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Activist Who Worked Under Taliban Says Time to Help Afghanistan Is Running Out

WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES – Early this month, the Dutch Government awarded its prestigious Geuzenpenning to the activist and social entrepreneur from Afghanistan, Laila Haidari. This week, Haidari, who arrived in the Netherlands in early March after nearly three years of living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan received the award in person.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, most of the people who had a voice and recognition in Afghanistan decided to flee, concluding that it was impossible to work under the Taliban regime. Hundreds of thousands of the country’s youngest and brightest ended up in military camps turned into refugee shelters in Qatar, Germany, the US and elsewhere.

Laila Haidari was not among them. She was not ready to give up, to give in, not at least without a fight. Pleas from friends kept coming asking her to leave. Offers of resettlement from one country after the other were extended. But Haidari, whom the hundreds of drug addicts she treated call “mother”, was adamant about taking her chances.

As the Taliban kept raging their restrictions against women, Haidari focused on the little she saw was still possible to accomplish. The Taliban soon came to Camp Mother, the only private and non-profit addiction treatment shelter she founded in 2009 and Taj Begum, the popular restaurant operated by recovering addicts that kept it afloat. 

Using whatever had remained of the camp and the restaurant after the Taliban’s raid and looting, Haidari started the Mother Educational Center (MEC) in 2021. Operating from an undisclosed location, she says MEC has trained more than 1,500 women, including in school subjects, English language, and trades such as jewelry making, painting, and photography.

Over the years, accolades and recognitions such as the medal she received on Wednesday came her way. But they did not distract her from the work she had committed her life to. Even now, miles away and an ordeal behind her, she still speaks with eloquence and conviction rarely matched.

Speaking with KabulNow, Haidari said that “without honoring women’s rights and empowering them in every facet of life, achieving an equitable and liberated society, and ultimately saving Afghanistan, is practically impossible.”

The more than 7500 addicts she helped recover do not call her mother just out of respect. She does embody the word.

“As a mother, I am committed to fulfilling my responsibility for the future generation of the country, especially for the women and girls who have been deprived of their fundamental rights under Taliban rule.”

The Geuzen Medal, established in 1987 is awarded annually by the Dutch Government in the name of Geuzen Resistance Foundation 1940-1945, one of the first resistance groups against the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

Honoring individuals and organizations dedicated to the causes of democracy, human rights, and the fight against dictatorship and racism, its previous laureates include the founding chair of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission Sima Samar, the former head of the Polish supreme court Margorzata Gersdorf, and Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Burmese human rights organization.

As the world comes to terms with the Taliban regime ruling over Afghanistan, Haidari refuses to accept that they can and should govern, warning that the time for action might run out soon.

“I am here to draw your attention to this issue— I mean to collective act and collective responsibility to prevent a human disaster. It is now or never,” she told her audience.

Receiving the award on Wednesday at a ceremony in the Netherlands Vlaardingen attended by Princess Margriet of the Dutch royal family alongside activists and journalists, she used the opportunity for one more plea to a continent so deeply transformed by the legacy of dogma and fascism such as those practiced by the Taliban.

 “At once, women were removed from all walks of life, because Afghanistan was handed over to a misogynic terrorist group that does not recognize any rights for women,” she said as she dedicated her medal to women and girls in Afghanistan.

“I wonder why gender apartheid is still not recognized in Afghanistan despite so many crimes against women!” she rhetorically asked.