EXCLUSIVE: Meet the Woman Veterinarian of Kabul

Kabul veterinarian Dr. Tahera Rezaei and Meredith Festa of Paws Unite People sharing Christmas in New York, five months after Rezaei left Afghanistan during the US air evacuation in August of 2021. Photo used with permission.

In August 2021, as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, I received a message about an animal rescue organization called the Kabul Small Animal Rescue (KSAR) that was attempting to extract animals and staff via the US airlift evacuation operation at Kabul International Airport.

It was one of many stories emerging out of chaos. I was told they were having difficulty making the arrangement to gain permission for a chartered plane to land from US authorities. The charity organizations had the airplane but lacked the callsign designator that would enable the plane to enter the airspace, land, embark passengers and cargo, depart from the field, and deposit KSAR’s animals and staff at one of the world’s evacuation stopover locations, known as “Lily Pads.” The NGO’s involved in the process were disturbed that paperwork, not resources, was impeding the extract.

I thought it was an interesting case study about those tumultuous days so I broke a story on RedState about it, “Desperate Dogs in Afghanistan; Sand Running out Trying to Save Left Behind Pets”. The story climbed its way up the news cycle, picking up political and moral judgments along the way about who was to blame for the paperwork problems to whether saving dogs mattered.

My colleague Scott Hounsell penned a piece about the CDC being part of the SNAFU, “BREAKING: CDC-Issued Ban to Blame for Dogs Left Behind in Afghanistan” and Brandon Morse penned one placing some of the blame on President Biden, “Biden Also Abandoned Our Furry Soldiers, and Organizations Scramble to Help Them Escape a Terrible Fate.”

In the end, the charter planes never came. In the chaos of the US evacuation, the animals were never extracted. KSAR’s American lead, Dr. Charlotte Maxwell-Jones, refused to evacuate and took busloads of animals and staff back into the city. It became just one more debacle, among many, of things we left undone at the end of a failed nation-building experiment.

MWOB

What made the KSAR story interesting is that it was an example of the American version of Afghanistan where, what in the US would call a Minority or Women-Owned Business (MWOB), could flourish. KSAR was a women-run organization. Its executives were women. Its board of directors were women. It was exactly the kind of business model that America wanted, and the Taliban did not.

A journalist friend stuck in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif as Afghanistan fell, Hollie McKay, has reported from Afghanistan that while rural women in the country would see little change in their lives when the Taliban came to power, the professional women of the cities, the ones possessed with American dreams, would suffer the greatest displacements.

The women veterinarians of KSAR were precisely such women. They are the refugees of strict Islam’s displacement.

Refuge

Since that catastrophic moment, some of the displaced staffers of KSAR, specifically the women veterinarians, have been trickling out of the country as their former roles at KSAR have been replaced by men under the Taliban regimes.

Edicts about women working in roles suitable only for men have stripped professional women of opportunities they gained during the 20 years of US occupation. Overnight, their country returned to an older interpretation of the norms of vice and virtue under a stricter form of Islamic Law.

The scramble to leave began.  For many, it’s still a work in progress.

At the end of 2021, I caught up with the first woman veterinarian from KSAR to leave Afghanistan, Dr. Tahera Rezaei, who boarded a US evacuation aircraft out of Kabul, is now safely in the United States with fellow animal rescuer Meredith Festa, who runs Paws Unite People in Long Island, New York.

I wanted to hear how things were going. What challenges these two women were facing. What, if anything, is the world doing to help them? And most of all, how has the experience affected their lives?

On December 30, 2021, I interviewed Tehera and Meredith to see how they are getting on.

The Interview

Dennis

What’s going on right now in terms of this effort? You’ve been engaged in extracting the people from Afghanistan for the past several months. Where are you now? In terms of the people that have gotten out, what percentage?

Meredith

“We have moved a little over half of our group, or in the process of moving out. They are in a third country waiting for the US government to allow me to move those people to a U.S. military-run place for processing.

That process does take a little bit longer now than it did in prior months, but unfortunately, with everything going on and the situation being so fluid in Afghanistan, moving them has been difficult and delayed multiple times. But the ones that were in the most danger, we have moved them out, and they are safe in safe houses.”

