The closest most Afghans have ever got to Albania is in the alphabet. Now, for some, it’s home and perhaps even their future.
Tirana — "There are two types of chickens in my country," says Faisal, a 32-year-old Afghan refugee who reached Albania on a US chartered plane.
"One type of chicken, people keep them in their houses, and those chickens can wander around where they want. The other type of chickens are kept in cages. We are the second type of chickens."
Faisal and his immediate family caught one of the first planes to arrive in Tirana, carrying 154 Afghan refugees on August 28. A former employee in the country's Ministry of Agriculture in a USAID-funded project, Faisal was a communication manager.
They didn't know they were destined for Albania – until they got on the plane. The original destination, Qatar, was changed at the last minute. Faisal's family and other passengers were not allowed to carry their luggage but only the clothes on their back and one small piece of hand luggage.
Faisal, however, was one of the lucky ones. He and his family had made it into the airport when a terrorist group set off a bomb (claimed by Daesh-K) killing at least 170 Afghans and 13 US soldiers, resulting in carnage, stalling the US-led evacuation, and heaping more misery on those attempting to flee.
"The international community has turned their back towards Afghanistan," says Faisal.
The lightning speed of the Taliban's takeover of the country caught not only the Americans by surprise but also those Afghans who had worked with the US and thought they would have more time to sort out their affairs.
As thousands descended on Hamid Karzai International Airport, Faisal recalls that "I was either going to that gate or dying in here."
It took Faisal and his family more than 20 hours inside the airport to move towards the boarding gate.
He shows pictures of his children strewn on the floor, sleeping on top of suitcases surrounded by litter that had been dropped everywhere—a final indignity for those leaving.
Visibly emotional and struggling to hold back his tears, Faisal finally says he felt "disrespected" as he and his family finally boarded the plane out of the country. "It didn't have to be like that, people were trampled, kids were dying there!"
With only $200 in his pocket, the daunting prospect of restarting his life from scratch is only beginning to dawn on Faisal. "I don't know if my degree is going to work outside," he says. "I had a respectful job, people reported to me, I had a good paycheck."
"Now I don't know if I'm going to be working as a waiter, driving an Uber, all my education means nothing now."
A people accustomed to war
The new arrivals in Tirana, which could ultimately number up to 4,000, are also the talk of the “Student City” on the outskirts, which normally houses undergraduates during the school year.
Curiosity is visible amongst passers-by towards the people who have dominated headlines for the last couple of weeks. Quick glances, hushed tones – the locals have as many questions about the ordeal of the new arrivals as this now-stateless community has about this small Balkan country.
Two elderly ladies, groundskeepers on this section of the campus, siting under the shade of a tree shifting a watering hose with their feet in a bid to avoid the sun at all costs, shared their thoughts.
"God forbid it would ever happen to us again," she says to her friend. Albania, after all, experienced its own tumult in the 1990s. Firstly, the chaotic fall of communism resulted in thousands fleeing towards Europe, and then a short-lived civil war in 1997, which saw a second wave of refugees. Albania is no stranger to political upheaval.
Peering overhead from a fire escape, an Afghan woman is taking stock of her new surroundings. Wrapped in a shawl, she slowly pans with her phone documenting the campus and perhaps even informing loved ones left behind that she's finally safe.
Local volunteers shepherd the Afghans up and down the campus. They register and deposit their documents at the police station. They take a PCR test, the pandemic stops for no one after all. They visit the food hall, the local shops. The banal rituals of familiarising.
Some of the new arrivals pace up and down, some speaking to friends – they look shell shocked.
Shakib, 36, is walking with his wife and three kids; his two daughters wear brightly colored dresses. His son runs around his parents playing hide-and-seek, the events of what just transpired could be a world away. The parents, however, seem to be in a trance-like state when approached.
"It will be a new start for all of us," says Shakib, resigned to his new reality. "We locked our home and just ran to the airport," he adds.
"The kids thought we were going to our second house in the suburbs. I told them at the airport that we would have to leave the country. I didn't tell them much, I didn't want to mentally stress them."
Formerly employed by USAID, supporting small and medium enterprises, his paperwork could take months to be finalised and potentially mean a year out of school for his children.
"In the past 40 years, we have had lots of wars in Afghanistan, we got accustomed to such things," says Mir, a fellow passenger who traveled with Shakib on the plane to Albania.
"My work for the US embassy, the Afghan government, and my two degrees from the US are the main factors that led me to fear staying in the country," says Mir.
Mir worked for the Afghan government for 13 years while also working on US embassy projects, perhaps ironically, related to future reconciliation in the country. Those projects are now a distant memory.
"My future is uncertain. I don't even know if asylum will be granted for us. If it's rejected, I will have to go back and accept my fate," he says.