By Judit Deig, Lauren Dunn, Arezo Ghafuri, Ryoko Matsuo
For the past decade, Afghanistan has been war-torn, unstable, and politically crumbling. Consequently, there’s growing concern and uncertainty among Afghans as to what will happen to them and their families if they remain in their home country.
For this reason the search for education, prosperity, health, and a new beginning has driven roughly 64,000 Afghans to apply for asylum in Europe this year, making them the second largest, after Syrians, asylum-seeking group, according to Europe’s statistical agency, Eurostat.
Due to the severity of current wars and instability in many Middle Eastern countries, the situation in Afghanistan and of its refugees isn’t widely covered in the news media.
One refugee, Nadia Ghulam, goes as far as to state: “I do not think that what the media is showing is adequate. They are just numbering people instead of treating them as individuals”.
As a result, Afghan is typically not the first nationality associated with the word refugee.
When it comes to host countries, Spain is not as popular a destination for Afghan refugees as other European countries such as France and Germany, but 98 Afghan refugees travelled to Spain in 2014.
As minuscule as this number may appear to be, the recognition of these Afghan immigrants’ need for protection shouldn’t be underestimated.
In Barcelona, governmental protection isn’t as quickly given to Afghans as it is to other ethnic groups, such as Syrian refugees, but this challenge doesn’t deter Afghans from overcoming obstacles and accomplishing their dreams.
We spoke to Nadia Ghulam and Bashir Eskandari, two Afghan refugees who are living proof that the ability to supersede any challenges life presents them is possible.
I do not think that what the media is showing is adequate. They are just numbering people instead of treating them as individuals.
Bashir is the spokesman of cultural association Afgancat. This organisation exists to conserve and spread Afghan culture in Catalonia and Spain, they fight for the social inclusion of Afghan people in the Catalan territory and provide free Catalan classes and organise cultural events.
Eskandari fled Afghanistan six years ago. Upon arrival in Barcelona he had no one except himself as a guide to a new country with different cultures and people.
Bashir told us how, based on his appearance, people thought he came from a South Asian country, making it more difficult to cope with his new life in Barcelona and find other Afghan people.
It was only when he overheard some Afghan boys speaking his mother tongue that he found the official places to apply for asylum.
In comparison to his own arrival, Bashir considers the situation for Afghan refugees currently arriving in Barcelona more difficult with the fear of the influx of people coming from war-torn countries into Europe.
This fear leads to complexity and increased scrutiny in an effort to ensure every asylum case is justified.
Luckily, the absence of Afghan people in recent terrorist attacks in Belgium or France has allowed them to reside in Barcelona. Bashir explains the complications Afghans have and continue to suffer.
The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, recently called for Afghan refugees to go back to their home country. Bashir was outraged by the president’s statement as it could have a negative effect in refugee politics worldwide.
Motivated by his own experience, in conjunction with the increasingly challenging situation faced by all Afghan refugees, he committed himself intensely to the Afgancat association.
We asked Bashir about his main purpose as the spokesman of the association: “The enemies of Afghanistan have thrown a very dark light over Afghanistan. Although it is a country with a very rich culture and significant history full of important poets and intellectuals, it is our duty to maintain our culture, the culture of Afghanistan, and furthermore show the bright side of Afghanistan to other people.”
Bashir’s pride for his home country and newly found appreciation for his new country shines through.
Bashir emphasised the importance of having a cultural Afghan establishment in Spain, and Barcelona in particular, because it’s a place to bring together each country’s rich, cultural aspects, enabling a connection between the Afghan and Spanish people.
When asked about the advantages and limitations Spain offers refugees, Bashir highlighted the rich culture, weather, and the cultivated people. However, the advantages don’t overshadow the economic difficulties refugees face.
Refugees in Spain and Barcelona receive limited government support, which he sees as one of the main reasons many refugees pass through Spain to reside in France, Germany, or the Scandinavian countries, which all have stronger governmental support for refugees.
When asked why he chose Barcelona, Bashir reminded us of one main point people tend to dismiss when discussing refugees in their countries, they cannot choose where to go.
In an effort to help himself and others cope and understand refugees’ lack of control, Bashir transformed the idea into a poem:
The paths are banned
Our feet are tied
What is an ID worth?
