New York Times: "Afghan Lovers Begin an Asylum Odyssey in New York"

by Joseph McKeown

Zakia and Mohammad Ali are a young couple from different sects in Afghanistan. After they eloped two years ago against the wishes of their parents, Zakia’s family members, from the Tajik ethnicity and Sunni sect of Islam, attempted to murder Zakia. For her family, Zakia’s marriage to Mohammad, an ethnic Hazara and a Shiite, was a dishonor worthy of death. Running for their lives, the young couple, described as Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet, faced exile in the high mountains of Afghanistan, fled briefly to Tajikistan where they were robbed of their possessions and savings, and spent time in jails and safe houses.    

Now, in the next chapter of their harrowing story, they have arrived with their seventeen-month-old daughter, Ruqia, in New York City on a ninety-day visa granted by the American Embassy in Kabul. An international aid group plans to assist the couple in applying for asylum. “Since their case had become politicized and has received so much media attention, we knew that their lives would be endangered as long as they remained in Afghanistan,” Manizha Naderi, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, who assisted the couple, told the New York Times. “They couldn’t live anywhere in peace. Zakia’s family would hunt them down.”

Like many asylum seekers, they face a difficult battle. Even if they win their asylum case in the United States, both are illiterate with little work experience beyond farming in their home of the Bamian Province. Not only do many asylum seekers face the often difficult task of wining their case, they also must learn English, obtain relevant job skills and education, and assimilate into US communities, which may be hard for those with close families and support communities in their home country.

Zakia and Mohammad Ali’s story has been profiled in countless publications across the globe, and New York Times correspondent Rob Nordland, who first learned about the couple when he was researching honor killings, wrote a book about them, titled The Lovers. “We submit to God—we tried everything here, but the situation did not change,” Mohammad Ali told the Times before his flight from Kabul. “[In the US] at least we will be able to live in security and safety.”