The first time they fled a Russian invasion, Masuma and Sayed Amin Hosseini were children. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, the start of a brutal, nine-year campaign that left an estimated one million Afghans dead. Each had fled with their parents to Pakistan, then onto Iran, where they met and married.
In 2004, the Hosseini family – which by then included two girls and a boy – were finally able to return to Herat, Afghanistan. U.S. forces had chased off the Taliban. The years that followed were the best and freest the family had ever known.
But last August, the Taliban recaptured the capital. The Hosseinis were among 500 Afghans extricated by Ukrainian special forces after Kabul fell. On landing in Kyiv on Aug. 26, they applied to Canada for refugee status, hoping to join their eldest daughter, Marzia, 29, in Richmond, B.C.
Last week, before Canada could process their application, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, forcing the Hosseinis to flee war for a fourth time and the second time in six months.
They landed in a bomb shelter in Ternopil, terrified, unable to speak Ukrainian, fearful of human traffickers, and warned not to give out the address of the shelter. They have since fled to Poland. They are quickly running out of money and food. Marzia was going to wire money when she got paid last week, but Ukraine’s banks have closed.
The Canadian government announced last week it is helping “Ukrainians and people residing in Ukraine who seek to immigrate, study or work in Canada.” But it is unclear whether Canada’s immigration department has been considering the applications of non-citizens, like the Hosseinis.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has said it approved 4,000 applications from “Ukrainian citizens.” Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has said the government’s goal is to allow “more Ukrainians” to come to Canada “more easily.”
Marzia fears refugees such as her parents and siblings will be forgotten amid the chaos of war. “My parents have lived terrible lives. I’m just hoping and praying that – at least for the last few years of their lives – they can have some sort of peace.”
For the Hosseinis, life in Iran had been bleak. As refugees, they paid higher taxes and fees but were unable to access public services such as schools and medical care. Many Iranians were openly hostile to them.
The family briefly returned to Afghanistan in 1994 but were forced to flee when the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996. The Hosseinis are Hazara, the most persecuted Afghan minority. They are feared and despised by the Taliban.
All that changed after the Taliban’s ouster by U.S. forces. When the Hosseinis returned home to Herat in 2004, Sayed Amin joined the nascent Afghan army. Masuma, who is deeply passionate about education but was never able to attend school herself, began Grade 1. Within a few years she was studying physical sciences at university, training to become a teacher.
Hazaras are known to hold some of the most progressive views of women’s rights and education. Masuma took loans to send the other daughter, Fatema, to Afghan Turk, the country’s top international school. Marzia studied at the American University in Kabul.
Their neighbours rolled their eyes. Such measures, they felt, were wasted on girls.
When Marzia was 13, her parents refused to force her to marry, going against tradition and creating a deep rift within their extended family. Masuma and Sayed Amin made clear Fatema, then 11, would also be allowed to choose when and whom she married.
As Afghanistan began to unravel, this progressivism and Sayed Amin’s job as a logistics and communications specialist in the Afghan National Army made them a target.
Marzia was the first to escape. She earned a scholarship to study gender studies and psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey. The day she boarded a flight for Newark five years ago was the last time she saw her parents and siblings.
On Aug. 15, 2021, a rumour began spreading through Kabul that President Ashraf Ghani had fled. Masuma called Fatema, by then an investigative reporter living in Kabul, in a panic, insisting she take off her jeans and change into a long dress.
When it was announced that Taliban fighters were inside the Presidential Palace a few hours later, Masuma, 53, began methodically cutting up all the family’s diplomas – anything that might suggest a connection to American forces.
For days, Sayed Amin, 58, would say, “If I were the Taliban …” and suddenly remember an English book buried in his shelves. Masuma would say, “If I were the Taliban …” and suddenly dash off to dig up Marzia’s English-language test results or son Abulfazl’s first-aid diploma.
In Kabul, Fatema, who worked for the Eliaatroz newspaper and freelanced for USA Today, lit a fire in a waste-paper basket. She burned all of her photos and a song lyric pinned to her wall: “No one can say what we get to be, so why don’t we rewrite the stars? Maybe the world could be ours.”
The Hosseinis left for Kabul just days before the Taliban ransacked the family home in Herat.
USA Today helped Fatema secure a seat on a flight for Ukrainian officials. Before she left, Masuma sewed her university diploma into her scarf. It was the one document she had refused to destroy.
At Kabul’s airport, Fatema was tear-gassed, shot at and sexually assaulted. Eventually, she was able to make her way onto the plane. Iryna Andrukh, a colonel in Ukraine’s military, arranged for the rest of the Hosseinis to follow nine days later.
Moments before their plane departed for Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport on Aug. 26, ISIS-K terrorists carried out a suicide bombing at the airport, killing at least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. soldiers.
On landing in Kyiv, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees took the Hosseinis’ passports to begin processing their Canadian refugee application. Three weeks later, Fatema left Ukraine to take a fellowship at the University of Maryland.
A few nights ago, Sayed Amin told Marzia, “Wherever we go, the war somehow follows.” He is heartbroken for the people of Ukraine, to whom he feels a profound debt for saving his family’s lives. “They are in mourning for Ukraine, while also mourning the loss their own country, Afghanistan,” Marzia says.
Eighteen-year-old Abulfazl has been acting as the family’s interpreter. He has been cold-calling the long lists of numbers his sisters keep sending, asking for help in broken Ukrainian. Last week, he phoned Marzia and broke down: “It’s too much pressure,” he said through tears. “What if I say the wrong thing? I am responsible for the lives of my father, my mother and my sister. I can’t take it any more.”
Marzia said her mom is looking really skinny and stressed. “She hasn’t eaten or slept in days.”
She worries that her mom has given up hope: “She has been such a strong person all her life – encouraging my sister, my brother and I to get an education, to keep pushing forward, to be more successful. To see my mom changing, becoming this person who is not strong any more, has been so painful.”
The other night, Masuma told her daughter: “All I want is to see you one last time.”
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