For months, she soared through Afghanistan’s skies. She made civil aviation history by flying inside the country with all-female crews.
At age 21, Mohadese Mirzaee’s dream came true.
She became Afghanistan’s first female commercial flight pilot, taking passengers in a Boeing 737 to different Afghan cities as well as Turkey, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and India.
Her dream came crashing down a year later, on Aug. 15, 2021, the day that Kabul fell to the Taliban. When the extremist Islamic group known for its anti-women policies returned to power, she was in her uniform at the airport, planning her evening flight to Istanbul, Turkey.
“When I was in the airport, the Taliban had already attacked Kabul, and they were inside the city,” recalled Mirzaee, now 24. Residents and security personnel were desperate to flee. “When I got into the plane that I was supposed to fly, I see people rushing, everyone was running to the plane,” she said.
She left behind her family that day, fleeing the country — this time as a passenger — on an evacuation flight to Kyiv until her employer Kam Air, Afghanistan’s largest private carrier, assessed the situation.
“They denied my entry,” she said, referring to the Ukrainian airport authorities in Kyiv. “Then they checked my passport. I had to a visa for Bulgaria, since we always had that for the training. They said, ‘You have to go to Bulgaria because you have the visa, and we cannot accept you.’ ”
Mirzaee’s childhood dream of flying had hit a stumbling block in 2015 when she went to a military base of the then-U.S.-backed Afghanistan army to apply for pilot training but a commander told her, “You’re so young. You don’t have enough muscles.
“You cannot fly, and why are you thinking about flying? Think about something else,” she recalls being told.
The refusal, not surprising in a male-dominated country, didn’t deter her.
In 2016, she went abroad to do her last year’s class at a high school in Port Colborne, Ont. “When I came to Canada and started searching, I saw it was such a normal thing for the women to fly.”
When she finished school, Mirzaee attended the aviation academy at Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport, and practised flying a Cessna 172.
“It was quite expensive,” she said, talking about the fees for each training flight. “I remember every hour of the flight was around $300.”
Being on a student visa, she could not get senior jobs; instead, she worked at Tim Hortons, McDonald’s, as a cashier at Walmart and receptionist in a dental clinic to pay for training flights.
“Any job you can name it I was working, just to be able to pay for my flight training, to pay for my courses.”
In 2018, she returned to Afghanistan to persuade the state-run and private airlines to sponsor her to continue further training. She got rejected multiple times.
“I don’t give up quickly, so I was pretty annoying. I was giving them calls every day,” she said, referring to officials from the Kam Air private airline.
They finally relented. “I had meetings, interviews and exams before starting the program. After I passed all those exams and interviews, they supported and funded my training,” said Mirzaee. The program was full-time integrated pilot training in the Philippines for 18 months.
Later, she attended three months of training on the Boeing 737, in Bulgaria, where her visa was valid until she escaped from Afghanistan.
To Mirzaee, August is an “eventful month.” Her first commercial flight was on Aug. 20, 2020; she lost her job in Afghanistan with the fall of Kabul in the same month, the following year. In August 2022, she got her European pilot certificate after passing several exams in Bulgaria.
“Now I’m flying for another European company, which is quite fun,” she said from her hotel in Italy, where she was on vacation. “I’m in different cities every day, so I cannot complain. I’m quite happy about that.”
Her family safely resettled in Canada, including her mother, who supported Mirzaee in achieving her dream.
As the Taliban places more restrictions on women, including banning girls from high school and working in NGOs and the United Nations offices, she claims those barriers cannot stop Afghan women.
“For me, it’s a proud moment. I didn’t give up. Even though the Taliban did everything to put us down and take us away,” she said.
And she added: “Going back to Afghanistan and flying back, there is always the option” after the Taliban are gone.
“I always remember the days that I was flying there as sweet memories. I’m hoping and looking forward to that day when Afghanistan will finally be peaceful.”
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