I am now one of millions of Afghan refugees
Do Not Forget Us.
When the Taliban took over Kabul in August, like millions of other Afghans, it came as a shock to me. Within the first days of their rule, the office of Daily Outlook Afghanistan newspaper, where I worked as a journalist, was closed and a number of my colleagues decided to leave the country immediately.
One of them, Alireza Ahmadi, whom I had worked with for four years, lost his life trying to do so. On August 26, he went to Kabul airport to get on an Italian military flight to Rome, but fell victim to a suicide bomber of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) who blew himself up in a crowd of Afghans waiting to be evacuated.
When I learned of his death on social media, I went numb and burst into tears. His death made me lose my peace of mind. I kept imagining the same fate for myself.
In the following months, I continued trying to find a job in the hope of remaining in my homeland. I did some reporting for foreign media but failed to find a permanent job. Working as a journalist was never safe in Afghanistan but under the Taliban, it became extremely difficult. Media outlets were shut down one after the other; journalists were beaten up and tortured; and the freedom we used to have to go out and report was clearly gone.
Unemployment and lack of security made me think of leaving the country and Iran seemed like the only immediate option I had.
On January 25, I and two friends set off to travel to the Iranian border. The plan was to apply for a master’s degree in a third country, such as Turkey or Germany, and then try to get a visa from their consulates in Iran. If that did not work, we planned to look for an informal job in Iran.
And so we joined the mass exodus of Afghans, who, driven by job loss and starvation, have been leaving the country en masse. When we reached Islam Qala border crossing, there were hundreds of people trying to cross the border. Men, women and children were standing in long queues with heavy suitcases, waiting to have their passports stamped and luggage scanned.
Afghans crossing the borders has turned into a lucrative source of income for Iran, as getting a visa costs between $87 and $130. It is issued for a maximum of three months and to renew it, one has to pay again. Afghans also have to get a COVID-19 test in order to be allowed to cross, which costs about $10.
We were lucky that day: it took us five hours to pass through border security and passport control; we had heard that the process can take up to two days, depending on how crowded the border crossing gets.
Once we were on Iranian territory, we travelled to the city of Mashhad. On our first day there, we visited the Shrine of Imam Reza, a holy place for Shia people, and had breakfast in a nearby restaurant. As we were getting up to leave, an Iranian man, a customer of the restaurant, said, “Oh, thank God you did not carry out a suicide attack!”
I could not believe my ears. It was painful to hear such acrimonious words from a fellow Muslim.
In the following days, I heard a lot of stories from other Afghans about how they had been treated with disrespect. There seems to be little recognition that Iran, too, has been involved in Afghanistan’s conflict in some ways and is not just a passive host of Afghan refugees.
Currently, there are some 3.6 million Afghans in Iran, but just 780,000 have received refugee status. The vast majority of them live in poverty and struggle to survive, earning the bare minimum through backbreaking labour. Among them are many educated Afghans who taught at universities, worked for NGOs or the state bureaucracy.
I am one of them.
After spending much money in Iran, I started searching for a job as a manual labourer, as working an office job is not really an option for Afghans in Iran, even if they have the qualifications. I have to worry now not only about my expenses, but also about the fee for visa renewal, which I have to pay every 45 days and which can cost as much as $100 if I use a middleman to facilitate it.
Meanwhile, I am also waiting for a response from the Turkish consulate in Mashhad. When I arrived, I tried to apply for a student visa after getting accepted into a private Turkish university and paying the admissions fee. It took a month just to be able to submit my documents, as many Afghans were also lining up to do the same.
Now I have been told that I need to wait a few more months for an answer to the visa application and that the chance of getting a visa is very low, given the great number of Afghans trying to enter Turkey.
I feel lost and in despair, as I struggle to survive in Iran. I had hoped that I would be able to find a well-paying job and send money back home but I have failed. My heart hurts every time I think of my two little daughters and the goodbyes I said to them a few months ago. Wiping their tears, I had promised to send money, so they could have a comfortable life.
Talking to my family has been tough. They complain of struggling to make ends meet, as food prices are skyrocketing, and persistent insecurity, as explosions continue to take place. One day, the Taliban came to search our house and looked through my books and personal belongings, allegedly searching for weapons.
Like many Afghans in Iran, I face a terrible dilemma: to stay in the country and continue to struggle with poverty, destitution and constant insecurity over my legal status; to return to my country and face starvation and violence; or to risk my life and embark on a dangerous journey to the West.
I realise that by now, for much of the world, we, Afghans, have become faceless numbers, statistics that UN officials blurt out while warning of impending doom in Afghanistan. But we are not. Each of us has a story, worth hearing, and a life worth living in dignity and safety. We do not deserve to be forgotten and ignored.
Hujjatullah Zia is a journalist and senior writer in Daily Outlook Afghanistan Newspaper.