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A refugee separated from his mother but uniting a community

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A refugee separated from his mother but uniting a community

An Afghan refugee separated from his mother for 11 years is working to save future generations from the same fate.
10 August 2015
Abdur Rehman talking to a student in one of his schools in Attock.

Abdur Rehman talking to a student in one of his schools in Attock.

ATTOCK, Pakistan, Aug 10 (UNHCR) - Abdur Rehman was just four years old when his father died and he found himself separated from his mother. As years went by, he lost all hope of ever seeing her again.

But while living with foster parents, more than a decade later the then-15-year-old Rehman had a breakthrough. Somebody knew where his mother was and took him to meet her.

"I couldn't recognize her," the 46-year-old recalls, thinking back to the day when he met with a group of women in Jowzjan province. "Women left one by one, but only one stayed back. She was my mother and I met her after 11 years."

Rehman's mother told him she had cried every day since their separation. "My reunion with my mother was a miracle," he smiles his eyes welling up at the memory.

During the early 1980s, amid intense fighting in Afghanistan, Rehman and his foster parents were forced to flee their home. They sought refuge in Pakistan, but with his mother remarried, she stayed behind and Rehman was once again forced to say goodbye.

Today, they are finally reunited. Rehman has a family of his own and lives with his mother in Pakistan's Attock city, after spending seven years in UNHCR's Swabi refugee camp. However, he finds it hard to escape the sadness linked to the forced separations.

"My foster parents died in Pakistan and my mother's second husband died of illness in Afghanistan," he said.

Rehman is now among noted elders of the Turkmen community, which includes around 5,000 families who reside in Pakistan. Tradition dictates that men who marry must pay over a million rupees (US $10,000) to the parents of the bride.

Rehman could not afford that much and so he went to Karachi and married to a Bengali girl. He paid 30,000 rupees (US$300) to her family. But he didn't know that his wife had been smuggled to Karachi by her uncle in 1988 from Bangladesh.

Having himself faced the pain of separation, Rehman sent his wife back to Bengal and re-united her with her parents. "I could feel her pain as I myself had gone through the same," he recalled.

Rehman is now working to save future generations from similar fates to those suffered by himself and his wife.

"This practice should end and I am trying to persuade the community members to break the status quo so that girls could easily get married without financial exchange," he said.

In addition, Rehman runs four schools, where 1,200 students study. "I want my people to get an education so that they can play a positive role in rebuilding Afghanistan," he said.

His own children are among those leading the way. "My children are studying in different colleges," he said, beaming with pride. "One of my daughters will be the first qualified female physician in the Turkmen community in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Having spent so many years displaced and separated from his mother, Rehman hopes that his efforts will help the situation in Afghanistan to improve.

"My grandfather was refugee," he says. I am a refugee but I don't want to see the next generation become refugees."

By Qaisar Khan Afridi in Attock, Pakistan