Development News from Afghanistan

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Afghan refugees struggle to find a home

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By Jonathon Burch

HERAT, Afghanistan, June 6 (Reuters) – It took 13 years for Sanobar and her five sons to get a home of their own after returning back to Afghanistan.

Their story is not unusual. Many Afghan refugees struggle to rebuild their lives in their shattered homeland after spending years, sometimes decades, in Pakistan and Iran where they fled over the last 30 years of almost continual war.

Sanobar and her husband left Afghanistan to escape intense fighting during the Soviet occupation. Sanobar’s husband worked as a labourer in Tehran, while Sanobar stayed near the border.

‘Life was good in Iran. My husband was working and he was able to look after us,’ she says. ‘But I was scared the Iranian government would put pressure on us to leave so we came back.’

Several years after returning to Afghanistan, her husband had a nervous breakdown and left the family to fend for themselves. She has not seen him since.

Since major repatriation programmes resumed in 2002, after the overthrow of the Taliban, more than 5 million Afghans have returned to their country. Many were deported, particularly from Iran and often to protests by the United Nations and aid agencies.

There are also tens of thousands of internally displaced Afghans who have fled the ongoing Taliban insurgency and inter-ethnic strife.

Between January and the middle of May this year, more than 100,000 Afghans were deported from Iran. Some 250,000 were deported in 2007.

There are still some 2 million Afghans living in Pakistan and another 1 million in Iran, making Afghans the second largest refugee population in the world. Around 1 million unregistered Afghans are also in Iran, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says.

When they first arrived back in Afghanistan, Sanobar and her family lived in a tent in the mountains herding livestock, but droughts soon forced them down into the villages and with no land of their own they were passed from house to house.

‘Life was miserable,’ says Sanobar, ‘we had no shelter. We kept moving from one house to another.’

But Sanobar and her sons now have a home of their own, built with help from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of the partners of UNHCR, providing shelter to refugees.

Since May 2007, NRC has been constructing homes for refugees and displaced Afghans in Herat, focusing on the most vulnerable. Half of the beneficiaries are female-headed households like Sanobar’s and while most of the construction is carried out by NRC, the recipient is expected to help.

‘Me and my sons helped build it. I fetched buckets of water and made the bricks,’ Sanobar explains proudly, sitting on the mud floor of one of her rooms.

The house is made from bricks of mud, water and straw and is similar to traditional Afghan houses found all over the country, especially rural areas. The walls are thick and provide cool respite from the baking sun outside.

‘We have shelter now,’ she says, pointing to the ceiling, ‘I don’t want to go back to living in a tent.’

Sanobar weaves carpets in one room, selling them to buy food. She took her two eldest sons out of school so they could work. One is a shepherd and another collects rubbish. Despite her struggles, Sanobar is happier with her new life.


Despite a growing economy, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Unemployment is around 40 percent and most returning refugees face an uncertain future.

According to UN figures, there are still an estimated 150,000 displaced Afghans. Most of them live in camp-like conditions, often ten people to a room.

In a camp just outside the city of Herat, lives Mohammad Zair, who fled to Herat with his family to escape fighting in the north. For the past eight years, Zair has lived with fourteen other members of his family in a small mud hut built by the UN.

‘We have nothing, life is finished,’ he says. ‘The villages receive assistance but we get nothing.’

The government wants them to return to their places of origin but after years away, most have nothing to return to.

‘I cannot go,’ Zair shouts. ‘The government can either kill me or give me some land, or they can give me a document to say I’m not Afghan and I will leave the country,’ he says, pointing towards Iran.

(Editing by Megan Goldin)


Written by afghandevnews

June 7, 2008 at 5:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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