, according to the IOM. Some returnees have spent their lives in Pakistan, with few links left in Afghanistan. Photo credit: Maisam Shafiey/NRC

I had the chance to visit the Torkham refugee camp alongside one of our local women-led organization partners, the Afghanistan Midwives’ Association (AMA). Within minutes of arriving, we were approached by two fathers whose wives had given birth in the dirt – they needed food, water, care – and hope.  

They had fled an uncertain situation and had returned to Afghanistan even more vulnerable. We were told by the de facto authorities that numerous single women had no shelter, that some women and children were categorized as “missing,” separated from their families and trying to survive out in the open. I met a young single mother with her son and two-month old baby. The baby was fussing, the brother holding her was small, disheveled, and hungry himself.  

“I have left my children in the tent and come here. I have nothing — no supplies, no groceries. All our food was left and I don’t even have blankets. I am reduced to poverty.”

– another deported Afghan woman I spoke with at the border

We saw a long line for flour and oil distributions. Only men were standing in line – women often do not have access to aid. While basic cooking ingredients were distributed, we were told that many did not have the gas, pots, or utensils to cook. We left close to dark – though thousands were in the camp, very few cooking fires were visible. 

We learned that C-section surgery capacity was being set up. The closest hospital is hours away, and some women have died before they could be cared for. Afghanistan already leads the world in maternal and infant-mortality statistics. On the spot, our partner, the AMA, agreed with camp authorities to set up a maternity tent, a mobile midwifery clinic, to staff midwives, to train midwife mentors, and to create and distribute “delivery kits” that expectant mothers can have on hand. Yes, to deliver their own babies. 

"We were behind this small tuk-tuk for about an hour, watching two girls precariously holding on, while the driver weaved through traffic and a woman in a blue burqa checked back on them periodically."

While we were in the camp, we distributed reusable menstrual pads and promised to support provision of more. Bathrooms in the camp are only sparingly available. Hygiene support – soap and running water – was a repeated request. As we left, we learned that about 100 large cargo trucks were waiting on the other side of the border, each truck filled with people. We saw many trucks on the Afghan side of the border, empty. Truck drivers told us they were waiting for the border to open, so they could transport more returnees in. As we drove back to Jalalabad, and later to Kabul, we passed truck after truck filled to the brim with humans – some, with boys and girls hanging on from the outside.

As we left, rain began to pour, and continued for hours. I imagined the many families in the camp, especially those without shelter, all depending on fires to cook, who were now forced to deal with the mud sure to follow.  

We have urgently released our appeal for Torkham, and we continue to fundraise for Herat, devastated by earthquakes and preparing for a similar influx of refugees.

We are grateful to be able to sub-grant to women-led, women-focused organizations – including the Afghan Midwives Association – who are experts in healthcare and ready to mobilize. While women in Afghanistan are suffering deeply, they are also leading efforts to take care of each other. With these women-led organizations and leaders, we are prioritizing access to women and missing children’s shelters, menstrual and maternity management, psychosocial and trauma support, and specialized support to people with disabilities.  

Close to Torkham, we are planning to expand our Stronger Women, Stronger Nations core program as soon as possible, ideally by year end – because access to income streams and technical skills will be key for women and families trying to rebuild their lives. In Herat, we will expand our long-term programs next year. For now, emergency needs come first, and our Afghan female colleagues stand ready.  

Afghan woman in dust storm in Herat
Massive earthquakes have killed and displaced thousands. Millions of refugees are crossing the border. Your emergency gift will provide shelter, maternal and neonatal healthcare, and trauma counseling to Afghan women and their families.