Asma Paigeer Transcript

Clint Betts

Welcome to The CEO.com Show. My name is Clint Betts. On today's show I talk to this remarkable young woman, Asma Paigeer, who escaped Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. Her story is remarkable. She is a hero. I don't know how anyone could listen to this interview and see her and listen to her experience and think otherwise. It really was an honor to be able to interview Asma and get to know her a little bit. We're going to post a link to her education fund in this episode. This is an interview and an episode you will not want to miss. Here's my interview, or conversation, with Asma.

Asma, thank you so much for coming on. Your story is incredible. We're going to get to how you got out of Afghanistan when the Taliban took over and the United States military pulled out. But I wonder if you could explain to our audience and talk to us about what would you have us know about Afghanistan? Maybe there are some misconceptions that people in America and throughout the world have about Afghanistan. What would you have us know about the country?

Asma Paigeer

That's a great question. First of all, thank you so much for having me on your show. It's been an honor to be your guest. Back to your question, there are a lot of misconceptions about how Afghanistan was and how it's being interpreted through the media and press in this part of the world. A lot of that was about the women, how women were being mistreated in Afghanistan, how they are being a second citizen, or how their rights are being deprived from them. And in the majority or in the bigger picture, what they were focusing on was a very rural area or villages.

Stories were popular from one particular case and it would make a huge generalization about all Afghan women. But that was not the case for all Afghan women. For example, for me or for other Afghan women who grew up in Kabul city, the capital, we had a lot of rights and privileges. It wasn't that equal, it wasn't that great, but it was far better than it is right now. We had this amazing opportunity to go to school and be able to graduate from high school. And go and start university and get our degree or certificate in a field, and then go start an employment. And a lot of women in the last 10 years, 20 years were in the workforce. The participation of women in the workforce in Afghanistan was great and it was significant.

And then, unfortunately in 2021, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. And once again, the history of Afghanistan falls into a dark chapter, and women are being deprived of their basic rights right now. As we can see in the media, they are not being allowed to go to school, even at a really primary level. Apart from that, they're even targeting those education and institutes that are focusing on women's education or they are teaching the girls in Afghanistan. And it's really sad and heartbreaking in a sense.

Clint Betts

And how did you get out of there? What happened once the Taliban took over? I know that your father worked with the United States forces for a while, which means you had to get out of there once the Taliban took over. How did this happen? How did you get out?

Asma Paigeer

Honestly, it's a long story. But as you mentioned, yes, my dad worked for a very long time, actually. It's been over a decade that he was working with the US forces, for the US government. And more importantly, he was constantly working to ensure the peace and stability will be in Afghanistan so that we all can live in a prosperous country. And I value the work my father did and those who worked alongside my father like the US Forces, I value their work. Because of their presence, we had a great country and great opportunity, and it was a great area that I grew up in.

Back to how I escaped from Afghanistan. The day that Taliban seized power in Afghanistan is August 15th, 2021. And it was a tough situation to be in, because as soon as they got the power, they started eliminating, targeting those who worked with the US Forces or for the US government or previously worked for the stability of the former government. And they were not only killing them, but they also started killing their family members.

You would've seen these families being killed or denied, and tomorrow we could go and see their corpse and no one took responsibility, and that was the problem. And the Taliban would always claim, "That it's not what we did." If that's not what you did, then who did it? It was a tough situation for my family, for myself to be in. We knew we had to leave Afghanistan. And the only way left to escape from Afghanistan was through the airport.

And as some of you may already witnessed what was happening around the Kabul Airport, it was a massive crowd, everyone was trying to escape from Afghanistan, everyone was scared. It was a tough situation. I had a difficult experience those days. And at the point that we were trying to get out of Afghanistan, in the crowds, I got separated from my family and I did not know where they were going or how they were. And I lost contact with them, because they had to destroy their cell phones or any matters of contact, because of security purposes.

