‘Over the moon’: 10 Afghan orphans start new life in Australia but fear for others still trying to flee

Group run by Sydney-based woman known as the ‘mother of a thousand’ is working to rescue as many children as possible

As the Taliban tightened its grip on power in Afghanistan – casting girls from schools, ordering women home from work, and threatening to reinstitute the barbaric punishments that blighted their last rule – 10 young orphans packed everything they owned and quietly made their way out of Kabul.

Those 10 Afghan orphans – cared for in orphanages run by Sydney-based woman Mahboba Rawi and near-certain targets for Taliban retribution – were guided over Afghanistan’s fraught borderlands into Pakistan, where they found sanctuary, and from where they were helped onto evacuation flights to a new home in Australia.

They arrived in Australia on Friday to begin new and free lives.

The Afghan-Australian Rawi – the “mother of a thousand” – has for decades run Mahboba’s Promise, a welfare organisation that houses, educates and supports thousands of Afghan widows and orphans. Rawi’s flagship orphanage in Kabul is known simply as Hope House.

Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Rawi and her team have been working to rescue as many of those under her care as possible. After an initial attempt to airlift more than 100 children – made impossible by a deadly suicide bombing at the gates to Kabul airport – it has been a relentless, secretive toil of paperwork and petitioning, securing documents and finding routes when none seemed available.

One of the Mahboba’s Promise staff members who helped guide the group out, Khalid, told the Guardian from Dubai en route to Australia that those who were able to secure visas and escape Afghanistan were torn between their joy at liberation and fears for their friends.

“The children who have made this escape overland to Pakistan are so happy,” he said. “They are enjoying their time without the danger of the Taliban.

“But still, [while] all these children ... are happy for themselves, they feel so sad and disappointed about their friends, their orphan brothers and sisters who are still in Kabul and trying to flee the country.”

Khalid with his children
‘When the Taliban returned, I could not sleep, I was always thinking about my son, my daughter.’ Khalid with his children Photograph: Supplied

Taliban militants had visited orphanages run by the organisation, intimidating staff and threatening to close them down. Some staff received threatening letters at their homes. In the Taliban’s eyes, cooperation with a foreign organisation is suspicious. A connection to Australia – whose military was in the country for two decades until last month – is potentially life-threatening.

The group of 17, comprising 10 orphans, two staff members and their families, made their way across the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, reaching Islamabad earlier this week. The youngest child is just four years old.

The children know their new country and their connection to the country through Rawi, their Australian “mother”. Rawi’s orphanages are regularly visited by Australian ambassadors and parliamentarians and the children mark Australia Day.

Australia Weekend

Khalid said the people of Afghanistan know too well the brutality of the Taliban’s regime, having lived under its yoke for five years until 2001. He said the resurgent Taliban was unreformed and unrepentant – and would target those with links to the west.

“Everyone in Afghanistan is in fear. They fear about their lives, about [being able to] feed themselves. Will they be able to survive under this regime?

“When the Taliban returned, I could not sleep, I was always thinking about my son, my daughter – how will my family and the people around me survive in a system run by a barbaric group like the Taliban.”

Email: sign up for our daily morning and afternoon email newsletters

App: download our free app and never miss the biggest stories

Social: follow us on YouTubeTikTokInstagramFacebook or Twitter

Podcast: listen to our daily episodes on Apple PodcastsSpotify or search "Full Story" in your favourite app

Khalid – the Guardian is using only his first name for security reasons – said the mood of the children stranded in Kabul was bleak. “They don’t anticipate a brighter and a good future for themselves. It will be a dark time for Afghanistan,” he said.

Nawid Cina, Mahboba Rawi’s son, and the general manager of Mahboba’s Promise, said the rescue mission was a joyous moment but there were more children to rescue.

“We’re over the moon these lives have been saved, but in our minds, it’s very much a first step. It’s an important step, a momentous step, but we’re wholly focused on the ones remaining. Those still in Afghanistan face the same risks, they have the same fears, and we will keep working to bring them to safety,” he said.

“This has not been easy, to have to separate these orphans. They grew up as siblings, it is not what we wanted to do.”

