Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

UNHCR worker reflects changing profile of Afghan returnees


UNHCR worker reflects changing profile of Afghan returnees

Attia Ali quit her job as a translator with UNHCR in Pakistan to return to Afghanistan. Unlike the mostly poor and uneducated refugees who joined the initial rush home, Ali is among a changing group of Afghan returnees who are giving up an established life in exile to embrace new opportunities at home.
13 April 2005
Attia Ali (right) receiving her voluntary repatriation form from UNHCR Representative in Pakistan, Guenet Guebre-Christos, while her former colleagues look on.

ISLAMABAD, April 13 (UNHCR) - Attia Ali had a brother in Denmark, a sister in the Netherlands and a well-paid job in Pakistan. It is a tribute to the enduring draw and improving prospects of Afghanistan that she has quit her job and is now headed back to her homeland.

"Since the situation in my country is improving, plus almost all Afghans are moving back to Afghanistan, I feel homesick," she said at the UNHCR office in Islamabad, where she has worked for five years as a translator in interviews with asylum seekers. "I want to go to my country, settle down and stay with my father."

Ali, a 40-year-old former university instructor, reflects a change in the profile of those Afghans who are returning from Pakistan. The 1.6 million who flooded back home in 2002 after the overthrow of the Taliban government were largely new arrivals, mostly poor and uneducated.

Now many are like Ali - Afghans who are well-established in Pakistan and could easily be expected to consider it home. They are giving up their present occupations but are confident that the future lies in re-establishing themselves in an Afghanistan that is finally emerging from decades of war.

Homayun Saqib, the only other Afghan member of the UNHCR staff in Islamabad - regulations prohibit hiring of refugees other than in specialised roles like translation - has also announced plans to leave Pakistan at the end of the month. After five years with the United Nations, he is resigning to take up a new job in Afghanistan.

Ali's life in Pakistan began at the start of 1993 when Kabul, which had been largely untouched by the fighting of the 1980s during the Soviet occupation, became a battlefield between warring mujahideen militias. Kabul University, where she had been teaching English, was a devastated frontline where illiterate gunmen had replaced students.

"The civil war was going on. At that time the Hekmatyar group was fighting with different factions and since we had been displaced from several areas, we had no choice but to flee," she said. "They were firing a thousand rockets a day."

With no prospect of any improvement, she fled with her father, her brother and his family. In Pakistan she taught English at a private institution in Islamabad. In 2000, she joined UNHCR, where her fluency in Dari, one of Afghanistan's two main languages, and English was needed by the protection section.

During her exile, her brother was accepted as a refugee by Denmark and a sister was given a new life in the Netherlands. But with the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Ali saw the first hope of a return to her beloved Kabul. When lines of trucks carried refugees back to Afghanistan in the following months, she herself went to Kabul to check whether she could join the return.

"Conditions were very bad, especially in security - kidnappings and robberies were taking place. There was also no shelter," she said. Ali returned to Islamabad to see if peace would hold, if order could be restored and rebuilding begun.

While aid funds were available, the problems of a country that had been at war since the end of the 1970s were overwhelming. Understandably, Afghans with the option of staying in Pakistan or Iran - the two main countries of asylum through the wars - did not join the initial rush back to Afghanistan.

"This year my family, who had already returned, said it was better. When I went, I found people much happier - that's why I am looking forward to restarting my life in Afghanistan," Ali said.

She secured a job with the UN organization involved in preparing for the country's legislative elections expected later this year and asked if she could return under the same UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme that has assisted 2.3 million Afghans to go home from Pakistan since 2002.

Ali does not need the modest financial assistance - a travel grant of $13 to reach Kabul and an extra $12 to help get re-established - but the documents provided by UNHCR will ease the task of moving her belongings back. Like other returnees, she arranged her own transport - a van to carry the belongings of herself, her aunt and uncle - and after final checks of documents by UNHCR, set off on the road back to Afghanistan.

"In 1992, it was clear to all the civilian population that the country would deteriorate further. This year I feel the start of improvement - conditions will get better and development will happen," Ali said. "This year a different kind of people are going back, people who have jobs here but, like me, they want to return. I have resigned to return to my country."

By Jack Redden
UNHCR Pakistan