Narrator: In August 2021, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, sparking an exodus of thousands of Afghans who had worked with Western governments and organisations over the previous 20 years. Between the 14th and the 25th of August, the US, the UK, Australia and other nations airlifted almost 130,000 people out of Afghanistan in what was the largest civilian evacuation since the Vietnam war. After spending time at Allied air bases in the Middle East, thousands of Afghans were brought to Australia under the Australian Government’s Humanitarian Settlement Program, which offers sanctuary to people fleeing conflict or persecution.
Arriving during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Afghan refugees were all subject to two weeks of quarantine. Among these arrivals was Jalal Ahmadzai.
Jalal Ahmadzai: It was really hard, you know. Our lives and our societies were effectively blown up. Everything that we’d worked so hard for for over 20 years disappeared right in front of us when the Taliban took over Kabul. All of the human rights, the women’s rights, all of the achievements that we’ve had, were reversed and a lot of people were killed and locked up by the Taliban.
I was a student of the American University of Afghanistan, and when the Taliban came we were instructed by the university to get rid of all of our documents, our IDs and everything that linked us to the university because it would pose a threat to us. So it was really sad seeing everything that we’d worked so hard for for four years to just burn away. A few days after the Taliban took over the country, me and my family were lucky enough to get on an airplane out of the country and we were eventually evacuated to Australia.
When we arrived in Australia we were received at the airport by AMES staff, and have been supported by AMES ever since—and by the local community groups. I was lucky enough to join AMES as a volunteer and later as a staff member, but still it’s hard not to feel sad for the people that we’ve left behind, and it’s very difficult not to fear for the future of our country.
Narrator: After completing quarantine the Afghans were released into the care of refugee settlement agencies across Australia. In Melbourne, settlement agency AMES Australia saw around 2000 people arrive over 15 days—this coming after almost two years of no refugee arrivals because of Australia’s closed borders. This represented a significant challenge for the organisation to welcome, house feed, clothe and provide medical, mental health and other essential needs to the new arrivals—and all during a COVID lockdown. By leveraging relationships with corporate and community partners as well as volunteers and stakeholders, AMES was able to supply the Afghan refugees with the material and intangible requirements to support them through a confronting and difficult period. More than a million dollars’ worth of donated goods was distributed to the refugees, and more than 4000 medical appointments were made. And a vaccination and COVID testing arrangement was put in place.
Cath Scarth, CEO, AMES Australia: It’s been an incredible effort by everyone at AMES. We were able to find accommodation in what would be normally very difficult circumstances. But we found international student units which were empty because of the pandemic. We equipped them with linen, cooking utensils and other necessities, and families were provided with culturally appropriate food package, toiletries and everything else they needed. We had amazing support from corporate and business donors, from individuals, and of course the local Afghan community.
We established a donation hub where families could come and collect everything they needed—clothes, toys, toiletries, school materials and so much more. We were able to organise vaccinations, health care, orientation for families as they came to grips with their new cicrumstances.
I’m incredibly proud of our people. They overcame extraordinary challenges which were exacerbated by the COVID pandemic—not to mention protests and earthquakes we had in Melbourne too.
Many of the families arrived with little more than the clothes that they were wearing. This was the community and AMES working together at its best.
Narrator: Nine months after their arrival, 770 Afghan families have been helped to find their own homes, 600 people have been supported to find work, and 400 more are on educational or training pathways. Almost 800 children are in school. Just five months after the first Afghans arrived, people fleeing the war in Ukraine began arriving in Melbourne. For AMES Australia, the work of supporting people fleeing conflict and persecution continues.