Orphans in Islamabad hotel
‘It’s an important step, a momentous step, but we’re wholly focused on the ones remaining.’ Orphans in an Islamabad hotel after fleeing Afghanistan Photograph: Supplied

Cina said Afghanistan was descending into a humanitarian crisis, from which the world must not turn away.

With winter looming, the World Food Programme has estimated that already, 14 million people are food insecure: only 5% of Afghan families have enough to eat. Unicef says 1 million children in Afghanistan are at risk of starvation and will suffer severe acute malnutrition this year.

Afghanistan’s economy has ground to a halt. The Taliban has imposed withdrawal limits to stop a run on banks and food prices have skyrocketed.

Sydney-based Mahboba Rawi outside a girls’ school in Afghanistan run by her non-government organisation Mahboba’s Promise in 2016
Sydney-based Mahboba Rawi outside a girls’ school in Afghanistan run by her welfare organisation Mahboba’s Promise in 2016 Photograph: Supplied

“There is dire need in Afghanistan. People are suffering, and the humanitarian crisis is only going to get worse,” Cina said.

Rawi, who was forced to flee Soviet-occupied Afghanistan as a child, established Mahboba’s Promise from Australia in 2001. Her organisation has since fed, housed, clothed and educated thousands of children across Afghanistan. It continues to work to rescue more children under its care from the rule of the Taliban.

“The future is bleak in Afghanistan,” her son told the Guardian. “We are overjoyed these children have got out, their lives have been saved. But there are many left and we’re looking forward to working with government – who have been incredible – to rescue them too.”


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Afghan nationals in Australia fear for loved ones in grim wait for split-family visas
Wives, children and vulnerable parents have been left at mercy of Taliban as promises of swift family reunions fade

Shadi Khan Saif and Ben Doherty

05, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Letters from those left behind: Afghans who worked for Australia describe desperation as they hide from Taliban
These are the stories of interpreters, embassy staff, guards and aid workers still trying to get to Australia a year after the fall of Kabul

Ben Doherty

15, Aug, 2022 @2:13 AM

Article image
Dozens of Afghan partners of Australians fear being left off evacuation flights
Calls for urgent help for Afghans waiting for visa applications to be processed as Australia prepares to ramp up Kabul evacuations

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

19, Aug, 2021 @10:23 AM

Article image
Home affairs minister ordered into mediation with Afghan refugee detained in Australia
Man being held in Melbourne hotel fears for his wife and four children as Taliban advance

Ben Doherty

04, Aug, 2021 @1:29 AM

Article image
Afghan refugee may lose permanent residency in Australia – for supplying identity document
Exclusive: Hazara man faces potential deportation after home affairs told him a document it asked him to obtain for his citizenship application could not be verified

Ben Doherty

07, Aug, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
‘You called us brothers’: Afghans who fought with Australian troops still live in fear of Taliban
Australian volunteers working to get Afghans to safety say they are frustrated by ‘inefficient’ government response

Ben Doherty

09, Jul, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
More than 100,000 Afghan nationals vying for initial 3,000 humanitarian visas from Australia
Advocates call for special intake for at-risk groups given surging demand after fall of Kabul

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

11, Oct, 2021 @7:31 AM

Article image
Revealed: how Australia 'dumped so much fucking money' on asylum-seeker ad campaign
Exclusive: PR company paid $277,000 for three days’ work to persuade asylum seekers in Afghanistan and Pakistan not to travel by boat to Australia, email shows

Paul Farrell

31, Jul, 2017 @6:00 PM

Article image
A year since fleeing Kabul: ‘Now my children can grow up in peace’
The withdrawal of allied troops from Afghanistan a year ago led to desperate scenes as refugees tried to escape the Taliban. One man tells his family’s story

Noor M Ramazan, Melbourne photography by Christopher Hopkins

12, Aug, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
Afghan interpreter who helped US-led forces faces indefinite detention in Australia
Hazara man, who fled Taliban reprisals and has been separated from his family for seven years, will languish indefinitely unless Peter Dutton grants him a visa

Ben Doherty

25, Jul, 2020 @8:00 PM