And then I end up being with my colleagues from Asian University for Women. We returned back to Afghanistan a year ago, because of COVID. We were all studying in Bangladesh. I joined them in seven buses and we all tried to enter Kabul Airport and the plan was to get into the charter flight and fly out of Afghanistan. But unfortunately, every time that we attempted to enter, there were several gates of the Taliban, and they were denying, they were not letting us, they were not giving us permission to pass through those gates. And we had to encounter a lot of the Taliban soldiers. And every time they were turning us from one gate, we had to go around the Kabul Airport to another gate and give a try from that gate. And it takes us seven to eight days and nights. Some of our attempts lasted 24 hours, 36 hours. We did not have any food to eat or any water to drink. We were not allowed to even leave the buses at certain points.

But the point is that we did not give up, although some of us did. On the first day there were 180 students. But on the last day, there were 150 students. Some of them lost hope, because we constantly were being tortured on those buses. And with an uncertain future, with uncertainty whether we can pass or we cannot pass, but we kept trying. And some of us get scared and I value their decisions at that moment, that time we didn't know what's going to happen.

And the Taliban threatened us many times that they would shoot us in the head if they ever saw us again. That did not stop us, that did not scare us, some of us. And then to be honest, as a girl, as a woman, as a young woman, we are the most vulnerable in any point of war. And in my point of view or opinion, that is not the worst case scenario that could have happened. There was far worse than death that could have happened to all of us. But I'm thankful to God and to all those people who helped us to escape from Afghanistan that those bad consequences did not happen

Clint Betts

What happened to the 30 people who left?

Asma Paigeer

We left Afghanistan, it was 150 of us.

Clint Betts

You said there were 180 and then 150 of you were stuck with it. The 30 who left or got off the bus or something like that, do you know what happened to them?

Asma Paigeer

I know what happened to them. They went back to their families and their relatives. And later, some of them managed to go back to Bangladesh. But I'm not saying all 30 of them go back to Bangladesh, because I'm not sure if all of them get out of Afghanistan. As you know, we lost contact. And as soon as the government collapsed, everyone, for safety reasons, stopped using social media or stopped getting in contact with people, or updating where they are, how they went or what happened, or what's their story. Just to make sure that they are safe or the families are safe.

As you know, the Taliban are monitoring social media very massively. So, it's not safe.

Clint Betts

How did you eventually get out?

Asma Paigeer

Again, at this point, I have to be really grateful to some individuals, some organizations. Mostly, I'm starting with my sister. She is my hero, she's my personal hero, her name is Osida. And she was in the United States when the Afghanistan government collapsed. She started contacting all of my father's friends, who work with my father and those who are in the US military. And then some of them are still in the US military, but some of them left or retired. But they were working with some organizations who were actively evacuating those who are in danger, minorities, women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and people like my father who lost contact with everyone.

And the organization is more [inaudible 00:12:08] and my father's friend's name is Chris. Of course, Chris is just only one of them, there are many of them.And then Azeebah contacted Chris and he responded to her call and then they get in touch and say that, "Okay, here is my sister, she's stuck in Kabul Airport and she's with her friends, it's 150 of them. The Taliban are not letting them pass the gates." And going back to the moment that we were stuck on the gates, it was 1:00 AM in the morning. And I noticed that this time was different from all the previous times, because the Taliban are not letting us pass the gate and enter the Kabul Airport, but they also are not letting us leave the area. You know what I'm trying to say?

Clint Betts

Yeah. You were stuck there.

Asma Paigeer

Yeah. We were stuck there, because they blocked us from both directions. And it was 1:00 AM in the morning that I noticed that these Taliban soldiers were all walking by our buses and they were screaming at the civilians, the other people that they need to leave the area. And I could have seen from the window of the seat that I was sitting in, that all those other cars, some of those cars and buses included some foreign nationals. They were also being denied. They were not given permission to enter the Kabul Airport. But they were redirected, the Taliban forced them to leave the area. But it was only our buses that were stuck there.

