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Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - Afghan Soap

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1997

The resurgence of economic activity will be the key to the future stability of Afghanistan. In one village, women have been trained in an unlikely skill.

By Rupert Colville

There is a new touch of hope and prosperity in the air in the tiny Afghan village of Haidry Qala. Wheat fields are blossoming again. Houses, and the magnificent traditional four-metre high mud walls which surround each family compound, are being rebuilt. And the village women have an unusual skill the ability to make soap.

Haidry Qala is the history of modern Afghanistan in microcosm. When the Soviet army invaded in 1979, civilians fled as their homes were destroyed under a barrage of tank and aerial bombardment. The village was virtually abandoned for years. Political and military fortunes fluctuated and the villagers debated endlessly about whether to leave their refugee camp in Pakistan and go home. "I came back here several times to see what was going on," recalls one elder, Hajji Baqi. "When the Taliban arrived two years ago it became peaceful and I decided to come back." He finally did so in May, along with most of the other villagers.

A key to a sustained and successful repatriation programme in Haidry Qala and across Afghanistan will be the revival of economic activity. While recognizing that could take years on a national scale, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have, in the interim, launched a series of initiatives at family and community level to both train refugees in various skills and to help them return home in escorted convoys as part of group repatriation schemes.

Earlier this year, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) began one UNHCR-financed project to train more than 100 villagers in a variety of skills. The 67 women in the programme underwent a four-month course in embroidery, tailoring or soap-making, which included two weeks basic business training, in one of six centres in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. When they returned home, UNHCR and IRC supplemented their standard repatriation package of 5,000 rupees ($125) and 300 kgs of wheat flour with an extra 1,300 rupees ($32) transport allowance and a heavily subsidized tool kit and materials for their new jobs. Male apprentices received 500 rupees ($12.5) a month to undergo a nine-month course in such trades as carpentry and tractor repair in their home areas.

Ten female trainees and their families later returned to Haidry Qala where they are currently setting up their new enterprises. "If raw materials are available in large quantities, we'll produce on a large scale and sell collectively" outside the village, says Mohammed Ayub, an experienced village businessman and member of the Taliban. "If we only get small amounts of material, we'll sell individually." Whatever, he is confident the village will make a profit with a bar of soap selling at between 7-8 rupees in nearby towns.

Ruzi Khan, IRC's business management supervisor, says many Afghans already have traditional artisan skills in addition to their newly acquired expertise; they simply don't know how to market themselves properly. In follow-up training, he said, the women will be taught "how to sell, how to reduce costs ... how to price the product and how to maximize their profits. The men can go and talk about the village products in the mosque and in the graveyard" in the absence of television and radio advertizing. "There is a market," he insisted. "It is just a question of finding it."

In Haidry Qala, the villagers continue to quietly stitch their lives together again. There is still no school or clinic. Irrigation ditches must be cleaned out and the wheat harvested. There is not enough roofing material to go around and Hajji Baqi is lodging with a cousin until his own home can be repaired. "I have one brother who is still in Pakistan," he says, "but he can't come back because of the lack of shelter. When I've rebuilt my house he can come and stay with me." Operation Soap could help ensure the rebirth of Haidry Qala and Hajji Baqi's feeling that "I'm happy we have returned here."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)




UNHCR country pages

UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award 2015

Aqeela Asifi, an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan, has been named the 2015 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award. Asifi has dedicated her adult life to educating refugee girls. Despite minimal resources and significant cultural challenges, hundreds of girls have now passed through her school, equipped with life-long skills and brighter hopes for their futures.

Asifi fled from Kabul in 1992 with her young family. They found refuge in the desolate Kot Chandana refugee village in the south-eastern Punjab province of Pakistan. Adjusting from life in a capital city and working as a teacher, to living in a dusty refugee village was difficult. She was especially struck by the total absence of schools for girls.

It took time but eventually Asifi was allowed to start a small school under a tent. Over the years the school expanded and received the hard-won backing of community elders. Asifi's dedication has helped guide more than 1,000 girls through to the eighth grade and encouraged more schools to open in the village. Another 1,500 young people (900 girls, 650 boys) are enrolled in six schools throughout the refugee village today.

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Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

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It will benefit refugee returnees to Afghanistan as well as 3 million Afghan refugees, including 1 million in Iran and 1.7 million in Pakistan.

Many of the refugees in Iran have been living there for more than three decades. This photo set captures the lives of some of these exiles, who wait in hope of a lasting solution to their situation.

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