Eager for opportunities in Pakistan, Afghan refugees jump-start their careers
Growing up, Amna Atta-Ur-Rehman witnessed her parents struggle to meet their basic needs after her father fled Takhar, Afghanistan along with his family in 1980.
She remembers her father’s declarations that he would dedicate his life to ensuring his children would be educated, including his three daughters.
“He carried with him a long-held belief that women should be present in all walks of life, to be educated and employed,” says Amna.
This has given Amna the confidence to march forward and achieve her own dreams. By the final year of middle school and as second eldest in her family, she was already assuming a financial responsibility to support her parents and siblings as the family struggled with rising living costs.
Challenging local custom, she found part-time jobs in tailoring. Not relinquishing her belief in the value of education, she continued to independently develop her computer skills, believing that an investment in her own education would be necessary to put food on the table and as well as fund the further studies she wanted.
“My father is religious, and he promotes Islamic values that allow women to pursue their careers and dreams,” notes Amna. “He stood firm against the stereotypes about women’s capacity and wanted us to be empowered.” She believes many fathers in Afghanistan want the same for their daughters.
"I think I have a lot to give in any work I am doing."
Driven by an aspiration to realize her own potential and achieve financial security, Amna has continued to build up her employment experience, including as a brand representative in a local shopping mall, promoting products to customers.
“I’ve always felt that I am a natural communicator. As an Afghan refugee in Quetta, I think I bring a unique set of skills to work. I speak a number of languages, for example, Urdu, Pashto, Brahui, as well as English and Persian.” This has been valuable for the various marketing jobs she has taken up.
“I think I have a lot to give in any work I am doing. I’m very focused and I have an entrepreneurial streak, too,” she says, laughing.
Refugees like Amna who have a lot to offer can struggle to find opportunities to match their talents. In a unique local partnership in Quetta, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and the Serena Hotel signed an agreement in November 2021 to collaborate on an internship programme to offer talented Afghan refugees with a chance to gain hands-on hospitality and marketing skills in the hotel.
“I jumped at the chance to participate,” says Amna. “I like working with customers and it’s important they have a good experience. It’s also important to make experiences work for the business side. I always have the next marketing opportunity in my mind.”
Amna especially welcomes working with a highly professional and experienced team to gain knowledge and learn new skills. “Marketing is a fast-paced business and I want to know the latest thinking,” she says.
The internship programme backed by Serena lasts six months and includes a stipend. Amna is one of its first participants.
UNHCR’s livelihoods support programme in Pakistan is working to create more projects like this one. Erwin Policar, head of UNHCR’s office in Quetta, Baluchistan, says there’s an opportunity to create more programmes like this for Afghan refugees in the country including by enhancing the role of the private sector. In addition to the internship programme, the Serena Hotel is showcasing refugee-made products throughout their Quetta Hotel.
“This is a win-win for refugees and Pakistan. Young and talented Afghan refugees who have been educated in Pakistan get to be economically self-reliant and give back to Pakistani society. And Pakistan stands a chance to economically benefit from their contribution, especially by enhancing the role of private enterprise and expanding livelihood opportunities in a sustainable manner linked to market demand,” Policar says.
UNHCR is seeking to expand its collaboration with the private sector. It has been introducing its livelihoods programme, including the training it supports through Pakistani vocational and skills centres. The programme is also supporting start-up businesses to tap into the entrepreneurship of young Afghan refugee youth and women.
Livelihoods investments by UNHCR and the international community are also assisting host community members as part of a Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees.
“It’s important that after 40 years of hosting refugees, Pakistani communities continue to see the international contribution towards local services and the people who have been generously hosting refugees all this time. This helps to foster social cohesion and more receptive and inclusive policies towards refugees, both nationally and locally,” adds Abdul Ahad Khan, UNHCR Livelihood Associate in Quetta.
"I want to be an inspiration for my peers, especially other women and girls..."
Amna sees her future in Pakistan, which she considers more like home. A lack of opportunities for women as well as instability in Afghanistan has hampered many Afghan women from thinking about returning.
Despite her achievements, Amna still faces many challenges in reaching her aspirations in Pakistan. “My birthplace is Pakistan, but I have no national ID card, only a refugee card. This creates a lot of problems for me and family despite my parents being here for nearly forty years.”
In the absence of a national ID or the prospect of naturalization, refugees in Pakistan struggle to access opportunities for tertiary level study and cannot apply for many professional jobs or local or national government service. “I want to use my skills in a professional capacity someday,” says Amna.
Undeterred by the challenges she faces, Amna’s passion for education runs deep. “I have enrolled in a pre-medical course, taking biology, chemistry, and physics classes during the evening and covering the fees from work. I want to be an inspiration for my peers, especially other women and girls, and encourage them to aim for more,” she says.
Amna is optimistic about the future, confident in her hard work and efforts.
“Value your time, set goals, establish priorities, learn and improve your skills and no dream will be impossible for you.”