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Just across the border, far away from home

Afghan refugees scratch out a living in Pakistan

Afghan children earn less than a dollar a day sorting rubbish in the Lahore streets Afghan children earn less than a dollar a day sorting rubbish in the Lahore streets
  • ucanews.com reporter, Lahore
  • Pakistan
  • October 23, 2012
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The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan may be over, replaced by the current conflict, but the survivors of this earlier war continue their daily battle to survive.

In 1980, when Soviet forces started hunting down young Afghans suspected of being Mujahideen, or Muslim Jihadists, young Gul Mohammad fled northern Kunduz province with his new wife.

“Locals trembled with fear whenever Russians used to come looking for young males. Nobody was safe from them,” he said.

Soviet soldiers killed his father on the eve of his wedding, he said, shooting him in the ribs from point blank range without warning.

“When I returned to our house in the evening, my relatives were waiting for me to bury the old man,” said Mohammad.

He left Kunduz with his new wife and headed for a refugee camp in Quetta on the Pakistani side of the border. He has lived in Pakistan ever since.

He earns a living dealing with trash in an Afghan slum beside the Ravi River in Lahore and teaching at a local school for Afghan children, a job he started five years ago.

Located in the middle of a rubbish dump and surrounded by drifting smoke from home industries in the area, the school is little more than a large hall where children can learn and study in small groups.

It offers courses on languages spoken in Afghanistan.

At the main school, an Afghani patriotic poem written under a hand-drawn sword serves as the only decoration in one room for four classes taught simultaneously by Mohammad and another teacher. This is the only learning facility for about 90 children from Afghan immigrant families in Lahore's southwestern suburbs.

Raza Saleem, program manager of Human Care Society which funds the Pak-Afghan school system, says almost all of the first class of students to enroll in the school no longer mine trash to make ends meet. They are doing other jobs.

“Seeing the change, we replicated the project in Afghan settlements in two other cities in Punjab province,” he said.

Akhtar, a fourth-grader who does still sort trash, earns 80 rupees (less than one US dollar) for two hours work per day, sifting usable items from everyday garbage.

“I have to take a bath before coming to school,” he says.

Like Mohammad, he lost his father in Afghanistan, although his tragedy came much later, during the current conflict. His father was killed by a blast in the southern city of Kandahar.

Despite the years of violence in Afghanistan, he still wishes to return there one day to continue his education. So does Mohammad.

“Some families return to areas where peace has been restored,” he says. “I stay in contact with relatives on the other side but I cannot go back yet.”

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