An Afghan refugee's wheels of fortune bring education within reach

Making a Difference, 3 November 2010

© UNHCR/F.Ahmed
UNHCR staff talk to Mohammad as he sits in his new wheelchair.

SURKHAB REFUGEE VILLAGE, Pakistan, November 3 (UNHCR) Severe polio prevented Mohammad Zai Parishan from going to school for almost 10 years. But when UNHCR provided the young Afghan refugee with a wheelchair, his life changed dramatically.

"Up until I was 17 years old, I was just sitting at home feeling sad as all my friends were getting their education and I wasn't. I was very jealous, but nobody had the time or strength to carry me to school," the 21-year-old told UNHCR visitors in Surkhab refugee village near Quetta, capital of Pakistan's Balochistan province.

After the UN refugee agency gave him his first wheelchair four years ago, Mohammad was so eager to learn that he completed three school years in one. "My mother was always keen for me to study and even though I had received religious education at home, I could not absorb enough information when I was finally able to attend school," he recalled.

Last month, UNHCR gave him a new, improved wheelchair at the request of Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees T. Alexander Aleinikoff, who met Mohammad during a visit to Surkhab. But while getting to school across a rocky plain is a lot easier now, Mohammad remains dependent on a classmate.

"Nazar picks me up every morning and pushes me to school, which is not easy and usually takes about half an hour. I give him 400 rupees [about US$10] per month and, even though he is my best friend, he would not do it without the payment," Mohammad laughed. He only contributes 150 rupees himself, with the rest covered by the American Refugee Council (ARC), which is UNHCR's implementing partner in the refugee village.

Mohammed and his three brothers and two sisters were all born in Pakistan after their parents fled from Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of 1979. UNHCR and its implementing partners helped the couple to settle in Surkhab, where they live in a tiny but neat and tidy mud brick house.

"It was very hard for us when our eight-year-old son developed polio. He was such an energetic and bright kid and all of a sudden he was unable to play with his friends or even walk," Mohammad's father, 75-year old Banuchi Zai, explained.

It was a difficult time for Mohammad, but also a formative experience. "I started writing poetry and I guess I express my sadness through my pen," he revealed. One of his idols is the 17th Century Afghan poet Rahman Baba, who lived in Peshawar. "I have some of his books and I hope one day I will also be famous. I already have a poet's name, which is Parishan," he said with a big smile.

And with his ambitious plans for the future, maybe this bright young man with a great sense of humour will become as well known as the poet he reveres.

"I want to become an engineer, but I am not sure whether it will be possible with this body. If I can change my medical condition, I will be able to fulfill my dream. But as long as I am like this, it will be very difficult," Mohammed said. He still holds out hope that someone will help him to get treatment in a modern hospital.

Surkhab was established about 30 years ago and accommodates almost 40,000 Afghan refugees. "The population is from both the north and south of Afghanistan and we have about 13 different ethnic groups living peacefully together," UNHCR Field Assistant Mohammad Ali explained.

Many of the villagers were born in Pakistan, like Mohammad. Even though he has never been to his country of origin, he is longing to move there. "My parents have told me many stories about the beauty of Afghanistan and it must have been a great country when it was still economically viable," Mohammed said, while adding that as long as the situation there was unstable, "We are certainly better off here."

Meanwhile, while Mohammed is grateful for his new mode of transport, he's hoping that UNHCR's generosity might stretch a little bit further. "It is great to have this new wheelchair as it is more comfortable and makes my way to school a lot easier, but I guess the next thing I need is a computer to write down my poetry," he said, with a mischievous grin.

By Billi Bierling in Surkhab Refugee Village, Pakistan




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.

UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award 2015

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

For years, migrants and asylum-seekers have flocked to the northern French port of Calais in hopes of crossing the short stretch of sea to find work and a better life in England. This hope drives many to endure squalid, miserable conditions in makeshift camps, lack of food and freezing temperatures. Some stay for months waiting for an opportunity to stow away on a vehicle making the ferry crossing.

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.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

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

Croatia: Sunday Train ArrivalsPlay video

Croatia: Sunday Train Arrivals

On Sunday a train of 1800 refugees and migrants made their way north from the town of Tovarnik on Croatia's Serbian border. They disembarked at Cakovec just south of Slovenia. Most of the people are Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi. Their route to Western Europe has been stalled due to the closing of Hungarian borders. Now the people have changed their path that takes through Slovenia. Croatia granted passage to over 10,000 refugees this weekend. Croatian authorities asked Slovenia to take 5000 refugees and migrants per day. Slovenia agreed to take half that number. More than a thousand of desperate people are being backed up as result, with more expected to arrive later Monday.
Afghanistan Needs Your SupportPlay video

Afghanistan Needs Your Support

Croatia; Destination UnknownPlay video

Croatia; Destination Unknown