‘I am so appreciative Ireland has accepted us’

Afghan refugee arrives in Ireland at same time as war photo exhibition he helped create

 

Journalist Karim Sharifi knew he had to get his family out of Afghanistan when Taliban fighters quickly captured the city of Faizabad in the north of the country last month.

He knew Kabul too would fall in time so last month he found places for himself, his wife Madina and two sons, Shorush and Sulaiman, on a plane to neighbouring Tajikistan.

As a journalist who reported for the Associated Press and a “fixer” who helped foreign journalists, Sharifi realised he would be a target of the Taliban government. He had to get out.

Now, a month later, he finds himself in Dublin after the Government approved his asylum application and that of his brother. Karim is hoping his wife and sons will follow him soon.

“I miss my life so much in Kabul. This is a beautiful city. I am so appreciative Ireland has accepted us,” he said.

Sharifi’s arrival in Ireland coincides with an exhibition at the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar that includes photographs of homemade prosthetics made by Afghan wartime amputees. The photos were taken by the New York-based Irish photographer and filmmaker Ross McDonnell.

Karim helped McDonnell on an assignment in 2012 at an orthopaedic hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

Decades of war has left many Afghans with missing limbs. McDonnell discovered that patients often left improvised prosthetic legs made from stovepipes, wood and even shell casings at the hospital when they received their custom fitted limbs. The hospital displayed them on a wall.

Sharifi helped McDonnell with his photography, turning a room and white sheets on a hospital trolley into a makeshift studio. The stark images are a haunting reminder of what Afghans have endured during years of conflict and how they had to adapt.

The images are part of an exhibition of shortlisted photographs for the Prix Pictet global award that are touring the world. The exhibition opened on Friday, which was Culture Night.

“I am so excited and proud about this,” said Sharifi, standing next to the photographs.

Safe locations

Karim leaves not just friends and former colleagues behind in Afghanistan, but his home and his “fixer” business. He ran a restaurant, bar and guesthouse for foreign journalists in Kabul.

He could see the risks growing against the press in Afghanistan. The Taliban began assassinating journalists two years ago in an attempt to undermine civil society. Sharifi said he had been “living like a thief” in that time, staying in different safe locations.

At least 30 journalists and media workers have been wounded or killed in Afghanistan this year, according to Afghanistan-based NAI which tracks violent incidents against journalists.

Karim’s history with “the wild Taliban”, as he calls them, goes back 20 years. He recalls Taliban visiting a shop he had when he was 15, destroying his kites and English books and assaulting him.

“I totally know the approach of the Taliban. Some people think the Taliban has changed – no way,” he said.

His brother described last month’s US withdrawal from Afghanistan that heralded the Taliban’s return to power after 20 years as “poorly managed” and “extremely irresponsible” despite many people warning it would happen that way.

“We are grateful we are here and safe. But I have lost my home and everything I have built for decades. I am one of the lucky ones. What bothers me most are the ones left behind,” he said.

Karim said he worries about those stuck in Afghanistan “because they have no hope, no hope for themselves or their children – when I call them, they say: ‘brother, everything is gone’.”

Dublin-based photographer Paulo Nunes dos Santos worked with Karim in Afghanistan and considers local “fixers” essential for his work. He worries about the future for the media there, pointing to the Taliban’s recent beating of two Afghan reporters for covering a women’s protest.

“Overnight these people are not allowed to work anymore,” he said.

Karim, who had never visited Europe before, was drawn to Ireland because of its arts, culture and “spirituality”. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists helped secure his and his brother’s asylum, giving them a choice of Ireland, The Netherlands or the US.

Karim used to play music in his restaurant and imagined himself playing music in Ireland but he had to leave his accordion behind in Kabul. He doubts he will ever see it again.

“When the Taliban find a musical instrument, they just break it,” he said.

This article was amended on September 27th, 2021

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