One year, to the day, after students from Afghanistan’s only music school arrived at their new home in Portugal, Voice of America’s documentary “Symphony of Courage” played to an intimate audience at the Portuguese ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C. The following day, Freedom House and VOA cohosted a virtual screening of the movie before a national and global audience.
The documentary tells the story of the safe passage from Afghanistan of all 273 students and teachers of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. The film gives particular focus to the dramatic journeys of Farida and Zohra Ahmadi, the group’s youngest members and the last two to leave the country.
“Usually, you have a sense of how things are going to go,” said Beth Mendelson, VOA executive producer and director of the film, describing her work documenting the girls’ flight. “In this instance, we really didn’t know.”
The documentary shows the two girls hiding from the Taliban after Kabul, the Afghan capital, fell in August 2021. Days after taking power, armed militants of the Islamist group took over ANIM and smashed the students’ musical instruments. The film follows the girls as they wait for the documents they need to depart the country and during a harrowing ride to the airport three months after Kabul’s fall.
The situation in Afghanistan is “absolutely dire,” Melanne Verveer, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Affairs, said as she moderated the discussion at Ambassador Francisco Duarte Lopes’ residence. The panel also included Mendelson, ANIM Director Dr. Ahmad Sarmast and Jessica Lustig, a public affairs executive who serves on the board of Friends of ANIM. The nonprofit Meridian International, a nonpartisan diplomacy center, collaborated with the ambassador in staging the first screening.
Dr. Sarmast said at the Freedom House virtual screening that “Afghanistan is today a silent nation,” where music is banned and is again “a prison” for women who “have been denied rights to education, rights to work, rights to fully participate in…the life of the country.”
Also on the Freedom House panel were Mendelson; Alexandra Bilreiro, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Portugal; Farishta Sakhi, Senior Program Manager, Freedom House; and moderator Anne Richard, Afghanistan Coordination Lead/Distinguished Fellow, Freedom House. The Portuguese ambassador and Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, Freedom House Executive Vice President, delivered opening remarks.
“I think the film really embraces the human spirit and the ability to really overcome horrible situations,” Mendelson said in the Freedom House discussion. “Through the hope of music, I think they’re able to transcend the horrible things that have been happening with the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
In an emotional reunion depicted in the film, the Ahmadi sisters met Dr. Sarmast on the airport tarmac in Doha, Qatar, where the music academy assembled temporarily. On December 13, 2021, ANIM students and faculty traveled to Portugal, which has become the refugees’ permanent home. Nine and a half months later, in Lisbon, the students held their first public concert from their new country.
As the VOA-Freedom House panel wrapped up, VOA South and Central Asia Director Ayesha Tanzeem delivered closing remarks, speaking of her experience reporting from Kabul on the day the city fell and thousands of people converged on the airport.
“Even though the Taliban promised that they would allow women to study and work, promises that we all know they’ve broken since then, we knew that those opportunities would be severely limited, the professions would be severely limited,” said Tanzeem.
“We are continuing our efforts,” Tanzeem said of VOA Afghan service programming. She said the Taliban blocked VOA TV programs and then VOA radio programs inside the country. She said that VOA continues to broadcast into Afghanistan from across its borders. “In our programming, you watch women; you watch artists; you watch comedians. You watch a lot of the people who have escaped Afghanistan since the Taliban came into power – all the voices that have been silenced in Afghanistan now speak on VOA’s channels and our airwaves,” she added.
Meanwhile, international audiences continue to learn about the Afghan music students’ flight. “Symphony of Courage” was also screened by the Metropolitan Club of Washington, D.C., in September and by the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Public Diplomacy in October. More screenings are planned for the New Year.