| (I acknowledge the hospitality of people of Pakistan and Iran for hosting Afghan refugees for so long. I acknowledge the hard work and financial resources that goes toward the improvement of the situation facing Afghan refugees world wide. I understand that an open border policy towards Afghans or any group of refugees would not be practical. I have written about the life of the Afghan refugee, the restlessness s/he feels and the sense of belonging s/he longs for.)
I recently heard an Afghan musician referring to Afghans as the “eternal refugees”. It cannot be far from the truth. Afghans form the biggest group of refugees. Presumably, each Afghan has seen his share of refugee life at one time or another during the last three decades. I have been a refugee for over half of my life. Each time I was running away from a different menace and each time I was heading towards a different direction. At the beginning I sought refuge in Pakistan with my family when I was about 6. I was escaping the war between the Soviet backed government and the Mujahiden that were using my city as a battleground. The next time I was escaping death, rape and torture as I left my city, Mazar e Sharif in Northern Afghanistan to go to a village. The last two times I sought refuge was when the Taliban took over my city and closed all doors of development on me. I escaped to Pakistan and then to the UK. Each period of time I spent as a refugee taught me a lot but it took a lot away from me too.
The first time I became a refugee was when I was five. At the time I did not know what we were escaping from. Early one morning we left, spent a night in a stranger’s house along the way, and reached Pakistan in a day or two.
I spent the first night at a refugee camp in North West of Pakistan. After that one night, I frequently visited such camps and was fascinated to see how their horrible situation got worse and worse as time passed.
These refugee camps are filthy, over populated, hot and unsafe. They usually consist of little huts built by the refugees themselves; occasionally you can see a tent or two made by the large sheets of plastic that the UNHCR donated. There is open sewage running along the muddy streets. There is hardly any running water or electricity.
There is a serious lack of health care facilities, perhaps a small ill equipped clinic for thousands of people. Death of young children, from preventable and treatable diseases, is a norm. There is poverty, desperation and inevitable early death. Children freely play near gutters on the street with no shoes on. They have large gashes and blisters on their faces and bodies. They are visibly malnourished, their stick thin limbs and bloated bellies are visible through their tattered clothes. Within the huts you can see coughing people who have inhaled the dust as they weave carpets in ill ventilated rooms. Safety is another issue; Afghan refugees living in these camps are responsible for their own safety hence they have open access to fire arms putting the lives of others in the camp in jeopardy. Living in a refugee camp is a futureless existence; children grow up diseased, lack education and have no prospects of having a better future. Afghan refugee camps always remind me of small prisons that the poor refugee cannot break out of.
Those that choose to stay in the country are usually internally displaced. I experienced it when I was living in Mazar e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. My city was attacked three times by the infamous Taliban and each time I escaped to a village. Every time I left home, I had to pack essentials and leave in a hurry not knowing when I will return. While away I felt safe but I felt a constant anxiety thinking what could have happened to my house and people that I knew during my absence.
Each time I have escaped was because my own people were fighting with each other and I, like all other Afghans, was the likely innocent victim of their bullets. But the last time I escaped my country was when I escaped the Taliban, they not only victimized and terrorized me through their weapons but they were also torturing me by trying to ban my existence. Last time I left Afghanistan, I left with a fury in my heart, a fury directed at no one in particular, just on the bad luck of an Afghan.
I escaped to the UK. The Afghans that manage to seek asylum in the places such as the UK, USA and Germany are usually educated and financially better off than others. Being a refugee in the west is different. There is more bureaucracy attached to it. Only when I came to the UK I realised that I was an asylum seeker rather than a refugee. It was in the west where for the first time I had to painfully recreate my story so it proves that I had “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.
I later noticed that the hostility towards and misconception of refugees and asylum seekers. New laws are being passed the limit the access of refugees and asylum seekers to social services, travel, education and health care. People are deported and youngsters are being strategically removed from country and worst of all asylum seekers are detained. On a visit to Villawood detention centre in Sydney Australia, where asylum seekers are detained for long period of time, I met a young woman whose Afghan husband has been in detention for five years from the age of 18.
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