Mir Abdullah Miri
Afghanistan, Saffron, and a Hard Drive
Today Mir Abdullah Miri joins me to talk about his escape from Afghanistan and takes me inside the production of “The Desert of Death”, an episode he made for The Intercepted podcast.
Mir Abdullah Miri is an Afghanistan Observatory Scholar at New America. In Afghanistan, he served on the faculty of Herat University. In the fall of 2021, Miri was evacuated from Kabul to England, and now lives in Bath.
Citation: Miri, Mir Abdullah interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 293, podcast audio, September 19, 2022.https://freshedpodcast.com/miri/
Will Brehm 1:18
Mir Abdullah Miri, welcome to FreshEd.
Mir Abdullah Miri 1:20
Thank you so much for having me, Will.
Will Brehm 1:22
It’s so wonderful to have you on, Miri. We were friends, we’ve worked together, we’ve seen each other in person. It’s kind of unusual to invite a friend on to the podcast. So, thanks so much for joining.
Mir Abdullah Miri 1:33
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Will Brehm 1:36
So, I want to start with a rather strange beginning, perhaps. And it has to do with saffron and hard drives. And I’m just curious, Miri, did you ever get the saffron and the hard drive that you left at the Kabul airport? Has it ever been returned to you?
Mir Abdullah Miri 1:52
No, I have not but surprisingly, two days ago, with the help of several friends inside Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan, we could locate the bags and receive them. So, they are with a friend in Kabul, but I need to see if I can receive them one day.
Will Brehm 2:13
So, now you know where the bags are?
Mir Abdullah Miri 2:15
Yes. Now we know because we could locate them.
Will Brehm 2:18
And tell me, what is inside those bags other than saffron and this hard drive?
Mir Abdullah Miri 2:24
So, when I wanted to leave Afghanistan, we were told that we will leave with a charter flight, a very small airplane. 34 people on that airplane. And we were told to have a small carry on. We had two carry-ons, each one 12 kg. We only had one set of clothes per person. And because my child was two years old at the time, so we had some diapers for him and some medications for him and mostly clothes. So, the hard drive was the important one because as a researcher, I would do a lot of research. I had all my files there. I was doing my PhD studies, I had my information in that hard drive. In addition to my research data, I had all my personal memories, information, pictures, photos, from different countries, photos from my wedding, all personal data, and everything from my phone, from my laptop in Kabul because I did not have access to high-speed internet. I was scared that if I go to the airport, I might be stopped, and they might check my phone or my laptop. I had to copy and put them all on that hard drive and delete them from my laptop and phone. So, there were clothes. I was telling my wife yesterday that the clothes, especially for my son, they’re too small now for him. We only need the hard drive and the saffron. And that saffron was important to us not only because it was expensive but also because it’s related to our city, our culture. Herat is known for its saffron in addition to a lot of other things. So, we wanted to have the saffron not only for ourselves, but also to receive people here in the UK and serve them saffron, saffron tea to show that this is something which remembers Herat. This is something that we have in Afghanistan. And this is part of our culture. So, I really wanted to have them and I’m positive that one day we will get them.
Will Brehm 4:25
So, if there’s anyone that is listening to this show that travels in and out of Kabul, maybe some international development experts, please get in touch with us. So, we can somehow give you Miri’s luggage that contains -not even all the luggage- just the saffron and the hard drive. That would be a big help. So, I mean, Miri, this hard drive, it’s quite tragic that you don’t have it. I mean, all those photos and the memories. But on a practical level, when it comes to the PhD, you were in the middle of doing your PhD and you had chapters written for your dissertation on that hard drive. I mean, this is like the worst-case scenario for any doctoral student, is to lose all the writing and all the data that they’ve done. So, what’s the status of your PhD? Are you able to continue working towards a PhD?
Mir Abdullah Miri 5:13
Yes. I explained the situation to my advisor. Actually, I had shared some drafts with him, but I had the revised version of the first three chapters on that hard drive. At this stage, I’m doing the data collection. I’m working on the qualitative data collection for my PhD, but I don’t have the revised version of those three chapters. But the good thing is, I was not stopped because of those three chapters because the data collection was something different. I could continue but of course, in order to finish my PhD, I need those three chapters. I had to spend months on them. And I can’t imagine I have to start writing them again because it will be difficult.
