Maryam Barak, an Afghan journalist, made it to Italy with her family last summer. In Rome, she met Qader Kazimizada, another newly arrived Afghan who is helping refugees find community in an alien place.
Qader Kazimizada: Come ti chiami?
Qader Kazimizada: No, you have to complete it. Io mi chiamo —
Nargis: Io mi chiamo Nargis.
Qader Kazimizada: Quanti anni hai?
Nargis: Sette anni.
Qader Kazimizada: Complete it: Io ho sette anni. OK, very good. Da dove sei?
Maryam Barak: Qader Kazimizada is playing with his 7-year-old daughter, Nargis, in their temporary home, a spacious apartment in central Rome. They have been living in Italy for about a year, and the children are learning the language.
They’re picking it up more easily than their parents, who fled Afghanistan after Kabul fell to the Taliban. Qader and his family made it out and ended up in Rome, where they are trying to start a new life, in a new country and a new culture.
Maryam Barak: From The Intercept and New America, this is No Way Home. In this four-part series, you’ll hear stories that were found, developed, and reported by Afghans like me, who have been forced into exile. Our stories reflect what we saw with our own eyes and what we and other Afghans have experienced firsthand since the U.S. military pulled out, the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban took over last summer.
This is Episode Three: “Born Again.”
[Theme music ends]
Maryam Barak: I’m Maryam Barak, an Afghan journalist.
I left my home, my identity, and everything on August 23, 2021. But still, I consider myself more fortunate than many other Afghan refugees: I am with my family in Italy.
What I’m about to tell you is a different kind of Afghan refugee story. It isn’t about the struggle to get out of Kabul or a dramatic life-and-death journey. Instead, it’s about adapting to life in a new country, about finding hope — despite all we have left behind. These quieter stories are just as common; they are stories of resilience.
I met Qader Kazimizada as I was also trying to learn Italian and integrate into this new society. Qader already spoke English when he arrived in Italy with his family last fall, but he struggled to learn Italian. He soon realized that other Afghan refugees were having the same problem. He created a WhatsApp group to communicate with them.
Qader Kazimizada: So I created a group, and called them. “Are you ready? Do you need my help? I want to have a class for you.” They were surprised and really felt very happy: “Oh, that is wonderful, please! That is good.”
Maryam Barak: Despite the fact that he himself was just beginning to learn Italian, Qader began teaching Afghan refugees what he had learned in his own classes, offering both support with the language and a sense of community. He taught the classes in languages Afghans could understand, like Persian.
Back in Afghanistan, Qader worked as a finance officer for Jesuit Refugee Services, an international nongovernmental organization that at the time provided education, vocational training, and emergency services to people in Afghanistan. Qader had been worried about the worsening security situation in the country, but like many others, he thought he and his family would be safe in Kabul, the country’s cosmopolitan capital.
Sitting in his living room in Rome, with his children playing near him, Qader told me about the day everything changed: August 15, 2021. He was at his office in Kabul when he learned that the Taliban had entered the city. He grabbed his laptop and immediately rushed home. When he got there, he realized the Taliban were already in his neighborhood. Suddenly, the lines of people rushing to the airport made sense.
Qader Kazimizada: They have entered, and there are many people, many people, many young boys. They are clicking pictures with the Taliban.
Maryam Barak: Working for a Catholic organization put Qader in danger. Leaving Afghanistan suddenly seemed like the only way to save his family. When the government collapsed, he started contacting every foreigner he had ever met, asking for help. Eventually, Jesuit Refugee Services said they could evacuate Qader, his wife, and two kids, Nargis and Firdaws.
But they couldn’t take everyone. Qader would have to leave his parents and siblings behind. He and his wife took their 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son to the airport. The Italian government agreed to take in the group. With no notice, Qader and his family were now headed to Rome.
Qader Kazimizada: We didn’t have even any choice. There was no choice because at that moment, the only thing important was to get out from Kabul.
Maryam Barak: When Qader and his family arrived in Italy, they spent two weeks in a hotel, quarantining because of pandemic-related restrictions. Then they were sent to a camp for refugees and migrants in Vibo Valentia, a city in the south of the country. The camp was crowded and isolated, and Qader’s wife and children struggled.
Qader Kazimizada: It was not a good place for the family. We were four families among 18 single refugees from Africa, from Pakistan, from different parts of Africa. And also we were not provided the keys, and there we had no actual privacy.
Maryam Barak: Qader didn’t feel it was safe for his family.
Qader Kazimizada: They were drinking, shouting, fighting during the night at the corridor. I was always awake and standing behind the door, in order to avoid if they come at the door, because my family is here, my wife is here, my children are here. They will be scared.
Maryam Barak: With the help of his former employer, Qader was eventually able to move his family out of the refugee camp and into an apartment in Rome, one of several homes made available to Afghan refugees through Italian charity organizations.
That’s where we’re sitting. It’s April 2022, and Qader’s wife Habiba, who is nine months pregnant with their third child, plays with the kids. Qader’s daughter is attending an Italian school and loves her new home.
Qader Kazimizada: Fortunately, she found Italy very nice. And now she’s very happy.
