Afghans in Pakistan: Their home and heart belong here

Published: March 2, 2015
Children of Afghan refugees in Karachi have few options when it comes to education and depend on madrassas in most cases . PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

Children of Afghan refugees in Karachi have few options when it comes to education and depend on madrassas in most cases . PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS


Many Afghan families living in Karachi’s neighbourhoods are unable to explain the hostility with which they are looked upon. Even though their second generation has put down roots here, they are still not considered Pakistani. “In any other country, we would be citizens,” laments Abdul Haleem, a young scarf seller who lives in what is known as the Afghan Basti of Karachi.

Raheemullah, now 50, arrived as a single man in 1979 after he lost members of his family due to war. He got hitched in Karachi and all his eight children were born here. But now people like him and Abdul Haleem fear for their future. They feel they are being targeted as the country reels from last December’s deadly assault on the Peshawar Army Public School.

Last month, a group of girls, clad in white, condemned the December 16 attack during a presentation in a Sohrab Goth seminary, and then on cue from their teacher, joined boy students in singing the national anthem.  The words “Pak Sar Zameen…” came out effortlessly. They sang with fervour and ended the anthem by bowing their heads in respect.  For these children, Pakistan is the only home they know.

At the Jamaluddin Afghani school, the only one in the locality, girls
furiously scribble out answers for a chemistry paper in a room without chairs or tables. There is moaning over their fate – in fact, they are only too happy to get a chance to study. Most of them know they wouldn’t have gotten such an opportunity in Afghanistan.

So when their loyalty is questioned, they feel insecure and hurt. “We will forever remain grateful and obliged to Pakistan. But Pakistanis should trust us. We will never harm them,” says Haji Abdullah Shah Bukhari, a representative of the refugees.

Many insist that they are not a burden on Pakistan because they earn a living through their businesses, which vary from carpets to garments, leather and threads.

According to the Afghan Consulate’s Refugees and Prisoners section, there are more than 66,700 registered Afghan refugees in Karachi in addition to the 250,000 unregistered ones.

But things are changing fast. There are growing complains about raids, arrests and ill-treatment by law enforcement agencies.

Inside Al-Asif Square at Sohrab Goth, notorious in its heyday for weapons and drugs, the market buzzes with activity. Shops here are stacked with garments, electronics and footwear, while roadside hotels attract customers with their green tea and traditional Afghani pulao.

Elders complain about the raids. “Since the attack, police officers have been picking up men even those with proper registration cards. They release them only after bribes ranging from Rs5,000 to Rs 10,0000,” one man pointed out. In January, up to 25 people were caught. By the first week of February, however, the number of arrests rose. Some 500 men were arrested from Afghan localities by the police. All of them had legal documents.

“This is hurting us. We are poor people, and we are now afraid to leave our homes fearing that we might be arrested,” said another.

Youngsters like Abdul Haleem who were born in Karachi, see no reason why they should be made to go back.  “I was born and raised here. I went to school here. I have never been to Afghanistan. I am a Pakistani.”

Where Haleem lives and works, around 3,750 Afghan families mostly from places as diverse as Kunduz, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, are settled. The locality, which is known different names like Jadeed Camp, Afghan Basti or Afghan Muhajir camp is located on the outskirts of Karachi. Since 1986, it is the only official camp for the refugees in the province.

People live in pitiable conditions: mud houses without power or gas, and water supply only recently installed in some parts, the colorful chadars on the doors hide the poverty within.

Rosy-cheeked girls and boys run in the garbage-strewn and sewage-filled lanes, half-dressed. But most aren’t complaining.

Purdah is strictly observed and women and girls venture outside in blue-colored “shuttlecock” burqas.  Urdu is not spoken. In one such house, Resa Gul and her two daughters are busy weaving a brown and white rug. “It is difficult work and takes ten days to make one,” she speaks in Dari, as her husband, who works in a factory, translates for her.

Resa Gul’s daughters have few options when it comes to education. Course Wahadat School is one school in this locality but students from grade 1 to 6, study under a thatched roof and sit on broken chairs. There is no government here either.

People here say that there are 36 mosques and madrassas impart education, nothing else as in the absence of formal schools, this is where many children go. At the Umer Farooq madrassa, boys sit cross-legged reading verses of the Holy Quran. Their teacher, Raheemullah, says that this is not where extremism is taught.

It is funded by children, whose families pay Rs100 for every child taught per month.

