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Afghan Family Caught in Refugee Limbo

November 17, 2001

By Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan (Nov. 17)–  There is a blue door to a second story walk-up flat in a dingy apartment building in Micro Region 5 which carries a simple inscription.

Written in white chalk, it says, “Our door number is 27.”

To the visitor, the scrawling English words may seem out of place among the rows of dilapidated Soviet-style apartment buildings in this dusty, sprawling town on the northern border of Afghanistan.

But to the shy, 19-year-old girl who penned them, the words are the language of hope and the dream of a peaceful life far from the terror she has known.

“I want to go to America,” says Suhilla Omedwor, a refugee from the northern Afghan town of Mazar-e-Sharif. “Right now, I dream of having a good life and of studying in school. That’s all I can dream.”

But Suhila’s dreams are now caught in a maze of bureaucratic limbo. Granted refugee status by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in June, she and her family were hoping to immigrate to the United States. They had been told initially that they might be able to immigrate as early as October. But then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occured.

“After the accident, UNHCR said we should wait,” Suhila says. “But we don’t know how long.”

No one else in Uzbekistan seems to know either. Inquiries to UNHCR office in Uzbekistan produced no clear answers. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in the capitol of Tashkent said he was not aware of any changes in policy that would prevent Afghan refugees from immigrating to the United States. Inquiries to the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have gone unanswered.

There are an estimated 600 registered Afghan refugees in Termez alone, according to Liya Kholmatova, a doctor with the Red Crescent relief organization — the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross — and other aid workers. Another 600 are unregistered. Kholmatova estimates that about 55 Afghan families in Termez and Tashkent waiting to immigrate are caught in the same bureaucratic limbo as Suhila and her family.

“Anywhere in America that will take us, we will go there,” Suhila says. “But when I ask when we shall go, they (UNHCR) said, you should just wait. It’s not clear when we will go.”

Suhila fled Afghanistan three years ago with her mother Kahir, her three sisters and a brother. Her siblings range in age from 16 to nine. They occupy the three-room flat with an uncle, his wife and five children. There are 13 of them altogether.

They eke out a marginal existence on the frail edge between a country in which they do not feel at home and a homeland to which they do not want to return.

“We left because of the Taliban,” Suhila says. “They just want to kill everybody.”

Suhila and her family are native Hazara, one of a handful of minority ethnic groups in Afghanistan, where the majority Pashtun have dominated for centuries. As Shiite Muslims in a predominately Sunni Muslim country, they face the added burden of being a minority within a minority.

Though now allied nominally with ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks as part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, the Hazara have often been caught at the center of the ethnic infighting and civil war that erupted after the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation. Tajiks under the command of Mujaheddin leader Ahmad Shah Masud massacred thousands of Hazara in 1993 and 1995. The Pashtun-led Taliban massacred thousands of Hazara in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998 and tried to starve them into surrender in their historic homeland in the Bamiyan valley. But the Hazara have also carried out massacres of their own, including when they rose up in revolt and killed hundreds of Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997.

Suhila’s father Barat Ali served in the post-Soviet government of President Najibullah. She grew up in Kabul and attended an English school there. But the family fled to Mazar-e-Sharif after the Taliban took Kabul in 1994 and murdered Najibullah. They lived in relative safety in Mazar until the Taliban took the city, first briefly in 1997, then again in 1998. During a two-day killing spree that followed the second time the city fell, the Taliban went door to door to Hazara homes, murdering anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 people. Suhila’s father was one of the victims.

“They came to the door, and said to my father, ‘come here,” Suhila says. “After he went out with them, we heard the shot.”

She still cries every time she recalls the incident.

Suhila’s 16-year-old sister Sufwrah witnessed her father’s murder. She has suffered from epilepsy ever since, according to the family. Without the proper medicine, she suffers as many as three attacks a day, according to Kholmatova. Though Suhila’s uncle has a job selling ballons, the family lives mostly on about $16 a month in assistance from UNHCR.

The Taliban conducted the massacre in retaliation for the Hazara slaughter of more than 600 Taliban soldiers when the Taliban first took the city in 1997. Kahir, Suhila’s mother, says she has no idea why her husband was singled out.

“A woman doesn’t know why things happen in Afghanistan,” she says.

The family fled after Barat Ali was killed, selling everything they owned in order to slip into neighboring Turkmenestan, then to Termez. They feel more comfortable there than they do in Tashkent or elsewhere in the country because they are among fellow Afghans. But still they face enormous difficulties because they do not speak Uzbek or Russian.

Suhila is attempting to learn the language by taking a couple of classes a week at the Red Crescent facility. But the other children have dropped out of school because they felt out of place. They do not go outside much and play with other children because they do not speak Russian.  Suhila spends much of her time teaching her brothers and sisters English from lessons and songs she remembers when she attended school in Kabul.

“I love English,” she says. “It is my second language.”

Kahir hopes that her children, especially her daughters, get the kind of chance she never had.

“We just want to live our lives,” she says. “I want my children to study in a school. My mother was illiterate. I am illiterate too. I don’t want my children to be illiterate.”

Once she is finished with school, Suhila says she hopes to become an airline stewardess.

“I want to see every country,” she says.

Faqhir, Suhila’s uncle, admits that he would like to immigrate to America as well. But he cannot obtain refugee status because he works, no matter how little his job pays. He wonders what sort of future he and his children will have in Uzbekistan. But he has no desire to return to Afghanistan, where he fears they  may face renewed war.

For the moment, he prefers to live in the present only.

“The Afghan people have forgotten how to dream of the future, ” he says.

Suhila says that by attending school in America, she will be honoring the memory of her dead father.

“My father wanted me to become an educated person,” she says.

Kholmatova doubts that her student will get that sort of chance if she remains in Uzbekistan.

“I hope that America will take them, she says. “I think your country will treat them better country than ours.”

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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