Crystal was 5 years old, bathing in a barrel at her home in Herat, Afghanistan, when her aunt decided to pour the water out and turn the makeshift bathtub into a makeshift seesaw.
Playing on that barrel-turned-toy was the best day of her life, said Crystal, now 22. Her memories of Afghanistan are filled with beautiful moments like that. But they are now punctuated by sharp flashes of fear when she recalls her family’s encounters with the Taliban, including one incident when she tried to board a bus with her mother and a member of the Taliban beat her mother up.
“That’s one instance of so many situations that had happened,” said Crystal, who asked that NBC News not use her last name to protect her family's safety. “Bodies on the floor were nothing to people. … That’s something that should never be normalized to anyone.”
Years later, Crystal is reliving the bad memories as she watches the Taliban reassert their regime in her home country. This time, she’s thousands of miles away in El Dorado Hills, California, where she immigrated shortly after the encounter with the Taliban on the bus.
To process what’s going on, she’s turned to social media, where she has been sharing content about Afghanistan to her more than 73,000 followers on TikTok. She’s among the many Afghan influencers around the globe channeling their emotions into online posts in hopes of raising awareness and keeping people informed about the bedlam unfolding in their home country.
“I believe social media is probably the biggest blessing we have right now,” Crystal said. “There’s definitely downsides to everything. I don’t believe everything on social media is good, but it is the only media that is unfiltered.”
So far, Crystal has posted on Instagram about ways people can donate to Afghanistan, a cartoon of Afghans falling from airplanes and turning into angels, and images of tweets describing the pain of watching the turmoil from afar.
Thousands of Americans and Afghans who aided U.S. efforts remain trapped in the country. As the United States has withdrawn its presence in Afghanistan and the Taliban has claimed power across the nation, chaos is unfolding at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where on Thursday the Pentagon said more than 5,200 troops were stationed. On Aug. 19, the U.S. evacuated approximately 3,000 people, including 300 U.S. citizens and their families and Afghans eligible for special visas.
Some Afghan influencers are urging their followers to take action by urging their members of Congress to help those trying to flee Afghanistan and to take in more refugees.
Zahra Hashimee, 22, who goes by @Muslimthicc on TikTok and has 3.1 million followers, posted a video on Thursday urging those watching to “help save Afghanistan” by contacting their local member of Congress and telling them to provide refuge to those trying to evacuate the country.
In her video, she provides a script and shows herself choking back tears as she calls Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and leaves a message using the script.
“The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the forceful resurgence of the Taliban is deplorable and a disgrace upon the United States. After pursuing 20 years of failed policies that have engendered a humanitarian crisis, the absolute least the U.S. can do is provide refuge to those seeking it,” Hashimee says in the video as she wipes away tears.
Others are providing updates to those who may not check the news regularly.
Ayeda Shadab, 28, of Afghanistan, who has nearly 300,000 followers on Instagram, has used her Instagram feed and Instagram stories to share the latest news from Afghanistan.
“Proud of you Afghans for standing for our country,” Shadab wrote on a video of an Afghan climbing what appears to be a light pole to wave a flag of Afghanistan.
Afghan American influencers like Aisha Barakzai, 19, who has more than 367,100 followers on TikTok, said it’s important to share content with a younger audience that might not be aware of what’s going on in her home nation.
“We don’t have power to do anything else besides post on social media,” Barakzai said.
“I don’t have any good memory from my homeland, Afghanistan. At all,” she said, recalling her escape to Pakistan and then to the United States.
The Afghan American women who spoke to NBC News said that they have a kind of survivor's guilt, knowing that they get to grow up with the freedoms promised in the United States that their counterparts in Afghanistan can no longer enjoy.
Barakzai said her sister in Afghanistan was too frightened to go outside. "She’s a midwife, but right now she’s not going outside and doing absolutely nothing. She has four daughters," she said. "She’s very scared for them."
Even posting on social media is a privilege, the women told NBC News.
Residents across Afghanistan are racing to delete photos from their mobile phones and social media accounts that could somehow link them to people from Western nations, international human rights groups, the Afghan military or the recently collapsed Afghan government.
Asina Wahab, 22, who is a first generation Afghan American to refugee parents living in New Jersey, has two aunts and many cousins still living in Afghanistan. Wahab said she’s thought of little else besides her female relatives, who could be at risk of losing their most basic rights.
“The fact that I have family there is very overwhelming this week … especially because I have aunts and many girl cousins there," Wahab said. "With the Taliban coming into power. it means all the progressive reforms that happened in Afghanistan are at risk."
Crystal said she has family who still live in Herat, Afghanistan. She said she’s thought about the cruel irony that, as she nears her graduation at California State University, Sacramento, with a degree in civil engineering, her cousin in Afghanistan who should be earning her own degree can’t leave the house.
“She was the brightest kid in my school, and I grew up with her. She wanted to go to medical school and she wanted to be a doctor. The fact she can’t go to school for that now just kind of breaks my heart,” Crystal said.
Although she’s lived in the United States most of her life, seeing Afghanistan fall into the hands of the Taliban has left Crystal feeling displaced.
“I’ve considered America my home for 18 years, but still when I notice that my own country that I was born in is being taken over, I feel homeless in a sense,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have my home with me.”