Afghan runaways reunited with family in Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 28 (UNHCR) - Running away from home to find a life of freedom and adventure is a common childhood fantasy. The reality, as two Afghan boys in Pakistan discovered, can be a life of loneliness, poverty and danger.
What started as a spur-of-the-moment decision by Said Mohammad and Mohammad Gul turned into a futile attempt to go home and a year-long search for their parents. The boys were reunited with their family this week, after a tireless hunt by the UN refugee agency and its Pakistani non-governmental organisation partner, SHARP (Society for Human Rights and Prisoners Aid).
"At the beginning I was happy but then I became very sad," said Said Mohammad, sitting beside his smiling parents at SHARP's Islamabad office. "I realised I had made a big mistake."
The boy is now 14 years old and his brother 12 years old, said his parents, but aid workers suspect the diminutive children are each two years younger.
The problem began a year ago when Said Mohammad had a fight with his father. The family tension was exacerbated because their mother had moved away temporarily to the city of Jalalabad in Afghanistan.
Accompanied by his younger brother, he ran away. The two boys, the youngest of eight children in the family, were soon far away in the city of Attock, a centre in the Punjab near the Indus River, where many refugees have settled over the years.
The boys slept outside and tried to earn enough rupees to buy food by selling glasses of water to people. It did not take long for them to realise that life even in a poor refugee household was better than the street life of an orphan.
"We were in Attock selling water for four or five days," said Said Mohammad. "I tried to reach my home but then the police stopped us. They took us to the police station, gave us food, let us sleep for the night and then took us to a shelter."
That turned out to be fortunate. The boys thought their home was in the town of Chakwal, but the family had actually moved to Mandi Bahauddin, about 150 km away, long before they ran away, so they did not know their way back. It also complicated attempts by anyone else to reunite the family.
The boys were initially placed at a home in Peshawar run by the Ehdi Foundation, a Pakistani charity that provides humanitarian services ranging from shelters to ambulance services. They were later moved to another Ehdi shelter in Rawalpindi, beside the capital Islamabad.
UNHCR and SHARP's Project for Refugee Children learned that the children were at the shelter, which housed adults as well as children, and began trying to locate their parents.
Unable to return the children to their home in Chakwal where the boys thought they had lived, UNHCR asked the International Committee of the Red Cross for help in locating the mother in Jalalabad. That also proved futile.
Meanwhile, UNHCR had moved the boys at the end of August to a shelter for children run by the Afghan charity, Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association (RAWA), in Rawalpindi. There they received nourishing food and medical care and began getting the formal education they had never previously had.
All this time, SHARP continued its search with no results. Finally this month, a relative of the boys walked into the SHARP office and asked if there was information on the missing boys. The parents were now back together and anxious to find their missing children.
On Wednesday, UNHCR picked the excited boys up at the RAWA shelter and brought them to the office where their parents were waiting. With his arm around his brother's small shoulders, Said Mohammad burst into a smile when asked how he felt and replied simply, "Very happy."