Dennis

And the remainder? We talked in the past and you said a lot of the people that are in the remaining category, who have not been moved yet, include people who lost their documents. Has the US government been helping in terms of restoring their documentation, so they can be properly processed?

Meredith

“No. We had an attorney helping them get the documentation they need to safely exit Afghanistan and cross the border. Some of them, male staff, are still working. But the remaining staff that need to leave haven’t left yet; we’re just waiting for their documentation.

We’ve been paying so that they can get the documents they need to leave because when everything happened with the bombing at the airport, a lot of people lost their bags and their items. It’s been a difficult process, but it’s something we’ve committed to making sure that every single person that was supposed to be evacuated when the US government was still there in August, who was waiting on those buses to get out, do get out.”

Dennis

How did this operation start? Who was the original initiator of KSAR in Afghanistan?

Meredith

“That was Dr. Tahera Rezaei. She can explain how she got involved with Kabul Small Animal Rescue.”

Tahera

“First of all, you know I work with now that, yeah, the UK charities in Kabul. Charlotte Maxwell-Jones was one of our client in Nawzad. And you know, I just, you know, become friends with Charlotte. And when Charlotte wants to create, you know, own charity or own clinic. She requests me. And if you want to, you know join me and you know, make it facility for animals in Kabul. I said yes, I can help you and explain why you had to do it different.

And I was young. I am the first female veterinarian to open their own clinic by and registered in Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. And you know, it’s my pleasure to become the first female veterinarian that doing this.

And after that, I register my clinic in the ministry and start working with the animal small animal and especially work on small animal on the street. You know, stray dogs and stray cats. We did lots of, you know, TNVR project in trap and neuter and wax this release back. And we did lots of work. At the first, I was alone. Uh, you know, just me and two male colleagues. They’re just working for, you know, animal handlers, not you know, not assistant. I just, I just was alone and after a few months, I can hire some young female veterinarians with fresh educations, you know graduated, and they were very good. They were trained very well, and we hired about nine with new assistants

Unfortunately, after Taliban took the government, the female staff cannot work anymore, but the male staff are still able to work.

But you know, it’s so hard for them because, you know, all the Hazara in our group are gone. We have lots of Hazara veterinarians. Hazara people, you know, are in danger, even with no Taliban.

I think in future, they will have lots of problem, the Hazara people in Afghanistan. They are more educated than other people. And the woman has more educated than other woman because the men, it’s my opinion, you know, Hazara man, they just allow their woman to work outside, to go to universities, to go in school. Because you know … (loss for words)”

*The Hazara are a Persian-speaking, ethnic minority in Afghanistan.

Meredith

“Culturally, Hazara men “encourage” more is what you’re trying to say.”

Tahera

“Yeah, encourage, yeah.

And when we work in clinic, you know, lots of our clients was, you know, they’re from other nations [I think she means other tribes], and you know, from ethnicity and when they came to clinic and see, you know, lots of female stuff. They become surprised, you know, wow, we have female working area, and they thought is not good for woman. The veterinary job.

I do not understand, but they thought it is a job for just for men, not women because it’s so hard and it’s, you know, doing with animal. It’s not good for woman because some, you know, bad custom and bad culture, but I don’t care about that.

You know, I always ignore the bad negatives thoughts and you know, I just going to my way and just thinking about them. You know animal health and in how can I help animals and how can, you know, make a good place for woman and men together working and gets along very well, you know?

We have, we had a good team. You know, lots of, you know, young boys and young girls working together, and when I saw them, I just become proud of them. You know, I just become proud of myself.

You know that environment is so good for us. You know, working together and when Taliban and that day the Taliban get the government, take the Kabul. We were in a clinic and working for, you know, for lots of paperwork for traveling of our animals.

And we heard Taliban came to Kabul. And it was so bad, you know, we stuck in clinic for two days. You know, we cannot leave because I don’t, you know, my husband is in home and I was alone and I, I couldn’t go home alone without any man. Yeah, and Talibon asked me why you are alone in the street. You know, why you’re and I was stuck in two days in clinic and after two days, that my husband able to come to clinic. And I went to home, you know? And I’m like, that’s, it’s very, very bad feeling.

