My Exclusive Interview with the Nation’s Top Advocate for Afghan Refugees

Adi Sircar
7 min readAug 27, 2021


It’s a calm and cool Thursday evening in Blacksburg, VA. I’m at Green’s, a delightful Mediterranean grill and sushi bar, chatting with Mariam Farzayee — a young Afghan American woman who is leading the global effort to protect and support Afghan refugees.

Mariam Farzayee is the President of the Afghan Student Association

Why did you join the Afghan Student Association, and what did you do before the Taliban’s takeover?

I joined my freshman year as a member but we only had one or two meetings, and we kind of fizzled out because of low membership. Because of covid, we didn’t do anything for a year and after our President graduated, there was no leadership. I reached out to ask if I could run the organization, and I filled out some paperwork and found new members. Before the Taliban took control of Kabul, we founded a new executive board and I led the team as President.

How did you feel when you first saw the messages from your cousin?

I just woke up and saw a missed call. He normally doesn’t call, instead he’ll message me on Facebook about what I’m doing and stuff like that. He sent a long message about how he’s so scared and stressed out and how he needs to leave; he messaged everyone — my little sister, my mom, my dad, my older sister — anyone in America. He was so desperate.

How did your parents meet?

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, my dad went to America and my mom went to Pakistan. My dad would fly to Pakistan with his uncle every once in a while to visit. My mom’s uncle had a big party with friends and family and my dad just happened to be there. My dad saw my mom, and then told his uncle about her. They then set up an arranged marriage! My mom was 17 and my dad was 19.

What’s your favorite Afghan food?

My mom makes Pakawra — fried potato slices — only on Ramadan, so it’s a special food just for a month out of the year.

Crispy golden Pakawra with a tangy and spicy chutney

What does it mean to set aside politics and focus on Afghan lives?

When we turn on the news, it’s about: “Biden did this wrong, Trump could have done things better…”, blaming any politician who has been involved with Afghanistan in the past 20 years. It’s a lot of playing the blame game, and forgetting that Afghan lives are at stake now. We should focus on helping them first, the politics can be done later. We have a humanitarian crisis to solve.

Mariam’s grandmother was the second woman in Afghanistan’s history to drive a car.

A senior advisor claimed that President Ashraf Ghani fled with only the clothes on his back. Other reports state that he fled with hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, meant for the Afghan people. Thoughts?

I hope the advisor is telling the truth, but if President Ghani left with aid meant for the Afghan people, that’s upsetting and unsettling — I really hope that’s not true. I don’t know who to believe.

Most of Afghanistan’s 38 million people weren’t even born when the Taliban last ruled. What does that mean?

Most Afghans will experience Taliban rule for the first time, and I don’t think they’re ready for what’s coming. I think that’s also part of the reason why so many people are trying to leave — they’ve heard horror stories from their parents and grandparents.

The Taliban is also really young. What does that mean?

The ideology was passed down. When they first started, they were a rag-tag group of extremists funded by various parties in power to fight the Soviet Union…

We are interrupted by a basket of fresh, hot, and crispy French fries arriving at our table. As we dig in, I ask Mariam about the videos of the Taliban goofing off on bumper cars or working out at a gym. She views the modern Taliban as young but ideologically identical to the Taliban 20 years ago.

Erik Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, is charging $6,500 a person to evacuate them. Thoughts?

While it’s unfortunate he’s taking advantage of this situation, that does mean more Afghans will be able to escape. The people who pay their way out give a spot for someone else to leave on a plane for free. Even though it isn’t an obviously good act, good does come out of that.

Sayara International’s 345-seat charter plane left the tarmac with just 50 passengers. What is going on?

There are a lot of obstacles at the airport but that should not have happened. There are millions of people in Afghanistan and 300 people may not seem like a lot in comparison but that’s 300 lives that could have been changed by coming to America.

Soccer was a symbol of Afghanistan’s reintegration into the world. Zaki Anwari, a 17 year old national star, told his brother if he didn’t flee Afghanistan, he would never get to play again. Why do you think he felt that way? (Why doesn’t Taliban like soccer?)

I don’t think it’s necessarily about soccer. I think the issue is people want freedom and the Taliban doesn’t want that, so they’re just restricting everything. The 17 year old boy was so desperate, he hung onto a plane knowing he would die, and the world watched him fall off. It was so sad to see.

Mariam shows me a video her family just sent. It was the aftermath of the bombings that killed hundreds of people and wounded many more. Scores of Afghans are sprawled across the ground with blood soaking their clothes. Everyone is fleeing the airport — including soldiers — in fear of more gruesome attacks and explosions. All flights have left and all gates are closed.

What will Afghanistan look like 20 years from now?

The Taliban roam the streets of Afghanistan (Courtesy: Mariam Farzayee)

That’s a really hard question, I’ve thought about it and find a scenario where the international community stops caring about Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to rule indefinitely. Once international pressure dies down, the new regime could attack another country because of their extremist views. At that point, people will care again and retaliate against the Taliban.

Afghanistan sits on so many natural resources like lithium, which is found in batteries. With electric cars becoming more popular, I feel like governments — like China — will start working with the Taliban. Afghanistan is also the world’s number one exporter of opium. It’s upsetting that the Taliban is in control of all of the wealth of Afghanistan.

Our sushi arrives. Mariam doesn’t like the plastic chopsticks because they’re too slippery. The wooden ones have better grip. She doesn’t like wasabi or ginger either.

Did you ever imagine doing any of this when you first started college?

No! I remember the first person who reached out to me was ABC 13 from Roanoke. After that, my phone started going off and so many people were reaching out, saying things like, “I saw your article, hope you’re doing well and staying safe.”

There’s also plenty of criticism in the comment section of news sites and on Mariam’s social media. She expects it and shares some of the things she read. Although most of the criticism is directed towards Biden, one person tells her, “Go put on your boots yourself and fight for Afghanistan.” She brushes off most of the distasteful feedback, calling it stupid.

I ask Mariam what she thinks of my brilliant plan to send the Corps of Cadets to Afghanistan to help. She bursts out in laughter.

That plan is so funny. They don’t know what they’re doing dude. They haven’t received actual combat training and they’re too young.

What is the Afghan Student Association doing now?

We are trying to raise awareness on campus, conduct outreach to Washington, and crowdsource funding to help refugees. We want to support the families who come to America, some of whom will settle in Roanoke and Blacksburg.

What can we do to help?

Keep talking about what’s going on in Afghanistan, what the Taliban is doing, what people are suffering through, and raise awareness. You can donate to our GoFundMe and share it with your network.

This interview was conducted on August 26th, 2021 at 6:38pm EST. The situation in Afghanistan is ever-evolving. Every second matters and every life counts. We must do everything we can to help and we need to act quickly. Think deeply about the news you read, speak to your Afghan friends and colleagues, and help however you can. Mariam had the courage to speak out and give a voice to the voiceless. Check out the GoFundMe, connect with Mariam, and peek at my website for more about me.