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IRAN: Afghan Pashtun finds refuge in neighboring Islamic Republic

December 28, 2009 |  2:51 pm


For decades Afghan refugees have been sneaking into Iranian territory across the long, barren border, escaping the poverty and war in their own country.

The first waves of immigrants were Afghanistan's ethnic Hazaras, who share a common Shiite Muslim faith with Iran, and Tajiks, who speak almost the same language as Iranians. 

But increasingly Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtuns, Sunnis who speak their own language, are also coming across the border and settling in Iran, anecdotal evidence and voices heard on the street suggest.

Life for them in Iran is not easy. Not only do they struggle with the language, but they can't open bank accounts or send their children to school.

After working hard for a couple of years, they gather their savings and go back to their war-torn country, often getting travel papers from the Afghan Embassy in Tehran or consulate in the eastern city of Mashhad.

Then, they come back, again and again. 

After a few years, their faces appear again on Tehran's streets as they can here earn three to four times what they make in Pakistan and five times more than more what they make in their own country. 

"If I wanted to work anywhere except Tehran, being Sunni, it was difficult," said Mohammad Taher Gilani (pictured above right), an 18-year-old laborer from Ghazni. "I was teased when I was saying prayers with my hands locked into each other like the Sunnis."

But a year ago he crossed the border and came straight to Tehran, where he got a job working at a construction site northwest of Tehran and digging wells for the sewage system. 

The sewage job, for the municipal government, is dangerous work. Every day, he descends as much as 500 feet into the earth. 

But every day he earns as much as $15, he says proudly.

"Here nobody cares who I am," he said, in broken Persian akin to the Dari spoken by many of his countrymen. "Here nobody distinguishes me from a Tajik Afghan."

Like most Afghans, Gilani's short life has already been a catalog hardship. He doesn't remember when his mother died. But his father was killed four years ago by a piece of flying debris during a clash in his native province. 

Gilani was a farmer, growing barley in his village in Ghazni, which has been stricken by war and drought. He earned only $3 a day working in Pakistan, and left.

But here he boasts that he has managed to save nearly $3,000 to send back to his family in Afghanistan. 

He lives with five other Pashtuns beneath a construction site. 

"It's getting cold but we wear more clothes," he says. "Iranian people are kind to us. There are some exceptions, but on the whole we are much more comfortable than in our homeland or Pakistan."

-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

Photo: Mohammad Taher Gilani, right, poses for a picture with his friend Jalil in Tehran last week. Credit: Los Angeles Times