You know, after about nine years working outside, working for animals, once they said no, there is no way to woman work outside and he’s, uh, it’s so bad, it was so bad. One year ago, I had an interview with a French agency. I think it was Agence France-Presse (AFP). They took interview, and I said, uh, it’s before the Taliban, and they say ask me, what do you have feeling about?

You know, if Taliban coming again, well, what do you think I said? I have that video. I said I don’t have any good feeling about the Taliban. I think the Taliban had, you know, not changes to their mind and they, maybe, they don’t adopt a woman to work. And yeah, it’s unfortunate, it’s happened.

You know, it’s my opinion, but I think a lot of the women staff had done a lot of interviews, and a lot of talking, and a lot of promotion that they were the first female clinic, and it was female-run, and female staff members.”

Meredith

“And just those videos alone put a lot of them in danger, which is why we moved them to another country. As soon as we could, because they were so vocal. They were vocal about women’s rights and were targets, especially since, as Tahera said, being a veterinarian and a woman was frowned upon on another level.

It wasn’t just if they were working; they were working with men as veterinarians in a female-run clinic come with a, you know, that charity was all female. The entire board of directors is female. Tahera was the vice president, but the clinic part of it was in her name. The charitable part of it, the fundraising part of it, was in Charlotte Maxwell-Jones’ name for the United States and Afghanistan in Tennessee.”

Dennis

Thank you for that background.  There’s a couple of things I wanted to cover with you.

I think the most important is you have extracted a portion of the female staff out of the country. These women are in various parts of the world waiting for processing. What’s next for them? Are things moving along? What is the US doing right now?

Meredith

“The US government is definitely not processing them as fast as anyone would like. We’re waiting for the State Department to tell us where we can send them to be processed. The country that they’re currently in is not processing refugees; it was just a place to put them that would get them out of danger immediately.

Housing for our group in that country right now is almost $100,000 a month. That will increase because we have some more people coming and once we assemble the entire group, I try not to think about that number.

Also, as long as they stay there, they can’t work. So, we have to take care of them. You have to pay their housing, their food, their expenses, any doctor bills. That was part of the agreement. We were just all hoping that things would move on a little faster. We were told that we had government support.

They (the US) are in communication with us. It’s just a lot of delays, a lot of delays. My hope is that we can at least get them moved to one of the US military bases, for example, like the one in Qatar or the one in Germany somewhere where they would be under the US government care in a facility that was set up to handle this, instead of us renting them houses to stay in while we wait, because that’s the cost and then visa extensions.

Obviously, when we first moved them, we got 30-day visas and then we were told that was workable, and then we were told there were delays. So then, we had to hire an attorney to increase their visa status. That was an additional $1,000 a person, so it starts to add up quickly.

We’re not. I mean, obviously, we would never leave. I mean, we’re not leaving them. We’re not abandoning anyone. We’re going to figure it out.

We posted a $500K fundraiser to try to garner support because we also have to pay for a plane to fly them to wherever the US government tells us to send them. So, that’s a whole other part of it as well.”

Dennis

It sounds like a lot of money and logistics. Are you getting any help from the US side, as far as expediting it from different parts of the government? Or are you alone?

Meredith

“I have some amazing senators. But as time goes on, It’s me and my big mouth. No, it’s my organization. We’re working really hard. We do have some senators that are helping. They’ve been a godsend, and a few congressmen that have been advocating. But the legislative branch of government can only advocate for you. They don’t have control over the State Department at all.

We do have people with the State Department. We are in direct contact with and they’re doing the best they can, based on the restrictions that are wrapped around them. No one that is currently working with us is to blame for any of this. I think it’s just the process is so broken. I’m in contact with a lot of other organizations that have refugees in similar situations. They are facing the same problems.

You know, you move them out of Afghanistan, initially, with the P1P2 visa application. They need to get to another country to be processed in order to enter the United States. So the thought process would be, oh, we get them to another country. They go to an embassy and then the embassy helps process their visa and then they can come to the United States.

