Flying free

Jewish-led initiative helps 450 Afghan girls, women get to Canada after U.S. withdrawal

When Justin Hefter learned of the plight of Afghanistan's Hazara community, he sprang to action with his organization 30 Birds, driven by his own family's experiences in the Holocaust, he says

Soomaya Javadi’s aspiration of becoming a dentist was stolen overnight when the Taliban swept back into power in August 2021 following the rapid withdrawal of American armed forces from Afghanistan. Women were swiftly prohibited from attending school, holding jobs or even going to a restaurant without a male chaperone.

Javadi, along with her parents and two younger siblings, were evacuated in October 2021 to Saskatoon, a small Canadian city where they have begun to rebuild their lives. Javadi is among more than 450 schoolgirls and women rescued by the 30 Birds Foundation, a Jewish-led effort to evacuate activists for girls education and their families, all of whom come from a progressive community in Afghanistan that taught human rights and religious freedom. 

“My life turned upside down in one night, a few months before my graduation when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and we had to leave,” Javadi, 26, reflected in a Zoom conversation with eJewishPhilanthropy. “I am one of the 30 Birds Girls. In the neighborhood I used to live in Afghanistan, my people do not have access to drinking water and the Taliban who claim to be the government, are turning a blind eye to lines of children waiting for water.” 

“The Taliban will hit people on the street if they attempt to have their religious ceremonies,” Javadi, whose family is Shia Muslim and Hazara, continued. “I felt threatened and I knew there was no place for me there anymore. The worst part was that the whole world was seeing us, and ignoring us, other than 30 Birds.” 

The Javadi family’s former community, rooted in an impoverished slum of West Kabul, is inhabited by a persecuted ethnic Persian minority: the Hazaras. Seeing comparisons to his own family’s experiences, Justin Hefter, the co-founder and executive director of the 30 Birds Foundation, jumped to help. 

“The Hazaras have faced genocide and slavery, and share many similarities with my Jewish ancestors,” Hefter, 34, told eJP. “Some of the girls in this school even studied the Holocaust, and so when they learned that Jews were helping, they didn’t bat an eye.” 

30 Birds has raised more than $4 million — at least a quarter of which has come from the Jewish community. 

Hefter’s interest in refugees and the Middle East precedes the 2021 Afghan crisis, but he didn’t originally set out to lead rescues. “While an undergraduate student at Stanford, I did a lot of interfaith work with Muslims and saw people with different backgrounds who had every reason to mistrust building incredible relationships,” he told eJP. 

The first company Hefter started was in 2014 while participating in an entrepreneurship fellowship in Israel. “It was a way for Israelis and Palestinians to use video games to connect across conflict zones,” he recalled. 

A year later, Hefter got involved in helping with the civil war in Yemen. “At first I was like, ‘How the hell do you help people in Yemen?’ But I had been connected with an interfaith activist [from the video game company], who it turned out had his life in danger in Yemen. So I didn’t know what I was doing but connection to connection we managed to help Mohammed [al-Samawi] escape on a fishing boat in coordination with the Indian navy and U.S. government.” 

Mohammed ultimately wrote a book about the experience, which is set to be turned into a film directed by Steven Spielberg. “So the story got out and from time to time I would be contacted with people saying, ‘You helped Mohammed in Yemen, now this guy in Sudan needs help, now this guy in Iran needs help,’” Hefter continued. “I would help on different cases. So when Afghanistan was falling to the Taliban, I got involved with the effort to help a group of extraordinary schoolgirls who are outspoken and brilliant,” he said, noting that more than 50 of the girls rescued by 30 Birds left Afghanistan for Canada without any family members. 

“The girls were the ones making decisions on the ground of where to go, where to bring their families, what to say to the Taliban at checkpoints,” Hefter told eJP. “We did this as a partnership, which makes 30 Birds unique. It’s a collaborative relationship with the young women.” 

“This is not the story of a group who saved Afghan girls,” Hefter continued, “it’s how an extraordinary group of people collaborated with Afghan girls to establish a miracle. I don’t think of it as myself saving them. We helped them escape but they helped themselves to escape, too.” 

The 30 Birds name comes from a Persian poem that tells the story of 30 birds on a journey to find enlightenment through a phoenix only to learn that there is no phoenix, they are the only ones who can save their community.

Several prominent Jewish leaders, including Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special envoy on antisemitism and former attorney general; David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada and Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, have contributed to the effort as well. 

Heyman told eJP that “there are sometimes circumstances where an individual can literally lend help to a lot of people in real need and on occasion these opportunities come out of the blue and such an opportunity presented itself during the final days of the US presence in Afghanistan.”

“The whole world was watching as many people were trying to flee the anticipated repression to come,” he added. “I heard specifically about the effort that 30 Birds was doing and Justin Hefter in particular and in a conversation with Justin I asked. ‘What can I do?’ and Justin very specifically said, ‘Here’s what you can do: As a former U.S. ambassador to Canada can you contact people who are or formally were in the U.S. government or the Canadian government or in business or otherwise who might be helpful? We are open to anything because we’re in a jam, in a tight window with young girls who were being educated and who are fleeing for their life and seeking freedom.’” 

