BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — A female judge, Muska, was hiding with her family from newly empowered Taliban militants in Afghanistan when an apparent reading mistake 7,000 miles away helped to drastically change her life.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro opened his nation’s doors to potential refugees from the Asian nation during remarks at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21.
“We will grant humanitarian visas for Afghan Christians, women, children and judges,” he read on the teleprompter — apparently mispronouncing the final word, which was “jovens” — youngsters — in his printed speech as “juizes,” or judges.
Error or not, his government fulfilled that offer.
Muska and her family were taken by bus to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and were then flown to Greece with six female colleagues.
By the end of October, they found themselves in Brazil — a country with very little in common with Afghanistan beyond their shared love of soccer.
Speaking to international media for the first time, Muska told The Associated Press this week that she and the other judges still fear retribution from the Taliban — some of whose members had been sentenced for various crimes in their courts.
She asked that her true name not be used, nor her precise location — at a Brazilian military installation — be published. Her colleagues declined to speak to the news media.
Muska had been a judge for almost 10 years before the Taliban captured power in August and she said her home in the capital, Kabul, had recently been searched.
Afghanistan had about 300 female judges, Muska said, and many are now in hiding, their bank accounts frozen.
“We knew they (the Taliban) wouldn’t let the women judges work. We would have serious threats to our lives,” she said. “They released all the criminals from the prison. These were the criminals that we sentenced.”
The judges who remain “are very scared, in hiding. They have serious financial problems, no salary, lost their jobs, had their bank accounts blocked. They are still in danger,” the judge said. “It is not good in Kabul.”
The Taliban won widespread support in Afghanistan in part because the toppled U.S.-backed government was widely seen as corrupt.
“But women judges were the bravest, strongest and most honest officials in the previous administration,” said Muska, who said the decision by U.S. President Joe Biden to end American presence in the country meant she quickly had to leave.
“Everything happened suddenly,” she said.
Judge Renata Gil, the head of the Brazilian Association of Magistrates that is sponsoring the refugees, said the Afghans arrived “in a lot of fear, still feeling threatened.”
“They are being chased because they convicted Taliban fighters,” she said noting that she herself had received death threats “because I sentenced drug dealers. For women this is much harder.”
Speaking at the association’s headquarters in the capital, Brasilia, she said, “I hope they are able to live their lives independently. But as long as they need, we will be here to help.”
The judges and their 19 family members — apparently the only Afghan refugees who have come to Brazil since the Taliban returned to power — now have Brazilian bank accounts and health care. Those who can are taking lessons in Portuguese.
It’s not clear yet what the future holds for them in Brazil, where at least they are protected. But Muska said they’d like to return home one day.
“I hope I can join my family members in Kabul. I have this dream I am in my house. I miss everything,” the judge said.
Muska hasn’t seen much of Brazil due to security reasons, difficulties with the language and her own fears. But she has found people with empathy for her situation.
“They cry with us, we know they can sense our feelings,” the judge said with tears in her eyes.
Muska’s three children, including a toddler, are also having a tough time adapting. The judge used to have her parents and nannies to help, but in Brazil she’s largely on her own, while worrying about her future, and theirs.
The children look happy and energetic as they run and jump at a public playground, speaking Dari among themselves. But the judge said her eldest daughter has questions she cannot answer.
“She is always asking about my parents, her friends, her cousins,” Muska said. “She always asks us questions about the Taliban, if they will kill us.”
Despite the difficulties, Muska said she believes the future will be brighter for her children than for those still in Afghanistan.
“I have hope for them. That they have their studies in a good situation, in a good educational system,” she said. “They will have their choice on what they can do.”