But that’s not how that’s working. And you move them to the other country and then the embassies are still short-staffed that they can’t do anything.

So, now, nothing is being looked out, and they’re sort of just waiting until a space opens up at what, when the “Lily Pad” bases that were set up, where the refugees could go to wait. Tahera was at a Lily Pad base in Italy.

We have another family come. My friend Akram. He worked for Kabul Small Animal Rescue as well. He was just released from the US military base. He was in Germany for several months, and then he was sent to the US. Three days in Virginia, and he was there for all of October, all of November, and he was just released from that base and they just moved him to a temporary home in Arizona. So, we’re going to be putting up a list for him for things that he needs.

There’s seven people in his family. He has young children. He was one of the finance people. What did Akron do for you? What was his job?”

Tahera

“He was the transportation officer. He managed where all the animals were getting sent from all over the world to the United States. So, when a soldier wants to send a dog home that he or she adopted in Afghanistan, that would have gone to Akram.”

Dennis

So, you’ve got groups of people coming in. They’re processing. It sounds intermittently slow. And at this point, it sounds like you’re in for a long haul. What do you need? What do you want?

You clearly know you need money to keep this thing going. But in addition, as these people show up in parts of the United States with their skills, you said you’re putting up a site to keep helping them get settled. Do you need the areas that they’re going to be informed about what their skills are, so they can begin to integrate?

Meredith

I have a pretty good idea of where everybody can see it stands, what they can do, what their skills are. The group includes family members of some of the staff, so obviously, we don’t have just one hundred sixty-one (161) human beings that all worked at the shelter. Our group has worked with the US government, worked for other governments, worked for the (former) Afghan Government, worked in banking at the World Bank. All these people, and their skills, we’re trying to help put them in the right place.

Ultimately, the goal would be to try to reassemble the shelter staff here. Right now, my shelter is 100 percent volunteer. We are a very tiny animal rescue. We rehabilitate abuse, cruelty, and neglect cases. I got involved in this because I am the backup for several animal rescues around the world in different countries, for when they send animals to the United States, and something goes wrong.

I had assisted multiple times with some dogs that needed to come here that needed training. First, retired military dogs. One was named Aaron. But that’s how I knew Dr. Tahera Rezaei, other doctors, and KSAR staff.

I knew them because I had worked with them. We really have been trying to help those people. It would be nice to be able to bring them back here and be able to expand what I’m doing in New York to include the clinical offer, low cost spays, neuter to the community. Maybe reassemble the team and let them all do what they were doing in Afghanistan in the United States.

For U.S. citizens, we’re in New York and in New York, you know, it’s hard to get a veterinarian appointment because there’s a shortage of availability, so this would really be something that we could do to help support our community and would give all of these people the opportunity to pay it forward, as far as, you know, they were brought here [and] we were able to help them.

They get to live to fight another day, and then they get to help the community that they’re moving into and be a productive part of it, which is what they all want to do.”

Dennis

The thing that I really heard from Tahera is that this small animal rescue operation was really an example of Afghan women flourishing during the 20 years of US involvement in the country.

I’m very curious to hear your perspectives on this chapter closing so quickly because, you know, clearly anything going forward in Afghanistan is going to be driven by male staff at places like KSAR.

How does it feel after having done so much, to see it evaporate so completely, almost overnight, last August?

Meredith

“In speaking to the women and staff that we’ve helped so far and the other women that are in my group that were related to male staff members that worked as psychiatrists and businesswomen, including one of them worked for the Dutch Department of Agriculture.

You know, as a liaison, these are strong, powerful women, intelligent women. For them to all have it disappear. I mean I was on the phone with Jada when a lot of this happened and for me, it was just heart-wrenching.

You know, as a woman, it’s difficult for me. Like if I woke up tomorrow. I mean, I run an animal shelter. We have a whole building full of animals. I mean a women-run charity, right? And if someone told me tomorrow, I had to close my door, or my husband had to come to do my work for me. I don’t know how I would handle that. I mean, emotionally.

