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Feature: A long and winding road: one woman's journey from Kabul to Geneva


Feature: A long and winding road: one woman's journey from Kabul to Geneva

Fawzia Daqiqi thinks of her native Afghanistan "every second of every day" although she has lived in Geneva for six years. She still has vivid memories of events that brought her to Switzerland as a refugee but yearns to go back and help rebuild her country.
18 August 2004
Ironically, given her dislike of the burka, in 1996 Fawzia Daqiqi wore five different coloured ones to confuse her Taliban pursuers.

GENEVA, Aug 18 (UNHCR) - Fawzia Daqiqi remembers her native country with nostalgia: "Every second of every day, I see Afghanistan in front of my eyes." Fawzia has been living in Geneva for six years, and works for an NGO as well as giving Farsi lessons. Despite the number of years that have elapsed since her departure from Afghanistan, she still has vivid memories of her country and the events that eventually brought her to Switzerland as a refugee.

Fawzia was born in Kandahar, the biggest city in Southern Afghanistan. Later she moved to Kabul, where she studied at the Faculty of Pedagogy and later worked as a teacher of English and supervisor of the English Department in one of the city's best schools.

During the communist governments that ruled Afghanistan from 1978 to 1992, Fawzia and her husband, Beryalai, were continually harassed because of their political convictions - or, rather, their lack of them. Beryalai was frequently intimidated for refusing to become a member of the communist party.

In 1987, the family had to leave the country in a hurry. Fawzia, who was 32 years old at the time, recalled their sudden and dramatic departure: "A friend of ours, who was also a [communist] party member, came to our house at 3 p.m.," she said. "He told us that if we did not leave the country before midnight, he could not guarantee that we would be alive the next day."

With no time even to collect their most valuable belongings from the bank, they locked their front door and left for Pakistan. Since then, Fawzia and her family have spent more than a quarter of a century in exile, as Afghanistan passed through a succession of communist, mujahedeen and finally Taliban regimes, each of which was brutal and repressive in its own distinct way.

The family arrived in the south-western Pakistani city of Quetta, where they had neither friends nor relatives. The next day, Fawzia began applying to the humanitarian organizations operating the refugee camps in and around the city and soon started working as a translator for a local NGO.

Throughout her career, Fawzia was mostly interested in providing women with basic education. "There were almost no programmes for women's education," she recalls. "My aim was to educate as many girls as I could, because I knew that they needed me." But it was a massive challenge because of conservative tribal and religious leaders' adamant refusal to allow girls to receive education. Even as late as the mid-1990s, despite a huge effort by UNHCR and other agencies, under 5 percent of Afghan refugee girls in Pakistan were attending schools.

Fawzia thought of a covert way of launching her new education campaign: she began giving sewing lessons to a group of girls. "After a few lessons," she said, "I told them that the symbols that they had been sewing were the letters of the Pashto alphabet, and I asked them if they would like to learn to read and write."

Her pupils answered enthusiastically, and Fawzia started to give informal lessons in private houses with the consent of the girls' parents. After a few months, the first group of girls began to give lessons to other girls.

Fawzia subsequently worked for several different NGOs and UN agencies in Pakistan, usually in the field of women's education. But she maintained a strong desire to go back to her native country, despite the dangers.

While it had always been a challenge for women to work or study in Afghanistan, except in a few major cities, life became even more difficult after the Taliban captured Kandahar in 1994, and began their long campaign to conquer and subdue the rest of the country.

Afghan women were generally forbidden to work, or even to leave their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. Foreign aid workers were also operating under severe restrictions. Despite the clear risks, in 1995 Fawzia chose to go back and work in Kandahar - the headquarters of the Taliban.

Her first job in Kandahar was working as a translator for the British medical NGO, Merlin. Reluctantly, she wore a burka - mandatory for women under the Taliban - but refused to wear it over her face, because of her glasses. She was frequently threatened by the Taliban. Finally after five months she was given 24 hours to leave and did so.

In April 1996, Fawzia returned to Kandahar once again, this time with the World Food Programme to work on a project aimed at helping widows. A few months later she was forced to flee again, after narrowly escaping a group of armed Taliban secret police who had come to arrest her on trumped-up charges. While her brother-in-law bravely succeeded in stalling the Taliban at the front door, she climbed over a wall at the back of the family compound, and hid in her neighbours' house. Next day she fled to Pakistan once again, wearing five different coloured burkas during the course of her journey to confuse her Taliban pursuers.

In 1998, because of her involvement and personal knowledge of Afghanistan, Fawzia Daqiqi was invited to a human rights conference in Geneva, hosted by UNICEF.

During the conference, she spoke of her experiences in Afghanistan. She described the abuses of human rights she had encountered and was very critical of the Taliban. "I told them everything that I saw in Afghanistan," she said. "In one panel, I talked for four hours about the suffering of Afghans, and of women in particular."

Given that she had expressed her hostility to the Taliban so openly, several people advised her to seek refuge in Switzerland rather than to return to her home region. She found the decision a very difficult one to make. "Until the last day I had my plane ticket in my hand, and was undecided," she said.

In the end, she applied for asylum in Switzerland, and was sent to St. Gallen, in the far north-east of the country, while her application was processed. She stayed there for two years, and remembers the Swiss people she met there as welcoming and friendly. However, her application was twice refused on the grounds that she had no documents to prove she had done the work she said she had done in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She sank into deep depression, but subsequently raised her morale by starting to write her memoirs, which she intends to finish soon.

She was finally granted refugee status in 2001, after two appeals, when she managed to procure the required papers.

"If this obviously deserving case had such difficulty getting recognized," said Olivier Delarue, Head of UNHCR's office for Switzerland, "it does make you wonder about some of those who are rejected. Many asylum seekers do not have the advantage of having worked for NGOs and UN agencies which could easily provide documentation to back up Mrs Daqiqi's claim. This underlines the importance of allowing people to stay during the full appeals process, and not laying too much stress on supporting documentation which may be impossible to procure."

Fawzia Daqiqi (second from left) and her family in Geneva.

Fawzia's family has since joined her from Pakistan and is now settled in Geneva. Her children go to a Swiss school and speak perfect French. "My family lived in Islamabad, which is a very western city," she said. "There was not a cultural shock when they came to Geneva." Most of their friends are Swiss.

Although Fawzia and her family have in many ways integrated extremely well, like many refugees she nurtures the dream of one day returning home. "I have taught my children Islam, I have taught them what it means to be Afghan," she said. "I would like to go back to Afghanistan and work at rebuilding the country, but for now, I can't."

By Vahan Galoumian
UNHCR Geneva