Afghan family joins 1 million who have gone home from Iran
TEHRAN, Iran, Sept 2 (UNHCR) - For the past few weeks, Nahid and Abdul Vakil have been busy packing. It's a big job to move your entire family to another country, even when that country is your homeland.
Ever since they left Afghanistan 12 years ago, Nahid and Abdul have been refugees in Iran. Their eldest daughter, Tamana, was a baby when they arrived; their two youngest children were born here. Now, after all this time, the family has decided to go back to Afghanistan.
A few days ago, they went to one of Tehran's voluntary repatriation centres for Afghan refugees, where they were interviewed by a staff member of the UN refugee agency. During the interview, they were informed of the conditions in Afghanistan and told of their rights under the voluntary repatriation programme. Abdul and Nahid confirmed that they had freely chosen to leave Iran and return home.
On Thursday, Abdul and Nahid set off for Afghanistan, and by the end of the week they will be back in Kabul, after more than a decade away. This very big event in their lives comes on a day that also marks a milestone for UNHCR, with the one millionth refugee returning from Iran to Afghanistan since the start of the voluntary repatriation programme in April 2002.
High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers welcomed the news of this one millionth return as a positive step for Afghanistan. "For over two years now, UNHCR has been strongly committed to the reconstruction of Afghanistan," he said. "Rebuilding a country after years of war is a long and difficult process, and I remain concerned at the deterioration in the security situation in some regions. But today gives us all the opportunity to take stock of how much has been accomplished already. Behind this figure of one million returns from Iran, there are one million individual stories, one million people who made the choice to go back, and are now rebuilding not just their own lives, but also their homeland."
The life of Abdul and Nahid is one of these individual stories. Abdul was a soldier in Afghanistan's national army in the late 1980s. When the government of Soviet-backed leader Mohammad Najibullah fell, Abdul fled to Iran with Nahid and their new-born daughter. The family settled in the south-western Iranian city of Shiraz. Life was hard at first - Abdul worked as a labourer, then as a sanitation worker. For the past seven years, he has been selling clothes and shoes for a living. Nahid, who was a teacher of history and geography in Kabul, took care of their children. Their son Aziz Reza was born in 1995, three years after they arrived in Iran. The youngest of the family, Sara, is now four.
Ever since they heard about the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Abdul and Nahid have wanted to go back and to play a part in rebuilding their homeland. There was much to take into account before they could leave Iran: the children's schooling, Abdul's work, where they would live in Afghanistan. But now, they have decided it is time for them to return home.
"I have a very good feeling about it," Abdul said before leaving Iran. "I am going to see my country again, after so many years away, and I have been waiting for that day for a long time. I also have some bad feelings, because I am sad that Afghanistan has been so completely destroyed. I know it will be difficult for us at the beginning, but it is our country, and we all want to go back."
The family will be staying with Abdul's brother in Kabul for the first few weeks. Nahid hopes that they will be able to find a home of their own very quickly, she says it is very important for the children. As soon as everyone is settled, she plans to resume her old teaching job.
"I think it is very important, because so many young people in Afghanistan know nothing at all about the history and geography of their own country. So many children, like my own children, grew up as refugees in other countries, where they were not taught about Afghanistan. And of course the children who stayed did not receive any education during the Taliban. If I can teach them something about Afghanistan, I will feel that I am making a difference to the future of my country."
Refugees like Nahid and Abdul, who take back to Afghanistan professional skills and a high level of education, are a key part of the reconstruction effort, and UNHCR considers that it is very important for those who want to repatriate to be able to do so.
"Every teacher who goes back will teach hundreds of Afghan children to read, every doctor will save lives," said UNHCR Representative in Iran, Philippe Lavanchy. "This is why the team here is focused on identifying and removing some of the obstacles that stand in the way of refugees who want to return to Afghanistan. In the past year, we have put in place a series of new measures to facilitate their voluntary repatriation."
The measures cover a wide range of issues of concern to refugees, from the logistical to the educational. UNHCR has doubled the number of trucks with accompanying baggage leaving on each convoy, allowing refugees to take more of their personal belongings home. This extra allowance acts as a boost to reintegration inside Afghanistan, where furniture and other consumer goods are in short supply in many parts of the country.
Another UNHCR initiative was to set up "dispute settlement committees" in seven Iranian cities to help refugees resolve their legal disputes before repatriating. The committees deal with civil cases only, and use mediation and arbitration to resolve such issues as non-payment of salary, or refusal to return rental deposits. Often, the sums involved are all the savings that the refugees can rely on to start a new life back in their homeland.
UNHCR is also running an information campaign to let refugees know their entitlements under the voluntary repatriation programme. Benefits include free travel to Afghanistan, as well as a cash grant for travel to their final destination, and money to purchase food upon arrival. Returning refugees are also integrated into local assistance programmes.
Earlier this year, UNHCR arranged for Afghan community leaders from Bamyan province to visit Iran, meet with the refugees, and answer their questions about life in today's Afghanistan.
When Nahid and Abdul read in a UNHCR information bulletin that the programme of assisted returns from Iran was scheduled to end in March 2005, they decided to take advantage of the repatriation package. With all their belongings packed, they were now ready for the journey back home.
"I am a bit sad that I have to leave my friends here behind," nine-year-old Aziz Reza said, "but I know I will be able to make friends in Kabul too."
His elder sister Tamana agreed with him, saying that she wants to continue her schooling in Afghanistan, and is glad that they are going now, so she will not miss the start of the school year. As for four-year-old Sara, she is too young to be anything but excited.
"I am going to go on a bus," she said. "It is going to be a long, long time. And then I will be home."