“Do you respect women”, recently one of my female colleagues at Bosch Siemens in Traunreut asked me. “Why are you asking me this? Do I not pay you the same respect than men”, I replied confused about her question. “Well indeed you do respect me. But you know only few days ago we had an intern from Afghanistan and he really could not take it when his supervisor is a female and tells him what to do. In fact he had such a big problem with it that in the end he quit his job and left”, she explained. “You seem different than other Afghans”, she added. “I do not know this is who I am. Respecting women is normal for me. Even my religion commands respect for women in general and for my mother in particular”, I tried to reason with her.
Very vividly I remember all my grandfather’s wisdom. From a very early age onward he taught me that women are like flower. If you take good care of them and treat them well they will be happy and in turn do anything for you. Like flowers if you do not water them will get spoiled, so are women suffering substantially if they are mistreated by men. “You have to hit women with flowers, chocolate, gifts and invitations, not with hands”, my grandfather told me time and again. His influence on my approaches towards life and thinking stayed with me until this very day. However, his thinking and teachings by no means are a given in my country just like is not the case elsewhere.
In late November a 17 year old Afghan refugee had raped and brutally murdered a young woman named Maria. At the beginning of my being in Germany it had irritated me increasingly that as a refugee time and again I have been subject to classes about the code of conduct between men and women in Germany or what is allowed and what is not concerning women. “In the summer women wear short or little clothes, but that is not an invitation for you to harass them”, we were taught in one of the many lectures. To be frank with you it increasingly hurt me that I had to attend such lectures repeatedly. Why do all Europeans consider Afghans, Syrians or other refugees as wild animals that do not know how to behave themselves I had asked myself at the time. To commit sexual offenses or mistreatment of women has nothing to do with culture but in fact is a matter of the personality of a man. But who knows perhaps some refugees indeed are in need of an explanation about how to conduct themselves towards women in Europe as the rape and murderer of Maria shows.
I cannot put in words how sorry I am about what happened to Maria and her family. I am aware that my words most likely mean nothing to hear family. And yet it is important for me to let them know that I condemn this heinous crime as much as most Germans do. Not all Afghans are like this. I am certain the gathering of Afghans in Freiburg mourning the tragic incidents was genuine by all means.
In my humble opinion refugees that commit crimes should be deported immediately. Last autumn Germans have greeted us with flowers and a warm welcome after we had reached protection and safety in Germany after months of escape and suffering. They opened there doors, provided us with shelter and many of them have assisted us to the best of their ability without asking for anything in return. I cannot comprehend how the 17-year old Afghan could respond to such kindness with such cruel behavior. Whoever seeks protection and safety in another country and violates the physical integrity of another person there does not deserve protection in my eyes regardless of what he or she would be faced with in their own country. Criminal refugees do not only make life difficult for Germany, but essentially destroy the peace and trust between refugees and their German/European host communities. Such people should be sent back without further debates!
Two refugees decide to help us at the yearly Christmas market
My name is Rosi and I have known Qais quite well for a little over a year now. Every year around December we participate in a Christmas market to use the proceeds of our sale there to support micro-finance and education projects of an NGO called Unlimited Partnership, which we founded six years ago, in Sierra Leone and Uganda. Due to the influx of many refugees to Germany throughout 2015 and all the public talk about the need for integration, we decided that year to offer refugees to join us for the Christmas market.
As a result my dad and I drove to the refugee home in my parents municipality a few days before the market to introduce your NGO and work to them. Among the roughly 50 refugees that used to live there at the time, two decided to join us for the three days sale – Hvras from the North of Iraq and Qais from Afghanistan. It is fair to say that Qais’s decision that day to join us and subsequently become a member of our NGO probably changed his life as much as it did ours. I remember well the first day I saw him when we went to pick him up for the market. He was already standing outside the home waiting for us. There he stood punctual as always as we later on learnt, tall, proud, almost a big grac
eful and yet marked by what he had gone through in life so far. At the beginning he used to be a bit shy not talking too much, but very observant of his surrounding and people around him.
