Afghan Conference: After years in exile, returnee reflects on starting over

News Stories, 30 April 2012

© UNHCR/W.Aleko
Fida Mohammed, a former refugee who returned to Afghanistan last year, believes improved job prospects would see more refugees going home.

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 30 (UNHCR) Ahead of an international conference Wednesday in Geneva on Afghan refugees, UNHCR talked to a man who returned to Afghanistan last year after 28 years as a refugee in Pakistan. Fida Mohammad, 48, lives with his wife and their eight children in the Paghman district of Kabul. Mohammad had only recently graduated from high school when his family fled Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. Waheedullah Aleko, UNHCR's senior protection assistant in Kabul, recently spoke to Fida at his home. Extracts from the interview:

What made you decide to return to Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is my country and as an Afghan I had to return back to my homeland. I cannot stay forever in a foreign country as a refugee. The situation in Afghanistan now is not the same as it was 28 years ago when we fled to Pakistan. Now the situation in my country has improved. When I saw that many other families, including my relatives, were returning, I also made the decision to return to Afghanistan.

When you returned to your village, were living conditions as you expected they would be?

My brother had returned to Afghanistan before me and I was in constant contact with him. He told me about the situation here in Afghanistan. Naturally it is difficult for someone who has lived for 28 years away from his village to come back and start a new life. I did face problems at first when I returned as I had no job and little money. But generally things had improved in the village and there was no more fighting here.

How were those first weeks and months back in Afghanistan?

It was difficult for me at first when I returned because I had no house and no job. My brother shared his house with me and we stayed with his family. After a month, I went to UNHCR and received shelter support so that I could begin building my own house. The cost of living was higher here in Afghanistan compared to Pakistan and I did not have enough money, so I was under pressure to quickly find work to support myself and my family. I asked my brother and other relatives to help me with the building as it was difficult for me to carry on the construction and also work to support my family. Soon after we returned, I enrolled my children in school. I was back in my own country. I was happy, and slowly I started to settle in and my conditions improved.

Please describe your life as a refugee in Pakistan

In Pakistan I lived in the town of Hangu in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province. House rents and the cost of living were not that high there. I rented a house for 3,000 rupees (US$33) per month. I was able to repair watches, which helped me support my family. I was registered in Pakistan and had a Proof of Registration card [government-issued identity card for Afghan refugees]. My children went to school in Pakistan because I wanted them to be educated. Even if I face financial difficulties, I want my children to be educated so that they have a brighter future.

In your opinion, what is preventing other refugees from returning to Afghanistan?

Many refugees in Pakistan do not return because they do not have a house or land in Afghanistan, just as I had no house. Maybe they are needy and their houses were destroyed and they do not have the means to reconstruct. If they could have a house here, and be able to find a job, then I believe nobody would stay in Pakistan. There are no jobs here in Afghanistan, but I think the real problem is that people do not have houses. If one has a house, whether he has a low or medium income, he can still survive.

What message would you send to the international conference in Geneva?

People should be helped to become self-sufficient so that they are not compelled to go back to other countries. I request the people at this conference to please help Afghan refugees who have returned from Pakistan and Iran so that they are not compelled to go back. They should be helped so that their economic conditions improve, to have jobs and houses. Factories and plants should be built in Afghanistan to help people find work. When people have work in Afghanistan, and they have houses to live in, they will never go back to Iran or Pakistan to live as refugees.

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Repatriation

UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

With elections scheduled in October, 2004 is a crucial year for the future of Afghanistan, and Afghans are returning to their homeland in record numbers. In the first seven months of 2004 alone, more than half a million returned from exile. In all, more than 3.6 million Afghans have returned since UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme started in 2002.

The UN refugee agency and its partner organisations are working hard to help the returnees rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. Returnees receive a grant to cover basic needs, as well as access to medical facilities, immunisations and landmine awareness training.

UNHCR's housing programme provides tool kits and building supplies for families to build new homes where old ones have been destroyed. The agency also supports the rehabilitation of public buildings as well as programmes to rehabilitate the water supply, vocational training and cash-for-work projects.

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

The cycle of life has started again in Afghanistan as returnees put their shoulders to the wheel to rebuild their war-torn country.

Return is only the first step on Afghanistan's long road to recovery. UNHCR is helping returnees settle back home with repatriation packages, shelter kits, mine-awareness training and vaccination against diseases. Slowly but surely, Afghans across the land are reuniting with loved ones, reconstructing homes, going back to school and resuming work. A new phase in their lives has begun.

Watch the process of return, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction unfold in Afghanistan through this gallery.

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

Home Without Land

Land is hot property in mountainous Afghanistan, and the lack of it is a major reason Afghans in exile do not want to return.

Although landless returnees are eligible for the Afghan government's land allocation scheme, demand far outstrips supply. By the end of 2007, the authorities were developing 14 settlements countrywide. Nearly 300,000 returnee families had applied for land, out of which 61,000 had been selected and 3,400 families had actually moved into the settlements.

Desperate returnees sometimes have to camp in open areas or squat in abandoned buildings. Others occupy disputed land where aid agencies are not allowed to build permanent structures such as wells or schools.

One resilient community planted itself in a desert area called Tangi in eastern Afghanistan. With help from the Afghan private sector and the international community, water, homes, mosques and other facilities have sprouted – proof that the right investment and commitment can turn barren land into the good earth.

Posted on 31 January 2008

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