After 25 Years in Exile, Life Begins Again
Farmala Khan is the master weaver of Landi Miran, a village surrounded by majestic mountains in eastern Afghanistan. He has just started a 12-hour shift, and the clatter of his loom fills the yard of the small factory protected by high clay walls.
“I normally make seven cloths per day,” he says as he adjusts the brown wool thread that he’ll turn into a beautiful shawl.
Khan, 50, has returned to Afghanistan after living in Pakistan for 25 years. Like thousands of other returnees, he is receiving assistance from the International Rescue Committee in order to start a new life in his homeland. He recently completed a weaving course and, after earning his diploma, found a job and built a new house, all with the aid of the IRC.
“My life has turned round completely,” Khan says. “I heard from other refugees in Pakistan that we had a new president and that there was peace. But when I came home, I didn’t recognize my village. My old house was destroyed. I owned nothing and I slept under a tree with my family.”
Like millions of Afghans, Khan and his family fled their country when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. During the next 22 years of occupation and war, two million people were killed, another two million were driven from their homes and villages and some seven million escaped to refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. After the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, many refugees decided to return despite the continuing hardships in their homeland. Over 4.5 million Afghans have done so during the last six years.
For many returnees, life is even harsher than it was in exile. Most Afghans still lack safe drinking water and adequate health care and few have access to electricity. Unemployment is well over 30 percent. The past year has seen an upsurge of violence in the countryside as the Taliban attempt a comeback. Tactics used by insurgents in Iraq, such as suicide bombings and roadside explosives, were introduced.
As one of the largest and oldest aid organizations in Afghanistan, the IRC is playing a crucial role in helping these returning refugees. The IRC began working with Afghan refugees shortly after the Soviet invasion. Since then, the IRC has provided health care, water, sanitation and education to hundreds of thousands of people—the same service the IRC provides to returning refugees today.
“The most important thing is to help people find work so that they can provide for their families,” says Abdul Ahad, the IRC field coordinator in the city of Jalalabad. “Before we train people, we always conduct market surveys so that we know what type of work is in demand.”
Despite the continuing instability in Afghanistan, Farmala Khan is optimistic about the future. He recently moved into a new IRC-built clay house with steel beams, windows and a cooking area.
“I keep my chickens here,” Khan says, pointing to a coop in the yard. “Our life is good now, the house is very comfortable and it protects us from the cold and the sun. I even have glass windows, and I can get water nearby.”
Khan’s eight children are all in an IRC-run school, except for his eldest son, Shoib, who wants to become a weaver like his father.
“I hope this skill can continue in our family,” Khan says. “It’s a beautiful way to earn a living.”