“If you have a garden and a library, what more could you want?” asks Omar Sharifullah, sitting among the budding peones and ripening walnuts on his suburban patch in Budapest. The teacher, who fled war in Afghanistan, has found both peace and opportunities for self-development in Hungary.
Equally important, as all refugees will tell you, is that they can secure a livelihood in their new country, and Omar has achieved that too.
Omar with his daughter, Anahita spending quality time - Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
Omar in the cherished garden of his family's home - Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
Omar and Milena spend a lot of time perfecting their family business - Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
Entrepreneurial and internet-savvy, the 31-year-old is running an online business that not only gives him and his family in Hungary a good living but also supports traditional craftspeople back in Afghanistan.
If you are safe, you will help your country more than by staying
“After all the violence I saw in Afghanistan, I just wanted to get my life back together and get started with something positive,” he says. “Hungary has not disappointed me, and I am doing my best to make a contribution.”
Omar comes from Khost in eastern Afghanistan. He speaks four languages fluently — Farsi, Urdu and English, as well as his native Pashto. He graduated in education from Paktia University and taught linguistics to both men and women at a community college in Kabul.
Perhaps it was his commitment to women’s education but more likely the fact that he worked as a cultural adviser to the US military that made him vulnerable to the Taliban. “They threatened me physically,” he says.
His family urged him to flee. “They said to me, ‘we do not want to hear on the news that you have been killed. Go somewhere safe and study further. If you are safe, you will help your country more than by staying.
Omar left his mother, two sisters and one of his brothers in Afghanistan when he came alone, overland, to Hungary in 2015. He promptly applied for asylum and was granted political protection.
Omar and his family can afford to live a carefree life in Budapest - Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
If you have a garden and a library, what more do you need? - Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
Anahita speaks English and Hungarian but also understands Pashto - Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
Why did he choose Hungary? The country has tough border and migration policies and most refugees who have set foot here have quickly moved on. But Omar knew something more.
“I also knew Hungary had a reputation for knowledge and a similar history to Afghanistan,” he says, referring to Hungary’s strength in the sciences and its shared experience of being occupied by foreign forces.
The most important thing I have learned from Omar is that we are unbelievably well off here in Europe. I try never to complain but to see every day as a gift.
The Hungarian language can be a barrier to integration, but Omar says he has learnt it “to some extent”. It helped him enormously that he found a Hungarian wife, Milena, with whom he has a daughter, Anahita, two-and-a-half.
Milena is also a gifted linguist, speaking Chinese, Arabic, German and English. She happened to be translating for Omar when the couple first met. They named their daughter after Anahita Ratebzad, the first Afghan woman to play an active role in government as deputy head of state from 1980 to 1986.
“When you hear stories like Omar’s,” says Milena, “what he had to go through, you inevitably reassess your own life. Probably the most important thing I have learned from Omar is that we are unbelievably well off here in Europe. I try never to complain but to see every day as a gift.”
When it came to work, Omar helped himself from the start and quickly became an honest taxpayer. He set up his own small fast-food outlet at a metro station before getting taken on as a project assistant at the Central European University (CEU). This was paid work, funded by the EU, helping researchers with projects on various topics.
“The younger generation are not willing to give up their freedom, their freedom of speech, the right to education.”
At the same time, Omar was able to make the most of the library. “It was my favourite spot,” he says. And this year, he has received an MA from the University of Leicester in the UK for his own studies, done remotely, into the broader geopolitical picture around the conflict in Afghanistan.
Having come under political pressure, the CEU recently moved many of its departments from Budapest to Vienna. When this happened, and the Covid-19 pandemic also hit, Omar lost his contract.
But quickly understanding the future was online, Omar and Milena set up a business called OrientGift that sells handmade luxury items from Afghanistan to connoisseurs in Europe, the US and Canada. Already they have a turnover in the thousands of dollars.
Along with this business, he also has an online educational consultancy that helps link Western universities with students in Afghanistan. And he is soon going to be giving online lessons in academic writing to students at Shaikh Zayed University, back in his home city of Khost.
Like many Afghans, Omar is worried about the future. “We hope the international community will not abandon us,” he says. “The younger generation are not willing to give up their freedom, their freedom of speech, the right to education.”
He sees online teaching as one way around possible restrictions.
And Omar has a vision for the future – the peace of a garden and the opportunities of a library for all the 38 million people of his long-suffering country.