Of toil and yearning – the daily struggles of Afghan migrants in India and Pakistan

Hanan Zaffar, Amanjeet Singh, Majid Alam, Intifada P.B., Basit Aijaz & Omer Nadeem

Afghan refugees started immigrating to India after fleeing the Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1979. Many more migrated to escape the Taliban regime two decades later. According to UNHCR reports there are close to 10,000 Afghan refugees in India, most of whom live in Delhi.

In spite of the struggles that come with abandoning home and homeland, most Afghanis seem to have assimilated well, finding small jobs or even opening a business of their own. However, the struggle has been tough and continues to be so for many refugees.

This project traces their journey post migration and how they have gelled well into the society despite vast cultural and social disparities, focusing on how they have built their lives around places where they have spent their life-long savings: a bakery shop, a small restaurant, a coffee shop, a grocery store etc.


Dawood Ahmad is a tailor in Bhogal. Mustafa Hameedi works as a mechanic in Ashram. The Qasimin brothers run a salon in Bhogal. What’s the one thing that unites all of them? War. They, like many thousands of refugees from Afghanistan, have fled their country seeking refuge and asylum in Delhi. According to a 2016 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees scattered across the globe. Of them, about 14,500 refugees and asylum-seekers are registered with the UNHCR in India.

Until today, India doesn’t have a uniform refugee policy and nor is it a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on refugees. However, it does let the UNHCR run welfare programs for them in the country. Here are a few of their stories.

According to Article 1 Para 2 of the 1951 United Nations Convention, a refugee is defined as an: “A person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

The tale of a tailor

At a tailor shop in one of the crowded localities in Delhi, four tailors are engrossed in stitching kurtas which you don’t often see in Delhi. The four tailors speaking in broken Hindi with a Pashto accent sought refuge in Delhi three years ago.

Dawood, the master tailor fled Kabul to escape the violence that that has tormented the city since the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979. Today, he lives in Delhi as a UN recognized Afghan refugee. He runs a rented tailoring shop and stitches clothes, especially catering to the small Afghan community present in Bhogal, South Delhi.

Dawood’s day begins at 9 in the morning, taking orders, designing and stitching. Dawood’s family of five resides in the vicinity of his shop. While talking of Afghanistan Dawood recalls his childhood. “The country was peaceful before the Taliban took hold. I owned a small shop back home. Business was extremely good,” he says.

While Afghan refugees like Dawood, temporarily find themselves at peace in India, there’s a long way to go before their sufferings come to an end. The refugees living in India and elsewhere are given refugee cards by the UNHCR. Even though the cards grant them a refugee status, they provide very little else in terms of ensuring good living conditions. While Dawood complains about the expensive living conditions in Delhi, he is thankful for the peace he has found here.

But what happens if you don’t have a UN refugee card?

Dawood’s story is one of hope. But this is not the case with thousands of other Afghan refugees living in India. When Mustafa Hameedi, a 37-year-old mechanic escaped the bloodshed in Afghanistan and landed in Delhi little did he anticipate the struggles he would face here. After four years of living here, Mustafa, who runs a small automobile workshop in Bhogal, South Delhi, still longs for official documents that will establish him as a refugee in India.

“The UNHCR is asking for certain documents that require me to go back to Afghanistan to fetch for them. But how do they expect me to go back there? It’s not possible. It’s very dangerous,” Mustafa says.

Apart from the tedious UNHCR process, the Indian government also hasn’t done much to help the Afghan refugees. Recently The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016, was introduced in the Lok Sabha seeking to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. This new Bill provides citizenship to illegal migrants, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, who are of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian extraction. However, the Bill doesn’t have a provision for Muslims from these countries, who constitute a major chunk.

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This irks Mustafa, who believes that rather than being a liability on the country, he and many other skilled refugees like him are actually contributing to the economic growth of India. “India claims to be friends with Afghanistan; however, refugees like me are waiting for the government to recognize the effort we are putting in to build this country. My mechanic store provides employment for four other Indians. I am not being a burden on India’s economy,” says Mustafa.

However, these difficulties do very little to dampen the hopes and dreams of these Afghan refugees. A brilliant example is of the Qasimin Brothers.

Singing their way through hardship

In an expensive deluxe hotel in South Delhi’s Hauz Khas, some half a dozen Afghani boys are dancing merrily on a raised platform in presence of a sizeable Afghani crowd. It is an Afghan wedding reception lit by lilting music of the Qasimin brothers. Bedazzled by the Persian and Pashto rhythmic tones, the whole crowd seems to be mesmerized by the mellifluous songs performed by Sameer, Asad and Mujeeb Qasimin. One can see nostalgia-laced over all their jubilant faces.

