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Footprints: Ashraf Ghani and dishwasher migrants

Updated December 18, 2015

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ATHENS: Rahman, 19, still remembers when the Taliban took control of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz last autumn. Kunduz was not only the first urban centre to fall to the Taliban since the US-led invasion 14 years ago, it was also just over 150 kilometres from his family’s home in neighbouring Baghlan province.

Over the course of the 15 days it took for government forces to wrest control back from the armed opposition, Rahman saw countless groups of people coming to Baghlan each day, many of whom paid hundreds of dollars for a trip that ordinarily costs only a fraction of the price.

It was while watching entire families arriving in Baghlan, a province that has for years dealt with increasing insecurity of its own, that Rahman decided to make the journey to Europe. His family took out a number of debts to pay the $3,400 cost of the journey to Greece.

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After having survived walking for several days through the mountains between the Iran-Pakistan border and more than five hours alongside 70 others on an overcrowded inflatable boat through the Mediterranean Sea, Rahman thought his difficulties would finally ease once he reached Greece.

“We travelled at night through the mountains on the seas with no food, and no water. At one point after three days without anything to eat or drink, we were so desperate that when it started to rain we used our jackets and backpacks to collect the rainwater to drink.”

With thousands passing through Greece each day, the so-called “refugee crisis” has meant a collapse for the smuggling business that once thrived in Athens.

Smugglers in Greece were accused of physical and verbal abuse, purposely placing refugees in dangerous situations without prior warning and stealing hundreds of dollars at a time from refugees.

“They all packed up and moved on themselves. Now that their business has tanked they have no reason to stay,” said Abdullah, who has been in Greece for seven years.

In their place is a largely self-driven system of entire groups of refugees — withered bags and blankets at the ready — coming and going each day. Shops and restaurants near Victoria Square park now post signs in Dari and Pashto, two of the local languages of Afghanistan.

A joint collaboration between the United Nations, European Union and Greek government has led to the establishment of a “camp” that houses over 700 refugees at a time for up to a month.

However, the past few weeks have seen a new, unexpected complication to their hopes for asylum — the president of Afghanistan. Though they all expected European leaders to become increasingly less hospitable to refugees from Asia and Africa, the Afghan refugees did not expect their own president to add to their worries.

Matters came to a head earlier this month, when Ashraf Ghani said Afghans in Europe, even those elites with university education, often end up in non-professional jobs.

In an interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Ghani said the “privileged elites” of Afghanistan will “become dishwashers” abroad.

The president’s comments, which his office said were taken out of context, quickly earned the ire of Afghans at home, as well as those currently in the process of seeking asylum.

Abdol Rafi, 22, was one of several Afghans in Athens’ Victoria Square park who objected to the president’s assertions. “Look at me, I studied Economics at Kabul University, but I had to drop out because of repeated explosions in the area.”

To the Afghans in Victoria Square park — where they wait for buses to the Macedonian border — Ghani’s comments seemed to echo similar statements by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who tried to characterise some Afghan refugees as economic migrants.

In October, the German chancellor said Berlin had “started serious talks with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan on how to repatriate their refugees from Germany”.

That statement was followed by a letter addressed to Ghani and Salahuddin Rabbani, the foreign minister, signed by several European Union ambassadors, that also made reference to Afghans looking for a better life, as opposed to those fleeing war.

In a joint press conference with President Ghani earlier this month, Merkel said Berlin would work with Kabul to develop “safe areas” in Afghanistan.

Rafi laughed at Merkel’s assertion. “I don’t know in what century that will be, the thirtieth? If Germany and these other countries had done their jobs to begin with, we wouldn’t need to come to Europe.”

Jamal, 20, from the eastern province of Nangarhar, was especially offended by Ghani’s lack of objection to Merkel’s repeated reference of repatriating Afghan refugees.

For Jamal, it was two events that should make it clear Afghanistan is not safe.

The first was the increased reports of fighters claiming allegiance to the Iraq- and Syria-based militant Islamic State group in Nangarhar, which he said led his family from their home in Sorkh Rod district to Kabul.

The second came on Aug 6, the day the United Nations called the most violent in the Afghan capital in several years. When a massive truck bomb exploded at a little past 1am that morning, Jamal said he saw firsthand the dangers and indignities of life in Afghanistan.

The explosion in the Shah Shahid neighbourhood of the capital led to the death of at least 15 and more than 200 others injured. That bombing was followed by two others later that day, but it was the scene in Shah Shahid that Jamal said he would never forget.

“Ashraf Ghani had hurt his leg and flew to Germany for treatment,” Jamal said in reference to the fact that the president had just arrived back in Afghanistan at the time of the blast.

“But in Shah Shahid, where so many people were injured and dying no one from the government came to help, people were forced to rush the dead and injured to the hospitals themselves.”

Other refugees at the park said rather than worrying about those who had already left, the president should focus on those currently in the country.

“We may end up as dishwashers in Europe, but we will hold our heads high and do it in dignity. In Kabul, beggars line the street. Men wait at roundabouts to be day labourers and people are killed in bombings. What is the president doing for them other than making speeches,” said Zaher, 24.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2015