Milford's Alia Seraj, an Afghan princess, keeps attention on aiding refugees

MILFORD — As Alia Seraj watched the chaos ensue in Kabul, her thoughts turned to her father who spent his entire life trying to rebuild Afghanistan.

Seraj, a Milford resident, is Afghan royalty — her father was Prince Abdul Ali Seraj and she is a descendant of generations of Afghan kings. For Seraj, watching the Taliban recapture Kabul and the thousands of Afghans scrambling to escape that group’s tyranny is deeply personal.

Her father spent years fighting to help rebuild his home country — now Seraj is continuing that quest.

“(My father) tried to get people to listen to how you could make Afghanistan a strong, self-sustaining country and not a puppet government ... I wish people had listened to him more,” Seraj said. “I also heard his voice in my head say, ‘America holds the watch, but the Taliban hold the time.’ I always have been thinking of that because they never went away.

“We have to keep our attention on women and girls and the future of those Afghans who never made it out and might not make it out,” she said. “We have to take care of refugees and do what we can to resettle them and do what we can to ensure they have the same opportunities my family had in 1978.”

Seraj has been working to help Afghan refugees and has received hundreds of messages from those seeking assistance and those desperate to help her efforts.

“Through the connections that I have, I had been working to help those people on the list of evacuees leaving the country, so there were a lot of efforts going on — privately funded, publicly funded — with people on the ground who were working to get chartered planes out,” Seraj said. “So I was working for many days to connect the dots, to very limited success, because the airport situation deteriorated so rapidly that it was difficult to get even green card holders on anybody’s priority or through those gates.”

She remains focused on those refugees who are coming out of Afghanistan and have to start over again.

“My family left with $500 and two babies and had the ability to start over, because of my American family, and I want to offer the same sort of welcome and ability to start over for those refugees,” said Seraj.

Seraj said one of the organizations working to resettle Afghans in Connecticut is Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS.

“Per their executive director, there could be upwards of 700 Afghans relocating to Connecticut in the next year,” she said. “That takes the entire community to rally behind because that is a mixture of men, women and children who need housing, education, health care, clothing, essentials and need to be able to start their own life. I believe if we can just get them started, the Afghans are amazingly resilient and forward pushing people who will add to our communities color, tradition, businesses.

“I’m trying hard to let people know they should focus local right now to have an immediate impact on the Afghans who are coming in,” she added. “We have to continue to tell our government that we are not ready yet to put a cap on the number of refugees we can take in as a country.”

Recently, organizations like Fairfield-based Save the Children have worked on helping refugees get settled across the country. And, locally, the University of Bridgeport has offered to provide shelter and services to those who come to this country from Afghanistan.

Seraj, like many around the world, remains uncertain what will become of Afghanistan.

“The Taliban have committed to a more inclusive government and a more moderated form of their fundamentalism, and that is yet to be seen,” she said. “They require international aid and recognition to run that country, but that money is on hold, and we have to hold our government accountable to not recognize the Taliban as a government without that inclusive government as they state.

“I’ve been saying we can’t let the veil fall over Afghanistan and let these human atrocities happen in secret,” she added. “And when we see that happen we have to have ways to put pressure on the Taliban because they cannot govern alone. They have no idea how.”

A princess

Seraj, while half Afghan, remains a member of that country’s royal family.

“My dad, who passed away in 2018, is an Afghan prince, and he was the nephew of King Amanullah and the grandson of King Habibullah, who both ruled Afghanistan in the early 20th century,” said Seraj.

Her parents met in Connecticut when her father was in college and returned to Afghanistan, where they were married. Seraj said both of her sisters were born in Afghanistan in 1975 and 1978, but things changed when the second coup happened in Afghanistan.

“The Communists overthrew the Afghan government entirely and killed President Daud inside the palace and marked all the members of the Afghan royal family for execution,” she said. “So my mom, working with her family back in Connecticut, and the U.S. Embassy, they were able to figure out a way to basically get some forged documents and escape in the middle of the night on buses, leaving Afghanistan for the Pakistani border.”