And as every moment was passing by, I was frustrated, I was scared. And it was increasing rapidly. I knew in my mind that something worse was about to happen, as if they were planning something for us and they didn't want anyone to be a witness there. So, we were highly advised to not use our cell phones, not communicate with any person, to not share our locations, to not do anything.

But then at that moment, it was on me and I had to make this decision. I took my phone out and I contacted my sister Osida and I let her know what was happening there. Because I don't know what will happen to us in terms of whether we can get the help or not. But the only concern at that moment that I had was that I did not want to be despaired in the middle of Kabul, that no one knew what happened to me or what my story was. And this is unfortunately a tiny part of the Taliban's history. Even in their previous regime, previously, for the first time when they got into power, they would've captured these people and you would've lost that family member, that friend, or relative forever. You would've never known that whether he is dead, she is dead or he or she alive or where they are, or what happened to them.

It was that horrific, that sad. And I would not want that to happen to me or my friends. I say, "If you are going to even die tonight, I will at least let someone know about it. I want someone to keep a record of it, that it was this number of us and this is the location." And then my sister also says, "Hold on in there, I will get help." And I was like, "Really?" At this moment, I totally lost hope in what whatsoever is called life. And I did not believe that statement, because I strongly believed that no one at that moment is able to help us anymore.

To that extent, I was frustrated. And then a moment later she texted me and said, "I contacted my father's friends, they want to know, where are you exactly? Can you send us a live location? Send us some pictures of the surroundings so that they know that you are there and then the total number of students, as much information as you can." And some of that information is very sensitive and really difficult at that moment to provide, including, for example, the pictures. And I was like, "How am I supposed to take pictures? If I take my phone and take pictures, the Taliban soldiers will see. And when they notice that I'm breaking the law, they will capture me and they will immediately shoot me in the head."

That was the best scenario that could have happened or worse than that can happen. But somehow, I had to overcome this fear that I had and it's like. "Look, this is the only opportunity that I have among all 150 of us that I could do and we possibly make it help. If I don't do it's certain that we will not get help." So I turned the flash off of my camera and I took some pictures and then I provided those information to those friends of my father, to Chris.

And then they passed that information, it went through a chain of individuals and then it headed to an organization. And then someone passed it to the Pentagon to someone who is in charge and who is in charge to make a decision. And then they make a decision or whatever the deal was between the US Army and the Taliban. They let us pass the gates and enter the Kabul Airport. But somehow, before they let us enter, they took away every belonging that we ever had, like our bags or clothes, our computers, everything. The only thing that they let us take inside the airport was our passports. And of course, we had to hide our phones and not let them see that we have our phones. I certainly don't want to lose contact, so I keep it hidden and take it with me in the Kabul Airport.

But at that moment they took three of us hostage. They didn't let three of my friends go and the reason they provided it to us was not something logical or make any sense in any context. Like the Taliban said, "We cannot let these three go, because their names are misspelled in the list that we received. Their passport number is not right." And we all knew it's not correct. They were making these things up so they took them hostage. And I was not ready to let them go, because previous to that I already lost my family at that point. Because I did not know what happened to my parents, I lost contact with them and somehow I wasn't ready to let any bad things happen to my friends.

But to give a context of that moment, it was a day after the explosion that happened in Kabul Airport that resulted in the death of over 100 civilians and including 113 US soldiers or service members. So, it was really sensitive timing. And then when we get into the Kabul Airport, I start contacting my father's friends and say, "Look, they took three of my friends and we need to do something." And they said that at this point, all you need to do is to go and find the captain or the commander, whoever is in charge of the US Forces on the ground. And I say, "Okay." And I do remember that I go to different soldiers and I was asking, "Who is in charge? Who's your captain?" And then I had to talk to them, to convince them to let me talk to the captain.

