Afghan-refugees
Afghan refugees in Sector I-12 in Islamabad, Pakistan.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Pari is 55 and for the past six years she has been living in this semi-permanent slum of tents and roughly built clay houses.

As she brews tea for a visitor on an open-air fire in the courtyard of her house, she describes how she and her family struggle to survive in Sector I-12, a section of the capital city owned by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that houses between 3,000 and 3,500 Afghan refugees.

Dressed in a dark green shirt and pants, Pari begins with the way she is making the tea, without a gas stove. To cook a meal, her daughters must forage for the same kind of dried grass and sticks of wood she is burning to make our tea.

Her husband is sick with hepatitis and cannot work. That leaves things up to her and her six children, aged 14 to 22. Her three daughters share the household chores while her three sons find low-wage work.

Her oldest son–Hayat Khan–earns between $3 and $4 a day selling vegetables and fruits from a donkey cart. Her youngest sons–Momin Khan and Yousaf Khan–work as daily wagers but both are drug addicts and spend all their money on drugs.

One of Pari’s daughters is still young enough to go to school, but it doesn’t matter. Education is out of the question for girls in her culture, she said.

Her sons go to madressah, or a school for religious instruction in Islam. She would like her one grandson to be educated, but there is no school for refugee children–boys or girls–in the I-12 sector.

But while life is hard for refugees here, few can contemplate returning to a country that is still just as war-torn as when many left it years ago.

No Safety, Not Even in Kabul

If Afghanistan could promise them safety, many would rush back. But the dangers in Afghanistan, even in Kabul, leave many feeling safer living as refugees. They fear what would happen to them under the Taliban or Daesh, the Arabic acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In different interviews, several female refugees described their homeland as a scene of utter desolation: houses, schools, health care institutions all destroyed. For some, cattle–their only source of income back in their old lives in Qarabagh, Helmand, Sangin and other parts of the embattled country–have also been destroyed by the Taliban.

Koko Jan, 30, from the Qarabagh district of Afghanistan, has been living in I-12 for the last six years. "When it rains, dirty water coupled with sticky mud sneaks into our muddy houses," Jan said. "The whole slum turns into a slippery mud puddle making it hard to walk."

She complained of poor sanitation, saying garbage can lie around in I-12 for days, contributing to cholera, diarrhea, breathing problems and rashes among the children.

I-12, she added, has no hospital or free health clinic for war-ravaged refugees. When someone needs treatment they go outside the settlement to hospitals or health care centers in other parts of the city.

In the absence of any health facility, it’s common for pregnant women in I-12 to deliver at home, with unskilled birth attendants, if any. Many mothers and children, Jan said, die in labor or from complications shortly afterwards.

When contacted by phone for comment Qaiser Khan Afridi, a spokesperson for UNHCR, said "the refugee commission and other partner organizations have provided solar batteries, lamps, shelter, water hand pumps to the refugees living in I-12 settlement in Islamabad."

But unlike many other refugee camps, where the U.N. has set up educational and medical facilities, Afridai confirmed that currently there are no schools or health care units in I-12.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, the Hashoo Foundation, its operational partner, has operated basic health care facilities and schools in the settlement but they have been disrupted by lack of funding.

Jihadist Threats

Muhammad Gul, 33, a resident of Baghlan province in Afghanistan, told Women’s eNews that in his home country jihadists ask locals to pledge allegiance to the group and wage jihad. Those who do not are being killed and their houses are bombed and demolished, he said

The government has been trying for years to repatriate Afghans.

But on Dec. 30, 2015, Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan extended the latest deadline, saying it was simply impossible for the government to throw out 3 million Afghan refugees.

Pakistan is home to 1.5 million registered and more than 1.2 million unregistered Afghan refugees, according to U.N. and official statistics respectively, making it the second largest host to refugees after Turkey.

The first wave of Afghan migration into Pakistan began after December 1979 when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and compelled a large number of Afghans to flee their country in order to escape conflict, mass executions, arrests and other human rights violations.

Since then, the country has been hosting ever rising numbers of Afghan refugees, spread across cities, rural areas, 76 refugee villages and settlements such as I-12.

Life for these refugees is often one of extreme deprivation.

Raeesa Walayat, 35, also lives in I-12. The mother of four–three daughters and a son–detests the lack of running water. "Water is a basic facility of life, but we don’t have it," she said as she stood in the courtyard of her home.

She said her children fetch water in plastic cans from a nearby hand pump. Her extended family is overcrowded. "We have four rooms in our mud house and 10 to 12 members used to share a single room."

In the absence of electricity, some people in I-12 have installed small battery-operated solar panels to trap energy to run ceiling fans and lights.

Walayat admits that some of her young children also earn money illegally by selling vegetables and fruits on a donkey cart. Children in Pakistan are not allowed to work and most of the young people selling food from donkey carts are over 18.

Children are visible in I-12. Some, wearing flimsy sandals and tattered clothes, run around in little gangs playing together. Others, barefooted, can be seen removing trash from their homes or doing other household chores.

It’s not the kind of life their mothers want for them, but so far, it’s the only kind of life they know.

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