Will Brehm 5:54
Gosh. It’s really the worst-case scenario for any PhD student. So, I mean, take me back in time, if you could, to the lead up before you got to the Kabul airport and had to leave your luggage there. How did that transpire? How did you, in a sense, get out of Afghanistan?
Mir Abdullah Miri 6:12
If I go back to my childhood, as a child, I was born in an immigrant family. I was in Iran, I completed my elementary and secondary school in Iran, then there was a time we had to leave Iran because education was not free for us anymore. And we had, entering, a new government in Afghanistan. So, right after 9/11, 2001, we moved to Herat, Afghanistan. So, in Afghanistan, I continued my education. I went to school, I had a part time job. Even in Iran, I had to work half a day and the other half go to school. I’ve been working and studying, I consider, since I was nine years old. Different works. In Iran, I would go to school half a day and the other half, I had a cart of being a food vendor on the street. So, in Afghanistan, I would work in a cell phone store, then day by day I got promoted. But there was a time when I started my university studying English language [education] as my undergrad. Because my English wasn’t good that much, I had learned that if I teach English to beginners, then I will improve. Then I started teaching voluntarily at the Red Crescent Society. I was teaching orphan kids then that was the “aha moment” that this is something I really enjoy. That was the sheer joy when I saw that those orphan kids were progressing, were improving. Then I decided to become a teacher. Then towards the end of my undergrads, I applied to a student fellowship. I went to India for a month at the end of 2010-2011. I completed that program Teaching Methodology in India.
Once I came back to Afghanistan, there was a teaching position at the English department, Herat University. I applied, I got accepted, then I worked hard since 2011, till the end of 2021 that I resigned from Herat University. For more than a decade, 11 years, I was a faculty member at Herat University. In addition to teaching at Herat University, I would work as an educational consultant helping the students to pursue their graduate studies. I can say that I had hundreds of students who study TOEFL, IELTS with me who applied to different scholarships, went to different countries. I was also working as a researcher with different national and international organizations. I was working with, for example, with the World Bank, with Creative International Association. Also, I was working with British Council as a trainer through which I would train teachers and principals, head teachers all over Afghanistan. So, because of my association with the British Council, when the situation was chaotic in the country, and when the government collapsed in August 2021, I received an email from the UK Government that I’m eligible to get relocated to the UK. I was in Herat. I received a lot of phone calls that I have to go to the airport. I went to the airport, we tried to enter the airport, but it was chaos outside. No one could enter. It was very difficult. We tried entering the airport for several days, we could not succeed. Then there was an explosion, that suicide attack happened. Then the foreigners left, we were left behind. So, our contacts in British Council and the UK government, they were telling us, we reached a moment that they told us, we no longer can help you in Afghanistan. All you need to do, you have to go to a third country on your own and once you reach a third country, we can help you get relocated to the UK.
Will Brehm 9:46
You are busy working at Herat University, busy working for all these different international organizations over the years and when the government collapses in the summer of 2021 the British Council tells you, we can get you out but then ultimately, they never do.
Mir Abdullah Miri 10:01
They couldn’t because the suicide attack happened and they left the country, and they no longer had their people in Afghanistan. But they were telling us we have them in third countries. For example, go to Pakistan.
Will Brehm 10:13
So, okay. And they’re telling you this by email.
Mir Abdullah Miri 10:16
Yes, they were telling us by email but there was a moment that there was an email breach as well. So, they did a mistake and instead of putting our email address and BCC to do a blind carbon copy, they put all the email addresses and CC and after receiving the first email, then I received multiple emails having the same text. I’m not sure if it was yes, I will do something like that. I realized that most of those who were replying to the emails because they were replying all, I think they were those interpreters who worked in military and we heard from friends that most of those interpreters don’t have the right computer and technology skills. That’s why they shared their emails and password with others. Then you might be in trouble because now your identity and your intentions are disclosed. So, we had a lot of tensions in Afghanistan, we wanted to get out. But that also added more tensions to our situation.
Will Brehm 11:17
Okay. So, you’re trying to get out. All of a sudden, your names get leaked because of a very simple email mistake, and you get sort of lumped in with people who might be targeted. And so, you and your family might be targeted themselves. Where are you staying at this point in Kabul? This is happening over days, weeks. It’s not just happening within hours.
