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illustration by Leea Contractor
illustration by Leea Contractor

Sitting in Islamabad’s most-loved Burning Brownie cafe, light-eyed, 27-year-old, Ahmad Fawad could easily pass for a local ethnic Pakhtun. But his paternal roots can be traced to the Tajik community of Afghanistan based in Herat. That is not where his heart is, however — not anymore.

The Afghan refugee crisis has spanned almost four decades now and Pakistan has been involved deeply ever since. When millions of refugees poured into Pakistan in the 1980s, there was no doubt in the minds of analysts and policy-makers that this was going to impact the Pakistani social and economic landscape forever. But little heed was paid to the subtler nuances of the experiences of these ‘refugees’ themselves.

Well-spoken, confident and holding a college education, Fawad does not fit into the image of the ‘tattered Afghan refugee’ — an image that sits in the minds of millions around the world and within Pakistan. For the world, the images of refugees have become a spectacle of misery and deprivation, lacing news headlines.

Brought up and educated in Pakistan, young Afghan refugees are increasingly having to choose going ‘back’ to a land they are strangers in

Fawad moved to Pakistan in the 1990s as an infant. His father returned to Afghanistan soon after to continue the stable job that he had. But Fawad grew up in Islamabad, with his mother and siblings.

Like many other children of Afghan refugees, he attended an Afghan school based in the I-10 sector of the capital.

“When the elders of my family read the textbooks that we were being taught in that school, they realised that they were based on the Wahabi line of thought. They put me in a private Pakistani school. So, I naturalised in Pakistani environment,” he says.

It has now been a-year-and-a-half since he completed an undergraduate degree from a private university in Islamabad. Ever since then, he has been looking to start his career, ideally in Pakistan.

Earlier this year, the government of Pakistan gave a 30-day extension to many Afghan PoR (Proof of Registration) cardholders, after which they would be forcefully repatriated. This is the sixth in a series of extensions that the Afghans have been given.

But ‘repatriation’ is a much more complex phenomenon. Can simply returning these people back to Afghanistan help build that country back and liberate Pakistan of its economic woes?

Many like Fawad feel at home in Islamabad. It is all they have ever known. But a sense of anxiety prevails when they try to enter the job market.

“I cleared many job interviews. But after that, I would be asked to produce identity documentation and once I did that those offers would be revoked politely,” he says.

“One international NGO tried to tell me that my work will involve a lot of fieldwork and that requires a letter of authorisation from the Ministry of Interior and all the related bureaucracy. The same happened at three other NGOs. It is difficult for me to stay here because there is no job opportunity for me here. As soon as I receive my degree I will have to leave,” he explains.

However, others, like Masih Ali, have found a niche for themselves. Twenty-five-year-old Ali is hosting shows catering to the Afghan community on Khyber TV and K2. He is also working as an assistant manager with a multinational company, providing telecom services in Dari and Farsi.

He was one of the lucky ones who managed to get a job during his undergraduate course. Furthermore, due to the nature of the work, he was the best choice.

It has been a few months since Afghan citizens have been allowed to buy local sim cards in their names. But they cannot buy properties or own a business in their own name. This brings forth a predicament for many of the younger lot.

“The biggest anxiety for us is that we don’t really have a career here,” says Ali. “That means that in the long run, we have to consider other options. But one thing that we really appreciate is that the government of Pakistan has given us the opportunity to study here.”

The state narrative on Afghan refugees has undergone considerable change over the past 30 years.

According to Maliha Safri in her study on ‘The Transformation of the Afghan Refugee: 1979-2009’, religious politics dominated the region from 1979-1989.

The Pakistani state termed itself as the ‘Ansar’ — drawing linkages to the community that helped the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) and his followers as they fled persecution from Makkah.

As political violence erupted in Karachi between the Urdu-speaking Mohajir community and the Pakhtuns (both from Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), the image of the Afghan refugee became associated with fundamentalism, drug culture and crime.

After 9/11, Pakistan officially adopted a policy of repatriation of the entire refugee population. Undoubtedly, this would be a mammoth task.

Up until the 1990s, registered Afghan refugees were estimated at 3.27 million whereas it was suggested that including the unregistered population, the figure stood at 4.5 million.

In 2002, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) organised an arrangement whereby all the residents of Pakistan’s biggest refugee camps, such as Kacha Garhi and Jalozai, were given the choice either to relocate to Chitral or Dir or accept a 100 dollars per family cash settlement and repatriate to Afghanistan.

