Stories showcase the country’s rich cultural fabric in this extraordinary album of Afghan society.
The journalist who sobbed as he left Afghanistan for the last time, the martial arts champion who climbed the country’s highest peak, the trumpeter writing music in defiance of Taliban decrees. Every face on the Humans of Afghanistan Facebook page comes with a story about the hardships people have endured, the passions they have pursued and the motivations that drive them – some to extraordinary feats, others to overcome obstacles and achieve small victories in the humdrum affairs of ordinary life.
These are the everyday details that take us behind the photographs of competitions won and summits reached, the hopes shattered and the battles lost, to the lives we rarely see on the news. It’s Afghanistan beneath the struggle and conflict that dominates media headlines, a place where people persevere and find a new normality, partly because there’s no other choice.
“All the world sees of Afghanistan is Taliban, war, girls not going to school – there is no focus on the lives of ordinary citizens,” says Obaid Karimi at Humans of Afghanistan. “A lot has changed since the Taliban takeover but not necessarily what we do on a daily basis. Most of us just want to continue and get on with our lives.”
This, he believes, is the power of Humans of Afghanistan, which highlights shared struggles and concerns while celebrating the unique qualities of human experience. In a country of enormous social, ethnic and linguistic diversity, these stories remind people of the commonalities between diverse communities as politics and religion drive them apart. “We bridge the gap between cultures,” Karimi, 19, says.
He joined the Humans of Afghanistan team in 2020, after coming across the Facebook and Instagram pages. “It’s extraordinary for people abroad to know what life is like for ordinary Afghans… by sharing their stories we raise awareness of the issues people face here.”
There are over 200 individuals featured on Humans of Afghanistan, which started in 2015, inspired by the original Humans of New York series, which made headlines documenting the diversity of the city’s inhabitants back in 2010. Since then, it has inspired spin-off projects in more than 20 countries, documenting thousands of lives around the world.
In Afghanistan, it has been hard to find new subjects since the government collapsed in August 2021. With the Taliban monitoring social media, people are afraid. “They feel insecure about sharing their stories. In some cases their employers or families are against it, or it could put them at risk,” Karimi says. But the team are determined to keep finding new faces, not least because their followers send messages of support, reinforcing the value of the project.
“By sharing these stories we hope to bring social change, and we are already achieving those goals,” Karimi says, pointing to the project’s aims to reinforce diversity, break down stereotypes and promote cultural exchange. “We have a lot of racism between cultures but this promotes sympathy between people of different communities. I think it really helps Afghans to understand each other.”
Some of the stories celebrate success with tales of triumph over the odds. Fatima Sultani’s family couldn’t afford to send all of their daughters to university, so while her sisters studied, she went to martial arts sessions. Before long, Sultani was selected for the Afghan national Jiu-Jitsu and Taekwondo teams, participating in competitions around the world and winning medals for her country. Her entry on the Humans of Afghanistan page shows her performing martial arts moves and resting on a precarious-looking ridge, dressed in mountaineering gear.
“It brings me absolute pride that we women have climbed together and conquered various mountain peaks in Afghanistan,” says Sultani, who became the youngest person to reach Afghanistan’s highest peak in 2019 and was subsequently selected for the BBC’s top 100 women list.
The next entry is Qudrat Wasefi, a musician born to an impoverished nomad family in the desert of western Afghanistan. “Having come from a very conservative society where music is not accepted as a ‘real’ career and is also forbidden, I was keen to break the mold and build a career around my passion…As a child of war, I know that we cannot make ourselves happy or sad or hopeful, but somehow, music can. And my experience in the last six months has proven just how powerful music is in uniting international communities,” he says.
For Karimi, one story that stands out is Somaya Faruqi, who overcame family objections to pursue her childhood passion for robotics and went on to captain her team in the global 2021 First Robotics Competition, winning the prestigious Judge’s Award. “My message to all my country girls is to have faith in your abilities and believe in yourself. If you have a dream, you have to believe in yourself because once the belief is killed, the dream is killed, and once you believe, you will be unstoppable,” she writes.
Not all Afghan stories are postive
Alongside the successes are accounts of loss and displacement, and lives overshadowed by suffering. “No feeling is worse than being called a foreigner in your own country, we were made to feel that every single day of our lives,” writes Raju Singh Soni, a Sikh who describes the humiliation, violence and hostility he has endured because of his faith.
These accounts put human faces on the challenges confronting Afghanistan and the impact they have on human lives. “Some of the stories are heartbreaking and make you think that living in Afghanistan is the worst thing people can do,” says Karimi. But these stories are just as important to tell, however upsetting. “We don’t censor anything,” he adds.
The team is also hoping to feature Taliban members. “It would help Afghans understand the bubble they have grown up in, the circumstances that made them Taliban,” he says, but so far, Taliban members have refused.
The next step is to expand the project to more regions, particularly those affected by major events like the earthquake that struck Khost and Patika provinces last June. At the time, the team, who work at HoA as volunteers, struggled to raise funds quickly enough to reach those affected by the disaster, which killed over 1,000 people.
“Humans of Afghanistan carry the same spirit of Humans to New York trying to humanize and communicate the stories of Afghans who are displaying an unimaginable desire for life and shows the resilience of the people despite all the destruction and the tyranny around them,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders.
Ideas Beyond Borders has provided an Innovation Hub grant to enable this kind of work, providing financial and logistical support so that Humans of Afghanistan can expand its operation and reach more people. The money will also be spent on raising awareness about the project by creating a website and putting together a book showcasing the many different faces of Afghanistan.