And eventually it helped. They let me talk to the captain. At one point I had to convince this captain to talk with my father's friends over the phone. He was in special forces and then talked about some logistic things. But back then on the ground, it was up to me to convince this captain that he needs to do something and save my three friends. But I'm super happy, because the same chain of communications happens one more time. And then someone like my father's friend, like someone in the Pentagon to know that they've taken the three of the girls as hostages. And then someone who was in charge released the decisions that we need to save those last three girls. And then this captain on the ground went to negotiate with the Taliban and take the girls back. So, we reunited an hour later inside the Kabul Airport.

I do not recall this captain's name, but from bottom of my heart, I'm super grateful for everything he did that day. He absolutely saved my friends and we all made it out of Afghanistan and then it was a really successful mission for all of us. Thank you so much to everyone who served in the US military and who served in Afghanistan. I entirely value everything you did. And I want you to know that not only me, women like me and especially Hazara people that are in ethnic minorities are very grateful for your services in the last 20 years. Because your presence made a huge difference in our life. We had freedom, we had democracy, we had a government, we had a constitution. And in that constitution, that structure of government, we had a life that's worth living. And we were not being subject to hostility and subject to mistreatment, or being massacred by the Taliban or any other terrorist groups. So, thank you so much for your service.

Clint Betts

What was that moment like when you saw your three friends no longer hostages and they were freed and they were going to come along with you? What was it like when you saw them?

Asma Paigeer

Overall, it is very difficult to make an emotional trip to that day or that moment, because it was difficult.

Clint Betts

Yeah.

Asma Paigeer

Because once you save someone or something, you have to give up on another thing. The moment that I saw my friends being reunited with us, I was super grateful and I was super happy. I was excited. And that happiness was so unreal, because at certain points you would see that life is throwing you into a lot of troubles, and you would not see that something as a miracle or as a magic could possibly happen. So, it was a miracle to me to see my friends being reunited with me back.

But then, on the other side, I was feeling deeply down and I was feeling frustrated and sad, because it was 150 of us and I was the last one who took the steps towards the plane or got into the plane. And those steps that I was taking were the most difficult steps I have ever taken in my entire life. Because every step I took I was thinking of my families, I thought of my dad, my mom, my brother and my sister. And I knew if I got into the plane, I may never be able to see them again. And somehow I made that decision and got onto the plane. And because I get onto the plane, I still feel selfish. Inside myself, I'm feeling guilty, because I feel like I give up on my parents and my family. I should have gone back to them, I should have tried to find them and be reunited with them. And regardless of what the outcome would be, it would've been for all of us. But I saved myself. That's how selfish I am.

Clint Betts

That's not selfish at all, Asma. What you did was heroic and you saved lives that day. When did you get to the United States? Did you immediately get flown to the United States?

Asma Paigeer

No, it would've been way easier if we could have gone directly into the United States, but we had some stops. We went to Saudi Arabia and then we went to Spain and then eventually we flew into the United States and we went to the United States in September. But I'm very thankful for the US Army for hosting us, for their hospitality, and for saving us from Afghanistan, and from the Taliban.

Clint Betts

Have you been able to speak with your family since?

Asma Paigeer

Yes. Okay. This story is not sad at all. So, we are grateful, because God is being really merciful to all of us. And the way he saved me, God saved my parents as well and my family. So, my family, because it was my parents and my small brother, they moved from Kabul to Mazar, another Afghanistan province, in a safe house that was being hosted by the Mercury One organization. And they were eventually being evacuated from Afghanistan through charter flights in the United Arab Emirates. And then eventually, a few months ago they made it to the United States. And they're right now living in Pennsylvania. And I'm super grateful and happy.

Clint Betts

And have you seen him since they've been in the United States?

Asma Paigeer

I just saw them one day for a very short period of time, for a few hours. I did not get the chance to stay with them and be with them and again feel like we are being reunited and we were living as a family. But at this point, I'm super grateful that they are safe in the United States. And I'm planning to go and see them in December once my study is over.