What does a passport cost?
With hope and duty
With borrowed money
With hope and duty
Future is uncertain
Hearts are in pain
Is someone even thinking about us?
Is someone like us out there?
People who decide to flee Afghanistan cannot choose the country they want to live in. Unsure of what the future may hold, refugees have the courage to leave their entire life behind in search of a new beginning.
Bashir describes refugees metaphorically as “Sange Palakhman”, a Dari phrase which describes people who must stay wherever they’re taken and make the best of what they’re given to attain their goal for a better life.
This better life is associated with a strong will for education. When telling us about his educational approach, Bashir stressed his wish to return to Afghanistan to help the State and its people to build a better life in their native land.
Bashir credits the Western education system: “I would just like every Afghan around the world to educate himself”.
Hearing his words, it’s difficult to think how people normally take education for granted while it’s a dream to others. Bashir wishes for a better Afghanistan and a better life for its people.
“We should realise that Afghanistan needs help, and every one of us should serve our country. But at the same time pick up the rich cultural conditions from other countries. That is my wish for all generations of Afghan people,” Bashir says.
In Afghanistan, nowadays women can study but there is no peace to study. Here I value mainly the peace and the freedom.
Nadia Ghulam has experienced first hand the terror of war. When she was eight years old, a bomb exploded on her house. Years later the burn marks and scars from the bombing serve as a daily reminder of the hardships of war.
Despite undergoing 14 operations in an effort to reconstruct her face, she’ll never be the same. Her brother was killed in the war and her father, traumatised by the loss of his son, lost his reason.
In a time where women couldn’t study or work, Nadia and her mother were forced to try to earn a living for what was left of their family. Beginning at the tender age of 11, Nadia spent the next ten years concealed behind her deceased brother’s identity and clothing to work and survive.
After all her hard work, she was finally presented with the opportunity to leave Afghanistan and nine years ago, Nadia began her journey to Barcelona to rebuild what the war had almost destroyed; her life.
“Barcelona is a place where I can follow my dreams, where I can study with freedom. In Afghanistan, nowadays women can study but there is no peace to study. Here I value mainly the peace and the freedom,” says Nadia.
But she’s thinking of going back to her home: “Despite my love for Catalonia for all it has given to me, my country is my paradise. They need people to work for the improvement of the country. There’s a world of opportunity to learn. I am learning it here but I will go to my country to share what I have learned”.
Despite the challenges she’s faced, Nadia believes in the power of education. She has faith in the young people born and educated in Europe, who have the ability to use their knowledge to fight back against wrongdoings and war.
“Some people are filling the minds of others with wrong ideas such as killing people through terrorist attacks for religious motives and to go to paradise. We, as intelligent human beings, have the capability to convince people that killing others doesn’t bring positivity, not for themselves, God, or another world they think exists,” Nadia tells us.
Barcelona is a place where I can follow my dreams, where I can study with freedom. In Afghanistan, nowadays women can study but there is no peace to study.
Joan Reventós, the head of the Catalan Committée of The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says we should not see refugees as a threat to our countries: “Unfortunately, in general, refugees, including Afghans, are just represented as victims, when in reality, and paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, they are the vanguard of their countries”.
The years of violence, persecution, and insecurity plaguing Afghanistan left many Afghans unable to attain their dream of building a prosperous life for themselves and their family.
Coupled with the inability to turn to their president for guidance and leadership, many Afghans have taken it upon themselves to better their outlook on life.
Hopes of securing a safe future for themselves and their children abroad is leading many Afghans to seek refugee status in European countries, one of which is Spain.
Afghans’ recognition of the power of knowledge and the resulting thirst for education, as well as their desire for economic success, shines a new light on what it means to be an Afghan refugee.
For many of these refugees, the unpredictability of the future of Afghanistan encourages them to work harder and learn whatever skills they can to return and reconstruct their home country.
For others, the unparalleled opportunities offered to them in Barcelona is a chance to forget their past and create a new life as a permanent resident of Spain.
Regardless of whether the ultimate wish is defined by the desire to return to Afghanistan or further establish their newly built life in Barcelona, the actions and thoughts of Nadia and Bashir were always rooted in the hope for a better Afghanistan.
Image by Anthony Abbott via Flickr.com