When Zilme, his wife Sausan, and their three children arrived in Tajikistan in 2013, they hoped to find a better life. They had fled Afghanistan when security conditions declined and it became too dangerous for the family to remain. However, their new life in Tajikistan, while safe, has been one […]
When Zilme, his wife Sausan, and their three children arrived in Tajikistan in 2013, they hoped to find a better life. They had fled Afghanistan when security conditions declined and it became too dangerous for the family to remain. However, their new life in Tajikistan, while safe, has been one full of hardship and crushing poverty. The appearance of COVID-19 earlier this year has made a tough situation even more difficult with things likely to become even worse as the year wears on.
Zilme’s family lives in Rudaki District, one of the three areas of Tajikistan legally designated for refugees to reside in. Named for the national poet and one of the great heroes of Tajikistan, this part of the country is picturesque and historic, invoking all the beauty of the Silk Road. However, life for the five members of the family is anything but a fairytale.
They rent a small home for around $20 USD per month. While you may think real estate at this price is a bargain, it is better described as a ramshackle, partially finished shack rather than an actual house. The dwelling has a rusty corrugated iron roof, lacks proper insulation, and has no indoor plumbing. There are improvised plastic sheets attached to the outside of the building in what is probably a futile attempt to keep the freezing cold out during winter.
The family’s two teenage sons, Milod and Mehrdod, aged 14 and 19 are bright eyed and friendly. Both suffer from a disability and require the use of wheelchairs for mobility. They attend a special school located nearby the home twice a week, under supervision of their mother.
Their daughter, Yaldo, who is almost the same age as Milod, helps her mother take care of her older brothers. She dreams of entering university in a few years with the hope of being able to provide a better life for her family after graduation.
Zilme has done his best to support his family by working as a car mechanic.
However things are not easy at the best of times, let alone in 2020. He lost his fulltime job following the economic downturn brought about by the COVID pandemic earlier this year. Although there is no lockdown enforced in the country, there is no way to remotely fix vehicles. So like most blue collar workers the world over he has made the difficult decision to risk exposing himself to infection to earn a living. Zilme picks up what ad hoc vehicle maintenance work he can.
“My earnings have dropped to almost nothing nowadays. People have tightened their belts, because of the situation, and they are scared that they’ll get infected if they go out, so their not driving anywhere. I barely receive a few callouts every month to fix anyone’s car”, – explains Zilme with a frown.
He has chosen along with his family to maintain as rigorous social distancing habits as possible in order to keep them safe. The loss of a parent would be emotionally devastating for this tight knit family and the economic fallout could be fatal. There is no such thing as life insurance policies in their world. Beyond suffering grief, Sausan knows that if something were to happen to her husband, the family’s only breadwinner, their lot in life would immediately become much worse.
Stuck on their very limited budget, even before 2020 the family was only able to afford very basic food staples, and meat for example remains a luxury outside of their price range.
The healthcare system of Tajikistan is struggling to cope with the COVID crisis. And getting access to quality, affordable health services is something that is extremely challenging for vulnerable families, like Zilme’s. Unfortunately, despite being admitted to hospitals, a number of refugees in Tajikistan have already passed away from the virus. Tajikistan has recorded number of COVID deaths than any of the other former Soviet Central Asian Republics.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has taken all possible measures help refugees cope with these challenges by implementing awareness-rising activities and providing humanitarian assistance. UNHCR arranged translation of information materials about the COVID-19 into the local languages and dissemination of these materials among refugees and asylum seekers. To mitigate the rapidly degrading socio-economic state of refugees, UNHCR distributed cash assistance among the most vulnerable refugees, so that they could overcome the hardships and food shortages during the pandemic.
Tajikistan hosts the largest number of refugees of any country in the Central Asia region – some 5,000 people primarily from neighboring Afghanistan. Afghan refugees share a common language, religion and culture with their host communities in Tajikistan which facilitates social cohesion and local integration.