A springboard to a better life for minority Afghans

A springboard to a better life for minority Afghans

New Delhi: Nobody would like to call a matchbox-sized flat in Jasola Vihar, a dusty colony on the edge of south Delhi, home.

Peeling paint, mould and rampant advertisements of property brokers cover every inch of the facade, and the apartments are so small that, with two beds in one, you have to sidle in through the door sideways.

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But over the past three years, 22-year-old Ahmad Ali Shafaq, a student of PGDAV College in the Delhi University, has learnt to call it home. Unlike where he comes from—the province of Ghazni, in central Afghanistan—it is “at least safe and peaceful" here, so he can focus on his studies.

With his high cheekbones and short stature, Shafaq could easily pass off as somebody from the north-eastern part of India. “I love India," says the impeccably dressed, somewhat professorial young man repeatedly—and it would be easy to dismiss his enthusiasm as exaggeration. But it isn’t.

The Hazara community of central Afghanistan, to which Shafaq belongs, is doubly disadvantaged. Not only does this minority Shia community suffer from the continuing war in the country, but it is also discriminated against by the dominant Sunni Pashtun tribes.

As a result, Hazara children have few opportunities to study in their own country. India has, in a way, become their escape—an opportunity to study further, and, thus, a springboard to a better life. Of the 675 scholarships that the Indian government awards to Afghan students every year, nearly 80-100—a disproportionately large number—go to Hazara students.

Life has never been easy for Shafaq. He was an orphan, his mother having died when he was four and his father when he was six. The six siblings—five brothers and a sister—were supported by his eldest brother, a carpenter, who is 20 years older than him.

In 1997, under assault from the Taliban, the family fled their hometown, moving to Quetta in Pakistan, where a large number of Hazaras had taken refuge. That is where, while in class XII, Shafaq first heard about India from some friends who had come to study at the Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi.

His own move to Delhi would, however, take a while longer. Conditions had improved in parts of Afghanistan, and his brother decided to move the family back to Kabul. Shafaq enrolled for a degree in social science at the Kabul University.

That didn’t last long. “The syllabus was 30 years out of date," says Shafaq, shaking his head, “and, more often than not, the teachers never showed up."

A year later, Shafaq, along with four friends, applied for Indian government scholarships. Three decided to go to Pune; two, including Shafaq, came to Delhi.

Today, he’s in his third year of Economics Honours.

His first year in India was difficult. Academically, he had a lot of catching up to do, and it took time to adjust to Delhi. “The food was very spicy," he says smiling, “so I decided to stay in this part of town, close to the Afghan restaurants."

Luckily, Shafaq spoke Urdu, so the language was not a challenge. The scholarship gave him Rs6,600 per month to cover tuition and living expenses. That wasn’t enough to support him, and it had to be supplemented by Rs5,000 every month from home.

Why did he choose to study economics? “It’s the age of business," Shafaq says pragmatically. “Back home, the Hazaras face a lot of financial problems. I’d like to be able to help them." Like Shafaq, most other Hazara students choose to do courses such as commerce and business administration, which will get them jobs.

Jawad Rahmani, another Hazara student from Ghazni, is studying for a Bachelor of Arts in economics, politics and public administration (EPP) at Nizam College in Hyderabad. “The number of Hazara students coming to India," he says, “has been increasing over the last few years."

According to Pallab Roy, programme director of Afghan scholarships at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), the majority of Aghan students come to India for undergraduate courses. “Initially, most students require bridge classes," Roy says, “but nearly 70% of them manage to finish their courses successfully."

From India, the students move on to Australia, Europe or US—countries that, Shafaq’s roommate Aamir (who goes only by one name) says enthusiastically, offer qualified Afghan students a large number of scholarships.

There are a few exceptions to the general trend. Mohammed Ismail Joya has come to the University of Pune for a postgraduate degree in defence and strategic studies. After graduating, he plans to head back to Kabul, where he hopes to get a job in the department of national security.

Some other students have decided to stay on in India. Over time, a small community has taken root. They, in turn, through sites such as Hazarastudents.com, which is dedicated entirely to studying in India, help other students come here.

Shafaq is listed as the Delhi contact on the website, and he is currently in touch with four Hazara students from Afghanistan and a few from Iran who’re interested in studying in India. His enthusiastic love for India makes him the perfect brand ambassador.

Does he have any complaints? “None. The people here are so friendly; and there’s complete freedom to study and voice opinions."

Ideally, he would like to study further in Delhi, but he’ll need his brother’s permission. “There are financial problems in the family," he says, a look of sadness passing over his face. “If my brother wants me to come back, I’ll try to find work in a bank in Kabul."

There are times when Shafaq misses home. He hasn’t been back to Kabul since he came to Delhi, but he says that he manages to speak to his family once a week. Going back to Ghazni is out of the question. “It’s not safe there anymore," Shafaq says. Over the last few years, the town has been raided repeatedly by the Taliban-supported Kuchi tribe. The Hazaras who could leave, have left.

According to Shafaq, the aid money that is pouring into Afghanistan to build schools, hospitals and roads goes primarily to Pashtun areas. The dwindling Hazara areas remain neglected.

As he gets up to leave, Shafaq diffidently pulls out a book from his bag. “In my spare time, I write poetry," he says, with a faint smile. “Some of my poems were published in Mesharekat-e-Melli, a weekly paper in Kabul."

Shafaq has even represented Afghanistan in a few annual festivals of the Foundation of Saarc (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) Writers and Literature. This year, the festival was held in New Delhi, but, in the past, it has led him across the country, to Bhubaneswar, Cuttack and Agra.

“The festivals have been enriching and have been a good way of meeting people," Shafaq says. “The only problem is that the other poets are so much older than me."

Back in his small apartment, where a small room cooler fights a losing battle against the heat, Shafaq pulls out a piece of paper. “I write in Persian," he says. “Mostly ghazals."

The neatly typed poem is called Knowledge. “Seek knowledge, for its light brightens the soul of man," reads a verse. “A single particle of this is like a Sun, thus, it beautifies the world."

This is the second in a four-part series on people from neighbouring countries living in India. To read the previous story in the series, log on to www.livemint.com/neighbours

Next: After a three-decade-long civil war, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees ponder their return home.