Learning a bit of German
As it turned out Hvras was already enrolled in an official German language course for a few months. While he could write and read fairly well, he was struggling to speak. Meanwhile Qais, being from Afghanistan, had not received permission to attend an official language learning course. Till that day he had received lessons twice a week for two hours each time from a retired primary school teacher that did now teach refugees on a voluntary basis. It was primarily a literacy class considering that upon his arrival in Germany he could neither read nor write in our handwriting. The same day we also learnt that apart from two months in Pakistan where his family used to live for a few years as refugees, he had never attended school throughout his life. Some time into the day I realized that you could well read and write in his own language. “Where did you learn this if you never attended school,” I asked him buffled. “Every evening after work or during night I sat with my siblings and copied what they were doing for homework and study with them a little bit. They all went to school,” he explained. The fact that he did speak English fairly well though made it easy to communicate with him. “Where did you learn to speak English,” we asked him. “I used to run a small cosmetic shop in Kabul and for some time I used to have a lot of international customers, mostly Americans,” he told us. We were impressed.
Not to long afterwards we learnt that he was able to speak several languages including Dari, Farsi, Urdu, Paschtu, Hindi and English. Hindi because he loves Bollywood movies, Urdu due to a childhood spent in Pakistan and Paschtu from Paschtun friends. Throughout the Christmas market and especially during breaks we taught both Qais and Hvras basic communication with customers in German and various words. We for the most part would just point at products at the
Christmas market or things at the Christmas market, tell them the German word, write it down on a piece of paper and ask them to repeat it. Over the course we would repeat the vocabularly with them and also ask them to entertain very basic conversations with customers. At times we would also ask some of the customers to try to have a simple chat, mostly centered around questions such as ‘What is your name/ Where are you from/ How is Germany’ and the like, with them to get them used to talking. Even though he was very shy throughout those few days, Qais absorbed new words and basic sentences like a sponge.
He seemed natural in learning languages in an interactive setting. Soon we noticed that even though he could not speak a lot, he understood a lot of sentences and words out of the context and situations: At some point Christl’s (our project manager for Uganda) husband paid us a visit. “Max would you mind taking a few pictures of us for the NGO’s newsletter”, she asked him. “Hand me the camera please,” he replied without pointing it. Before anyone of us could turn Qais had already picked it up and handed it to him. I thanked him and asked him something in English. “No, don’t do this. Qais needs to learn German. Why do you speak in English to the guy? This way he will never learn. You all have to speak German with them,” Max said in a firm manner. Easier said than done if someone does speak hardly a few words yet I thought to myself. Thinking about it now Max obviously was right about it. Qais would also down the line help out Hvras communicating with us. Kurdish must be somewhat similar to Dari and Farsi, so whenever Hvras would not understand us or we didn’t understand him, Qais would try to translate. During one of those days when we dropped them back home Qais laughingly said: “I will end up learn Kurdish through Hvras if the Christmas market continues for longer.” During those early days Qais was convinced that learning German would take him at least three years: “It needs a long time and it is not easy and I lack the opportunities to learn it. But hopefully in three years I can talk a bit well,” he used to say several times. “You are living in Germany now so you will learn much faster than you think cause many people don’t speak English,” my dad tried to reassure him. I could see the doubts written in Qais’s face back then.
Since at our NGO all members and helpers are doing the work on a voluntary basis and since per the law we were not allowed to pay Qais and Hvras for their work anyway, during those days we tried to compensate by inviting them for lunches and dinners. “They are shockingly and embarrassingly modest and more often than not reject my offers,” dad said the other day. “Maybe we can invite we can do a daytrip with them together some day after the Christmas market and that way also show them some place in the region they live at now,” I suggested. At the same time during one of the car rides back home from the market we explained to them why we are not in a position to pay them money for their help. “Don’t think about this,” Qais said. “In my country if someone asks you for help and you take money in return for helping him that is a big shame,” he explained to us. “We enjoy being with all of you at the Christmas market. It is so much better than staying at the home in Brünning,” Hvras added.
On the second day of the Christmas market Heidi, a close friend since primary school, came by with her husband, her mom and her daughters. She was highly pregnant at the time. I introduced Qais and Hvras to her. “Why are you not like her”, Qais asked me once they had left. “What do you mean?”, I replied. “Why are you not married yet having children like your friend“, he responded. I was suprised at his very straightforward and direct question. “Well it just did not happen yet and I am unsure where my current relationship is headed”, I explained. “In my country people think life is not complete unless you have children and are married”, he informed us. “In Europe it is different. Many people get married and than a lot of marriages end up in divorce. Unlike in your country divorce is really easy here. Many people here also dont get married at an early age but often in their late 20s and early 30s,” I explained to him.
