In 2000, Auliya Atrafi paid thousands of dollars and risked his life to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He spent 12 years in England getting educated and becoming a documentary filmmaker.
Last year, he gave up life in the West and returned home to southern Helmand province. Now, he’s the father of twins and he’s working in a rural government office while trying to readjust to life in a conservative society that he finds dysfunctional.
Atrafi grew up in a prominent communist family in the rural and undeveloped Nad Ali district of Helmand province. In 1996, when Taliban militants were taking over the country, life took a turn for families like his.
“Taliban were initially harassing us; they tortured my brother,” Atrafi says.
His older brother escaped, but Atrafi stayed on for several years. Then, when the Taliban started sending young men like him north to fight in the Afghan civil war, Atrafi knew it was time to leave.
“So, I fled to England as an asylum seeker.”
That journey took four months and cost about $12,000. He traveled from Afghanistan to Pakistan and then through Uzbekistan, Russia and Ukraine.
The travel was punishing. It was winter, and he spent long hours crouching in tiny compartments of trucks with urine dripping on him from the compartments above.
Things got worse when he left Ukraine.
“On the border between Hungary and Slovakia we got arrested and detained for one month,” he says.
But by then, Atrafi had learned the tricks of this underground railroad.
“You would always have a cover story to mislead them to avoid them again from sending you back,” he says. Like telling officials in Germany that he and his companions were taekwondo competitors from Brazil.
Eventually, he made it to Belgium, where he climbed into a truck that was loaded onto a ferry. He landed in England on March 22, 2000, he says.
“It was beautiful morning. The sun was shining unusually for England,” he says. Atrafi settled in Hull in northern England.
Surprisingly, Atrafi says he didn’t like the place, calling it “very backward.” But he spent 12 years there anyway.
He studied English and computers while working multiple jobs — some legally, some on the black market — until he got his proper paperwork.
“Eventually, it got too much, and one day I collapsed from a panic attack,” he says.
His brother took him in and made him quit working so he could focus exclusively on school. Atrafi got into university to study journalism. After university, he began making documentaries for the BBC about the Muslim cultures and Muslims in the U.K. He says he chose those themes in part because of the rampant anti-Muslim sentiment following the Sept. 11 attacks.
“So, [in Afghanistan] my family was fighting al-Qaida; over there, I was known as al-Qaida by local kids,” he says.
Atrafi says that over time, he found it frustrating to live in England and watch news stories about his homeland on TV. He felt a growing desire to do something for his country, and he was having trouble raising money for new projects.
“I made a lot of proposals … [and] no response, and then I gave up. My dad was ill here, so I came back to Afghanistan,” he says.
When he returned to Helmand in the spring of 2012, Atrafi found work as a journalist, though he says the money wasn’t great nor was the quality of journalism. His cousin and childhood friend was then the district governor of Nad Ali, and he convinced Atrafi to work for him.
“I’m enjoying actually governance more than I enjoyed journalism,” he says.