Clint Betts

So, who are you staying with now? And I know you're enrolled in college, you're in university right now. What are you doing? What is it like being in the United States and living here?

Asma Paigeer

As I can say, it's super exciting. I'm super happy to be in the United States and I'm trying to make the most out of this amazing opportunity that I'm being given. It's a second chance in life to live your life to the best of it. And I am currently studying fintech and big data analytics with an unintended minor in computer science in University of Virginia Tech in the state of Virginia. And I'm right now in university too.

Clint Betts

Yeah, that's incredible. Why did you choose that? Why did you choose fintech and computer programming and that type of stuff? That's fascinating.

Asma Paigeer

Thank you. First of all, because I'm very passionate about it. But why I'm passionate about it, because I grew up in Afghanistan and Afghanistan does not have a stable financial market or a financial system. All we have is called the Hawala system. Hawala has existed since the eighth century and is a really corrupted system. And the way the money moves is based on price. And it's illegal, because the government does not have any control over it. And it can be used by the terrorist groups, like the Taliban used it. They transferred their money through the Hawala system inside Afghanistan and then distributed it to Malaysia.

And eventually, over time, they get power again. And finally, in 2021 they managed to seize the power in Afghanistan. Basically, the whole system is the best for corruptions, for money laundering, for human trafficking, for all other kinds of crimes that you can imagine. I'm hopeful that when I'm studying and when I graduate, I will manage to make a modern financial system using computer science, most importantly artificial intelligence, and make a modern financial system. So, that the government can have control over it more. And then we can see the transfer of money or the movement of money and to avoid corruption or misuse of money. And then when we have a stable financial system, we can eventually create a stock market. At this point, we do not have one in Afghanistan.

And then people will intend to invest more inside the country versus investing outside the country. And then more investment leads to economic prosperity, and then people will have better income, people will have a better life. People of Afghanistan will eventually grow and will get better. So, that's my vision for Afghanistan. And of course, post-Taliban Afghanistan, because I don't believe that they are capable of any improvement.

Clint Betts :

Asma, you are the most incredible person I've ever met. Your vision and what you want to do for your home country is so beautiful. And, man, it is so inspiring. I'm almost at a loss for words for what you just said there. That is so beautiful the way you want to improve and change your country. Where do you think the courage came from those days getting out of Afghanistan, and where do you think it's coming from right now? You could easily just never go back and never think about your home country again. But the fact that you're working towards building a new financial system and a legitimate currency and a legitimate government in Afghanistan is so beautiful. Where does that come from? Where's your motivation here? Your courage is off the charts. Unbelievable.

Asma Paigeer

Okay, thank you so much. I have a long path to go and manage to build the system eventually in the future. But hopefully, no matter how long it takes, I will manage to do that. It's honestly a difficult question to say where I gain the courage or this resilience. And if I reflect on how I grew up in Afghanistan, I have to say I'm extremely grateful to my parents, to my father and to my mother. And importantly my mom, she was in her last semester to graduate from Kabul University and she was majoring in Persian literature when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan for the first time. They closed the universities and the women were not allowed to go and get an education. And my mom never got the chance to graduate from university. You know how painful it is to study for three and a half years, but never managed to graduate because of the entire Taliban and their system that happened in Afghanistan.

And then the way we grew up was somehow reflecting that experience that my mom had, and the way that she gives importance to the education and the empowerment of women. So, to get the education and get it from university was a requirement in our family. We were raised in a very academic-focused environment. And she was pushing us that we need to get education, because once we are educated, we will be able to help ourselves. But not to just limit ourselves or our family, but we will be productive members of a community, a society. And that way we can help other people as well, but not just others, but particularly other women in Afghanistan. Because some of those women are or do not have the opportunities that I had or my sisters had or my family had.

