In Afghanistan, an Unlikely Quest for Asylum
By Kevin Sieff
While millions of Afghans seek asylum outside their native country, the world’s unluckiest refugees might be the ones moving in the opposite direction — with no choice but to flee their homes for war-torn Afghanistan. One of them is Abdul Humid, who escaped Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion there, with no idea he would eventually land in another American war zone, part of a small community of refugees on an unlikely quest for Afghan citizenship. There are now about 70 men and women like him here — dissidents, victims of religious persecution and political refugees from disparate parts of the world. Their arrival has prompted raised eyebrows, and sometimes laughter.
“‘You’re seeking refuge here?’ people ask me,” Humid said. “‘Are you crazy?’”
The government, unaccustomed to dealing with refugees, placed some of them in a transitional public guesthouse in Kabul where the other residents are Afghans who had fled to Europe but were deported. Now, the men seeking to escape Afghanistan live among the ones trying desperately to stay. Given its proximity to historically troubled nations and a slew of oppressed minority groups, Afghanistan has long been considered a convenient place to seek temporary refuge. Pakistanis and Iranians did so for years. During Tajikistan’s civil war, 90,000 Tajiks poured into northern Afghanistan. But almost without fail, those refugees left. The situation improved in their native countries, and it worsened here. The 70 people who remain are among the world’s unluckiest asylum seekers, out of other options. Among them are Iranian Christians, Kashmiri independence fighters, Chinese Muslims and former Tajik rebels. Most never expect to return home, but they have not been granted permission to stay in Afghanistan. Some have been given temporary housing in the austere dormitory run by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. Others rent apartments in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif and Herat, donning Afghan clothes and trying to blend in.
Back in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Hamid was one of Saddam Hussein’s few supporters. A public school teacher, he saw the regime as a source of stability, despite its flaws. At least he had a job under Hussein, he thought. But the U.S.-led invasion meant that his old alliances would be held against him. Members of his family had been killed, and in 2005, joining 42,000 other Iraqis, he left for Iran. As a Sunni, Hamid found himself shuttled between Iranian refugee camps and prisons for about five years. He decided again that he had to flee, but he had no passport or identification card. A smuggler offered to take him to Afghanistan. Out of desperation, he said yes.
Propelled by bad luck
Most of the other refugees come from troubled parts of Central or South Asia, but their stories have the same arc. Afghanistan never felt like a good option, but a fate they were driven to by a storm of bad luck. There’s Hamid’s roommate, Amir Hamiza Khalikovich, who fled his native Tajikistan as a young activist, after Imamali Rakhmonov came to power. Khalikovich had fought against Rakhmonov in the country’s civil war in the early 1990s, and the Tajik president was quick to target his enemies after assuming control. “There was no choice but to leave, and nowhere else to go but Afghanistan,” Khalikovich said.
He and his young family sneaked across the Panj River and into northern Afghanistan, the quickest and safest escape route. Like almost all of those who seek refuge in Afghanistan, Khalikovich did not intend to stay. Twenty-one years later, he has never left, fearing persecution should he return home. Makhferat Tofan and her two daughters, Rokhshana and Zarina, made the same journey from Tajikistan. They endured Afghanistan’s brutal civil war and the Taliban’s reign because a return to their homeland seemed even more dangerous.
“Now I wish they had killed me so I didn’t have to see the things I saw,” Makhferat said. The asylum seekers consider themselves a sad exception, in search of refugee status in a country where no such designation is recognized, even though Afghans make up a third of the world’s refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has granted some of them temporary refugee status. But that authorization means little in Afghanistan, where processing asylum pleas is an unfamiliar bureaucratic function.
Fereshta, 38, who asked that her last name not be used for security reasons, watched last year as her UNHCR-endowed status expired, leaving her without any legal recourse. Fereshta was born a Christian in southern Iran in 1975, four years before a hard-line Islamic government came to power. She and her family prayed in private, hiding a stack of Farsi Bibles in a desk drawer. The government’s pursuit of non-Muslim “unbelievers” escalated as she grew up. Years after she married a Christian man, he was arrested and killed in prison. In 2000, she took her two children to Pakistan, where she worked for several years as a doctor in refugee shelters run by Western missionaries. But friends warned her that the Iranian embassy in Islamabad had learned of her whereabouts. “A friend told me I should disappear into Afghanistan for a while,” she said.
Now, she’s ambivalent about the decision. An Iranian Christian with a history of working with missionaries would be an obvious target in Afghanistan. “Coming here was my foolish mistake,” she said. “But then, what else could I do?”
Afghanistan’s asylum seekers have bonded over the irony of their shared ordeal — battling to settle in one of the world’s least stable countries. One by one, they met each other in line at government ministries or the UNHCR office. They recognized each other’s accents, commiserated about life as men and women without countries — with passports to nations that no longer exist, or without any proof of identity at all. Even the intangible connections to their communities have faded.
Humid says he is forgetting how to speak Kurdish. Fereshta pretends to be Muslim. Khalikovich’s daughter married an Afghan man and moved to Pakistan.
Together, they’ve created the Association of Refugees Affairs, an informal group for which they are seeking government recognition. In its charter, the refugees wrote that the association will “support the cause of victimized asylum seekers.” The Afghan government has refused to acknowledge its existence.
“They just accuse me of being a spy for the Pakistani government,” said Khalik Rahman, 29, a native of Kashmir, who says he actually led an attempted revolt against the Pakistani government in support of Kashmiri independence.
For his part, Khalikovich still spends nearly every day walking from ministry to ministry, attempting to inform Afghanistan’s policymakers about the asylum seekers. In his room, he keeps a list on the wall of all the government offices he has petitioned. Its four pages long. The Afghan residents of his guesthouse arrive fresh from Greece and Turkey and Australia. They stay for a few days or weeks, spending much of that time plotting how to return to those countries and avoid deportation. They don’t talk much to the men who have migrated in the opposite direction.
Most of the refugees have learned to speak Dari with Afghan colloquialisms. They know their way around Kabul better than some residents. Even though Khalikovich still wears his 25-year-old Soviet-style top hat and Fereshta still keeps her Bibles locked deep in a drawer, they have largely adjusted to life in Kabul. They describe Afghanistan in terms rarely heard here: Compared with the risks facing them in the countries of their birth, they say, it’s safe.
But without citizenship or formal refugee status, it’s still not home. Hamid lacks a single identification document, from either Iraq or Afghanistan. Khalikovich has only one: a Soviet passport issued in the late 1980s. Rahman threw his Pakistani passport away, worried that it would only exacerbate his problems.
“I feel sorry for the Afghan people. I saw what war did to my own country,” Hamid said. “That’s why I’m here. I had to get away.”
Kevin Sieff became the Post’s Kabul bureau chief in January 2012, after covering education for the newspaper from Washington. Prior to joining the Post, he worked in the Washington bureau of the financial Times and covered immigration from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Sieff is a graduate of Brown University and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.