Afghanistan

Afghanistan at the crossroads: Young Afghans return to a homeland they never knew

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KABUL, Afghanistan, November 14 (UNHCR) - Twenty-year-old Khan dreams of becoming the next winner of Afghan Star, Afghanistan's answer to the popular talent show, American Idol. "My shoes are from Japan, my pants are from England. My hat is made in Russia, but my heart is pure Afghan," he sings in Dari, pointing in jest to his traditional shalwar kameez outfit and sandals.

Khan is a born performer. But as a refugee in Iran, he was too busy playing sole breadwinner to his family to develop his talents. "We lived peacefully and had a wonderful life in Tehran," he concedes. "But it was not our home."

Like him, many Afghans who were born in exile in the last 30 years have returned to Afghanistan since 2002. Most were obliged to return with their families and many of them are finding it hard to adjust to rural life after growing accustomed to the better living conditions and services in Iran and Pakistan.

"This is a big surprise. I thought it would be better. I didn't expect to face such problems or to end up in such a place," says Wali, 18, who returned from Pakistan's Jalozai refugee village in May and now lives under a tent in Sholgara district of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan. "There is nothing here - no shelter, not enough water, no trees for firewood, no electricity and no work."

He's not the only one to suffer from culture shock. In Balkh-i-Bastan of Balkh province, 16-year-old Fatima walks home from school with a burqa draped on her arm. "What to do? This is Afghanistan," she shrugs. Comparisons with Iran, where she spent most of her life, are inevitable: "The hygiene in Iran was perfect. When we first returned here, we had no house and no toilets. We had many diseases then."

Malika, 12, puts it simply: "I miss Pakistan. We had a house and water from a tap in Jalozai camp. My father worked in the brick factory and I was in Class 3 in school."

Her family is now living in the same Sholgara tent village as Wali. She works all day in a corn field and receives some food in return. "Here, there is nothing but dust. I want to study but classes are in Dari, not the Pashto language. I have to bring water from far away. My father finds daily work in Sholgara. But winter is coming and we are not ready."

Living conditions aside, education standards also differ vastly. "Here, Class 12 is enough to be a teacher. They didn't even graduate from the relevant teacher training school," says Fatima, the returnee from Iran. "I feel like I'm going to school for nothing. I can't learn what I expect. Also, there's a shortage of textbooks and stationery."

Aspiring singer Khan, who lives in the Beneworsik government land allocation scheme in Parwan province near Kabul, also complains: "There is no proper school, no regular building or education system like in Kabul . . . There are also no long-term jobs."

The lack of livelihood opportunities has severely affected Afghanistan's capacity to absorb more returnees sustainably, an issue to be discussed at an international conference on return and reintegration organized by the Afghan government and the UN refugee agency in Kabul on November 19.

Some returnees are well educated and have high expectations of work. Most are unskilled daily-wage labourers who live too far from major towns and cities to find regular employment. Able-bodied men have had to leave their families to find work in the cities or even in neighbouring countries.

Sholgara resident Wali says many men from his local community have left for the nearest city of Mazar-e-Sharif and to Pakistan to find work. But he plans to stay: "It takes money to go back to Pakistan. I have no means to go."

In Balkh-i-Bastan, several UNHCR shelters are padlocked and sitting empty - 10 to 15 of Fatima's neighbouring families have returned to Iran in search of jobs. Her own family has also considered leaving.

"I refuse to go," she says. "If we go back without a visa, we would have to live like a mouse hunted by the cat. Even if there were no such problems, going to Iran would be a short-term solution, not a permanent one. We won't always be welcomed in Iran. This is our homeland after all."

The 18-year-old is determined to stay and attend university so that she can become a psychologist or doctor one day.

Khan, too, is hopeful he can make a future for himself in Afghanistan. Working as a mason at Beneworsik, he has managed to buy three adjacent plots for his family and invested in a fourth. He will soon get married and plans to expand his properties to include an orchard and playground.

"If I make enough money, I plan to go back to Iran next year with a passport and visa. Not to work, but to be a tourist for one month," he says confidently.

They may have stars in their eyes, but the dreams of young returnees like Khan, Fatima, Wali and Malika are also grounded in harsh realities. "It's good to come from a stranger's land to our own land," Malika's 80-year-old grandmother assures her. "We used to work for Pakistan's people. Now we're working for ourselves. We may have one or two years of hardship and starvation. But life will get better."

By Vivian Tan
in Kabul, Afghanistan