The visible plight of refugees the world over tends, at least when they are newly arrived in wherever they happen to be, to evince sympathy amongst those lucky enough to have homes, jobs and food on their tables and it is basic human nature for them to offer both succour and sympathy until, as here in Pakistan where Afghan refugees have been part and parcel of the daily scene for 33 years now, they are viewed as pariahs who should be moved on. Few people consider the heart-breaking implications of long-term refugee status and the problems, mental and physical, that this implies and even fewer care what eventually happens to these legions of the dispossessed as long as, when the well of concern has run dry, they move on or are forcibly moved, either back to wherever it is they came from or to some place else, as long as they go from the place they were once provided refuge in.
Take the case of Asker, a 22-year old Afghan who was born, like so many thousands of others, in a refugee camp in Pakistan, studied in Pakistani schools, grew up in - outside the camp - Pakistani society and was just six months ago, forced, by lack of work and problems with NADRA about his identity papers, to go ‘home’ to a place he had never before set eyes on. “Even though my family came from a mountain village in Sarobi District, I first decided to try my luck in Kabul where I had some distant relatives,” he explained sadly. “I chose Kabul because having done an IT course in Rawalpindi, I thought I would be able to find work, but there was no work to be had. I had, of course, been brought up on stories of Afghanistan, but it was very strange to arrive in what was supposed to be my very own country for the first time as an adult. My relatives in Kabul were not very happy about me joining them as they were already short of space for their own family members and basically viewed me as a Pakistani seeing that I had been born there. I know that the family system in this part of the world is supposed to make many allowances and to care for each other in times of need, but patience soon runs out. The problem was that, aside from not being able to find work, I was a complete stranger with Pakistani ideas and expectations. I tried very hard, but could not fit in. So, I moved to Jalalabad where I had some friends.”
Asker fared no better in Jalalabad where, with so many Pakistan born young Afghans having to return for similar reasons to his own, finding any sort of employment at all is an uphill task. “I did get a part time job of repairing mobile phones,” he continued. “But I just could not earn enough to live or even to eat properly. So, I decided to try Sarobi next.”
Asker had been in Sarobi just six weeks when I met him and, as internet access is basically limited to those lucky enough to have suitable mobile phones, any IT career was out of the question. As in Jalalabad, he was struggling to make ends meet by repairing mobile phones and by existing in dilapidated accommodation shared with four other young men in the same boat.
“I have visited the mountain village, which is my ancestral home,” he said. “There aren’t many people there. Electricity does not exist; there is only one very small primary school for boys, no mobile phones, obviously no internet and no way at all for me to make an income. My parents’ home was destroyed in the Russian war, so there is nowhere for me to live and I was not really welcome because of my different upbringing, education and ideas. It is not possible for me to stay there, so I can only pray that something eventually works out for me in Sarobi.”
Asker’s plight is echoed the length and breadth of Afghanistan. “I am Pakistani born and raised and educated, but I am an Afghan national so this country is my home. But I do not understand how am I supposed to survive here given the current situation,” he revealed in confusion. “No one prepared me for this and no one, aside from my immediate family, is concerned about my future in a life where I do not fit in.”
n The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.