But the seminaries have come under observation as officers from the police’s special branch have started inquiring about what is taught here.

At another madrassa where 400 children study, Qari Faizur Rehman Madani asks why would they support terrorism when they themselves have been its worst victims. “They don’t want to go back.” Madani adds.

Seventy-year-old Haji Zia originally from Kunduz came here in the 1980s. He has not gone back ever since. “My wife and daughters make threads and I sell them. What will I do there?” asks Zia, showing his warehouse stocked with raw cotton for yarn and threads.

The few relatives that returned to Afghanistan have recounted stories of lawlessness and uncertainty. “At least we are safe here,” Zia says. His statement may sound ironic to most Karachi residents. But Zia swears by it.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 2nd, 2015.

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Reader Comments (34)

  • Ussama Yaqub
    Mar 2, 2015 - 9:47AM

    Innocent people shouldn’t be made to pay for the crimes committed by their kin. Humanity demands this of us. Collective punishment brings more harm than good for any cause. Recommend

  • Syed Shujaat
    Mar 2, 2015 - 9:52AM

    Afghans belong to Afghanistan, not Pakistan. They have already caused allot of damage to the country, now they must return back to their country what so ever it is. They came here as refugees and now the war is over, they must return what ever are the conditions.
    It is because of these people that terrorism have got so strong roots in Pakistan, if not the only factor they are indeed a BIG FACTOR.

    Government must stay committed about sending all Afghans back to Afghanistan, whether they like it or not, because it is about PAKISTAN. Recommend

  • touseef
    Mar 2, 2015 - 10:30AM

    A lot of people in the world would be happy to become emarati provided that they were born and raised in UAE. Please stop these emotional things and go back to your country.Recommend

  • Mustafa
    Mar 2, 2015 - 10:59AM

    Afghans are not Pakistanis as a human being I would like to give them time in order to relocate to their motherland because Pakistan is not in a good position to support them for their life, as Pakistanis we were forced to leave this beautiful country for not having enough opportunities. We want to see our generations secure Recommend

  • SK
    Mar 2, 2015 - 11:35AM

    Regardless of where their hearts are, refugees need to be repatriated. Not every refugee has caused security issues, and yes they may have second and third generations who are born and grown up in Pakistan, but it does not mean that they should not leave. Refugees and their younger generations should repatriate to their native land and help building their own nation. It may sound cruel but this is what every other nation practice.Recommend

  • A J Khan
    Mar 2, 2015 - 11:45AM

    Those who discourage repatriation of Afghan Refugees do so under a paid narrative & are no friends of Afghans.
    Afghans refugees are trained labor force and should be repatriated to Afghanistan where they can starts their lives in permanent basis and help their country develop.
    Security situation in Afghanistan is far better than Pakistan. Its the right time for them to move back.Recommend

  • usman777
    Mar 2, 2015 - 11:46AM

    There are better mechanisms than collective punishment. Register them all. Provide a path to citizenship that rewards education, literacy and punishes criminality. Deport criminals and drug-addicts, retain businesspersons. Regardless, even if you are deporting them, do so with respect. Finally, those innocent faces – you can’t help but feel sad at the state of affairs in our region.Recommend

  • ABCD
    Mar 2, 2015 - 12:03PM

    Afghans can go to their best buddys in IndiaRecommend

  • analyst
    Mar 2, 2015 - 12:21PM

    I cant understand why ET is lobbying for afghans living here in Pakistan. Recommend

  • Abdullah
    Mar 2, 2015 - 12:40PM

    @ touseef.So in dubai my dad came in 1979 and till date we dont have nationality( though i dont prefer having it also) .But all the afghans with legal documents should be allowed to stay( provided those legal document are not fake) .rest all should go back to afghanistan.Recommend

  • Tabriz Yusufzai
    Mar 2, 2015 - 12:47PM

    Pakistan is not in a positive to run its own economy properly right now. Afghans are our brothers but still we all know who runs the Drug mafia in Karachi, who gives the place to their fellas to live in Sohrab Goth and other Pukhtoon areas being an Afghanz that are trained in Afghanistan by the Indians and are involved in terror activities and when they r traced by the agencies out here they run back to Afghanistan as their safe heaven. I am not saying that every Afghan is the same but i can easily say that on an aggregate Afghanz do not like Pakistan at all since i have lived with Afghanz myself and the ones who would like to live in Pakistan as Pakistanis would have lucrative businesses or other financial reasons. Recommend

