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Afghan Refugees Rebuild Lives in Tajikistan

Lost paperwork an obstacle to those seeking asylum or permanent residence.
By Mahasti Dustmurod, Rustam Majidov, Galim Faskhutdinov
  • Suhaila Nawruz and Abdusattar Bakhtiyar with their daughter in Dushanbe. (Photo courtesy of S. Nawruz)
    Suhaila Nawruz and Abdusattar Bakhtiyar with their daughter in Dushanbe. (Photo courtesy of S. Nawruz)

Suhaila Nawruz and her family have been in Tajikistan for six months, trying to secure a permanent place for themselves away from the dangers they faced across the border in Afghanistan. 

Suhaila, 23, decided it was time to leave when the Taleban, confident enough to lay down the law even in northern regions like her home province of Baghlan, began threatening her because she was a teacher in a secondary school.

Her husband Abdusattar Bakhtiyar agreed, saying, “I don’t have anyone apart from my wife and our [18-month-old] child.”

After crossing into Tajikistan, Suhaila managed to acquire refugee status, although she cannot find teaching work as she has no certificates showing her Afghan qualifications.

Abdusattar is still in legal limbo, as his application for refugee status was turned down because of a clerical error. When they entered Tajikistan, a border official misspelled his name, so that it does not match his Afghan passport.

The couple and their 18-month-old daughter get by on the money Abdusattar is making by working for a carpentry firm.

“We’re counting every penny,” he said.

Suhailo and Abdusattar are part of the most recent surge in a long series of refugee waves from Afghanistan.

Hoja Ibrahim, who works for an Afghan community group in Tajikistan called Majmaa-i Ariyana, says that about 400 families have fled north over the border in the last 12 months.

In recent years, the Taleban have been a visible presence in provinces across northern Afghanistan, carrying out attacks and intimidating local populations. Since this has been taking place with NATO-led forces deployed around the country, there are real fears about what will happen with the international contingent withdraws next year.

“It is difficult to see how these people can go back home,” José Ramón Euceda, Tajikistan country representative for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, told IWPR. He said the exodus could increase if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated next year.


There are an estimated 5,000 Afghans living in Tajikistan, including both those with refugee status and those applying for asylum.

One of them is Abdurrahman, who now has permanent residence and runs a stall at the Sadbarg shopping centre in the capital Dushanbe. He says many of his compatriots stay in Tajikistan only as long as it takes them to move on to Western countries, often Canada,

Abdurrahman is often approached by Afghans who need translations of their documents, as he knows Russian and English and can read Tajik, which is similar to the Afghan language Dari but is written in Cyrillic rather than Arabic script.

He found his role by word of mouth, and charges a fee for his services.

“I met one Afghan who was looking for a translator. Then he recommended me to his acquaintances, and now I do at least one translation a day for a refugee,” Abdurrahmon said.

He comes across a lot of people who do not have the papers they need to submit an asylum application.

“There are cases where people don’t have documents. Some forget to take them because they leave their homes in a rush. In other cases, the documents get damaged during the journey. The documents might get taken away and never returned when they’re crossing the border,” Abdurrahman said.

Although the overall percentage of male to female refugees is about 50-50, some are women on their own.

“One in five of my clients are women living in Dushanbe without a husband. They have children or are expecting. They need to support a family on their own. Sometimes their husbands have been killed by the militants, while others were prevented from crossing the border for various reasons,” Abdurrahman said.

Among the women struggling to make the transition is Sara Kabir, 19, who arrived with her mother-in-law within the last two months. She is pregnant and is currently staying with her sister-in-law who lives in Dushanbe.

She has no documents with her, as she had to leave them behind with her husband so that he could sell off their property before leaving Afghanistan. Until he arrives with her papers, Sara will be unable to seek assistance from international organisations. She is illiterate but has managed to find a job doing housework for a local family.

When Afghan refugees are granted the right to remain by the Tajik authorities, they are given a resident permit for the town of Vahdat, 20 kilometres from the capital. As Ibrahim pointed out, most then commute into Dushanbe where they can find work.

“The women and children stay at home and the men go to the capital to look for jobs,” he said.

One of those lucky enough to be granted full citizenship is Halima Darai, who says, “It makes my life so much easier.”

“In 2008, we had to abandon our house and business in Afghanistan and move to Dushanbe. At the time, we had relatives living here, but we were planning to move to Canada once we’d obtained refugee status,” she said.

Her plans changed when her husband and her brother were killed while returning from a business trip in Afghanistan. She decided to stay on in Tajikistan, as the language and culture there were so similar to her own.

“Of course it’s difficult being left on my own to provide for three children and an elderly father-in-law,” she added.

Other refugees spend years living on a temporary basis in Tajikistan. One of them is Asifa Ghulamsafdar, a mother of seven now living in a village in the southern Hatlon region.

“In the 1990s, I married a Tajik man who was in Afghanistan during the civil war. He then returned home and I came with him. But at the border, Afghan frontier guards tore up my passport, and I was left without any identification papers,” she said.

Her lack of documents did not create problems as long as her husband was alive, but it suddenly became a major obstacle when he died two years ago.

Najiba Shirinekova, director of an NGO called Rights and Charity, said her organisation was doing its best to assist Asifa.

She said Asifa was in a difficult situation – the authorities in Tajikistan were unable to help as she had no papers, the Afghan embassy refused to issue a new passport because she could not demonstrate she was from the country, and everything was made worse by the fact that she had effectively lived as an illegal immigrant since she arrived 18 years ago.

Asifa’s situation improved after Tajik media picked up her story. Two older daughters were offered places in a boarding school, and a third is attending the village school.

“The other kids are at home helping me,” she said, adding that she was unable to accept a recent invitation to go and see Majmaa-i Ariyana in the capital.

“If I spend money on that, I don’t know how my children and I will eat tomorrow,” Asifa said.

Mahasti Dustmurod, Rustam Majidov and Galim Faskhutdnov are IWPR contributors in Dushanbe.

[Correction: we wrongly identified the name of Najiba Shirinekova's organisation. Apologies for any confusion.]

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