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Afghan refugees in Ukraine are fleeing war all over again

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Amid the crush of people trying to flee Ukraine right now are Afghans. Hundreds of them sought refuge in Ukraine after the Taliban seized control of Kabul last August. Now many Afghans fear getting stuck in another war zone. NPR's Diaa Hadid has this report.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Masouma Tajik apologizes for huffing.

MASOUMA TAJIK: Sorry I am gasping - just walking.

HADID: When I catch her on the phone, she's on the streets of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

TAJIK: Everyone is carrying a suitcase.

HADID: They're trying to flee to the Polish border. So is she. She was trying to find a bank to withdraw cash to pay for a car to take her there, but nothing's open.

TAJIK: I don't know how to get to border without money, and I'm just communicating with the people who might be able to help me.

HADID: But just in case something comes through...

TAJIK: I am going back home again to just grab my stuff and prepare everything.

HADID: This isn't the first time Masouma Tajik has relied on hustle and luck. In August, she fled Kabul by using contacts to get on a flight arranged for people who worked for The Wall Street Journal in Afghanistan. That flight was headed for Ukraine. Hundreds of other Afghans arrived in similar ways, getting on flights arranged by other organizations or by the Ukrainian army. But for many, that's where their luck ended. Mohammad Ismail and his wife, two nephews and five children are hunkering in the basement of their apartment building in Kyiv. He can't afford to leave.

MOHAMMAD ISMAIL: For the taxi around from here to there (ph) is $500 or $600 to the border.

HADID: And his Afghan friends already at the border tell him they haven't been allowed to cross.

TAJIK: They say you don't have a right to cross the border because you don't have passports.

HADID: Because when they arrived in Ukraine, authorities took their passports and gave them temporary papers. Now with the country at war, there's no one to call to get their passports back. The situation appears so dire that even the Taliban issued a statement calling on both sides to protect Afghans stuck in Ukraine, Afghans who fled their rule, like Omar Shah.

OMAR SHAH: I'm currently in Oddess City of the Ukraine.

HADID: He's watched the port city empty out. He and other Afghan families hired two buses to drive 180 miles to the Romanian border as soon as they can, but many more are desperate.

SHAH: There are a lot of Afghans calling me and asking me, Mr. Omar, akhi, Omar, what to do? Please instruct us.

HADID: Shah says he's trying to squeeze in as many Afghans as possible. He says the kids will squish on the floor. None of them have passports, just those temporary papers. But they'll go regardless.

SHAH: The rest is - depends on Allah - what happens and what will happen to us.

HADID: Back in Lviv, Masouma Tajik says she's one of the lucky Afghans. She's got an interview for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. She hopes that will convince Polish authorities to let her in.

TAJIK: I'm just hoping that that helps me.

HADID: Tajik is so young, just 23, so I ask her what it's like to live through two separate conflicts in just six months.

TAJIK: (Crying).

HADID: She cries, then she excuses herself to focus on the job at hand - getting a ride to the border and surviving this war. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.