Integration made simple?!
Meanwhile, after a few hours into the first day of the Christmas market my dad called me: “I received a call from a lady from the ‘Helferkreis’ (group of volunteers in the municipality taking care of refugees’ needs). She told me that you need to notify the authorities that Hvras and Qais are working with us at the Christmas market. “Why, they are doing it as volunteers like us and aren’t paid,” I replied. “Well seems like if we don’t notify them they can get in troubles and it can have negative effects for their asylum cases,” he said and passed on the number of the woman in charge. Little did I know that it would be the beginning of the typical madness with the authorities concerning refugee affairs. At the Helferkreis I was told there was only a form that needs to be filled out and then faxed to the authorities, but as it turned out the only person at the Helferkreis that had the document was on holiday in the US at the time. “You can call the authority for social affairs, they can send you the document”, someone else told me. The next morning I gave them a call and explained: “No that is not our responsibility. We are just taking care of shelter and other social affairs. You probably wan to talk to the job center”, I was told during the call. “Is this person already registered at the job center”, was the first question a man at the job center asked me. “No I said, one of them is attending the integration course and the other one did not even have his first interview in Munich yet,” I said. “Oh no then you are wrong here, we just handle matters related to them finding proper work. I don’t think you have to notify anyone if we are talking about unpaid or volunteer work. But just check with the authorities for social affairs.” “Those are the people that told me to talk to you”, I replied amused kind of sensing where this would be going. I tried the authority for social affairs again, obviously with the same result. “But there is this organization assisting with refugee affairs, they might know,” he said before we hang up the phone. But they didn’t know either and referred me again to someone else. In the end I spoke with a man who told me the following: “Well you know I once heard from someone else about a similar case and a lawyer back then advised to handle it like a case of neighborly help. Just hope that nothing happens and in case something does happens you say he was doing you a favor like a good friend or neighbor would do.” An hour and a half after the phone call I knew as much about the matter as I had known before. Could efforts for integration really be made that difficult? If this is how it works with something as simple as volunteer work, what is it like for more complicated affairs?
Time has a very different concept in Afghanistan than it has in Europe. What I mean by this is simply that dates and times seem to be everything, but mean mostly nothing or not much in my country. Ask most Afghans when they are born, especially those in their 20s and above, and chances are they either don’t know, chose a birth date of their liking or will turn towards friends and relatives to find an answer. The first time I have ever been asked about my birthday when I was registered as a newly arrived refugee in Germany. Dumbfounded by the question I called my family, but even they were not sure which year I was born. As a result I heard different estimates from my mom, my dad and my grandfather. Dates are just not important and have little relevance especially during times of conflict and hardship. Added to that our calendar is not based on the Gregorian but the Islamic calender. Furthermore, once the civil war broke out in the 80s and 90s the Afghan government according to media reports did not have a system for registering child birth. A UN report states in this regards:” In Afghanistan, even though national legislation requires registration of children at birth, 23 years of conflict decimated both the administrative mechanisms and the social institutions that support them” .
My parents’ marriage and my family
The memory of my first years in life is fragmented, but I decided to share what I do remember from those years. Please don’t rely on what I tell you about numbers of Just like was and still is the case with many marriages in Afghanistan, also my parents was arranged. It happened when my grandmother went to visit my grandfather’s sister in the village where she used to live that she came across my mom. Upon her return to Pakistan, where my dad and his family already used to live at the time, she spoke to my dad about
my mom and not too long afterwards the marriage took place. You might find it interesting to know that it was only after the wedding had taken place that my parents have seen each other’s faces for the first time. But my dad got lucky considering that my mom is pretty. Not too long afterwards, I was born as my parents’ first child as an Afghan refugee in Pakistan’s Peshawar. Conflicts and fighting were already a part of daily life in Afghanistan back then. When I was born nobody recorded neither the date nor the year, it simply did not matter. Approximately the first 2 to 3 years of my life – and I say approximately deliberately as nobody in my family can tell exactly – took place in Pakistan, before my family decided to relocate to Afghanistan for the first time. Already before we did relocate however, my sister was also born as my parents’ second out of six child. I do not have many memories of our relocation as I was too young at the time to remember today. What I do remember though is that I would occasionally I did still spend prolonged times – sometimes two weeks, other times a month – in Pakistan whenever my grandmother took me with her.