Maryam Barak: And she is going to school?
Qader Kazimizada: She is going to school. She has found many, many friends. She goes to her friends’ houses. They are inviting her in order to play, to do homework together. Yesterday, one of these families took her to the sea. And she was very happy. She went with them.
Maryam Barak: The Italian government evacuated 5,000 Afghans after August 15. Like other refugees resettling in Italy, they were given food and accommodations. Once they receive official refugee status, they begin the “reception and integration” process, including Italian language classes and employment training.
The Italian government is paying for Qader’s apartment, and he receives about 380 euros a month for food and other expenses for his family of four, as well as a transit pass. Through the program, he has also started learning Italian.
In Afghanistan, Qader mostly spoke English at work to communicate with colleagues from around the world. He thought that would be enough to get by in Italy too. But he soon learned that was not the case at all.
Qader Kazimizada: It was something that really surprised me, oh my God, it is something that it is a little difficult, but anyhow I will cope with later. It was difficult, only the language, because many were not speaking in English, only Italiano. While we didn’t know anything in Italiano.
Maryam Barak: Not speaking the language was a huge challenge for him, particularly as he needed help to navigate his new city.
Qader Kazimizada: I asked two police officers in English, “Where can I get bus 75 to go to Monteverde? They did not speak English, and they got very angry, said, “Qui Italia, Italia.” And now I understand that they were saying, “Where is this?” And asked me, “Where [are we]? Italia, Italia. Italiano, italiano.” And this was, for me, OK, no problem. I said, “Thank you.” I knew only one word: grazie.
Maryam Barak: From then on, Qader became more serious about his Italian lessons.
In Italy, several refugee NGOs offer language classes, but a challenge for many Afghans learning Italian is that their teachers often rely on English as an intermediary language, which some Afghans don’t speak. As Qader continued his lessons and started studying more, it dawned on him that many Afghans would face even greater challenges than he did picking up the language.
Qader Kazimizada: We are learning Italiano, trying to get integrated with the people, with Italian people. How they can manage to learn Italian, while they have no English background?
Maryam Barak: Qader was particularly worried about two Afghan families he knew who had a hard time settling in.
Qader Kazimizada: So I thought better to start a class for them. Because I knew English, so I was trying to do self-study. Then I thought, “OK, I can teach them!”
Finding Hope Through Teaching Others
Maryam Barak: Qader started teaching other Afghan refugees what he had learned in his own classes. His wife and children also joined his lessons.
Qader Kazimizada: I told them that I will explain everything in Persian, and I will teach you very slowly. They said, “Yeah, that’s good.”
Maryam Barak: Word spread fast, and the number of participants increased day by day. He shared an open Zoom link, and as the classes continued, more Afghans called in from all around Italy. Then at a gathering organized by the Afghan community in Rome, Afghans introduced him as an Italian teacher.
Qader Kazimizada: They said that Qader is an Italian teacher. And everyone was shocked! “How can it be possible?” I said, yeah, this is my motivation — that I can help. I help Afghan families as much as possible, but I have learned I can pass it to them, so they feel comfortable. They can learn a little bit, if not a lot, at least few things they can learn. It could be a basic step for them.
Maryam Barak: Inspired by Qader’s work, others jumped in to help, including Sitara, an Iranian refugee who had been living in Italy for several years. Because of privacy, she only wanted to use her first name.
Qader Kazimizada: She came to me, said that “I’m really impressed by what you said, and I’m really interested to help you, if you want my help.” I said, “That is wonderful! I appreciate anyone who can help me. Welcome.”
So she explained, “I used to teach in Iran, at a university, Italian for one year or one year and a half.” She said, “Here also I have a class teaching others, so maybe I can help you.” I said, “That is wonderful, please!”
Maryam Barak: In 2015, Sitara had traveled to Afghanistan to film a documentary. She fell in love with the country and realized there was a huge disconnect between the reality of Afghan life and the ways in which the country was often portrayed by the international media.
Sitara (translated voiceover): A country where we have always heard of war and terrorism, adversity, misery and extremism — here I met really lovely people. People [in] civil society who had tried to work on culture and art. I met them in person, up close. The efforts and struggles they, especially women, especially artists, had been making. There were poets, poetry nights, film festivals, and women filmmakers. It was all very strange to me, and it was an image that would not be transferred outside Afghanistan.
Maryam Barak: After the collapse of the Afghan government, Sitara wanted to help Afghan refugees. When she met Qader, she thought this was the opportunity she had been looking for. So she started teaching Italian, using Persian as a go-between.
Sitara (translated voiceover): The level of students, their age, their family situation, from where in Afghanistan they came, their background, and where they live now are different as night and day. It’s very different. Because we have a link open to people who want to introduce it to their friends, and we welcome all of them. And the door is open to all with a condition, the only condition. These classes are completely free and charitable: Be present and study.
Maryam Barak: Sitara, a refugee herself, can relate to the challenges her students face.
