A tale of two Afghans…
Posted on July 21st, 2014

Of drug-lords, refugees, asylum and an unyielding UNHCR   BY ZAHRAH IMTIAZ Courtesy Ceylontoday

A woman has been sitting at the security entrance to the front office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for the past 24 hours, teary eyed, but determined. By her side, a man consoles her. The security officers at the gate had asked them to leave, as they would not be let into the office at any time soon.
 
“She has been listed as a refugee for the past two years and we have been living in Sri Lanka all of that time. But our situation has become critical now, our lives are in danger, we need to be settled somewhere safe,” said the man. This is the story every refugee and asylum seeker comes out with but this man, Ahmed, insisted that their case is special.
Ahmed introduced the woman as his wife, Rehana, and said they had come to the office at about 3:00 p.m. on Thursday (10) to meet the Commissioner but was not granted an audience. But they had decided to camp outside the office until their case was heard. Ahmed said they spent a difficult night on the chairs outside of the security checkpoint. He said the security had been asked to remove the table fan kept there and that they were asked not to use the toilets at the UNHCR.
 
“We went to the mosque close by to get some food and to use the toilet. But we slept outside with the mosquitoes biting us. They have treated us quite badly here,” said Ahmed.
Ahmed and Rehana arrived in Sri Lanka on 22 December 2012 and registered at the UNHCR soon afterwards. It was only Rehana who was given refugee status, while Ahmed was denied the facility. Though Rehana’s documents could be processed, she said she will not leave until Ahmed’s papers are processed along with hers. She is here, fighting for Ahmed.
 
When Ahmed was asked why their lives were in danger, he said powerful men were looking for Rehana and that they wanted to kill her. He said they had been attacked thrice in Sri Lanka and that they were afraid to go to the police.
When asked why they would be attacked, Ahmed narrated Rehana’s story.
Rehana lived in the outskirts of Kandahar, her mother passed away when she was young, so her stepmother raised her, mistreating her all her life. “She had been beaten with an iron-rod on her head, she still has headaches as a result of it,” said Ahmed.
 
When she turned 18, her stepmother sold her to a powerful drug lord for 100,000 AFN. The drug lord was not only over 50 years old, he was already married to three other women. Rehana would be his fourth wife. Hearing of her impending nuptials, her neighbours had informed her that her future husband was a cruel man.
“I was tortured by my stepmother all my life, so I thought my life would be better once I got married. When I found out what my stepmother had done, I realized my life would not change. It would be the same. I told myself, I will take the risk and escape, if I survive, I will have a better life,” said Rehana.
In Afghanistan, a woman is not permitted to travel on her own and if she was caught, she would be severely punished. So she went from one house to the other, in search of a male escort to get her to Kabul. At the 6th house, she met Ahmed. In the meantime, her fiancé, who was quite annoyed that his prize had escaped, was looking for her, to save his honour and kill her.
 
“When I met her, I knew I had to help her so I agreed to take her to Kabul. She did not tell me her story then, I did not know that she was on the run or who she was”, interjected Ahmed.
Ahmed agreed to take Rehana to safety. They left for Kabul but soon found out they were being followed, so they proceeded to Karachi in Pakistan. As Afghans need not carry a passport in Pakistan, they slipped in quite easily.
When Ahmed called home from Pakistan, to his surprise, his family announced they would no longer support him and that he should never return home,
“They said I had betrayed the family by helping this unknown woman and had also caused trouble between our two tribes. I also found out that in my absence, the drug lord had spread various rumours about me and dishonoured me. He had also taken steps to destroy my business, I realized that I could never go back; he would kill me if I did. I was a rich man in Kandahar, I was the owner of a Construction and logistics company, it is all gone now,” lamented Ahmed.
 
Ahmed and Rehana were thus bound to each other. By a strange twist of fate, the stranger who agreed to help would become her companion for life.

On 4 October 2012, they found lodging at the Christian organization, YMCA, in Karachi but Ahmed said they never ventured out of the building, in fear that the drug-lord’s aides would find them there. After three months, they ran out of options, so the two sold their valuables, had fake passports made and left for Sri Lanka. They hoped if they registered with the UNHCR here they would be given safe haven in another country.
 
For the first three months in Sri Lanka, all went well. They rented an apartment in Mt Lavinia. “We chose an expensive neighbourhood because we thought we would be safe there. All our money was spent on rent. We have no furniture, we sleep on the floor and mostly eat bread and water,” said Ahmed when asked why they chose to live there.
When Rehana registered as a refugee, she was given a stipend of Rs 16,500 a month with which all expenses had to be covered. Ahmed said they had taken an advance for the apartment, and this pushed them into severe financial stress. “For the first six months, Rehana’s aunty in the US sent us money. Then she stopped, I think she could not afford to keep sending money. She even stopped calling, I think she is afraid, Rehana would want to go there and then she would have to look after her too. Hence, we are finding it difficult to manage with what we get now,” said Ahmed.
 
Ahmed was denied refugee status but he said, he too had been victimized and cannot go back. The UNHCR had then asked them to get married in order to file their papers together. It has been six months since they had done so, but the UNHCR has not yet informed them of the current status of their application.
 