  • imran
    Mar 2, 2015 - 1:05PM

    Afghans have to respect Pakistan and hate India. Also our Ministry of external affairs have to formulate something which can let them become a Pakistani national , like the U.S and U.K. But it should only be in the best interst of Pakistan. Pakistan should be the priority and we should only accomodate those who will be good for us and not a burden on us. Recommend

  • Saif
    Mar 2, 2015 - 1:17PM

    dont forget that Pakistan is the biggest reason of them becoming refugees in the first place..Recommend

  • Raghu2
    Mar 2, 2015 - 1:26PM

    @imran Afghans have to respect Pakistan and hate India.You arent changing your ways in totality but only as a stopgap measure. You will invite more destruction.Recommend

  • Farzan
    Mar 2, 2015 - 1:29PM


  • Khaled Awan
    Mar 2, 2015 - 1:51PM

    Find Answers to Questions ?

    Who’s interference made the country plunge into civil unrest in 1975’s.
    Who were behind displacing those millions as refugees in 1979.
    Who is Interfering in Afghanistan’s Civil unrest.
    Who is Supporting Taleban and then switching sides with the US.
    Who is Destroying Afghanistan’s infrastructure.
    Is Pakistan Government dedicated to sincerely return the afghan refugees to Afghanistan or it is just a sort of political pressure ?Recommend

  • Ali S
    Mar 2, 2015 - 2:07PM

    Just imagine if countries like UK, USA, Canada and Australia did the same for Pakistani refugees or illegal immigrants (and there are plenty of them) – you aren’t a citizen despite being born there (or even your parents being born there) because you’re from a particular country, Pakistanis here would be staging protests outside their embassies.

    While illegal immigrants, criminals and those who forge documents should be prosecuted without discrimination, registered Afghans who were born here should be allowed to take oath of citizenship and renounce their Afghan identity – alienating them will only worsen the problem, as there are already plenty of ‘proper Pakistanis’ who hate Pakistan too.Recommend

  • Adeel
    Mar 2, 2015 - 2:42PM

    The whole idea of Pakistan being a country for local Muslims in the region would disintegrate if we send them back just for being Afghan.Recommend

  • Ravian
    Mar 2, 2015 - 4:26PM

    Most of the Afghans living in Pakistan are honest and hard working. But unfortunately, they are also running (or have to run) an alternate system in which their disputes are solved and other social issues are discussed. For instance, the Afghans living in Hazara region of KP, celebrate their Eid with Afghanistan (or Saudi Arabia). Thus they can never mingle with the local population. These days, they are facing the greatest animosity in KP, where people speak the same language and have more or less the same culture as the Afghans. Recommend

  • indian Observer
    Mar 2, 2015 - 5:01PM

    i think refugees everywhere are a hapless lot, show some kindness to them. When the situation in their country becomes alright, then its right to talk about repatriation. Please dont see them as a burden.
    India also has a lot of Srilankan ,Burmese and tamil refugees who still dont want to go back and so many Bangladeshi refugees and illegals(who have crossed the border easily) and they are now in every state of India, every state has Bangladeshi workers in the infrastructure industry. So maybe Pakistan can also make use of the Afghanis as cheaper labour, atleast till Afghanistan becomes stable.
    I am sitting here typing this from my office which most probably had Bangladeshis building it.Recommend

  • Imran
    Mar 2, 2015 - 6:39PM

    Pakistan should start a policy whereby Provincial govts can nominate aliens for citizenship, those who pass tests on that province’s culture and language. Recommend

  • A Khan
    Mar 2, 2015 - 7:34PM

    “There are better mechanisms than collective punishment. Register them all. Provide a path to citizenship that rewards education, literacy and punishes criminality. Deport criminals and drug-addicts, retain businesspersons. Regardless, even if you are deporting them, do so with respect. Finally, those innocent faces – you can’t help but feel sad at the state of affairs in our region.”

