WASHINGTON – Afghanistan’s first female pilot to serve in the air force since the fall of the Taliban has finally succumbed to life threats and has applied for asylum in the United States.
“I would love to fly for my country – that is what I always wanted to do. But I’m scared for my life,” Niloofar Rahmani told the Wall Street Journal.
Rahmani, 25, is the first female fixed-wing pilot in the fledgling Afghan Air Force. She was only 18 years old when she heard an announcement in the media about the recruitment of young women into the Afghan Air Force, including the opportunity for pilot training.
She enlisted in the Afghan Air Force Officer Training Program in 2010 and in July 2012 graduated as a Second Lieutenant.
Rahmani completed her first solo flight in September 2012 in a Cessna 182, an American four-seat, single-engine light airplane.
As the first female aeroplane pilot in Afghanistan, Niloofar Rahmani became a powerful symbol of what women could accomplish in the post-Taliban era. But in the ultraconservative country, the limelight also brought threats, sending her into hiding from insurgents and vengeful relatives.
Now, more than three years after she earned her wings, she hopes to start a new life in the U.S. where she has applied for asylum, saying her life would be in danger if she returns home.
Capt. Rahmani went to the U.S. in the summer of 2015 to train on C-130 transport planes with the U.S. Air Force. The course ended Thursday, and under the terms of her training stint, she was due to go back to Afghanistan on Saturday. But she didn’t leave the U.S.
Earlier, three Afghan soldiers were detained after fleeing a training exercise in Massachusetts in 2014 and heading for Canada. One was granted asylum and another immigrated to Canada. The third soldier has been denied asylum and is appealing the decision.
The head of Afghanistan’s air force, Maj. Gen. Abdul Wahab Wardak, recently warned pilots training in the U.S. against applying for asylum, saying they would be deported to Afghanistan and arrested if they attempted it, Capt. Rahmani told the WSJ.
There were no immediate comments from U.S. Embassy in Kabul about Capt. Rahmani’s decision to seek asylum.
However, Lt. Jalaluddin Ibrahimkhel, a spokesman for the Afghan air force, said pilots must return home after completing their training abroad.
If she is granted asylum in the U.S., Capt. Rahmani says she will continue flying, either with the U.S. Air Force or as a commercial pilot.
“Everything I went through, all my suffering, was because I really wanted to fly. That was my dream,” she said.
Her asylum request comes just weeks before Donald Trump takes office as U.S. president and is expected to tighten restrictions on immigration, particularly on Muslims.