Afghan refugees who live in Spokane talk regularly with relatives in their former country, so news hit hard about a Sept. 30 attack at a West Kabul learning center. A bomb there killed up to 53 people from the Hazara community – most of them girls and young women.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Hazaras, as a minority ethnic population, have long been targeted with violence by the Islamic State and the Taliban. Most Hazaras are Shiite Muslims, and historically persecuted by Sunni Muslim militant groups.
About 60 people – mostly Afghan immigrants who are now Spokane residents – held a march Saturday through downtown to raise awareness, with slogans such as “Stop Hazara Genocide,” and signs in support of Afghan women’s education.
“Our heart is broken, not because we are getting killed, but for the deadly silence that has engulfed the world,” said Rezvan Mohammadi, as the crowd gathered first at Riverfront Park with a memorial to the Sept. 30 victims.
“Where are the human rights slogans? Where are all the international media? Where are those who yell out justice?”
Mohammadi, a Spokane resident for three years, said she’s a child of Afghanistan refugees and raised in Turkey, but her mother is a Hazara. “People are dying over there every day and nobody hears our voices. I don’t know when Afghan people are going to stop crying.”
Others at the protest said that reports of violence in Afghanistan against women and Hazaras are a regular occurrence and have escalated with the Taliban’s takeover of power since U.S. troops withdrew in August 2021.
In returning to power last year, the Taliban banned secondary school for girls. Some ongoing education has gone underground, but the recent attack is thought to be caused by a suicide bomber inside the Kaaj learning center in the Dash te-Barchi district.
The students killed were mostly girls and women ages 16-20 – but some younger – sitting for a practice university exam, news reports said. It injured more than 82 people.
“This actually is my town that got attacked – Dash te-Barchi – I was born and raised there, so in a bunch of the families that were attacked, they were actually some of my former classmates,” said Freshta Tori Jan, 23, who moved to Spokane a few months ago. She immigrated to the U.S. to go to high school in Texas.
“It definitely has you feeling very angry because this has been happening for so many years, for decades, and all you ever see on the news is there is violence going on in Afghanistan.”
“Despite how involved the international world has been in Afghanistan and the fact the UN has been involved, they still haven’t considered this and called it a genocide of Hazaras.”
Tori Jan recently wrote a book, “Courage: My Story of Persecution,” that talks about how she in childhood and other Hazaras faced daily murder attempts when outside of their homes. She has memories of U.S. troops arriving by tanks that brought short-lived peace in her town.
Another organizer for Saturday’s march, Esmatullah Hashem, said women in Afghanistan aren’t allowed to hold offices or gain higher education since the Taliban’s return.
“They have closed schools for our mothers and our sisters,” he said. “We are asking the United Nations, the media, Congress, the White House to put pressure on the Taliban to stop killing Hazara people just because we think differently and because we send our daughters to school.”
Many families with children participated and held signs, including Mohammadi Rezai and his daughter Sarah Rezai, 5, who carried an Afghanistan flag.
“We’re here for human rights, for women’s education and for all the women in Afghanistan suffering, especially Hazara people because they’ve always been attacked,” he said. “They’ve always been targeted.”
Sorayya Mohammadi, today a Spokane elementary teacher, helped to organize Saturday’s march. She left Afghanistan in 2000 at age 16 at a time when the Taliban also was in charge. She and family members first lived in Iran, then briefly Turkey, before Mohammadi settled in the U.S. with her husband and children.
Mohammadi continued in school at Spokane Community College, then transferred to Whitworth University to complete her bachelor’s of arts in education.
She always wanted to be a teacher, and in reflecting on the girls who were killed, Mohammadi said they’re like her. Some wanted an education to become teachers.
“It could be me, if I didn’t run away to leave my country years ago,” she said. “I couldn’t accept staying at home.”
The stories of violence keep repeating, she said, and people in the Afghan community here fear that each time they talk with friends and family in Afghanistan, it might be the last communication.
“We’re going to show we want it to stop, to stop the killing of women, to stop them keeping women from going to school, to allow women to have freedoms, especially going to school,” she said.
“Women are not free in Afghanistan. They don’t have most of the human rights people have in other countries. Since the Taliban has been back, they don’t let women have an education, especially higher education.”
A Sept. 6 report by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch cited 16 attacks against Hazaras since August 2021 that killed or injured at least 700 people.
The United Nations Development Program in a report this month on Afghanistan said that life inside Afghanistan has deteriorated to new lows, under a broken economy and other hardships, but also loss of personal freedoms.
“Chief among them is the limited space and freedom for women and girls to enjoy a full education, the right to earn a livelihood, and the right to engage in the country’s governance as fully participating members of the economy and society,” the report said.
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