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For Afghan refugees, a mix of luxury and trauma in the resorts of Albania

SHENGJIN, Albania – The medical student, in a trauma-induced trance after a week under the Taliban and three days of terror while waiting for a flight from Kabul airport, looked out the window on the first day from his new home and saw the Statue of Liberty.

“I thought for a moment that maybe I was in New York City,” said Tahera, a 21-year-old college student. But the statue, made of plaster instead of copper and located in northern Albania, a fiercely pro-American country, was “much shorter than the real one,” she added, appealing to a sense ironic humor despite his heartbreaking ordeal.

The statue was an unintentionally mocking decoration, a kitsch decoration on the grounds of an Albanian resort town home to more than 440 Afghans who fled Kabul after the city fell to the Taliban on August 15.

Before flying last week to Albania, a country she had never heard of, Tahera had hoped to escape to the United States or Britain, where she has an uncle. (The New York Times only uses Tahera’s first name to protect her family still in Afghanistan.) But with those countries and other wealthy nations reluctant to take in refugees, she has found refuge in what may be the strangest and most luxurious refugee camp in the world. .

Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has pledged to welcome up to 4,000 Afghan refugees, more than any other country. The 677 who have arrived, including around 250 children, are staying at resorts along the Adriatic coast, a practice based on an emergency response approach that Albania developed after a devastating earthquake in 2019. , when homeless people were accommodated in beach hotels. .

While Afghans are grateful for the accommodation, the touch of luxury rings a little hollow for many.

Parwarish, an Afghan activist who worked on projects funded by the United States Agency for International Development, said she was touched by the friendliness of the Albanians, but nonetheless slept restlessly and took nightmares.

“I see my family dying in my dreams,” she said. “All of this luxury is great if you have peace of mind. I do not.”

The decision to welcome Afghans appears to be popular in Albania, a country with a long history of population flight. Helping refugees “is the right and natural thing to do,” Prime Minister Edi Rama said in an interview in Tirana, the capital.

While opposition politicians in France, Germany and other European countries routinely harbor fear of refugees and migrants to put pressure on government leaders, Mr. Rama’s opponents have mostly remained silent or supported its reception of Afghans.

“We don’t put people in camps. They are dehumanizing and where all the problems begin psychologically, ”said the Prime Minister. “We have been like them several times in our own history. They’re just trying to escape hell.

Tahera, the medical student, shares a room with an Afghan woman who lost both hands in a bomb attack in Afghanistan. Now in a complex with three swimming pools and a long sandy beach, Tahera wants to learn to swim, eager to distract herself from the trauma. She is also eager to learn to ride a bicycle, a form of exercise that the conservative patriarchal society of Afghanistan frowns on for women.

Determined to keep her planned medical career on track, she took a first aid course offered at the resort by an Afghan doctor in London.

Albania, a NATO member who sent troops to Afghanistan to join the US-led effort to keep the Taliban at bay, has long been helping people the US does not want or don’t know what to do.

When the US military decided in 2006 that a group of Chinese Uyghurs that it had held captive for four years at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were not dangerous terrorists as China had argued, the Albania agreed to give them a place to live.

But Mr. Rama said of welcoming Afghans: “We are not doing this because the Americans have asked us to.

Sensing that the US-backed government in Kabul would not last long as US troops complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan, Rama first offered at a NATO summit in June to help with what he feared was an influx of Afghan refugees. He urged other leaders to do the same. (A senior US diplomat in Tirana confirmed Mr. Rama’s account.)

But NATO leaders saw little immediate cause for concern. They stuck to Washington’s optimistic view that the Taliban were months, if not years, from victory.

Two months later, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, triggering an exodus of women activists, civil society workers, journalists and other Afghans who fear the Taliban.

In Albania, at the Rafaelo Resort, a cluster of four and five star hotels near the town of Lezhe, evacuees from Afghanistan eat at a separate restaurant that serves halal meals, but mingle by the pool with tourists. , mainly ethnic Albanians from neighboring Kosovo.

The Afghan chamber and council are covered by foreign organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy and the Yalda Hakim Foundation, which was established by a BBC journalist of Afghan origin. George Soros’ Open Society Foundations are paying for 135 Afghans who worked with the organization in Afghanistan to stay in a high-end hotel and spa along the coast. (The organization negotiated a large discount.)

The presence of veiled Afghan women on lounge chairs by the pool at Rafaelo Resort surprised paying guests, but no one seemed to care.

“I didn’t know there were so many Afghans living here, but they don’t bother me,” said Besnik Zeqiri, a Kosovar Albanian who emigrated to the United States. “They are all human and need to be protected. “

Liri Gezon, another tourist, said he saw terrified Afghans at Kabul airport on television and was happy to see them safe in Albania. “They do not create any problems for us and deserve to live like us,” he said, recalling how hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo to escape marauding Serbian forces in the late 1990s. and knew the trauma of the flight.

Albanian Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka said in an interview that Afghan evacuees were initially expected to stay for a few months while their visas to the United States were being processed. “But we are now assuming that they will stay in Albania for at least a year, maybe more,” she said, adding that those who could not get a visa to move elsewhere would be welcome to stay. in Albania.

Wahab, a journalist who helped run a US-funded news agency covering women’s issues in the city of Herat, western Afghanistan, said he never had expected at such luxury facilities. He fled Afghanistan with his wife and three children, with the help of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“We are luxury refugees,” he joked. “We go to the beach and see half-naked women. We sleep, eat and go to the beach. For most people, this would appear to be Heaven.

But Afghanistan continues to interfere. He can’t help but think of the eight Taliban checkpoints that stopped the bus in which he was traveling with his family from Herat to Kabul, or seeing the Afghan capital for the last time perhaps as his flight took off. evacuation took off. Kabul, which the Taliban had taken over days earlier, “looked very, very dark,” he said.

An editor, who asked not to be named because her family received threats from the Taliban, said she had “given up hope in Afghanistan” and felt the United States was “sort of right. to leave our country, because nothing was really changing. “

As a fiercely independent journalist who grew up in a Pashtun family, the most conservative and numerous ethnic group in Afghanistan, she herself was proof that some things could change. But the lightning-fast comeback of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban sounded the death knell for its media stance.

“Any change we made has now been multiplied by zero,” she said. “We came back to zero. “

Tahera, the medical student, avoids discussions about why her world imploded so quickly.

She never planned to leave Afghanistan, but as a woman and a member of the often persecuted Hazara minority, she decided that there was no future for her in a nation ruled by the Taliban.

“I have always said to my family and friends, ‘I will never leave my country,’” she said. Yet her father urged her to leave when the Yalda Hakim Foundation offered her a chance to get out, even if it meant leaving behind her parents, five sisters and a little brother.

“I miss my family,” she said. “I miss my university. I miss Afghanistan. I worry all the time. There are just too many questions that I don’t know the answer to.

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