Page last updated at 23:10 GMT, Friday, 9 October 2009 00:10 UK

Afghans seek refuge in Tajikistan

Ten-year-old Afghan refugee Burhon
Afghan students must learn Russian and Cyrillic to continue their lessons

By Rayhan Demytrie
BBC News, Vahdat

During Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s, thousands sought refuge in Afghanistan. Now Tajikis are returning the favour.

Tajikistan is one of the poorest states in Central Asia, but unlike its neighbours Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan it is willing to accept Afghan refugees.

Sitting on the floor in her one-bedroom flat in the Tajik city of Vahdat, Afghan refugee Farzona Sakhi is sifting through dozens of certificates obtained on completion of Western NGO-run courses in Afghanistan.

Her latest job was with Save the Children in Kabul. But she was forced to leave the country after being threatened by the Taliban.

"I taught underage girls their rights, I explained [to] them what is forced marriage or early marriage. Child abuse is a huge problem in Afghanistan. I worked with them for four years but then I received a warning letter," says Ms Sakhi, holding back tears.

Sulton Ali and three of his children
Sulton Ali cares only that his children are not surrounded by war

"They said my teaching is against Islam, and that I am teaching Christian values. I had to leave Kabul."

According to the UN refugee agency, cases like hers mark one of the new trends among Afghan asylum seekers in Tajikistan - educated English-speakers who claim they are escaping persecution from the Taliban for their association with Western NGOs.

"Other trends include arrivals from southern and central Afghan provinces," says Ilija Todorovic, the UNHCR country representative in Dushanbe.

"In the past it was mainly ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks from the north of Afghanistan, now refugees are coming from Helmand, Kandahar, Kabul."

Afghans have always travelled to neighbouring Tajikistan, but now the number crossing the border is raising concern.

Stable neighbour

According to the UN refugee agency - the UNHCR - there were more than 1,300 Afghans seeking asylum in Tajikistan in 2008.

That number has almost doubled in the first five months of 2009.

Among the reasons for the influx is violence over the border in Pakistan - the most common destination for Afghan refugees.

"Many of my friends were killed in Afghanistan and I fled to Pakistan," says Sulton Ali, who was born in the Bamyan region of Afghanistan.

"My four children were born in Pakistan, but now that country is unstable too. We came here because Tajikistan seems more stable."

But the living conditions here are extremely poor.

Tajikistan, itself a poor country, is struggling to provide the refugees with jobs and healthcare.

A special government decree outlawed the settling of refugees in the capital, and job opportunities in small rural towns are almost non-existent.

I will go there if the war stops, it is my homeland, everyone likes their homeland
Burhon, 10

Sulton Ali, like many Afghan refugees, works as a trader in the market.

He has to earn at least $80 (£50) a month - the cost of the rent for the two-bedroom flat he shares with another family.

There is no furniture in his flat, only a pile of quilted blankets - kurpacha - and some pillows.

There is no running water and no gas. His wife says they rarely eat meat because it is too expensive.

But Sulton Ali does not complain, he says the most important thing is that there is no war and his children can study.

Sulton Ali's eldest daughter attends a UNHCR-run Russian language classes for Afghan refugees.

Dari, which is widely spoken in Afghanistan, and Tajik both originate from Persian. The main difference is the alphabet. Dari is written in Arabic and Tajik in Cyrillic.

In order to continue their studies in Tajik schools Afghan children have to learn to write in Cyrillic and learn basic Russian.

Sulton Ali's wife and child
No furniture, no water and no gas make life tough for some refugees

Ten-year-old Burhon speaks fluent English, and he is now mastering his Russian.

"I learned my English at school in Kabul, but the famous language here is Russia not English," says Burhon.

He reads what is written in his exercise book and laughs.

"It says here 'mush dushmani odam ast' - it means mouse is the enemy of human. But I think human is the enemy of human."

Burhon hopes that one day he will be able to go back to Afghanistan.

"I will go there if the war stops, it is my homeland. Everyone likes their homeland."

But few refugees believe the situation in their country will get better any time soon.

The lack of job opportunities and the poor quality of life in Tajikistan makes many hope for eventual resettlement in a more economically developed country.

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