However, the Qasimin brothers are not full-time professional singers. In fact, they are not even trained in the trade. They are barbers by profession – the band barbers- as lovingly called by the other members of a closely knit refugee community in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar area.

Eight years ago, forced by uncertainty back home Sameer, the eldest of the three decided to come to India in a bid to start life afresh.

“There were bomb blasts everywhere. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to lose my family. So, I came here (India) with no regrets but a lot of pain. The pain of losing my motherland but satisfaction that I have a family to live with,”  Sameer adds.

Except for Mujeeb, the youngest among the trio- who makes YouTube videos, the Qasimin brothers worked as barbers back home also, before lucrative offers by Afghan refugee families for performing in wedding ceremonies tempted them to learn traditional musical instruments.

According to UNHCR data, Pakistan and Iran are the most viable options for Afghans fleeing their country. Experts believe that geographic proximity, porous borders and the presence of functional labor markets are what attracts them to these countries.

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However, the trend in refugees fleeing the country has varied over the years depending on the intensity of the conflict. According to reports 4.6 million registered refugees returned home, largely from Iran and Pakistan, in the decade following the U.S.’ invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. However, according to a study by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) almost three-quarters of those Afghan refugees who returned home were forced to flee again due to violence and lack of assistance to start a new life in a war-torn home.

Perhaps this is why Sameer Qasimin, has started to accept India as his home. “India is a second home now and the chances of returning back (to Afghanistan) keep diminishing with every passing day.” As Sameer continues his story, Asad his younger brother abruptly interjects him. “No, as and when peace returns to the place, we will go back. We have our home there. Our relatives. Nobody wants to die in a foreign land,” he says with absolute certainty and hope in his eyes.

The only thing conflict has left the people of Afghanistan is memories. Memories of pain, suffering and longing. While Dawood Ahmad’s teary eyes glitter as he recalls mountains back home dotted with snow and Mujeeb Qasimin’s voice quivers as he speaks about making his country proud by becoming a famous singer in India.

(With inputs and visuals by Baitullah Hameedi from Kabul)

Afghans in Pakistan – Home away from home

Dressed in a shredded Shalwar Kameez, Habibullah and Waliullah travel across Karachi to collect garbage on a cart attached to the back of their motorbike.

Both brothers live in the Afghan Refugee camp, situated in Sohrab Goth area — a shanty part of Pakistan’s bustling port city of Karachi, which is dotted with small concrete block houses, tight shops, cartwheels, thorny shrubs and crowded by a large number of trucks.

“We leave our home at 6 in the morning” says Habibullah, aged 24, as he empties a garbage bin in one of the huge jute bags while his younger brother, Waliullah, 15, sits on the cart, separating paper and cardboard from the rest of the trash. The latter says that their father suffers from mental disorder. “He yells and tries to throw things on every member of the family.”

The two brothers who originally hail from Afghanistan have no option  but to work with his brother to earn for his family that includes, Habibullah, his mother, and three young sisters.

Despite belonging to a conservative religious family, these brothers pick garbage because of the lack of employment opportunities for Afghan refugees.

“I want to enroll at a school but I can’t because I have to wake up early in the morning for work every day,” Waliullah states. If I don’t work who will feed my family? he added with a quiver in his voice.

The brothers take their motorbike to Gulshan-e-Iqbal area of Karachi that is about six kilometers away, to collect trash from around 250-300 houses and earn Rs. 50-80 per house every month, depending upon the amount of trash each house generates.

As any conservative Afghan family, the women stay at home. Waliullah’s sisters are no exception. They remain at home to attend to their ailing father but at times he becomes aggressive. When the situation gets out of their control they they call Habibullah or Waliullah to take care of him. The family has been to sought medical help but the hospitals don’t allow any of them to stay because they don’t have a National Identity card — an identification document mandatory for all Pakistani citizens.

Ironically, despite pleas for mercy, hospitals in the city refuse to admit their loved one. “As an Afghan refugee we have no options.” “We end up taking our sick father to religious clerics, but that didn’t work either,” Habibullah sobs as he recalls his father’s misery.

Afghan refugees are not just deprived of basic necessities such as the right to employment and education, they are also denied healthcare facilities — all for not being a legal citizen of Pakistan.  

