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

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