Mir Abdullah Miri 11:39
True. So, I’m originally from Herat, which is a western part of the country. So, we had to go to Kabul, which is the capital and located in the eastern part of the country. So, we were in Kabul, we had no relatives in Kabul. I had friends but I could not trust them. No one could trust others, they could not trust me, because we would all say that, so and so had a relationship with foreigners. For example, I had studied in the US. They would not trust me. They would say that Mir might be a target. So, I would say that so and so might be a target, I cannot go and stay with that person. And we have to just hide ourselves. Not to share our intentions with others. And only my close families, they knew where we were. So, we were staying in different hotels every now and then, we were told to change our places and delete our emails and WhatsApp messages.
Will Brehm 12:34
We were communicating a little bit this time. And I remember we switched over to Signal which is a sort of encrypted messaging system. But then there was also a moment when you had a setting set on Signal to delete all of the previous messages. So, like our chat history just didn’t exist.
Mir Abdullah Miri 12:54
Yes, I had to activate that timing messages that, let’s say, after 24 hours, the messages get deleted. But I would do that manually as well. On my end, I would delete the messages because it was a very scary situation.
Will Brehm 13:09
So, when you’re in these hotels moving around, and this environment of sort of distrust on top of sort of conflict and violent environment. What did you do day to day in the hotel? How did you get food? What did your son do? Like what was life like in this hotel?
Mir Abdullah Miri 13:28
Most of my time was spent on being glued to my phone. Sending text messages, contacting different people. And in most cases, a lot of people contacted me to either translate texts for them. So, I could see that they are applying to different programs, sending emails to different agencies, different organizations asking for help. I can claim that I reviewed or wrote more than 100 treaty statements for people. So, everyone would contact me, because you know English, just check this text we are sending to an organization. So, because we were in the hotel, I had to buy food from outside, from different, let’s say, local restaurants. And the problem was I couldn’t provide baby food, soft food for my son. He lost a lot of weight. And that was a big concern for us at that time. And, yes, in hotel, I would text different people until I could learn about a plan that I saw on Twitter that a UCL professor is advocating researchers in Afghanistan. Then I remembered that you and I, we worked together on the country note for Afghanistan with the World Bank, then I contacted you. I said, Hey, Will, I’m stuck in Kabul. Please help me if you can.
Will Brehm 14:55
Oh my gosh. That was really quite an amazing sort of moment. I’m sure everything for you was a million times worse. But there was a lot of stress and emotional distress even on my end thinking, here’s someone I knew and worked with and there’s only so much that we could do for each other. And it was really quite amazing. I’ve never experienced anything like it. But before we get into sort of how you ended up getting out, you know, the British Council basically is telling you go to a third country like Pakistan, and we can then support you from there. Did you consider going to Pakistan?
Mir Abdullah Miri 15:30
Yes. I tried a lot. But as you listened to the episode I had with The Intercepted, the story of my cousin who got killed while trying to go to Iran illegally with the smugglers. So, that happened in early September, and in mid-September, we could find him. I could get out of Afghanistan in early November with your help. So, in between, I tried to go to Pakistan but in the black market, I had to purchase visas for Pakistan. I purchased visas for Pakistan for my wife, my son, and I. And I also told one of my friends in Kabul that I found a travel agent who can do this for us. I also took him, he also purchased Pakistan visa for himself on the black market. Then he could find a sponsor to help him purchase flight tickets to go to Islamabad. So, in a week, he went to Islamabad but because I couldn’t afford the flight tickets, they were very expensive. A one-way ticket for a 20-minute flight or 30-minute flight was at least $2,000 per person. But before the collapse, the round ticket was $350 including visa. So, on that time I had to purchase the visa, each visa I paid $350 and normally a visa was free, but I had to pay. I paid, had the sticker visa. We went to Torkham, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the eastern part. We tried border crossing, it took us two days. At the border, we were there for two days, two nights. So, even because it was very crowded, people were pushing each other, very chaotic. In the crowd, I also -because it was very crowded- my ankle got twisted. And so, I was holding my son, it was a crowd, they were pushing. With that situation, physically hurt, I went to the Pakistan Custom. It was around evening. Then they had different lines, queues for males and females. Because the line for females was shorter, then my wife called me and said that they don’t accept our visas. And I talked to that person. He told us that “we no longer accept the sticker visa. This one is a fake visa. We only accept the E-visa.” Then around midnight, we came back to Kabul.
