Afghans flee to India, but life remains tough
NEW DELHI— Sharifa Jan fled Afghanistan for India last year when the Taliban killed her husband and threatened her six children. New Delhi’s chaos baffled her but the city also provided a safe haven.
But like thousands of other Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in India her security comes at a price: Jan’s family is trapped in limbo.
The Afghans don’t have work permits. Many have trouble enrolling their children in school. They can’t even get a local phone.
“If today there is no education, no good food and drink, no good living conditions, then what will they become in the future?” Jan, 40, said of her children. “They won’t become anything.”
With their blue United Nations refugee cards, the Afghans do little more than just survive.
The Afghan refugees “need help and more attention,” said M. Ashraf Haidari, deputy chief of mission of the Afghan embassy in India.
Sayeed Habib Hadat, who has degrees in English and information technology, survives by working informally as a translator at pharmacies for Afghan patients.
“We just solved one of our problems, that is, our lives are saved. But here are a lot more problems,” said Hadat, 28, who fled Afghanistan last year. His family has applied for resettlement in Australia in hopes they can finally start building their future. Australia recently vowed to resettle all refugees who arrive in the country by boat on the island nation of Papua New Guinea. The move is seen as a way to deter an increasing number of asylum seekers. Afghanistan is among the largest sources of asylum seekers reaching Australia.
There were more than 18,000 Afghan refugees in India as of December 2011, according to the foreign ministry. It is unclear how many more unregistered Afghans are living here.
Last year the largest number of refugees worldwide – 2.6 million in 82 countries – were from Afghanistan, according to a report released by the United Nations in June. Afghanistan has been the main source of refugees for over three decades with numbers fluctuating from 500,000 in 1979 to more than 6.3 million at the peak of the conflict in 1990. Ninety-five percent of Afghan refugees are in Pakistan and Iran, where many of them live in squalid camps.
Jan’s odyssey to India began last August when her husband, Mohammad Rahim, was kidnapped as he traveled in Afghanistan’s Helmand province selling goods, she said. The Taliban called her and demanded a $25,000 ransom. When Jan told them she couldn’t pay, they demanded she turn over her children.
Her husband told her to flee. “These people aren’t about to release me. Don’t come here with the children,” Jan recalled him saying before the call ended with sounds of him being beaten and crying out in pain.
Two days later, Jan was serving lunch to her children when the Taliban called to announce her husband was dead. She wailed his name, and then fainted, her 16-year-old son, Shazaib Rahimi said.
In the following days, Jan kept her children home from school. She got passports, visas, and plane tickets, sold her furniture and gold jewelry and flew to India with two small suitcases packed with clothes, infant formula and baby bottles.
The family settled into a two-bedroom flat in a by-lane of Bhogal, a New Delhi neighborhood tightly packed with Afghan residents, who have turned it into a tiny version of their homeland. Afghan men in knee-length white tunics buy flatbread from a corner stall run by refugees. In another Afghan populated neighborhood, streets are crowded with the “Kabul-Delhi Restaurant,” a travel agency for Kabul-based Kam Air and pharmacies with signs written in Afghanistan’s Dari dialect.
In 2012, India said it would issue long-term visas and work permits for all legal refugees in the country, coveted documents that would give them access to good jobs and education.
So far however only refugees from Myanmar and Somalia have received the documents, said Ipshita Sengupta, a U.N. refugee official. “The process is slow and it is not clear how long it will take for all refugees registered with UNHCR to obtain them.”
Indian government officials contacted by The Associated Press declined to comment on the status of Afghan refugees.
Without the documents, refugee children have no guarantee of admission to public schools. Without work permits, adults are confined to low-paying informal jobs at neighborhood shops.
“I think that it would be a bit unrealistic to expect them to have upward mobility,” said Montserrat Vihe, the UNHCR chief of mission to India. “Making ends meet, finding a job, finding a house, school for the children, those are the challenges,” she said.
India and Afghanistan have historic ties. Bollywood movies are hugely popular in Afghanistan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai attended university in India. The two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2011 that calls for the Indian military to train Afghan forces. India has invested more than $2 billion in Afghan infrastructure, including highways and hospitals.
It also is helping rebuild the Afghan police, judiciary and diplomatic services. When Karzai visited in May, he asked for Indian help in strengthening his security forces ahead of the withdrawal next year of most international troops.
Jan’s family is the latest in a line of Afghan refugees streaming to India since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1988.
They are cash-strapped and only can afford two meals a day.
“When we first came here, we didn’t know how to spend our money. We went berserk,” said Rahimi, Jan’s son, “so we everyday ate eggs and everything, but now we have reduced it to naan and chai.”
For the youngest children, aged two and three years, “my mother especially brings jam … because the jam is sweet,” he said. “They like sweet.”
The U.N. gives aid to some refugee families. Every three months, the family receives 17,350 rupees ($285), not even enough to cover their 12,000 rupee ($195) monthly rent.
Three of the children attend classes at a local Catholic education center, which offers language and computer classes among others to help refugees assimilate.
Jan stays home to look after her children. The eldest son, Ali, 18, worked part-time at a travel agency before he quit because of long hours and low-pay.
The family passes its days watching a television Jan bought as a distraction.
They miss home and often think of their last holiday before Rahim’s death, at the Salang River in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains. There they spent the afternoon swimming.
“It was summer, so the water was cold, but the weather was hot, so it was nice,” Rahimi said.
Jan said she won’t go back to Afghanistan until it is safe. Whenever that may be.
Rahimi remains hopeful. “The mountains outside Kabul, they were like someone has sketched them. They were so beautiful,” he said. “Someday I will go there and sketch it out myself.”