When Rehana was asked about marrying Ahmed, she said,
“The first time too they forced me to get married and I evaded but then it came up a second time. This time I could not refuse. We got married. Ahmed has sacrificed so much for me, I cannot leave without him”. She added that it was not Ahmed she had a problem with but the manner, in which her marriage had taken place,
“I had so many dreams of how my wedding would be like. I wanted to get married with the blessing of my friends and family. This is not how a wedding or marriage should take place. I would have married him anyway but I wanted to wait until we were more stable and we were actually happy to do so”.
 
Not a moment of happiness
Ahmed is keenly aware of what Rehana has gone through. “She has suffered all her life. She is an adult now and she says she has never known a moment of happiness. How is that possible?” he asked.
Ahmed continued, “In Afghanistan, saving someone’s life is not justified. They think if a woman escapes from her home, she must be a bad woman. I know Rehana, she is not a bad woman, she is peaceful, honourable and I respect her.”
 
He however, is saddened by the behaviour of his own family, “My family is educated and I thought they were modern but they are bound by their culture. Many girls are killed in Afghanistan but only few are reported. It is very easy to stone a woman to death there.”
 
Rehana had taken a great risk when she chose to leave to Kabul with Ahmed but Ahmed said she realized that he would not harm her, the first time they spoke to each other.
When Ahmed was asked whether he regretted helping Rehana, he said,
“At times, I miss my life in Kandahar. I lived a life of luxury there, unlike here. But I am proud that I saved someone’s life, I hope others too would have the guts to do the same. There are both good and bad people out there. In Afghanistan, not all are bad. There are men who are activists for women’s rights and most people agree that women should be educated; it would be good for Afghanistan. I used to tell my friends and family that we should change, that we must not oppress women. Our religion does not say that and now I have put my life at risk to prove that.”
 
While they were sorting out issues with the UNHCR, in March of 2013, cronies of the Afghan drug lord tracked them down, “We have been attacked thrice in our time here. They are getting closer, the last time was the worst,” he said. Rehana next to him claimed, “how can we be patient any longer? They will kill us or rape me the next time.”
A few months ago, while Rehana was out grocery shopping, she was stopped by four men who identified themselves as officials of the Department of Immigration in Sri Lanka. They informed her that her husband had been arrested and that she should accompany them, “Rehana was in shock, she just stood there, so they took her to their car,” said Ahmed.
 
They tied her up and when she tried to escape, they shoved her to the back of the car and drove away. Rehana recalled that they were driving away from Colombo and were stopped at a traffic light in Panadura, when a few Muslim men in the car behind noticed that there was a woman trussed up at the back. They had approached the driver and started to argue. Rehana, who saw an opportunity to escape, had jumped out of the car. She then found a house in Panadura and begged for a phone call from the man at the house. The man had reluctantly let her do so. She called Ahmed from there and asked that he come get her. Ahmed in the meantime had been searching for her around town in a state of panic, “Our house owner was going to call the police when I received the call from Rehana,” he said.
Rehana and Ahmed suspect the Afghan drug lord to have been responsible for the attack. “He is a powerful man, and he has many contacts all over. To him, this is a matter of honour, if he does not kill us; he would be shamed in Afghanistan. He will go to any lengths to kill us, this is why we keep pleading to the UNHCR to send us away”, he said.
The UNHCR had asked them to lodge a complaint of the attacks to the police but Rehana is fearful of the police and thinks that Ahmed would be sent to a detention camp along with several other foreign men in the country.
Ahmed however, is worried about Rehana, “I fear for her every day. She has lost hope and become suicidal. I am afraid that she would kill herself if things are not sorted out soon”.
Ahmed and Rehana have asked the UNHCR to call for a medical report of her if they suspect their story, but thus far, they have not called for one.
 
Life in limbo
“I did not know it would be so hard to give up your whole life. It is not easy to get that back. Why can’t the UNHCR identify the most vulnerable cases?” asked Ahmed
Rehana in the meantime asked, “My heart is full, I cannot go on. Isn’t two years more than enough?”
Sri Lankan Immigration had asked the UNHCR to process applications as soon as possible; hence the couple want to know why the UNHCR was not doing so.
 
Ahmed justified the slow process with, “Maybe the junior staff here is not reporting our case properly to their seniors. We know of the rules, but we are vulnerable and need to be treated as such. I have come here so often that the security guard know me well. Even they feel sorry for treating us so badly but their orders come from higher up, they cannot do anything about it.”
The duo has also approached many embassies asking that they grant a visa but they have all turned them down. Ahmed said he had written emails to over 200 women’s rights organizations with regard to their plight but they have all asked them to approach the UNHCR.
 
Afghans are not allowed to work in the country thus their financial situation worsens by the day. In desperation, he asked, “I am disgusted with the UNHCR. We have lived in this country in peace, we have not violated any laws. We simply want to live without fear, is that not our basic human right?”
Rehana has never been to a school in her life but has started learning English from Ahmed. She is a determined woman said she would not leave the UNHCR until they decided her fate.
Ahmed on other hand hopes to become a women’s rights activist if he survives this ordeal, he said, “I am fighting for somebody’s life, my understanding tells me I have not done anything wrong. My Islam tells me that an adult woman has the right to choose her own husband, so how can they say I am wrong? My people have done enough wrong, it is time we change. Everyone needs to have a choice in life.”
 
In the meantime, they continue to sit outside the office of the UNHCR, refusing to budge, refugees standing up for each other, fighting for their rights, fighting for survival, fighting for each other’s freedom of choice.

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