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Afghan refugees on the racism they’ve faced in their first year in Europe

Many feel unsupported by EU governments and can’t help but compare their treatment to that of Ukrainian refugees

WhatsApp Image 2021-09-17 at 16.36.50.jpeg
Deepa Parent
29 August 2022, 12.01am
Afghans evacuated from Kabul board a plane in Sigonella, Italy, to their next location

MC2 Andrea Rumple/U.S. Navy/Alamy Live News

“Europe is just the greener side of the same hell,” says Rias Ahmed*, a former Afghanistan government official who now lives in a small town in Italy.

Rias is among the 124,000 civilians who left Afghanistan in the weeks after the Taliban took control of the country on 15 August last year. After ten days in hiding in Kabul, he was evacuated to Germany on 25 August, before being resettled in Italy later that day.

For him, and the many other refugees now living in the EU, the past year has been incredibly challenging – with many facing horrific racism, discrimination and economic hardship.

“In the beginning, everyone we met was really helpful – and then the reality set in. I am grateful to them for saving our lives, but in this bargain, I’ve lost my dignity, my home and I’m very depressed,” says Rias.

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“Not all Europeans are racist, but each time we go to the stores or walk the streets, we encounter blatant racist comments. One person called me a leech who’s sucking their tax money and living for free in their country.

“I have tried to learn Italian hoping that life would be easier, but I just can't bear the insults any longer. I'd rather go back to Afghanistan than die of shame here.”

Rias said Taliban officials have reached out to former government officials, who they hope to bring back to Afghanistan. Although he doesn’t trust their promises of amnesty, he yearns for home.

“I sometimes feel I should go back but I’ve witnessed the Taliban's crimes against humanity. I at least had hope in Kabul, something that I’ve lost here in Europe,” he says.

Humiliated and unsupported

Many refugees have faced difficulties obtaining paperwork. Nilofar Ayoubi, an Afghan journalist and human rights activist, says her sister, who was evacuated to Barcelona, has found this particularly “stressful” – having still not received the document she needs from the Spanish authorities to allow her to travel outside the country.

“The support [from EU governments] is so minimal,” says Nilofar. “She’s upset and wants to go back. The situation for so many Afghan families is so bad that many believe it’s better to go back to our country instead of being humiliated here.

“Unfortunately, us Afghans have had a hard year in Europe. The authorities believe by evacuating refugees they’ve done [us] a favour and that’s not fair. [We] don’t ask for special treatment, just a humane one where basic needs and rights are attended to. I have heard of so many instances of refugees living on the streets in western Europe.”

Sabur Shah Dawod Zai was evacuated to Warsaw days after the Taliban took control of Kabul. He feels the way he has been treated is in stark contrast to the 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees who have crossed the border into Poland since Russia began its invasion in February.

“Polish people have been so kind to us, but the Polish authorities have been inefficient,” he said. “They mobilised overnight to support millions of Ukrainian refugees but couldn’t take in more than a mere thousand refugees from Afghanistan. If that’s not discrimination, what is?

The situation for so many Afghan families is so bad that many believe it’s better to go back to our country instead of being humiliated here

“They’ve even pushed back Afghan refugees back to Belarus. Some of them are living in terrible conditions in a forest near the Polish-Belarussian border. The government has really let us down. Many of my friends were evicted to accommodate Ukrainian refugees in Germany.”

Nilofar also believes her experiences have been different to those of a Ukrainian refugee. “None of us are envious of how Ukrainian refugees are being treated, but it gives us a bad feeling that makes us question we are also human beings,” she said. “How are we different? What’s the difference between the war in our country and in Ukraine?”

Sabur hopes to find work in another EU country, as he believes the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war will further put pressure on the Polish economy. However, job hunting as an Afghan refugee has not been easy.

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Hassan*, a father of four, has also struggled to find employment – despite having previously been a high-ranking government official, who was crucial in the peace negotiations between Taliban and Afghan civilian groups.

“I was a deputy minister in the former government and was leading peace negotiations, where my team worked on reflecting the voice of Afghan people during the Doha discussions. As a Hazara and a part of the previous government, I had no option but to leave my country,” he explains.

After India and Pakistan refused to evacuate Hassan, he and his family disguised themselves to take a long bus from Kabul to Iran. They flew to Sweden on 27 September, where they now live in Umeå, a city in the east of the country.

“Ever since it’s been hard to find a job,” Hassan adds. “The only [jobs] we Afghans are being offered are either cleaning dishes or cooking jobs. Life is hard for a refugee here.”

‘I cry myself to sleep’

Even for those Afghan refugees who are managing to rebuild their lives in Europe, many hope to return home one day. Medical student Noorjan Karimi is enjoying life in Nancy, France, where she lives with her parents and siblings – but misses Afghanistan.

She says: “My parents told me about how hard life was under the Taliban in the 1990s. I am lucky to have escaped, but I think about the girls and women of my country every day. I want to go back someday and work in the medical field to help them.

“Life in France is challenging but my experience has been way easier than most. I am surrounded by my family and feel safe here.”

Noorjan believes every country has its own challenges. “Although I’m so happy to be here, I do feel for women in France, especially the Muslim women who are fighting for their freedom of choice to wear a burkini or hijab,” she explains. “It’s hurtful and sad that Muslim women don’t have the freedom to choose what they want to wear. I hope women everywhere have the right to choose – in Afghanistan as well as Europe.”

How are we different? What’s the difference between the war in our country and in Ukraine?

Noorjan is learning about French culture and hopes to speak the language fluently soon. A few miles from her home in Nancy lives Naseeb Moqsadi, a 23-year-old social activist who had to leave Afghanistan having previously spoken out against the atrocities committed by the Taliban.

Naseeb left Kabul on 25 August, hours before explosions rocked the city’s airport, killing at least 170 Afghan civilians and 13 US troops. Recounting his last few moments in his home country, he says: “I still remember sitting on the evacuation plane floor and listening to this song ‘Shab Aye be Tarana’ (Night without songs).

“A year later, I have managed to learn French via YouTube and I now work in a local boulangerie, but each night I still listen to this song and relive every moment of my life back home.”

He adds: “I cry myself to sleep many times. I miss my country. I won’t deny that I have faced many challenges here, but at least I am alive and for that I am grateful to the people of France.”

*Some names have been changed

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