Both brothers are happy that the country has given them a place to live but they “feel hopeless” at times because they cannot own anything.

“The bike we use for garbage collection was purchased on my father’s friend’s name who is a security guard but a Pakistani national.  “He has done a favor for the love of his friend and our father, Habibullah says.

The brothers are grateful that Pakistan has welcomed their “parents and grandparents” at the time of migration, giving them a place to live and “food to eat” but at the same time, they feel “devastated and underprivileged” for not being able to something as basic as a bike or a house.

But not all Afghans are unhappy for living in Pakistan, some feel “privileged” for being able to migrate for their “children’s secure future.”

Adjusting in Pakistan

Azzami Madad works as a Naan maker or commonly known as Roti wala. He has a little shop situated in North Nazimabad area of Karachi. He explains, “My PoR card is a blessing in disguise because it enabled me to get a shop on rent.” Proof of Registration (PoR) card is given to the registered refugees by the government. The cards are important tools of protection that provide temporary legal stay and freedom of movement for the millions of registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The 48-year-old Naan maker migrated to Karachi decades at the beginning  of the infamous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was just a teenager when his family had to run for their life. A few years after his arrival, he got married to one of his paternal cousins. He has two children, Shahjahan, 12 and Gulmeena, 16.

He works from 11 AM in the morning to 1 AM at night just to make sure that he is “providing the right amount of income” to his family. Despite being a Naan maker, he is saving money for his daughter’s wedding and is desperately seeks a marriage proposal for her. He says, “I would have gotten her married to any of my relatives’ son but she does not want to marry in the family. She has gone to the community school, led by UNHCR, here in Karachi and I must respect her decision because this is what our religion teaches us too.”

His son Shahjahan studies in fifth grade in a school situated in Sohrab Goth area. “I don’t want him to make Naans. I want him to get religious and contemporary education and start his own business,” he says, as he takes out a Naan from the Tandoor.

“Pakistanis have always been welcoming. Giving away a piece from your land to people who don’t belong to your country is not an easy decision to make. I wholeheartedly admire Pakistanis for their generosity,” he says as he wipes away a thin layer of sweat from his forehead with a piece of cloth.

He lives in Sohrab Goth with his family and he feels Pakistan is a safe place to live — or atleast safer than Afghanistan. “Since my children were born here, I raised them as a Pakistani citizen.”  Afghanistan will always be a foreign land for them, he adds.

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Hope for the hopeless

In what might appear to be a glimmer of fresh hope, newly-elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan has made a promise to the Afghan and Bangladeshi migrants living in Pakistan. On 16th September 2018, the premier vowed to grant citizenship to Afghans whose children were born in Pakistan.

“We are really looking forward to the new PTI government’s support for their Afghan brothers and sisters as PM Khan promised,” says Abdullah, the 44-year-old community leader of Afghan refugees residing in Karachi. He continues, “However, we have not been contacted by any member of the National Assembly or Provincial Assembly, or for that matter, any member of PTI yet.”

Wearing a white turban, the six-feet tall Abdullah who has blue eyes, can easily be mistaken as a Pakhtun. “I was just a kid when the Soviets blatantly killed anyone and everyone they would find,” says Abdullah. Recalling the ill fated Soviet invasion, Marwat, 78, says, “It all began in late 1979 when the then Soviet Union literally demolished our homeland with tentatively 100,000 soldiers. Abundant Afghans, including my family, left their birth country, due to massive executions, arrests, absolute political unrest, and explicit human-rights violations.”  During General Pervez Musharraf’s term in office in early 2007, a significant number of Afghan refugees were allocated Proof of Registration (PoR) cards after a well-concluded registration exercise by the government. These cards provided all those refugees a temporary but legal refuge in the country.

“We are completely satisfied with our Pakistani brothers and sisters, for they have given us a chunk of land from theirs and they have never let us feel insecure or unprotected around them. The last time we felt highly vulnerable was when we were home” said the forty-four-year-old community leader Abdullah.

As per Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), Pakistan has a total of 2.8 Million Afghan refugees within its territory with 1.6 million having a PoR card, meanwhile approximately 0.84 million Afghans have been repatriated by the joint initiative of UNHCR and the Government of Pakistan.

“I want to go back to Kabul. The place does not only have my father’s toys that he had saved for me to play, but it also has the grave of my father,” says Marwat’s young grandson.  A teardrop rolls down his cheek as Marwat picks him up. “We will visit Kabul soon and your father will be really happy,” says Marwat as he assures his grandson.

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