Sitara (translated voiceover): I may say migration is like being born again, or I may say it is a kind of death. That is, you die from a human being you were, from everything you had, from your previous life, and are born in a new world — especially when it is not self-imposed migration and it’s forced. In the case of Afghans, it happened overnight. They are still in shock, and I am sure that they are still digesting, processing the psychological consequences of what happened, the volume of violence that was inflicted on them, and the fear and horror that was imposed [on them].
Maryam Barak: Qader’s Italian classes have helped him not only to learn and teach the language, but also to find a purpose in his new life, and a way to remain connected to other Afghans and build community. The classes also helped him overcome some of the emotional challenges that often accompany becoming a refugee — including a bout of depression in his first weeks after arriving in Italy. In those early days, he would walk around Rome by himself, trying to make sense of his new life.
Qader Kazimizada: I experienced depression in the beginning, so I was always thinking how to come out of that depression. Sometimes I used to go to Gianicolo, even during the night after 10 [p.m.] to walk and just see Rome, come back and sometimes get engaged with other things with my lessons.
Maryam Barak: Afghan migrants from all over Italy are joining Qader’s classes today.
Mohammad Tahir is one of them. He lives in Ancona, a port city on the Adriatic Sea. Mohammad Tahir and his wife can’t read and write, so they worried that would make learning a new language even harder. Not speaking Italian made them feel cut off from their new community.
Mohammad Tahir (translated voiceover): There is a supermarket here that issues cards and where we go for shopping. At the counter when they count and tell us the amount of money, we just give the card [to pay]. When my children are with me, it’s a bit better. For me it is very hard, and my blood pressure goes up. When you cannot speak [the language], you feel dumb and it is very hard to bear.
Maryam Barak: For the first five months in Italy, Mohammad Tahir’s family did not have access to language classes. But now they’re taking weekly lessons from native Italian speakers, and three of their children have started school. They also call into Qader’s Zoom classes for additional practice. This is Tahir’s wife, Latifa:
Latifa Tahir (translated voiceover): Now it’s very good. Our anxiety has decreased significantly. In the past, when our electricity was gone, we could not tell our neighbors, who are all Italians, [that we didn’t have power]. We remained without electricity even for two days. We ate dinner in front of the telephone light. We could not turn on the central heating that had been out of commission and went through much trouble.
Maryam Barak: Recently, I sat in on one of Qader’s Zoom classes. The lesson began with him greeting his students in Italian.
Qader Kazimizada: Ciao buona sera. Ciao a tutti, come state?
Ali Hussain: Bene grazie.
Qader Kazimizada: OK, OK.
Student: Bene grazie.
Qader: Come sta, Murtaza? Murtaza, come sta?
Maryam Barak: The students I met in Qader’s class deeply appreciate his efforts. And Qader is happy to be helping people cope with the stress and anxiety that comes from leaving behind their country and adjusting to a whole new culture and language.
He recalls a recent memory from class.
Qader Kazimizada: During the class, the teacher asked him in Dari, in Persian, [say], “We have eaten dinner, and we have done our dinner.” Then, immediately, a little boy, he said, “Abbiamo, I think like that?” And another phrase, he said, “Abbiamo mangiato.” For me, immediately, without any thinking, I really got happy that, oh, thank God, I have done something. And this is what the fruit is: They are learning.
Maryam Barak: Qader knows that learning Italian is only the first of many challenges ahead for him and fellow Afghans. For now, he is focused on finding a job, so that he can take care of his family in Italy and back in Afghanistan.
Qader Kazimizada: I am ready [for] any job, but in fact, this is important for me, the job which has a little more payment. [laughs] Now the first priority is this: At least I can stand on my feet. I can support my family here, and I can support my family there, if I can bring them here. I’m also thinking about starting maybe a small business, maybe cafe, coffee shop, restaurant, or whatever.
Maryam Barak: The Italian classes he runs have helped him envision a future for himself and his family here. Qader hopes helping others can help him chart his own path in this new home.
Qader Kazimizada: I have been always thinking that I am a human being. I have to be — how to say? — I have to be a person who can at least help others, not harm others. I know that today, many, many people are harmed by each other. So I was always thinking that I have to be like this: My path has to be very defined, very clear that I have to help others if I can.
Maryam Barak: Next time on No Way Home.
Hamid: About staying in Afghanistan it is also scary here. Everything is unknown. We don’t know what happens next. What is waiting for us? We don’t know, days and nights, what will happen, what our future would be. What should we do, which way we should follow to reach to our goal or to at least to stay safe.
Maryam Barak: No Way Home is a production of The Intercept and New America’s Afghanistan Observatory Scholars program.
This episode was written and reported by me, Maryam Barak.
Our executive producer and editor is Vanessa Gezari.
Alice Speri also edited this story.
Supervising producer is Laura Flynn.
Candace Rondeaux is the director of Future Frontlines Program-New America and project editor.
Ali Yawar Adili is the Afghanistan Observatory Project Coordinator.
Jose Olivares helped with production.
Rick Kwan mixed this episode.
Zach Young composed our theme music.
Legal review by David Bralow.
Fact checking by Emily Schneider.
Awista Ayub is the director and project manager of New America’s Fellows Program.
Voiceovers by Humaira Rahbin and Mir Miri.
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Thanks, so much, for listening.