So, this was how she was raising us, "Do not always be self-centered, be a valued member. And be someone that others can rely on and be able to serve others who are around you." And that's the mentality I grew up in. And then now I'm thinking back about Afghanistan and about the way I grew up, the way I left Afghanistan was horrific. And especially I'm from Hazara ethnicity and we were the minority, we were being massacred every day in Afghanistan.

Somehow, some part of me still believes I need to do something to make a difference so that no woman, no girl, no Hazara person in Afghanistan is forced to flee from a country, because the country has being led by terrorists, because the country is being led by wrong people. So, to empower those people, to empower those individuals, I think it's my sole responsibility to work to make this vision into a reality and make a difference in their life. Is it just enough for Afghanistan? No, it's not. But this is my contribution to the future of Afghanistan, to the post-Taliban Afghanistan. And hopefully, I will do it one day and I will be able to save those individuals and those ethnicities, and those who are at risk or those who are being mistreated in Afghanistan.

Clint Betts

How have you noticed the cultural differences between leaving the Afghanistan you grew up in and living in America now?

Asma Paigeer

I would say there are a lot of cultural differences to one extent that we cannot compare. But I'm very happy in the United States. It's really diverse. They have cultural differences. But the only point that I like about the United States, regardless of which group you are representing, which community you are representing, you will always be heard in the United States. There is a strong government, there is a strong constitution that is governing the country. And no one is allowed to mistreat you or allowed to persecute you, to treat you in an unfair way. Because there is a government, there is a system that supports you.

You can go and claim and then get your rights back. The judicial system is very fair in this country. And I tell you, I really like it. And there's a lot more opportunities for women, of course, in the United States than there were back in Afghanistan even before the Taliban, which is why I like being in the United States. And, yes, the challenging part is of course the language and other stuff.

Clint Betts

Asma, let me tell you, you speak English better than I do. Your English is wonderful. I'm going to keep saying this, I've never even interviewed or talked to anyone like you. You are such an inspiration and a living hero and someone who's really made your family and your people proud. And I'm sure you'll continue to do that. I see you as the future president of Afghanistan. Asma, I think it's incredible what you're doing. Let me ask you this, what can we do as Americans and everyone else who watches this or listens to this around the world, how can we help you, how can we help Afghanistan?

Asma Paigeer

Thank you so much from you for having been to your show and from all of your audience who is listening or watching this interview. There are many ways that you can help in Afghanistan. First of all, I want everyone watching this interview or any other interviews to ensure that we will not recognize the government of Taliban as an official government of Afghanistan in any other country or in the United States.

Because we should not give them legitimacy. If we give them the legitimacy, we accept the violence, the corruptions and the terrorists to be a part of a legal system. So, it's not just about Afghanistan, it's about our morality all around the world. Something that we all value is freedom and democracy. Everyone's born equal and should be treated equally. So, giving them legitimacy is like we are letting down our moral responsibility, our morality. And there are other ways to help as well. And if you can get in touch with Afghan women, in particular, you can mentor them, you can help them to get education.

Because as you can see they closed the schools, the universities for women. And we have a massive amount of girls and Afghan women that are out of the school. And they are being left alone, they are being left by themself. And no one around the world even cares about them. So, anything you can do to make an improvement in their lives or make them even raise their voices, that's a great thing to do. So, thank you for taking your time and doing that. And of course, when it comes to me, I'm still struggling to raise funds for my education and to be able to change this vision into a reality. I do need your support. If you are willing to help, I'm sure that the link to my donation will be posted there. So, you are most welcome to donate it towards my education fund. And thank you so much.

Clint Betts

Yes, absolutely. We'll put the link out there. And again, Asma, I just want to thank you so much for coming on, we'll follow up with you here too as your journey continues, but you are a hero, Asthma. Thank you for everything you did and are doing for your people and your family. It's absolutely wonderful and I'm sure they're all very proud of you.

Asma Paigeer

Thank you so much.

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