Sonita was born and raised in Iran. Zia arrived at age six. Meet two Afghan refugees intent on rebuilding their ancestral homeland.
As a volunteer teacher, Sonita, 25, discusses Afghan culture with students at a summer school in Varamin, a city south-east of Tehran.
© UNHCR/Sebastian Rich
Sonita has only seen Afghanistan through the eyes of others: on her relatives’ mobile phones, in films and in Internet videos. Zia has been there just once, to apply for a passport.In fact, they yearn to go back to Afghanistan – Zia to start a web design company and Sonita to assist children in need. Just like others who want to go back, they feel they have an important role to play in rebuilding the country.
But these two young Afghan refugees living in Iran are not giving up on their country, even at a time when increasing numbers of Afghans are arriving in Europe by sea.
“I was a very shy girl,” says Sonita, 25, recalling the shame she felt growing up as a refugee. “I did not talk to anyone at school – I was afraid they would find out that I am from Afghanistan.”
It’s hard to believe she was once so withdrawn. Now working as a graphic designer and volunteering as a teacher, she walks with confidence, speaks eloquently and holds a powerful gaze. She dreams of returning to her ancestral homeland to help Afghanistan’s next generation avoid the sense of isolation she experienced as a youngster.
Sonita credits her own transformation to a schoolteacher who made her speak up when she was 15. “She made me use nice words when speaking to others,” Sonita says, smiling at the memory. “On the first day of school, when the teacher read my name, I stood up and said to the class that I am from Afghanistan.”
She doubted she would find any friends that year, but “they all came to me at break. I am still friends with some of those classmates.”
Sonita’s parents had fled the war in Afghanistan and settled in north-eastern Iran before moving to Rey, a city south of the capital, Tehran. She graduated from high school but the family could not afford to send her to university. “We are two sisters and two brothers,” she explains. “My family could only afford the university fees for one of us, so only my sister could go.”
“When we talk about Afghanistan during the day, I dream about it.”
Financial problems did not stop Sonita. She attended classes at NICCO, a Japanese NGO that helps refugees learn new skills and prepare for repatriation. Sonita has become a skilled graphic designer and is now earning money, which she is saving for university fees. She also designs the NGO’s newsletter.
“My brother did not like me to work. He stopped talking to me for a few days, but my parents supported me,” she says proudly.
Sonita, the shy schoolgirl, is now a confident young woman challenging stereotypes and misunderstandings. Once in an English class, when the teacher joked about tourism in Afghanistan, she quickly corrected him: “I explained that Afghanistan has many attractions and it is not limited to what people see on TV.”
Sonita often asks relatives and friends travelling to Afghanistan to bring her back pictures and videos. “When we talk about Afghanistan during the day, I dream about it. I dream of dusty alleys, although it is not like that anymore.”
But she also has a bigger dream. “I want to go back and help the children on the street. When I imagine myself back in Afghanistan, I see myself surrounded by children.”
Should she return, Sonita would be following the route thousands of other Afghans have taken in recent years. Since 2008, more than 66,400 Afghan refugees have voluntarily returned from Iran to Afghanistan.
Multiple wars and political instability in Afghanistan have led some 2.6 million people to flee the country, most to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, where they have been living for decades. Like Sonita, many are either second- or third-generation refugees who have never even had the opportunity to visit to Afghanistan.
The formation of a national unity government in Kabul has renewed hopes and commitments for a stable Afghanistan. But with the proliferation of crises in other parts of the world, international support to Afghanistan and the two neighbouring host countries has dwindled. Both Pakistan and Iran are also buckling under the pressure of hosting millions of refugees for decades. Even so, this year Iranian authorities began allowing undocumented children to enrol in school, joining the many registered Afghan refugees already attending classes.
UNHCR has dedicated part of its Executive Committee’s annual meeting next month to a discussion of lasting solutions for Afghan refugees. It will be an opportunity to refocus global attention on one of the world’s longest-standing refugee situations, as well as to call for greater investment in Afghanistan so that people like Sonita can go back home in safety and dignity.
“We have to build the country for our children.”
Zia shares Sonita’s desire to build a life in Afghanistan. Now 24, he is studying information technology at university in Iran and volunteering with NICCO. When he went to get his passport in Afghanistan, he seized the opportunity to research start-ups there, as he hopes to start his own web design company there someday.
Zia vaguely remembers the day his family entered Iran from Pakistan. He was six years old. “I was sitting at the back of a van with 15 other members of my family. The van was moving very fast and if anyone fell out, the driver would not stop to pick him up again.”
He started school the next year. “Teachers were very supportive. All my friends were Iranian; they even took me on vacations with their families,” he says.
When he went to Afghanistan to get his passport, he expected to witness explosions. One day his cousins invited him to attend a ceremony at a religious shrine. “There were loads of people and they knew it could be dangerous, but their eyes were happy. People get on with their lives; that’s how it is,” he says, taking a deep breath.
Zia recalls the day he entered Iran: “I was sitting at the back of a van… If anyone fell out, they driver would not stop to pick him up again.
Zia is now more worried about finding a proper business opportunity. He has written a motto over all his notes: “Be the best you can and defend the right to be yourself.”
While Zia is looking for vacancies and opportunities, Sonita’s parents are not very supportive of her dream. Her mother’s biggest concern is the insecurity in Afghanistan, but Sonita has made up her mind. “I told my father, I’ll wait till 35. If you do not come, I’ll go myself.”
“I love Afghan children,” says Sonita. “I tell myself every day: work harder so you will be prepared for the conditions in Afghanistan.” She is fully aware of the difficulties of living as a single woman in Herat, but she believes that Afghanistan needs people like her.
“We have to build the country for our children. Otherwise, they’ll go through the same bitter experiences that we had. That is not acceptable.”