Living in Kabul under the Taliban
When we returned to Kabul the Taliban was already in power, but the situation was still somewhat calm and tolerable. The Taliban did neither allow music, nor TV or any other form of entertainment. At times my family took the risk of defying the rules though: In what we called our safe room we would cover the window of it to the point that not even light could penetrate it and lower the volume as much as possible in order to watch TV. What I also remember are incidents of the Taliban’s morality police patrolling the streets and causing especially problems for young people. Men and women at the time were not allowed to walk side by side outside unless closely related family members (i.e. husband and wife). One day for example the police had stopped my uncle when he was walking outside with his mother. The Taliban’s police stopped him and asked: “What are you doing with this woman?” “She is my mother”, he replied. Not believing him they arrested him nonetheless and kept him in detention for two days before they eventually released him. Cutting off people’s hands as a punishment for stealing has also been a regular occurrence during those days. Due to that and as a means of deterrence, when walking outside in the streets, you would very often see hands hanging from trees: After having cut of a limb from a thief, the Taliban would then display it publicly by hanging it at trees next to roads that are frequently passed.
During those short years in Kabul two of my uncles have been somewhat known or famous football players, with one of them having played for the Shiva team for instance. At times my dad took me along with him to watch their matches at the stadium. More often than not though, before the start of a match the Taliban would use the stadium for public executions. I remember the day very well when I saw such an execution for the first time. The Taliban brought a guy into the stadium and forced him to kneel down. They then turned to the father of the person he supposedly had killed and asked: “What do you want us to do with this criminal? If you want him to be executed we will do it.” And so the guy got killed. Shortly before they killed him my dad initially turned to me saying: “You don’t need to watch this”, covering my eyes with his face, but I said: “Not necessary dad, I can do this with my own hand.” But curiosity got the better half of me and so I slightly moved my hand to observe the incident. I cannot put in words how observing this made me feel, I was shocked, horrified and saddened. But it didn’t remain the only time I saw this. Other times I saw similar incidents on TV, one time it had actually affected a woman that was executed by the Taliban.
My family’s work and means of income
Before our relocation and during the few years we lived in Kabul after our relocation before we had to flee to Pakistan again, my dad was involved with the carpet business. He would not only trade carpets between Pakistan and Afghanistan but also had a small shop in Kabul selling strings used to make carpets. But my family was also involved in the weaving and making of carpets and whenever a few carpets were completed, my uncle, dad or grandfather would then bring them to Pakistan and sell them there. When I grew a little bit older I got more involved in this work. Today I probably know every possible way by which you can cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan through the mountains for the following reasons: At times we would bring between 10 and 20 carpets with us, but too many times border guards and police on both sides would demand substantial bribes to let us pass. In order to bypass the problem and to avoid the loss of money we needed for our subsistence, we would avoid official border crossings and seek alternative routes. Often enough we would have to spend nights in the mountains and forests along the way as well. My father tells me about those times that things were not always easy and that we had to take risks, but that at least our financial situation was okay and we got by without too many challenges.
Fleeing to Pakistan again
Meanwhile, the political and security situation in Afghanistan took a turn for the worse. Due to that parts of my dad’s family, that still used to live in Pakistan, try to persuade us to return to Pakistan to avoid risks posed by the Taliban’s severe restrictions of freedom in my country and also because daily commodities such as electricity were more readily available. When the fighting was too intense we would spend days and nights in the basement of our house. With the bombings and rocket fires increasing more and more people fled to Pakistan and so did mine eventually as well. We had to leave our house and shop behind and in the process lost everything and were left with nothing, like countless other families too.