Seraj was born in the United States after her family escaped Afghanistan.

“So I grew up with this story of being a princess in a faraway land, but truly that is my father and my family history, that really makes that true,” she said.

However, despite not growing up in Afghanistan, its culture was in the food her family ate, the music they listened to, their family traditions and the way they were raised.

Seraj said her father returned to Afghanistan when the Taliban fell in 2002 because he felt he had a serious responsibility to fight for the future of his native country.

“I went to visit in him in 2003 in Kabul, where he lived at the time,” she said. “In 2003, there was still very much a U.S. force in the city ... you could feel it ... there were soldiers everywhere. There was a very tentative sort of piece, and lots of things were destroyed. We toured my great grandfather’s palace that had been bombed to nothing.”

When she visited, she said it was different than what she had ever experienced.

“It is such a different culture than any Westernized or modernized society has ever witnessed,” she said.

Despite her being exposed to different cultures around the world, from backpacking through Thailand and Europe and going to poor states in central America, it was still a culture shock.

“Even knowing the stories and seeing all the pictures, it’s not a third-world country, it’s an ancient country,” she said. “What was most fascinating to me was that my father was recognized everywhere he went by people who knew him and people who didn’t. People would come to him like their prince, and that was very overwhelming and so humbling.”

When she went back in 2010, Seraj could see a difference from 2003.

“There was a lot more happening,” she said. “There was fewer American military in the city that I could see, there was more of a government, there were more businesses open, I saw more women out in public, and that was a very different experience.”

While she was visiting, Seraj spent time at Red Crescent, an international humanitarian movement with the Red Cross.

“I visited an orphanage and a women’s hospital. The women’s hospital was even more devastating than the orphanage because it was women who had lost their husbands to war, they had been subjected to terror under the Taliban and had lost pieces of themselves in some way,” she said. “And yet, still they were just so kind and hopeful, and I had just a beautiful experience with them. The amazing thing about the children is that you would ask them to draw a picture, and you would expect these children who have seen nothing but war to draw would draw something horrible, but they all drew pictures of flowers and sunshine.”

Chaos

As the recent events in Kabul started unfolding, her thoughts went to a couple of different things.

“One was, I knew they (Taliban) were going to come back, they’ve never been gone, but I didn’t know that the Afghan government would just abandon its people so immediately,” she said. “I didn’t know that we would have such a rush and chaotic collapse of society in a matter of minutes it felt like overall.”

She said the fact that everything crumbled so quickly is what ultimately broke her.

“It proves everything that I had come to learn from being ancillary to all my father’s activities, which was Afghanistan had never been built strong enough to survive the end of the war,” she said. “It has been subject to absolute destruction by foreign powers for more than 40 years, and we’ve never really invested in the right way, to get that country to where it needed to be to, be self-sustaining without our military forces.

“We could give them all the equipment, but they had constantly relied on the money coming from the outside, the government the international community had basically put in place on its own and the air support of the U.S. military,” Seraj continued. “To assume that Afghanistan was one country, under one flag ready to stand up on its own after 20 years was I think misguided.”

Seraj said it’s important not to point fingers at a single administration or a single day because so much had gone wrong.

“There are things that have gone wrong for half a century, and there are multiple people, who should take responsibility for mistakes that have been made along the way,” she said. “Multiple people who have siphoned off the good intention and goodwill into their pockets, multiple people who made decisions that did not improve the state of Afghanistan or the safety of the world.”

Seraj said she’s not pointing fingers for the 17 days of chaos that happened, even though it has been heartbreaking for her to watch, but instead wants to bring light to the idea that as a global community, “we can’t let a country slip back 200 years.”

Seraj said it’s going to be essential for the Afghan diaspora around the world to continue to find ways to lift their country as they better their lives in the safety of welcoming countries.

“As the country becomes open, I hope, with efforts to provide education, do things like build schools and make sure there is good medical care,” she said. “We have to, for another generation, help get that country in a place where it can be self-sustaining. I’m a forever optimist, so I do believe there is a way forward, it’s just not clear today.”