A report by the UNHCR stated that 82 percent of these refugees did not want to repatriate but had to choose the better of the two options presented.

Finally, in 2009, the Pakistani government suggested making the border with Afghanistan impermeable and, for a time, it was felt that the ‘refugee problem’ was finally put to an end.

Ali feels that the issue is bigger than economic opportunities back home.

“A lot of people shifted back when the Karzai government came and they reaped the benefits. They have made a lot of money after moving back. But my mother says that the comfort we have here is not worth any money. This is our home,” he says.

His family visits Afghanistan after every three or four years but that visit barely spans four days. He himself has not visited since the past seven years.

“Home for me is a place where you get respect, where you feel free and where you can laugh and I feel that in Pakistan. I can speak better Urdu than Pashto,” he says.

Unfortunately, social attitudes towards refugees have also experienced a paradigm shift. According to Fawad, the media has a role to play in it. He feels that the APS attack, in 2016, brought about a new dynamic especially between the Pakhtuns of Pakistan and their brethren who had settled here from across the border.

“I can see a change in people’s attitude too,” says Fawad. “Sometimes, you’re sitting in a circle of friends and, once in a while, they will joke, ‘oh yaar you’re a bloody Afghan’. It comes as a joke but sometimes it has a harder impact.”

Unfortunately, any frustration expressed by Afghan immigrants and refugees is not engaged with in conversation, rather the label of ‘namak-haram’ [ungrateful] springs forth.

“I grew up here. No matter how nice people are to me, they always remember that I am an Afghan. When I go to Afghanistan, no matter how much I absorb, people always remember that I was raised in Pakistan. I sometimes joke that I need a house on the border,” says Fawad.

He feels that the attitude of the educated elite is considerably better as they have read about the issue in depth.

Zaineb Rezai, however, feels that in today’s generation, not many people are aware of the historical background and context of this phenomenon.

Twenty-year-old Rezai is enrolled at an undergraduate programme in international relations at a private university in Islamabad.

Her family made sure that they remained in touch with their roots by interacting mostly with the Afghan community in Islamabad. So, it was for the first time that Rezai interacted with Pakistanis freely when she entered university.

“I had been in university only for a month and in one of our international relations classes, a discussion started on the Afghan crisis,” says Rezai. “I was so unhappy to hear the opinions of the majority of my classmates. The only thing they wanted to associate Afghans with was terrorism and Taliban. When I spoke up they were surprised. They had no idea that an Afghan girl could actually be studying here in a private university like them, without being cooped up in a burqa. I was quite annoyed and angry that day,” she says.

A few weeks later, Rezai requested one of her professors to give her five minutes of class time because she wanted to say something to everyone.

She came up to the roster and said that they all needed to acquaint themselves with Afghan history and culture and not pass judgments on others without knowledge.

“I had to plead to them in a way to treat us like normal human beings — not all of us are terrorists and associated with the Taliban,” she says. “I respect my professors because they are knowledgeable and so they never say anything racist or ignorant but most of my classmates were completely clueless. I asked them what they knew about Afghanistan and they said all we know is that there is war there. I proudly told them that I am a refugee here and so I have the right to study here. I am not breaking the law, I am not on illegal status, so why are you shaming me for the politics that happened!” she exclaims.

Her family has to make a trip to Afghanistan every month to renew their visa status so she feels that Pakistan can only be a temporary abode for them.

“After we complete our education, it’s either back to Afghanistan or somewhere abroad,” Rezai says.

Despite his sense of belonging to Pakistan, Fawad also has similar sentiments.

“There is this statement — kalabazi; ‘when are you going back?’ Now if you travel within Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, you can spot this phrase/question at the back of cars, etc. It was created after the APS incident — the idea that Afghans need to get out of our country. The Pakhtuns of KP and the Afghans split after that tragedy, I think,” Fawad says.

Currently he is unsure of what the future holds for him. But many like him hope that the modern day nation state will accommodate the more subtle nuances of identity and home for all its populations.

“Only my parents are ‘home’ for me in Herat. Whenever I go out of the house there, I honestly don’t know if I will return home,” says Fawad. “I have personally encountered three bomb blasts. The moment I come to Pakistan, and step into Islamabad, I breathe a sigh of relief. My friends are here. It takes me one month to get my mind off the trauma. Every week there are bomb blasts. It really depends on what you consider normal. I know people there for whom this is normal. But for me, this [Islamabad] is the norm — unfortunately there [in Afghanistan] the loss of life has become normal after 30 years of war and destruction. Now people there are just trying to cope with it.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 12th, 2018