Muzhgan Mehr at the SPARK office in Amsterdam

Muzhgan Mehr, an Afghan refugee and Project Officer at SPARK, The Netherlands shares her story and dedicates her words to the Afghan people.

On Thursday 23rd June, I met the Prime Minister of The Netherlands, Mr Mark Rutte. I was invited, alongside two other Afghan refugees, to discuss our experiences since arriving in The Netherlands. Here’s what I told him.

I was busy working on my decade-long career at the Netherlands embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, when in a matter of days, my life was turned upside down in August 2021. I started as a Consular Officer and then also became a Personal Assistant to the Netherlands Ambassador to Afghanistan. Yet, as the Taliban took control of the country, I remember thinking: “How can we progress here?” I knew that everything I’d worked for was now in jeopardy.

The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, like many other governments, took the emergency decision to evacuate the embassy staff, as our lives would have been in danger from Taliban militants because of our work for the Netherlands or non-governmental organisations. Amidst the deadly chaos at Kabul airport, I boarded a military plane to the Netherlands, alongside 36 of my colleagues and their families.

As I left on that plane, my home country and everyone I left behind experienced the withdrawal of US troops, the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces and a sudden regime change. Soon after that, foreign aid to the country was cut-off along with important international financial connections. Technical, skilled and professional workers were also forced to flee the country, causing a decided loss of human capacity, while the remaining people became and remained unemployed. The well-documented decline in women’s rights and access to basic services – health, education, employment – continue to haunt me. All of these sudden developments created a substantial shock in Afghanistan’s formal and informal economies, the consequences of which are deadly – food insecurity and acute malnutrition spread across the country.

Starting my new life as a refugee

We faced great difficulties in the first few months of arriving in the Netherlands. In applying for refugee status, we were housed in detention centres around the country and regularly moved from one camp to another. Along with having to share the facilities with many other people, our basic needs were often unmet – should someone need to study or work, there is barely a comfortable place for it. However, there’s no choice for us but to be patient.

SPARK, a Dutch international NGO, was requested by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs to support us in finding new jobs in the Netherlands. When refugees come to a new country, they need a guide. I needed a guide, and I was very happy to have SPARK as an organisation to help me. SPARK’s refugee job placement model provided us with intensive Dutch language courses, conducted assessments of our skills and capabilities, analysed appropriate employment sectors in the Netherlands and matched us to suitable vacancies. By working with Tempo-Team and USG Restart, the largest job coaching organisation in the Netherlands that provides skills training and one-to-one coaching, SPARK helped us towards integration and job opportunities in this country.

With my previous work experience and language skills, SPARK themselves offered me a job as a Project Officer at the Amsterdam-based office, supporting agri-business programmes in Afghanistan.

While my life is now here, in the Netherlands, I can’t forget my people

Afghanistan is in serious need of humanitarian aid and emergency response. Non-government organisations (NGOs) remain the backbone of this response. In December 2022, women were banned by the Taliban from attending university and female staff were banned from working in foreign and local NGOs. This led to the mass suspension of most INGO activities, which raised major concerns among the Afghani population. While some NGOs have now been able to resume their operations with women workers, I feel the suspension has undoubtedly affected the livelihoods of the Afghani people, who are in a dire state of food insecurity and economic crisis.

Afghanistan’s economy is heavily dependent on agricultural products and livestock. However, agricultural growth is very challenging at the moment, with farmers often facing limited access to applicable technologies as well as weak institutional support. One way that we can help with these challenges is through agricultural education. By promoting good quality education among farmers and keeping them up to date with technology and modern equipment and farming practices the situation could be turned around. This can be done by linking schools to private companies, teaching practical skills relevant to the labour market demand, practical learning of business skills and increasing the participation of women.

Through my work at SPARK, we conducted an assessment of the regions of Afghanistan most affected by food insecurity. We hope to sustain the most vulnerable people by working with local (Afghan) partner organisations, strengthening entrepreneurship and increasing domestic food production and processing in the country, especially for women, youth and other disadvantaged populations. Ultimately, our goal is to create an enabling environment for entrepreneurship and job creation in Afghanistan, one that contributes to the country’s long-term development and stability.

Through my new life I hope to drive change in Afghanistan

My life has changed dramatically since moving to the Netherlands and becoming a ‘refugee’. I am so grateful to this country and its people for the support I’ve received – but my life’s work will remain dedicated to my home country. While the challenges are significant, I remain optimistic about the potential of entrepreneurship and SMEs in Afghanistan to drive positive change and transform the lives of my people in Afghanistan, especially women, long after the Taliban’s reign is defeated.