They’ve all been so strong, just so strong, and so scared. And some of the women we moved were getting threatening messages on their phones. Woken up in the middle of the night. And at all hours, I would get calls and I would take every single one. I just know how hard it was for them to wake up in the morning and not be able to do what they knew.

A lot of them are in the 20 to 40 age range. They don’t know how to do anything else.  I mean, I’m 46, the women that are closer to my age remember what it may have been like under the Taliban. They’ve forgotten it. They’ve moved past it, but they remember.

Tahera is young, you know. They were little in the 1990s. It’s the young ones. They don’t know how to function like that to not, all they’ve ever known is being able to do what they wanted to do, to have dreams. And they were just crushed overnight. None of them should be left in that scenario, in my opinion; if I could get every single woman [and] little girl out of there that had a dream to be something, I wish I could.

Even the men that supported those women are in danger. And to be honest, none of those people in that country asked for this, and none of them deserved it. And we really should have done better by them.

The only part of it that I could mentally do anything about or physically do anything about was my friends, my colleagues, my fellow animal welfare people; because I could do something to help them because there was no way I or my husband, or the other people on my board of directors were going to stomach or be able to function, if we knew that our friends were left behind in danger. I just can’t.

It’s very hard. How do you? I know Akram’s got a little daughter. How do you walk away from people that are used to a certain lifestyle that the US put on them, that we created?

It was a social experiment and it failed, right? So, you teach everybody, there’s this whole, wonderful way of living and that you can be somebody, and you just have to work hard, and you’re going to be able to follow your dreams. And then, in a snap, it’s gone. And you just leave them. Sorry, we tried.

I just wasn’t going to let that happen.

I just know, from speaking to those women there, and the ones that we have moved, that, if I didn’t move them, I don’t think they would have been OK.

I mean, some of them were having some serious psychological issues. There were some conversations for me that were uncomfortable. It was hard to say: don’t do something stupid, I’m going to get you out, when it took so long.

I mean, these women were really, really scared. Some of them were single. They were being approached by Taliban members saying, we’re going to get you a new husband. One of them was already married and a Taliban person said, well when you’re a widow, [we] will get you a new husband. I mean, those things were being said to them, until we got them out of that country.”

Dennis

Tahera. You’re here in the United States now. How do you feel about the fact that you have to carry on because that world in Afghanistan got taken away?

Meredith

“I can hear him better than you (over the Zoom). What he’s saying is how do you feel now that you’re in the United States knowing that everything that happened and everything that you’ve lost and having.to move forward. How do you feel now?”

Tahera

“Yeah, you know, I just, now, I’m feeling good. You know, I just worried about my family, but I hope they will come someday.

But I see my future is so bright here in your country because I studied the field, this specialty.

In Kabul, you know, I was very in danger. Some days, I faced too many explosions very close to me. I saw lots of people who died.

But even as this all happened, I just continued my work, my education. I did not, you know, get stuck in the home, or got married very soon. And you know, my family support us and they said: you can go, you know, to get education, go to a school , got to university.

And after this, I worked for lots of organizations. I worked for about nine years in animal health.

I have a very good feeling about my future. My family, they’re coming. And I can work here. I can get more educated. I can get more experience, more new skills.

You know? It’s my duty. It is not different, whether it is in Kabul or in the US. It’s my duty to work for animals, for animal health, because I promised myself if I become veterinarian, is my job to work for them.

No, it’s not important, if someone, you know, doesn’t like me. I don’t care about them. I just like my, you know my job, my environment, my friends. They support me. I don’t know how I can say that I have no bad feelings in Kabul. I try to forget the bad.”

Dennis

I was very curious to hear your answers. I know Meredith sees this from worry, because she’s from here and is used to what we have and knows what we can lose in America.

But I have to tell you (Tahera), the fact that what you just said is that despite everything that has happened to you, you see opportunity, and a brighter future for yourself, now, than you did five months ago.

It speaks very well of you. It also speaks well of the opportunity that is in this country to which you have come seeking refuge.

I would like to close this interview by saying, as one immigrant to another,

Welcome to America!

Editor’s note: this article’s content was edited after publication.