Sayed Sadat
Sayed Sadat on a bicycle in Coronado. Photo by Mimi Pollack

Can one be an observant Muslim and avowed feminist at the same time? In the case of refugee Afghan journalist Sayed Sadat, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

During an interview at the Coronado home of his sponsor, Sayed explained how he and his family believe in women’s rights, and more importantly, women receiving an education.

“Yes, my family and I are religious and we pray five times in a day,” he said. “We also believe that being Muslim never brings any limitation to the rights of women.”

He goes on to state that his mother always told him that if she had not been limited by social circumstances, she could have been mayor of their city in northern Afghanistan.

Sayed Ahmad Sadat was born in 1989 in Mazar-e-Sharif. This is Afghanistan’s fourth largest city and it is known for its anti-Taliban views. He has one brother and two sisters.

He finished high school in 2009 and went on to study journalism and mass communication and received a bachelor’s degree. He also took a 12-month English course. Later, he worked as a freelance translator, working with an American woman.

Sadat worked as a freelance journalist in his hometown of Mazar-e-Sharif.  He wrote many articles about news relating to the democratic social advancement of his city, province and country. He worked with various news agencies.

Then in January 2021, he put in motion an idea he had had for awhile to help women in his country. He wrote a proposal and received a small grant to open a cell phone repair service where women learned how to fix phones and, in turn, provided service to other women. Sadat ran this successful project until a month before the Taliban took over.

His activism and his work to advance the rights of women made him a target for the Taliban. By August, he knew he had to get ready to escape from his beloved home country, especially after the Taliban killed two women from one of the activist teams he worked with.

He had become well-known in his region for his writing about and promoting of human rights, justice, and women’s rights. He championed changes in the law for the advancement of ordinary Afghan people in their day-to-day lives. And he was known for his participation in public demonstrations.

After seeing many warnings from the Taliban, he knew his life was in danger. With the help of an American woman whom he had worked with in 2019 translating her documentary, he planned his escape. During this time, he helped two Afghan women who were running for their lives after the Taliban had killed some of their family members.  

Together, after many harrowing events, including furtive phone calls and bus rides, Sadat and the two women made their way to the Kabul airport.The irony of all this is that a Taliban soldier actually helped their buses get through. At one point in our conversation, Sadat joked that he felt like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.

At the airport, there were Taliban soldiers with dogs at the checkpoints. Sadat said that when they finally got to the terminal, people were pushing and it was complete chaos. He and the two women were lucky to board the last plane out.

They finally reached Fort Pickett, an Army National Guard Base in Virginia, on Sept. 3. Sadat stayed in Virginia until Dec. 20, when he arrived at the Coronado home of his American sponsor, Mary Danaher Sikes, in time to celebrate his first Christmas in the United States.

Sayed Sadat with a Christmas tree. Photo by Mimi Pollack

This is another instance of good luck in his extraordinary life. Most Afghans who arrive in San Diego are sponsored by Jewish Family Service, IRC, African Alliance or Catholic Charities.  They live in different extended-stay hotels until an apartment can be found for them. In Sadat’s case, although he was sponsored by Catholic Charities, he was welcomed to the home — staying in a casita in the back — of a kind American grandmother and very accomplished woman in her own right.

Sadat met Sikes in 2016 when he was looking for a grant for a short film.  While he was searching online, the Coronado Island Film Festival, popped up and he clicked on it. Then, he saw her name as the CEO of the festival.

He wrote her and asked for advice for an Afghan filmmaker about how to get a grant. She wrote him back and they have stayed in touch ever since. She considers him her Afghan grandson.

With Sikes’ guidance and the help of other kind Americans and some grassroots groups, Sadat has been thriving. The group Welcome Home provided him with a bicycle, so he has been exploring Coronado.

His goals for now are to improve his English, find a job, and get a master’s degree. He is trying to contact the State Department to find out the number of journalists and civil activists he knew before who might currently be at risk. In addition, he wants to sponsor the rest of his family, who are currently in a safe house in Afghanistan.

And a happy reunion is coming up. The two women he helped to escape are leaving Fort Pickett. With the help of the IRC, they will be coming to San Diego on Jan. 23 to live.  Sadat and Sikes plan to be at the airport to greet them and drive them to their hotel. These two women will be in good hands.

Sadat remains hopeful of the future. His long term goal is to become an American citizen and perhaps pursue a political career.

“Every time I go out for a bike ride, I see peace in the citizens of this country as they walk around. I see that I am not a stranger and I do not feel like a stranger,” he said. “The citizens of this country look at me, but there is no hatred in their eyes according to my religion.”