Heyman began to reach out to his contacts in Canada, sending texts and emails to individuals he thought might be able to help.

“I am not a lobbyist, I no longer work in government, I have no personal gain here,” Heyman said. “The only goal was to have an outcome that gave these girls a new life and opportunity to have freedom. I thought about the many years in my life I sat at Passover Seder and talked about how we also fled tyranny and the many times we remember our history and our story. I am so happy to have played a very small part in helping Justin and 30 Birds achieve such success. It was my small contribution to tikkun olam.”

Javadi said that 30 Birds gave her family “a second chance at life.” 

Soomaya Javadi speaks at a human rights events. (Courtesy)

“We were searching for a way out of Afghanistan and it was impossible because of checkpoints,” she told eJP, adding that her family felt urgency to leave because her father worked as a journalist, which, coupled with the family’s religious beliefs, put them in extreme danger. With 30 Birds help, the family descended on the 10-hour journey from Kabul to northern Afghanistan, where they stayed in what Javadi described as “bad conditions” for two weeks.

“But the flight never took off. We had to go back. We were in the middle of nowhere, walking among the mountains for hours, surrounded by the Taliban with their guns and I had a huge hijab on me covering my entire body in the hot summer. It was humiliating. It was against my beliefs, I was a free woman, I was a dentistry student with my own life. And then they came and said, ‘No, you’re not human anymore.’” 

Javadi, who had never met a Jew prior to becoming involved with 30 Birds, said it was easy to connect with Jewish people because they have faced persecution and genocide like the Hazaras. “It makes us similar,” she told eJP. “30 Birds brought me to a synagogue in London,” she reflected. “But even before that I already knew we had a similar history. I actually wondered if Jewish people knew that. Then I met Justin and was amazed that he knew how similar we are, he had read articles about it and it really amazed me.”

“Jews were oppressed and now you see many of them having the greatest influences in society,” Javadi continued. While she didn’t learn about the Holocaust at school, Javadi said she read about it on her own time while growing up in Afghanistan. “What the 30 Birds did, in some ways, reminds me of the kindertransport,” she said, referring to the rescue effort of Jewish children from Nazi-controlled territory to Great Britain that took place in 1938-39 prior to the outbreak of World War II. 

She referenced a well-known verse from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a): “Anyone who sustains one soul from the Jewish people, the verse ascribes him credit as if he sustained an entire world.” (This is often universalized as: “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world.”)

“30 Birds saved 450 girls, they saved 450 worlds in a world where the international community is ignoring us,” she said.

Javadi’s dental school credits could not be transferred to Canada, so she started over at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, now in her second year. She lives with her family and holds a part-time job working with refugee children, noting that she relates to their trauma. 

Javadi said Canada feels like home for her family, so much so that her parents welcomed a fourth child eight months ago. 

“We are free and safe here. Most of the 30 Bird Girls are in Saskatoon so we have many community gatherings,” she said. “I wish my relatives and friends back home, and people I don’t know in Afghanistan, can have this as well. We’re free now to sing and dance and study and do whatever we choose, instead of what the Taliban wants us to do.” 

Nila Ibrahimi, 16, is another so-called “30 Bird Girl.” 

The foundation evacuated Ibrahimi, along with her mother, three siblings and brother-in-law, to Saskatoon.

Ibrahimi was a member of a music group called Sounds of Afghanistan. All of the group’s members were brought to Canada immediately after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. But due to financial problems, Ibrahimi and her family were forced to wait in Pakistan for nearly nine months. 

The family was among 200 of the 30 Birds group stuck in Pakistan when no country would take them, Hefter recalled. He added that the foundation teamed up with the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Toronto to get them to Canada under a special program called private sponsorship, where it raised enough money to support each family for a full year in Canada while they applied for visas (approximately $18,000 USD per person). 

“Before we got out of Afghanistan, my family members were not sure when they left in the morning if they would return in the evening. They’ve witnessed explosions. It was chaotic and awful. It’s hard to explain, my words seem meaningless,” Ibrahimi told eJP. 

She said the opportunities 30 Birds has provided have been life changing, notably the chance to speak at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The foundation also gave her exposure to religions she never knew about.

“I started doing research on Judaism because of my relationship with 30 Birds and I liked hearing Justin’s background and how it made him want to help people going through the same thing.” 

“I would say it’s a pretty good life in Saskatoon. We go to school and don’t have to worry about our safety,” Ibrahimi continued. A rising high-school junior, Ibrahimi has time to join the choir, play sports and worry about what her North American peers also commonly stress about: college acceptance. 

Although she received a scholarship to the University of Chicago, Ibrahimi said she doesn’t want to leave Canada. “We’re deciding to move to Vancouver, where I got a scholarship to a private school so hopefully that will be good.” 

“I really enjoy this freedom,” she said. “Afghan girls are fading from the headlines of the news, but real people who care about human rights stick around.”