“Afghans are big dreamers. They are hardworking. One day, I will show the world that I am an Afghan woman who has recovered from difficulties. I will show the world that Afghan people are not worthless. They are not just refugees,” says 16-year-old Negor* who came to India from Kabul around three years back.
Negor is among thousands of Afghans who took refuge in India in the past few years. As millions flee Afghanistan with the Taliban returning to power in pursuit of safety, girls Negor’s age are still trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives in India.
“In Kabul, I was in a school where I was learning photography… My school had a library. It seems like a dream now. It was really hard for me when I came to India. Every afternoon, I cried. I missed my friends, my relatives, and my father,” says Negor, who came to India with her three siblings. Her mother passed away a few years back, and her father has another family now.
The stories of three teenage friends Negor, Rihana*,16, and Sadiya*,17, who met at a workshop centre run by a civil society organisation in south Delhi’s Malviya Nagar reflect a common thread — they are bound by a history of their unlived dream of a life in Afghanistan, a fierce optimism about the future, and their sheer determination to move abroad from ‘living like refugees’ in India.
The teenagers are not divorced from reality. Their angst at reconciling with the news back in Afghanistan is palpable. As the news streams in, they relive their struggles in trying to make India ‘a home’, and recount how hard they try every day to shake off the feeling of a ‘refugee’. Their families insist that they stay away from constantly checking the news of Afghanistan on their smartphones.
A mood board crammed with cut-outs of open spaces, public libraries, shelves full of books, designer clothes, and vacation spots reflect their aspirations for leading ‘normal’ lives. They came up with the mood board as a part of an exercise during an art therapy workshop organised by the Peacebuilding Project and People Beyond Borders under a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The workshop helped the participants in expressing themselves better in the community, points out Kashvi Chandok, a programmes associate at the Peacebuilding Project.
Negor wants to be a screenwriter, Rihana a fashion designer, and Sadiya a nurse. With their families managing to barely make ends meet, the three were forced to drop out of schools. Currently, they are learning through online tuitions. Alongside, they are already working hard to secure their future.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) India, there were 15,217 refugees and asylum seekers registered in the country till March.
With the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan and people seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, the chorus on granting refugee status to hundreds of Afghans in the country has grown in the past few weeks.
Did they flee for ‘freedom’?
Negor, Rihana and Sadiya animatedly discuss what freedom means to them. Were they free in Afghanistan? Or are they free now? They go over the small details of the lives now left behind — if a bathroom outside the room as was in their house in Afghanistan is better than one attached to it, how it was to live close to their relatives, and if they left Afghanistan to feel the essence of freedom. But with the Taliban back in power, their hope of returning to Afghanistan is gradually ebbing, Sadiya says quietly. “When we left Kabul, we thought we would be free in another land,” she says.
When asked what keeps them going, the teenaged girls say it is their family’s unwavering support in helping them nurture their dreams. Despite struggling financially and emotionally, they managed to focus on the pros in India — learning Hindi, English, making friends when they were in school, and making Afghan culture more popular among their peers through their work.
Rebuilding their lives
Rihana was tired of sewing clothes by hand to practise designs she sees online. She was eyeing a sewing machine at a shop for some time. One day, she returned home to it — her brother and father gave her no inkling that they were aggressively saving up to buy her the machine.
“I could not believe my eyes. It was an expensive machine for them to afford. But I am sure I will make them very proud. I will go to Canada to do a fashion designing course some day. My mother has told me to design the clothes I want, and to market the designs well,” says Rihana.
She explains how the clothes she designs boast of Afghan culture. She designs and stitches for friends and cousins. “In fact, I design and stitch all the clothes I wear. I do not buy from the market. Compared to the market rate, I charge very little. Nobody has said so far that they have not liked what I have stitched. I keep watching videos on YouTube. I keep mulling over the design, how it will suit the person who wears it… I do a very good job with my designs. Don’t think I am just saying it… I am confident because I have attempted the most difficult designs…,” says a confident Rihana. Her two elder sisters who are settled in Canada and Tajikistan often lament they can’t wear the beautiful clothes she is designing, the teenager adds.
She dreams of getting an opportunity to design more clothes which would also help her family’s financial status.
For Sadiya, it is her ability to stay calm amidst the chaos that has been a treasure while negotiating her life in India. When things went from bad to worse for her family during the lockdown, she took up a job in a restaurant opposite a hospital in south Delhi to help out with the finances.
“I am the only person in the family who can be steadfast in all situations. I am also the only person who has managed to learn Hindi. So my family depends on me for every chore that needs interacting with people outside. I do not want to lose my calm ever… I think choosing a career path as a nurse would suit me,” says the 17-year-old.
Negor’s life here is peppered with writing essays on Afghanistan, devouring the ‘shelf full of books on Afghanistan’, and playing Afghani music on the keyboard that her siblings surprised her with. “I had a dream in Afghanistan… it was to play the piano,” says Negor. Her mood shifts to being vibrant as she shows her music videos.
Tarana Faroqi, director, Peacebuilding Project, India, says, “The biggest challenge for teenage girls coming to another country is gaining acceptance in the community outside theirs. This leads to a range of other issues that they eventually face. The uncertainties about their future looming before them make their situations more difficult. In most cases, their families are living in hand to mouth situations.”
Meanwhile, the three teenagers are certain that the present cannot define their future. They are feisty about carving out a better future for themselves — one where they have more respect.
Negor, who is the most vocal among them when it comes to politics, says she cannot define freedom in this country. “Here, we are refugees. Everywhere we go, we are asked if we are visitors or refugees. I say we are refugees. They usually treat us like poor people — like a person who has nothing, like a person who has no ego. We have a country too. And, we have not forgotten the history of the Taliban, America and Russia,” Negor adds passionately.
*These names have been changed on request to protect their identities.
Ritwika Mitra is an independent journalist based out of New DelhiInternet Explorer Channel Network