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Refugees craft future in Central Asia

News Stories, 17 August 2006

Gulshan, a Tajik national, learnt weaving from an Afghan refugee and is now teaching it to other refugees at the RCVC centre in Dushanbe.

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, August 17 (UNHCR) You know you've made it in the world when a Lonely Planet guidebook cites you as a must-see: "A small showroom with nice Afghan embroidery, gaudy Tajik clothes and carpets made on the spot by Afghan refugees."

Tucked away in an unassuming house in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, the Refugee Children and Vulnerable Citizens (RCVC) centre hardly seems like a tourist spot. The foreigners who gather here are not backpackers travelling for pleasure, but refugees who have escaped the conflict in Afghanistan.

People like Aminullo, who arrived in Tajikistan in 2003. "I'd like to return to Afghanistan if there is security," says the native of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. "But if I go back now, I fear I'll be killed."

While he waits for the right time to return home, he is picking up useful skills at the RCVC centre. For the past year, he has been attending a jewellery workshop and is now teaching children. "I use the space and equipment for free. Many people come to order from the catalogue," he says of the centre.

"We give refugees material and social assistance," says Mavjuda Rakhmanova, the director of RCVC, which is partly funded by the UN refugee agency. "Some get cash allowances, others get medical care, education, or benefit from vocational training or income-generating projects. We also hold cultural and handicraft activities here."

It's mostly young women who come here to do Afghan and Tajik embroidery, knitting, and jewellery-making. What they make is marketed through partnerships, such as an arrangement with Alliance Française.

"It's a small refugee caseload, we know them all by name," says Rakhmanova. "Sometimes they come when they're lonely, just to have some company."

The centre offers free medical checks by male and female doctors, as well as regular talks on family planning and HIV/AIDS. Staff also help to identify the most vulnerable refugees for possible resettlement.

A similar initiative in the Kyrgyzstan capital, Bishkek, is the recently-opened Dusti Centre for Refugee Women. Dusti, which means friendship in the Dari language, grew from an Afghan refugee women's centre into one for refugee women of all nationalities.

"In a region where refugee rights are not always recognised and respected, it is encouraging to see that refugee women can register their own grouping and organise their activities freely," says Carlos Zaccagnini, UNHCR's representative in the Kyrgyz Republic.

Services at the UNHCR-funded Bishkek centre include emergency aid; legal assistance; vocational training workshops for small business; computer classes; income generating activities; seminars on reproductive health; family planning; and sexual and gender based violence.

In addition, the centre also addresses the needs of children by allowing them to receive supplementary education in their mother tongue and learn about the history and culture of their homeland.

"This centre should be open not only to refugee women, but also to former refugees, to asylum seekers, and to Kyrgyz women who may want to share their experiences," says Zaccagnini.

The same principle applies to the RCVC centre in Dushanbe. Gulshan is a citizen of Tajikistan, married to an Afghan refugee who teaches Dari in a local school. "I first came to the centre because I wanted to learn some skills," she says, adding that she picked up weaving from an Afghan woman who has since repatriated to Mazar-e-Sharif.

Gulshan, in turn, has been passing the skills back to refugee women, teaching them to weave carpets and bags proof that an exchange of skills and experience can enrich both refugees and their host communities.

Tajikistan hosts about 1,000 Afghan refugees while the Kyrgyz Republic is home to some 3,500 persons of concern for UNHCR, mostly from Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Chechnya.

By Vivian Tan in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan




UNHCR country pages

Afghan Refugees in Iran

At a recent conference in Geneva, the international community endorsed a "solutions strategy" for millions of Afghan refugees and those returning to Afghanistan after years in exile. The plan, drawn up between Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and UNHCR, aims to support repatriation, sustainable reintegration and assistance to host countries.

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.

Afghan Refugees in Iran

More focus needed on reintegration of former Afghan refugees

Many of the more than 5.5 million Afghan refugees who have returned home since 2002 are still struggling to survive. Lack of land, job opportunities and other services, combined with poor security in some places, has caused many returnees to head to urban areas. While cities offer the promise of informal day labour, the rising cost of rental accommodation and basic commodities relegate many returnees to life in one of the informal settlements which have mushroomed across Kabul in recent years. Some families are living under canvases and the constant threat of eviction, while others have gained a toe-hold in abandoned buildings around the city.

UNHCR gives humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable, and is currently rallying support from donors and humanitarian and development agencies to redouble efforts to help returning refugees reintegrate in Afghanistan.

More focus needed on reintegration of former Afghan refugees

Angelina Jolie promotes reintegration of Afghan returnees

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie in March 2011 returned to Afghanistan. On her second trip to the country, the acclaimed actress called for greater focus to be put on the reintegration of former refugees. More than 5.5 million refugees have returned since 2002, mainly from Pakistan and Iran, and now make up 20 per cent of the population. UNHCR is concerned that too many of these refugees continue to live without jobs, shelter and other basic needs.

Jolie caught up with several families she had met in 2008, still living in a dilapidated warehouse in Kabul. She was moved to see the families struggling to survive in the cold damp building. Children spend their days washing cars for money instead of attending school; the old and sick told Jolie of their pain to be such a burden on the young.

The actress also visited returned refugees living on the Alice Ghan and Barikab land allocation schemes north of Kabul. The returnees told her they were grateful for their houses but needed help with livelihoods. Jolie also visited Qala Gadu village, where she is funding the construction of a girls' primary school.

Angelina Jolie promotes reintegration of Afghan returnees

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Pakistan: Returning Home

Since the beginning of November, UNHCR has been offering an enhanced package to every registered refugee in Pakistan choosing to go home to Afghanistan.
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