    Very very wise words! Couldnt have written it better. I completely agree.Recommend

  • khan
    Mar 2, 2015 - 9:32PM

    @Ali S:
    Yes Pakistan like a sacrificed animal should be distributed among people who would bring no good to it because after all it’s not our property or house.
    I wonder if there is a flood in the street and you happen to give refuge to a large neighbouring family and just because they also have some children born while staying at your place, would you guys decide to dedicate a part of your property permanently to them?Recommend

  • Khan
    Mar 2, 2015 - 9:45PM

    @Ali S:
    Please know the difference between the refugee, immigrants and asylum seekers.
    Could you and your extended family cross the border and live in any other country? Be it Gulf States or the Western Countries?
    Their country is much more stable now and has not been under the occupation from many decades now … Internal instability exists in many countries including Pakistan & India etc but that does not means we pack our bags and leave our country in millions.
    All refugees must be sent back. Only student & business type visas should be granted just like the countries you have mentioned.Recommend

  • Saif
    Mar 2, 2015 - 9:54PM

    Please stop blaming the poor Afghans, they were simple hardworking people who lived in peace until the commies attacked them unprovoked and since then they have been duped by everyone claiming to support them to forward their own agenda. Recruited for Jihad as an unpaid/underpaid army against soviets. Paraded to the world to get UNHCR funding, most of which went in to the pockets of those who managed the system. and I can say that from my own knowledge and observation.

    if you really want to blame someone, it should be the dead too late Zia and his masters in CIA and their stupid Saudis financers who are only interested in the 72 hoors in Jannah they would supposedly get for spreading their fundamentalist, extremist brand of wahabi Islam using the money they did not move a finger to earn.

    It has been more than 20 years since USSR disintegrated and moved out of Afghanistan. The stockpiles of weapons that were left by russians and US fueled the struggle for power and control over the lucrative business of heroin. Had UN, US and Pakistan played a proper role, instead of “using” the different warring groups to fight their proxy war.

    And please stop blaming afghans for taking away jobs, the only jobs they got away from the locals are manual labor jobs, and thats because they work harder, seems fair. Same as Pakistani’s taking away jobs from the locals in UK, EU and US.

    There should be a proper mechanism for repatriation and the possibility of citizenship for those who can be contribution members of the society.

    The govt and authorities should stop scapegoating innocent afghans for their own mistakes, both past and present while ignoring the real problem, those taliban that are rooted in Pakistan and have supporters and sympathizers in the local people.Recommend

  • zara haq
    Mar 3, 2015 - 12:28AM

    you are an indian, take all india to your house just because of that common factorRecommend

  • GS@Y
    Mar 3, 2015 - 1:15AM

    I for one DON’T support any wholesale relocation of Afghan refugees or people of Afghan origin. There are so many, particularly young ones, whose entire lives were lived in Pakistan. They are more our fellow citizens than foreigners.Recommend

  • indian Observer
    Mar 3, 2015 - 10:40AM


    The idea you just mentioned was proved false when Bangladesh was formed. So the premise on which that ideology you mentioned came into being is now proved false.Recommend

  • Pity
    Mar 3, 2015 - 10:53AM

    Those who attacked APS also called themselves ‘fellow citizens’. It is high time Afghan refugees should go back to Afghanistan.Recommend

  • Timorlane
    Mar 3, 2015 - 2:44PM

    @Mustafa: It’s almost been four decades now. They should have been sent home long ago but thanks to our corrupt rulers they keep ransacking this country with impunityRecommend

  • Javed (Lahore)
    Mar 3, 2015 - 11:00PM

    Let the Afghans stay in Pakistan. Don’t blame what a few extremist did on all Afghans.Recommend

  • straightshooter
    Mar 3, 2015 - 11:53PM

    Send the refugees home. Leaving a place is always hard. For decades, the Afghans had time enough to mix with the Pakistani Pashtun population. Their self-imposed isolation and identity-preservation has brought this day upon them.Recommend

  • Oats
    Mar 4, 2015 - 12:08AM

    @A J Khan: Agree fully that Afghans should return to Afghanistan and take their “skills” with them. We all know what kind of “skills” they use when they smuggle themselves into western countries to claim asylum and then live on social assistance because they are not employed mostly in West. Pakistan cannot afford to shelter these millions of refugees who are a burden on the country and have caused billions of dollars loss. The little refugee money given by UN does not add to anything and is the excuse Afghan refugees use to justify their existence in Pakistan. What’s worse these people when they are abroad always back bite against Pakistan and support India who has always manipulated them for decades. I am against all illegals in Pakistan – whether from Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, Iran or Bangladesh. Pakistan should focus on helping its own people first and close the border to foreigners.Recommend

  • Tariq Nawaz
    Mar 4, 2015 - 3:06AM

    They were born here and do not know anything about Afghanistan except the language.They should be given Pakistani citizenship.Recommend

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