Q&A: Afghan mountaineer reaches for the Himalayan skies

News Stories, 3 March 2010

© Association Respectons la Terre
Nadjib Sirat at the summit of Mont Blanc. The former Afghan refugee now has Mount Everest in his sights.

PARIS, France, March 3 (UNHCR) Nadjib Sirat fled from Afghanistan in 1998 when he was 18 and settled in France, where he was recognized as a refugee and later became a French citizen. Today, he is involved in different mountaineering projects with French adventurer Charles Hedrich. Their aim is to use climbing to present an alternative and positive view of Afghanistan. To this end, they will try to scale the 8,201-metre-high Mount Cho Oyu in May, followed by an attempt on the world's highest peak, Mount Everest, in September. Sirat, who in 2008 became the first Afghan to climb Western Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc, will be carrying the UNHCR logo on his anorak. He is also trying to raise interest in Afghanistan about skiing and mountaineering. He spoke recently in Paris to UNHCR Intern Hannane Boulmaoui. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us how you ended up in France

In 1997, I started to work with Afrane [Amitié Franco-Afghane], a French NGO that specialized in the humanitarian and education sectors . . . This got me into trouble with the Taliban government, not only because I was working with foreigners but also because Afrane was helping girls get access to education. That is why I fled to Pakistan, where Afrane's head of mission helped me obtain a student visa to go to France.

When I arrived in France in October 1998, I spent three years in high school and then started studying to become a dental technician. At the same time, I attended evening classes to obtain a bachelors' degree in economics and management . . . I became a French citizen in 2009.

What were your early years in France like?

My first year was very difficult. I mixed almost exclusively with French students and I didn't integrate into the Afghan community. I opened up to French culture to the point where I briefly stopped thinking about Afghanistan and forgot about the concerns that connected me to my country.

To become financially self-sufficient, I chose to claim asylum after arriving in France on a student visa. This allowed me to work 20 hours per week. It gives me comfort to know that I have not been a financial burden to the country that received me; I have always worked and paid my taxes.

What made you become interested once more in Afghanistan?

In the beginning, I cut the connection with my country as I was too busy with my life as a student. But things changed when I obtained refugee status. That's when I started to take more interest in Afghanistan. I had a lot of different projects in mind on how to maintain my ties with Afghanistan. One idea was to open up a dental clinic or go back to work for an NGO. Then, of course, I also kept in close touch with my parents, my brothers and sisters in Afghanistan.

When I wanted to flee the country, my father did not accept it . . . As I was still young, he feared that I was going to be manipulated. My father has since passed away, but during my time as a student, knowing that I was leading a settled life, he was happy for me.

Tell us about your partnership with Charles Hedrich

A year ago, Charles Hedrich contacted the Afghan Embassy in Paris in his search for a young sports lover who was up to the challenge of becoming the first Afghan to climb [the 8,848-metre-high] Mount Everest. I accepted because I believed this project could present a positive image of Afghanistan and make it possible to speak about the country in a different way. Mountaineering was a way of showing that there is something beyond war . . . including beautiful mountains and sports. I want to catch the attention of young Afghans who watch skiing on television and dream about leaving their country. I want to show them that the snow and the mountains are right there, in Afghanistan, and that they too can have access to sports.

Mountaineering could also make people aware of the need to clear landmines from the high mountains in Afghanistan. Furthermore, sports could help to promote peace.

What message do you have for Afghans seeking asylum in Europe?

When I first arrived in France, I realized how difficult it was to be a foreigner. I understood that I will always be an Afghan and that even if France is my country, so is Afghanistan. I hope that, one day, Afghanistan will become a country where Afghans who once fled will want to return, and a country that others would like to visit.




UNHCR country pages

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

The cycle of life has started again in Afghanistan as returnees put their shoulders to the wheel to rebuild their war-torn country.

Return is only the first step on Afghanistan's long road to recovery. UNHCR is helping returnees settle back home with repatriation packages, shelter kits, mine-awareness training and vaccination against diseases. Slowly but surely, Afghans across the land are reuniting with loved ones, reconstructing homes, going back to school and resuming work. A new phase in their lives has begun.

Watch the process of return, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction unfold in Afghanistan through this gallery.

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

With elections scheduled in October, 2004 is a crucial year for the future of Afghanistan, and Afghans are returning to their homeland in record numbers. In the first seven months of 2004 alone, more than half a million returned from exile. In all, more than 3.6 million Afghans have returned since UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme started in 2002.

The UN refugee agency and its partner organisations are working hard to help the returnees rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. Returnees receive a grant to cover basic needs, as well as access to medical facilities, immunisations and landmine awareness training.

UNHCR's housing programme provides tool kits and building supplies for families to build new homes where old ones have been destroyed. The agency also supports the rehabilitation of public buildings as well as programmes to rehabilitate the water supply, vocational training and cash-for-work projects.

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Beyond the smiles of homecoming lie the harsh realities of return. With more than 5 million Afghans returning home since 2002, Afghanistan's absorption capacity is reaching saturation point.

Landmine awareness training at UNHCR's encashment centres – their first stop after returning from decades in exile – is a sombre reminder of the immense challenges facing this war-torn country. Many returnees and internally displaced Afghans are struggling to rebuild their lives. Some are squatting in tents in the capital, Kabul. Basic needs like shelter, land and safe drinking water are seldom met. Jobs are scarce, and long queues of men looking for work are a common sight in marketplaces.

Despite the obstacles, their spirit is strong. Returning Afghans – young and old, women and men – seem determined to do their bit for nation building, one brick at a time.

Posted on 31 January 2008

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

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