Will Brehm 18:01
I remember at that time, you sent me some photos when you were at the border crossing. And I think you said something to me like that was the scariest moment of your life.
Mir Abdullah Miri 18:10
Yes. And I was very sad why I did this. Why did I go to the border? I should have waited maybe because that moment, we were emotionally hurt, distressed, physically hurt, economically, we had paid, so our money was gone. And that was a very difficult situation. And the banks were closed, we did not have access to monies. That’s why it was very difficult. And apart from that, every time I could hear stories about friends, relatives. So, my cousin died, one of my students died in front of the airport because it was rushed. She was with her father, and in the crowd, she died. So, hearing those stories, very traumatic experiences, it was very difficult.
Will Brehm 18:55
It’s just unbelievable, really, and it’s just an awful experience that you had to go through. But okay. So, here you are. You’ve returned to Kabul after a failed attempt. And what happens? Take me to November and how you ended up actually arriving at the Kabul airport and leaving your bags and your saffron and your hard drives and actually getting on an airplane.
Mir Abdullah Miri 19:17
When I contacted you after seeing on Twitter that a UCL professor is helping researchers in Afghanistan, then I remembered that we worked together. I remembered you are at UCL. I contacted you then you told me that there is a possibility that you can help me to get evacuated because you know some organizations that are helping researchers. And so, you helped us, we received that a humanitarian visa to go to Mexico. We were added to the list. And then the team who supported us after you introduced us to them, they sent us a list as the humanitarian visa, and they sent us the flight tickets. A couple of times the plan got canceled because everything would change unexpectedly. In Afghanistan, nothing was a fixed plan. Every time they would change because of the Taliban, they would change their policies.
Will Brehm 20:16
I remember the organization basically had to charter a flight or buy a lot of seats on a flight that was leaving Kabul. And there weren’t so many flights leaving Kabul at the time. So, probably like you, I would get text messages basically saying the flight’s going to leave tonight. And then 30 minutes before when the flight’s supposed to leave, I’d get a text saying it’s been canceled. And we don’t know when it’s going to be rescheduled. And it was just sort of this high and low, high and low. And you just had no sense of if it’s actually going to happen. And it was really, really, really stressful for me. And I was living in London. I mean, I can’t even imagine how stressful it must have been for you.
Mir Abdullah Miri 20:58
Yes, that’s true. And finally, when the day arrived, we went to the airport. So, in the morning, I deleted everything from my laptop after copying them to my hard drive. I also deleted information, data from my phone. We went to the airport, it was a normal airport, like before the collapse but we had the tension there. So, we got the boarding passes, we were waiting for the flight, the bags were checked in. When the boarding started then they announced that all the checked in bags are canceled. And they told us you only have around 15 minutes to decide because on that time, the airport would be closed at 6pm in the evening. They told us you need to decide quickly. Either you go without your bags, luggage’s, or wait. We will send you another charter flight another day. So, we had to leave without our bags. I was begging the staff at the airport. All I need is my hard drive. There was an old man with us. He had, I think, a heart problem. He didn’t know English. I was translating on his behalf. I was telling the airport staff that he needs his medication, what they did, they brought his medication, but they didn’t bring my hard drive. So, initially, we were supposed to collect the bags the next day but because they told us they will send them. So every time they procrastinated, and it ended up after now 10 months, almost a year. I haven’t received them yet.
Will Brehm 22:31
So, you ended up in Mexico. What was it like to be in Mexico? And what was the plan? What was the plan for the group of Afghans who ended up in Mexico going forward?
Mir Abdullah Miri 22:44
So, we were six or seven families. They all had different plans. I was the only one who wanted to go to the UK because I had an offer, because I was eligible to go to the UK to ARAP (Afghanistan Relocation and Assistant Policy scheme). The others, they were trying to go to the US and Canada. So, they had different eligibility reference numbers there. In Mexico, once I arrived there, the UK Government had coordinated with the staff at the UK embassy. They were very responsive and supportive. They helped me to get the visa but after receiving the visa, because of the COVID situation in the UK, at that time I had to wait until they booked my flight tickets. And then it was around Christmas. It was almost reaching the holidays, Christmas holidays. But finally in December, I arrived in the UK.
