An Afghan Family Returns from Pakistan, Struggles to Build a New Life

  • Shamsur Rahman’s family is struggling to adapt to their new life life in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Photo: IOM / Matthew Graydon

Afghanistan - Walking into the narrow, cramped courtyard of Shamsur Rahman’s home in Jalalabad city, it is difficult to imagine that his family of ten can live there. But they do, and so do the families of his three brothers, writes Matthew Graydon.

Shamsur Rahman and two of his brothers recently returned from Pakistan, where the lives they had built over decades were suddenly disrupted.

Because the Afghan brothers lacked refugee documents, like tens of thousands of others, they always knew their status in Pakistan was precarious. But after more than 20 years in their adopted country, where they married and raised families, Afghanistan felt like a distant memory.

“I had a street cart in Lahore, selling corn,” said Shamsur Rahman. “I didn’t make a lot of money, but it was enough to rent a house and even put my children in private school. One day someone in a military uniform came up and asked me where I was from. When I told him I was Afghan, he arrested me on the spot. I spent six months in jail. After that, I knew we had no future in Pakistan.”

Packing everything they could fit onto a rented truck, Shamsur Rahman and his family started on the long drive to the Torkham border with Afghanistan. The expenses were already mounting – 60,000 Pakistani rupees (USD $572) for the truck rental, plus the lost rental deposit on their house in Lahore – and they still had no idea how they would earn money once they arrived back in Afghanistan.

At the dusty and tumultuous Torkham border, Shamsur Rahman’s truck joined the seemingly endless line carrying families just like his, each weighed down with the few possessions remaining from a life left behind in Pakistan.

Since the beginning of 2016, over 240,000 undocumented Afghans have returned or been deported from Pakistan, more than double the number of returns in 2015. Like Shamsur Rahman, the families have often lived outside of Afghanistan for decades, and are returning to a country mired in conflict that they barely know.

At the border, staff from IOM and the Afghan Directorate of Refugees and Repatriation met Shamsur Rahman’s family and provided them with food, medical care and a room to stay in for the night.

But with so many families returning, IOM’s resources and those of other humanitarian actors are limited. After getting help with their immediate needs at the border and after reaching their final destination, the families are largely on their own.

Shamsur Rahman is originally from Nangarhar province’s Darai Nur district. The district straddles the borders of restive Kunar and Laghman provinces, where conflict has displaced thousands in recent years. The fighting and lack of government services and job opportunities in Darai Nur and other districts of Nangarhar means that most returnees, including Shamsur Rahman, decide to stay in the provincial capital Jalalabad.

Arriving in debt with no prospects for work, Shamsur Rahman and his brothers turned to their only lifeline remaining in Afghanistan – a fourth brother with a small home in Jalalabad city. The four families, more than 50 people in total, now share the three concrete-floored rooms and small courtyard. A blanket nailed to the door frame is all that keeps the winter chill out.

The children playing in the courtyard with their cousins have trouble understanding why they had to leave their school and their friends in Pakistan behind. They’re not in school now, although their parents plan to enroll them next year.

The eldest of the children, Imran, is 18 years old. A handsome, serious young man, he dotes on his younger siblings and cousins. Imran had been studying in Pakistan, but he has now been forced to put his studies aside and find any work that he can.

“I wanted to be an engineer,” said Imran. “That way, I could design houses for families like mine.”

There is a roof over the family’s heads now, and Shamsur Rahman has been able to make a bit of money doing manual labor or selling fruits and vegetables.

But there are thousands of returnees like him in Jalalabad and the labor market is flooded. Jobs are becoming harder to find, and he knows a time will come when his brother will no longer be able to support him. The family needs a home and land of their own.

Shamsur Rahman’s greatest concern though is for his elderly father, who lies on a makeshift bed in the courtyard, barely moving as flies pass over his face. He is ill and needs medicine every month, putting even more pressure on the family’s already limited income.

Looking down at his father, Shamsur Rahman sighs. “I’m praying that my father will stay alive, because I don’t have enough money to bury him.”