At the beginning of our second escape to Pakistan my parents initially had enrolled me in school. But that did not last longer than two months, because my parents could not afford the fee anymore. Nevertheless I remember how I learnt to spell in my language during that time or how we one day brought cake and food for the teachers to school. I also remember how strict one of the teachers has been about pupils being on time. Twice I got hit on my hand with a stick quite badly for having arrived late. My dad’s financial situation worsened more and more to the point that we had neither money nor food. He could not pursue the carpet business anymore. The only work that was left from time to time was buying carpets from his previous clients and reselling in return for a very small commission. Sometimes my dad could not come home for 2 to 3 days and I remember the feeling of hunger. Today I keep telling my new friends in Germany, that they cannot imagine what hunger feels like. During those years our accommodations were composed of one room and one toilet. In the toilet we did everything from washing to cooking. We also had to change our shelter often since landlords regularly and unexpectedly increased the rents. Not being able to afford the place no more we were forced to look for new accommodation. It was during those years that I started to help my dad making money and started to get involved in carpet weaving.
The fondest memories I have from those years are family celebrations, the Army Stadium in Peshawar, food distributions from UN agencies as well as playing cricket and football:
UNICEF/WFP: Since our extended family members faced similar situations they could not help us either. Actually the only Afghan families that have been better off than others during those times where those who had family members in Europe, North America or Australia and thus were sent money from abroad. This second time in Pakistan we stayed for probably around 5 or 6 years I was told and two more brothers of mine were born. Thankfully my younger brothers would receive biscuits from UNICEF or the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which is what helped to keep them alive and fed.
Family Celebrations: I came to love family celebrations. It is customary in my country to hand out sweets to children during family celebrations, so it was probably back then that I fell in love with chocolates in particular. Family celebrations were the only times that there was a lot of food and sweets available.
Army Stadium: The Army Stadium in Peshawar is a well-known amusement park and as little child I always wanted to go because it was a place known for games, toys, football and good food. But buying a ticket to enter the place was USD 2, so something we could not afford. However, twice I got lucky enough: One time an uncle of mine living in Australia took me during one of his visits; and another time I was allowed to go with my cousins during Eid, one of our religious holidays.
Cricket and football: Playing cricket on the roof top of the houses in which we had rented a room often enough got me in trouble with our neighbors, but I still greatly enjoyed playing it with my cousins; every time we finished our carpet work around 4pm I would go to a nearby park, where you did not have to pay an entrance fee, to play football;
The US invasion
For some reason I also remember the day that former US president Bush announced the invasion of my country and the intent to remove the Taliban from power. I was at my aunt’s house in Peshawar at the time and watching Scooby-Doo on TV. My aunt was terrified at the prospect of the upcoming war since my uncle, namely her husband, was in Kabul during those days. Later on we were told that he had to spend a few days and nights in the basement of a house in Kabul until the situation allowed him to leave and escape. It did not take long and my entire family from my mom’s as well as my dad’s side arrived in Pakistan to escape the ongoing war. As soon as the situation improved, maybe one or two years after the invasion my family decided to relocate again. There was nothing for us in Pakistan and according to father’s thinking at the time going back could only improve our situation.
Relocating to Kabul again
The second time we left Pakistan I remember much better than the first time. Together with about four or five other families we were cramped into a small truck and made our way to the official border crossing. The car could only move very slowly as it was overloaded with people and our belongings. Not far from the border at a big place we stopped and registered our names before crossing into Afghanistan. In return for that we have received food from the World Food Programme, flower and oil I remember. Also upon arrival in Kabul we were provided with clothes and food by UN agencies for some time. Organizations, that I believe belonged to our government, would also come visit and ask if we do have a house. When my father said no, we were promised to be provided with a plot of land later – a promise that was never fulfilled. During those early years after the Taliban’s downfall a lot of development aid poured into my country but least of it reached the people that would have really been in need of it. Greed among those responsible for distribution prevented it from happening. As was written in an article of “The Guardian”, a news outlet in the UK, by someone who worked in my country for years: “And where was the money was coming from? It came from the pockets of the taxpayers in EU, UK, US, Canada, and Australia.I have since left Afghanistan, but I was recently reminded of my former life when European leaders gathered in Brussels to give $3bn (£2.45bn) to Afghanistan. The UK alone announced £750m in aid for the coming three years. As a former government official, and a former UN staffer in Afghanistan, I have concerns about how this money will be spent. What safeguards are in place to ensure that the money benefits Afghans? Will a farmer in a remote village benefit from these donations after they seep through various corrupted layers of government? I worry that Europe has given the Afghan government a blank cheque.”