Will Brehm 23:39
So, you made it to the UK, and you ended up becoming an Afghan New Observatory Fellow for New America. And you ended up creating a podcast which I encourage everyone to go listen to it. It was just aired on The Intercepted and it was a story as you said about your cousin. What was it like for you to basically get transplanted into a new country having experienced some of the most traumatic events anyone could ever go through, and all of a sudden, you’re basically turned into a reporter, and you are reporting and making a podcast about your cousin. A family experience, an experience that you went through in many ways. What was it like to put that podcast together?
Mir Abdullah Miri 24:24
I’m thankful to New America and The Intercepted for supporting me providing that platform for me to explore the story of my cousin. For me, working on that story was a totally new experience. I was a researcher and I’m a researcher. But that program wanted me to do a journalistic activity -to report something. Something I had never done before, especially podcast and creating an episode. Writing a story in a new genre. So, the experience was very helpful. I learned a lot, I improved at both personal and professional development levels. I learned a lot about collaboration, reflections, feedback. I received a lot of support. At the beginning of the program, they provided us an open-source investigation training. And of course, I would receive a lot of feedback, especially on my English because I would write in academic English. They were telling me, don’t write “assist”, write “help”, don’t write “however”. Use short sentences, don’t use a lot of complex sentences. And the work required a lot of emotional energy because I was dealing with a personal story but a traumatic one. That was the sad part. And every time I had to contact relatives, and asking them to think back, think about a traumatic experience they have experienced and provide information.
Will Brehm 26:01
Do you think it was therapeutic for yourself and or even your family members to sort of, you know, go through this process of remembering and recounting what happened?
Mir Abdullah Miri 26:11
I don’t know. It’s difficult to say whether it was a therapy for them. I feel proud of what I did because I really hope that episode provides some small comfort for them. That they know that their story is being heard, and that the prayers of others are for them. And that’s why I’m proud of the outcome and what I did. Now that I’m a refugee, I believe that there is a need to create more platforms and give voice to those refugees, migrants, who are in other countries, who are forced to leave and who have lost everything. And one of the dialogues from the main character that lost his life in that episode is that he says, according to his wife before he left home, he said like, “leaving home is like leaving soul”. So, whenever you leave your homeland, you leave your soul. That’s why we named that podcast as No Way Home. So, when you leave, you no longer find a place that you call home. I believe having such kind of platforms, giving voices to migrants or refugees would help them not only to share their stories, but also help those who struggle to learn from the success stories of those who are successful. Not all experiences, and not all the stories are traumatic, of course. So, that’s why I enjoyed that work. And I believe that stories are powerful. And as a researcher, even, I enjoy doing qualitative research.
Will Brehm 27:45
It was unbelievably powerful, your episode and the other ones I’ve listened to already. They are powerful. And I think you’re right, that these stories need to get out there and be heard. And it really is quite sad to think that there is no way home. The soul is where your home is. You lose your soul, you lose your home. But hopefully, like you said, there can be some positive or happy stories, potentially. I mean, I’m so happy to hear that your hard drive has been found. And I really, really, really hope that it will get reunited with you. And I really also hope that the saffron makes it. What would you cook if you had the saffron returned to you? What would be the first thing you make with it?
Mir Abdullah Miri 28:26
As I said before, I will keep it to make saffron tea. And when friends, they come, especially those who have never tried saffron from Afghanistan, from Herat, we will serve them with saffron tea and say this is what we have in Afghanistan in Herat. We even call that red gold because we believe it’s expensive. So, we use that name for that.
Will Brehm 28:49
Well, Mir Abdullah Miri, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. I’m so happy that you are safe, thriving in your new environment. And I just wish you and your family both in the UK and in Afghanistan safety and prosperity and I hope you may get reunited with that hard drive and that saffron. Thanks so much for joining.
Mir Abdullah Miri 29:10
Thank you so much, Will, for having me. I really appreciate your support.
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