'Save me.' Every week, Neilab gets desperate messages from loved ones stuck in Afghanistan.

One year ago, Neilab Osman filed a humanitarian visa application for her loved ones to come to Australia from Afghanistan.

It was clear the situation in Kabul was escalating and that her family – 16 close relatives – desperately needed to flee to a place of safety. One relative of Neilab's said she feared that her degree in law and political science would cost her life.

Over the last year, 22-year-old Neilab - a second-generation Afghan-Australian living in Sydney - has worked tirelessly to try to get her loved ones to Australia, or to a place of safety. 

It has taken hundreds of pages of visa applications, countless hours spent on the phone with immigration, email petitions, legal advice sessions, numerous MP meetings and rallying donations. 

And every week for the past year, she has received desperate messages from Afghan civilians – from both her family and sometimes even complete strangers.

On a FaceTime call last August, Neilab's seven-year-old cousin showed her his packed suitcase. He told her he was "ready to come to Australia" and had been carrying the suitcase up and down the stairs of his apartment block so he could get strong. He slept next to the suitcase most nights, luggage mostly filled with random toys that non-government organisations had once gifted to him. 

Just last month, Neilab received a voice memo from this same cousin, who remains stuck in Kabul. 

"I can hear fires. I just want to be safe," he said. "My uncle is going to try and help us. I just want to go to school... but my mum and dad won't give me permission to go outside. Save me. The fires won't stop."


Sometimes after saying goodbye on a call to her Afghan loved ones, Neilab wonders if she will ever hear their voices again.

Watch former Afghanistan Minister of Education Rangina Hamidi on the realities women face in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Post continues below.

Video via BBC News.

After one year with the Taliban in power, Afghanistan's economy has collapsed, with 40 million people now living below the poverty line. 

Women and girls are not allowed to receive a proper education. Raids on civilian homes take place consistently, with the Taliban trying to locate 'Western sympathisers'. And girls cannot leave the house unless wearing a burqa and accompanied by a man.

At the moment Neilab is trying to get her family to Pakistan as a stepping stone to Australia. But the red tape associated with humanitarian visa applications is overwhelming.

"My family fears leaving the house because the Taliban may wish to kill them. Many of my family have previously worked in humanitarian roles. Some are very much on the 'hit list'," Neilab said to Mamamia.


Their fear was so real, that some of Neilab's family had to make the decision to burn their degrees and résumés.

"There's little hope for Afghanistan now – they just look at the state of their country and wonder how they can live in there. At the moment we're financially supporting our family still over in Kabul."

Over the past year, Neilab has even received messages from strangers online – long, pleading paragraphs begging for her help and assistance with their visa applications. 

It's these messages of desperation that have stuck with her.

Neilab will receive everyday messages from her family. Some are chatty. Some are ironically funny, using humour as a coping mechanism. But most of the messages are sobering.

"I've certainly seen their mental health decline significantly in 12 months. It's the messages from the younger ones that are upsetting – 'Get me out. I hate it here. I'm going to die. I can't go to school'. Messages from young kids, it's heartbreaking."


Over the past six months, there has been a collective feeling of news fatigue in Australia. It's understandable, given all the atrocities that have occurred recently across the globe. But with news fatigue can come desensitisation. 

And that's something the people of Afghanistan don't deserve – so they're asking for noise. 

"I think part of the news fatigue is because the situation there is so extreme and unfathomable that many struggle to grasp it. But it's crucial that we don't turn a blind eye," Neilab said to Mamamia

"Sometimes in the Western world, we have this subconscious bias that if we can't relate directly to someone we don't feel as much empathy for them. But we're all human."


Neilab and her immediate family in Australia have spearheaded the logistics to try to get their loved ones to safety - all while Neilab juggles a Master's degree in Public and Social Policy and working with refugee background students. The fact that it's been exactly a year since Neilab first submitted a humanitarian visa application is a tough anniversary.

"The hoops that these people have to jump through are next level. I understand and respect security processes – they are really important. But I think cutting back some of the red tape is crucial," Neilab explained. 

"For example, many Afghans have had to hide or dispose of their documents for fear of persecution. In Afghanistan, birth certificates are rarely issued either."

The process needs to be more considerate. And easier to comprehend too – particularly for refugees. 

There has been a mental burden for Neilab in trying so desperately to help her family. Compiling these applications, which include detailed evidence of the Taliban's threats and violence, and relaying her family's plight – there's a trauma associated with it. 

"It feels like it's the slowest torture – a slow ache at the back of my head every day. And it's gone on for a year. I do have a glimmer of hope that they will eventually be accepted. I just need to stay hopeful, because if I don't then what do they have?"


In a statement to Mamamia, a spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said that as of August 5, 2022, 47,900 humanitarian visa applications have been lodged in Australia by or on behalf of Afghan nationals and remain undecided, comprising more than 211,100 applicants.

Of those humanitarian visa applications lodged, 5,500 Afghan nationals have arrived in Australia on temporary humanitarian visas. 

"The Australian Government remains committed to supporting the Afghan community at this distressing time," they said in the statement. 

The federal government has said there are 31,500 places in Australia available to Afghan nationals over the next four years. It's made up of 26,500 places under the Humanitarian Program and 5,000 under the Family stream of the Migration Program.

Neilab hopes her loved ones will be included in this quota.

Afghan/Australian woman Mahboba Rawi OAM runs a not-for-profit called Mahboba's Promise. It's Mahboba's work in helping Afghan women and children that has left her with the nickname 'Mother of Thousands'.

Neilab and Mahboba. Image: Supplied.


Since 1998, Mahboba's Promise has been working on the ground in Afghanistan, helping educate disadvantaged women, children and displaced people. She has established schools, shelters and health clinics across Afghanistan, as well as providing many sponsorships for those in need.

Mahboba, who herself was once a refugee from Kabul, has also been supporting new arrivals to Australia as well. But she feels desperately sad for those left in Afghanistan. 

"With the Taliban, women are now prisoners in their own homes," Mahboba said to Mamamia.

"I work a lot with women and children in need, and my heart goes out to them. Especially for young girls, because these years are supposed to be the best time of their life. And now they cannot go to school. That emotional impact will stay with them for the rest of their lives – the whole country cries for them. I cry with them too."


In order to better support the new arrivals in Australia and the people of Afghanistan, Mahboba works tirelessly, along with her community and not-for-profit.

"I want Australians to embrace these people – we need to welcome them. And for those in Afghanistan, we need to help them receive an education – to sponsor them, to provide care. We don't know how long the Taliban will control Afghanistan, so our work is vital," Mahboba said. 

"Please do not forget Afghan women and girls. They need their Western sisters to stand by them because they are alone. As an Afghan and Australian, I am proud. Sometimes people think that in this world of chaos they cannot make a change as the problem is too big – but I am an example that one individual can change a life."

To donate, sponsor or get involved with Mahboba's Promise, you can visit their website here

Neilab Osman is currently completing a Master's degree in Public and Social Policy while juggling many roles, one of them being a Bilingual Student Support Officer at Macquarie University. She has also previously worked with the Australian Human Rights Commission. She is passionate about social justice, refugees and children's rights.

Feature Image: AAP/Mamamia.