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Transit through Slovakia gives Afghan women a second chance

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HUMENNÉ, April 19 (UNHCR) – A group of 44 Afghan refugees arrived on Thursday, April 19 at the Evacuation Transit Centre (ETC) in Humenné, eastern Slovakia, ahead of onward resettlement elsewhere.

The Afghans were recognised by Iran in 2001 as refugees who fled Afghanistan due to armed conflict. They are all the families of divorced or widowed women, ostracized by their society and at risk of further abuse and exploitation, including forced marriage, whether in Afghanistan or Iran. They will stay in the Humenné Evacuation Transit Centre for up to six months before being resettled elsewhere.

Nooria*, 34, fled conflict in Afghanistan with her entire family but her life in Iran, her new home country, became equally hard. She was forced to marry a group leader of the Mujahedeen who regularly beat her and deafened her in one ear. After a long struggle she finally managed to get a divorce, she said.

In the ETC in Humenné Nooria* and her four daughters will receive food, clothing and medical care. The transit centre caters for special religious and dietary needs and provides them with a kindergarten, prayer room and library with computers. The refugees can take language lessons and vocational training in English, cultural orientation lessons, do sports and recreational activities as well as make excursions to nearby Slovak towns.

Nooria* said that the treatment she would receive at the ETC was worth the emotional cost of being uprooted for a second time.

For Nooria*, coming to Slovakia was not easy. She had to leave her parents in Iran, who were too old to start a new life abroad. Her only hope now is to be free. "I don't want anyone to force me to marry again. I hope men will show me respect as a woman, because I have never experienced much of that," she said.

The ETC in Humenné has since 2009 provided temporary shelter for some 260 refugees, from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia and Palestine, who were at risk in their first country of asylum and whose resettlement in a third country was in progress. The Centre is run jointly by the Slovak government, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. ETP Slovakia – Centre for Sustainable Development, a Slovak NGO and partner of UNHCR, provides social work and interpreting services. The Centre can currently accommodate up to 100 people who generally spend six months in the facility before they are resettled. UNHCR currently negotiates the extension of the capacity of the evacuation facility.

Fatemeh*, an elderly lady, said with a smile on her face, after boarding the bus at the Kosice airport bound for Humenné, that she and her daughters were now looking further afield, thanks to the help of the ETC. She fled Afghanistan with her two young daughters after she had lost her husband and son in the war with the USSR. Her two daughters decided to remain unmarried so as not to abandon their mother. When she fell ill, they even took on her job in a sock factory, although they were still only 11 and 13, in order to put food on the family table.

Fatemeh's* younger daughter, Sakineh*, was now optimistic that she could study to be a lawyer in her new home country after they were resettled. "Afghans are not all terrorists and illiterates! We were just born in the wrong place at the wrong time," she said.

Jan Bory, the Slovak Ambassador to Iran who received the group at the Kosice airport said, that these Afghan women and their families were the second group of Afghan refugees that Slovakia has accepted for resettlement in the Humenné Evacuation Transit Centre. He said that Slovakia aimed at giving practical help to the Afghan refugees of whom there were over a million registered in Iran. He told UNHCR that the Slovak embassy in Tehran also offered computer access for Afghan refugee children in the refugee camp in Karachi, close to the Iranian capital.

*Name changed for protection reasons

By Petra Hajdu in Humenné, Slovakia