Next week, the UN refugee agency and Switzerland are hosting an international conference in Geneva on the Afghan refugee situation. The “Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees” conference will discuss ways to help Afghan refugees and to improve their reintegration in Afghanistan. Ghulam Sakhi was a refugee in Pakistan for 18 years until he returned with his family to their home in Baghlan province earlier this week. For 10 years he worked in a factory in the city of Harripur. When it closed, Sakhi became a labourer working for daily wages. Ghulam and his family are among the nearly 4 million Afghan refugees UNHCR has assisted in returning home since 2002. UNHCR Senior Communications Officer Tim Irwin spoke to Sakhi shortly before he returned home from the northern city of Peshawar. Extracts from the interview:
Why are you going back to Afghanistan now?
I’m going back to Afghanistan because I have a job there with an agency that imports medical equipment. I am returning from Pakistan of my own free will because of my work. Before, I would travel back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, I am taking my family with me. I have two sons. I’ll try to help them find work in a factory or a hospital so that they can earn money and rebuild their country.
What do you expect life to be like back home?
Well, 20 years ago when we left our country, there was war and conflict. But since then the situation has changed significantly. I hope, and God willing, the situation will further improve. We have the international community working there with us. They are helping and supporting us. With their continued support Afghanistan will stand on its own feet. The country is progressing.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope that we will progress in our business slowly and gradually, finding business opportunities for my sons and myself, just like other people. We hope God will give us the opportunity to run a business and serve our country.
With continued support from the international community, our country will develop further. I can’t say what will happen after 2014, [when NATO troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan] whether it would be good for the country or bad.
Can you describe what his life was like as refugee in Pakistan?
My life was good. I lived in peace and rented a house. I was working here. My children were studying in school. And now I am leaving voluntarily and happily.
I’m really happy with the people of Pakistan. They treated us just like their brothers and didn’t make us feel that we were refugees.
Will you believe when I tell you that when we were leaving last night, all our neighbours – Pakistani women and men – were weeping and helping us to load this truck until midnight? I thanked them for their hospitality and sought their forgiveness if I had ever hurt them. They wished me luck and bid farewell. We had good times here.
What do you think is stopping other Afghan refugees from going home?
They are not going back because there are better economic opportunities here. Some drive trucks or work in factories. More might opt to return if the Proof of Registration cards [issued by the government to Afghan refugees and due to expire at the end of 2012] are not renewed and the police start harassing them.
They are happier here than they think they will be in Afghanistan. Here they have peace. Their children are going to schools. Most of the refugees are happy here.
If you were able to send a message to next week’s international conference on Afghan refugees, what would it be?
I hope that from this conference, UNHCR and the international community will find a permanent solution to the problems of Afghan refugees.
We need better job opportunities inside Afghanistan. Once that’s done, why would we go to Iran, Pakistan or foreign countries? If we could get a piece of bread at home, we don’t need to go to other countries, endangering our lives, travelling by boats, walking in jungles.
Once conditions inside Afghanistan improve, the refugees will come back.