Living amid ruins, Afghans get help to build shelters
Afghanistan's shortage of decent and affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing millions of displaced and returning refugees. A new project is offering some a solution.
Four-year-old Malali eats bread made by her grandmother, Sardar Bibi. The family returned to Afghanistan after 30 years living as refugees in Pakistan.
© UNHCR/Farzana Wahidy
Afghanistan’s shortage of decent and affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing millions of displaced and returning refugees. A new project is offering some a solution.
Mohammad Daud and his family fled fighting and insecurity in their home area and came to Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan more than eight years ago. But until recently, they still lacked a secure roof over their heads.
“We shifted from ruins to ruins. This was our life – moving from one place to another,” recalled Mohammad, 65, whose family of 15 includes his wife, four children and four grandchildren. Their last home was so close to collapse that he had to warn the children not to sit too close to the crumbling walls.
"We shifted from ruins to ruins. This was our life – moving from one place to another."
The state of the house did not prevent its owner from doubling the family’s rent and threatening to evict them when they could not pay.
Mohammad’s experience is all too common in Afghanistan, where more than 440,000 people were internally displaced by conflict in 2019 alone, in addition to hundreds of thousands driven from their homes by natural disasters.
Some are able to move in with relatives, but most have to make do with ramshackle shelters or tents in informal settlements or cramped and over-priced rental accommodation that often lacks running water and toilets. Conditions are especially difficult during Afghanistan’s scorching summers and freezing winters. Across the country, displaced Afghans report the need for shelter as one of their biggest priorities, second only to food.
The same is true of the nearly six million former refugees who have returned to Afghanistan over the last two decades. Sardar Bibi and her family lived as refugees in neighbouring Pakistan for several decades before returning to Afghanistan three years ago.
They arrived in Kandahar with nothing, said Sardar Bibi, “no work, no land, no food or property.” Her family of 12, as well as her daughter’s family of nine, all lived in a single room. “Life was hard back then,” she said. “We were in such a bad condition.”
Life has been a little easier for both families since they received cash grants from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to build their own homes. The Cash for Shelter project, which was piloted with 600 vulnerable displaced and returnee households starting last year, provides families with a US$3,300 cash grant and technical assistance to construct a two-room shelter that includes a bathroom. The cash is provided in three installments as building progresses.
Both families used some of the money to hire local construction workers. With the help of family members, their homes were built within three months. Mohammad’s sons gained construction skills which they used to build an additional room as well as a kitchen and perimeter wall.
Faced with the threat of eviction, Mohammad and his family moved into their new home before it was even complete. “The walls were still wet when we started living in the house,” he said. “We covered the floor of one room with a plastic sheet … the rooms were windowless.”
Sardar Bibi and her family also moved into their new home before it was finished. “When we came to the new place, we became comfortable,” she said. “There is enough space for everyone.”
Not long after both families had settled into their new homes, the coronavirus pandemic brought new hardships. Mohammad’s two sons, who were supporting the family as daylabourers (earning US$3 a day), have not been able to work for the past six weeks because of lockdown measures, and the family has had to borrow money to get by. The impacts of COVID-19 have also pushed up the prices of staple foods.
“Prices are higher,” said Sardar Bibi. “We cannot afford anything, not even dinner.”
"We cannot afford anything, not even dinner."
The spread of coronavirus in Afghanistan has amplified the need for people to have shelters with adequate space, running water and toilets. The Cash for Shelter project is providing those benefits while the cash component has helped families faced with the financial fallout of lockdown.
Coronavirus is only the latest trial facing Afghans during 40 years of conflict, displacement, political instability and natural disasters. As Afghanistan’s displacement crisis enters its fifth decade, UNHCR is calling for targeted investments, both inside Afghanistan, and in Iran and Pakistan, which between them are hosting over 2.3 million Afghan refugees. The cost of inaction, warns UNHCR, could be further population flows, continued suffering and instability, and a deepening socio-economic crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a virtual high-level meeting taking place on Monday, 6 July, UNHCR will seek support for critical humanitarian and development projects in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, including in shelter, education, health, livelihoods, and to support refugees’ return and reintegration. The projects fall under the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees, a regional initiative that was launched in 2012.
“For shelter we are comfortable now,” said Mohammad. “It is only that we are living in poverty.”