In the final week of classes, I presented my thesis along with my peers to an audience at University in Ottawa. In a small gathering afterwards, students shared the nervousness of the uncertainty that lay ahead and professors, government officials and field professionals advised on the prospect of entering the “real world”. I was asked what plans I had, to which I replied; I am going back to Afghanistan. Being in a conflict studies program meant everyone had a sound knowledge of what was going on in Afghanistan? So I was prepared for the immediate follow up question of Why?
The confusion and concern that transpired that day and has in fact accompanied me to Afghanistan in the last three months is understandable. My family and friends are worried and caution me that “for someone who has lived most of his life abroad, finding a place for himself in here especially with the deteriorating situations is not possible”. Therefore, in such dire times my return from the diaspora to the homeland is perceived to be illogical and illusory.
My return so far
A return to my homeland has delineated a whole package of socio-cultural meanings. It has brought together memories and longings, definite physical sensations with the intangibles and of course so much that cannot be spoken. I have realized on my return that home is an intimate place and a significant contributor to shaping of my identity. I have noticed that there is often an unsettling consequence for both the diaspora returnee and the local population. Change and continuity has been a constant development for both me and the home. I have come to struggle with the question of what correlation my return has to the protracted conflict.
It is certainly true that return migration is perceived as a positive sign that conflict is abating and a return to “normalcy” is occurring. Returnees are often considered as significant agents in the post-conflict reconstruction efforts. There is a general implicit assumption that diaspora return is unconditionally good as it offsets the massive epidemic of brain drain that often plagues conflict zones. I believe this is rather a sedentary thinking that homecoming is unproblematic, and returnees will be naturally re-inserted into the homeland once left behind.
I have realized that the reality of a homecoming that does not match to the imagined and experienced homeland is emotionally destabilizing and arguably harder to settle than migrating to a new part of the world. The cool welcome towards the returnees is a general theme that emerges in the homecoming experience. The animosity towards the returnees is derived from envy of exaggerated images of the “comfortable”, “easy” living conditions that the returnees have supposedly enjoyed abroad.
The experience of the returnee is not all negative as homecoming can actually lead to a “discovery” of a new sense of attachment. Considering that life in the diaspora is often characterized by poverty and marginalization rather than a luxurious life of a cosmopolitan. In this respect, homecoming holds great potential for empowering. It is “liberating” and can be characterized “progressive” as opposed to a dislocated diasporic life of hybrid “postnationals”.
Personally, my decision to return has been adamantly clear for sometimes now. In such difficult times for Afghanistan, it is my responsibility to return and provide my service. This desire to return under such unfavourable conditions might upset the postmodern belief that the bond between people, culture and nations has withered away. My conviction is not based on a nostalgic reaction to the hardship of displacement. Neither do I aspire to be one of the many opportunist Afghan Diasporas who flooded Kabul in 2002 and by now are back on route to their host country with the fortune made in Afghanistan.
I have chosen to return now precisely because there is no promise of personal gain. I neither have any affiliation with anyone in power nor strive towards flashing my foreign degree to obtain a high salary job. I return with a simple task of building an ICT library in my home town. What I endeavour neither fits in a NGO template nor meets the donor demand. So as expected, I am struggling.
Why I write
In a time when the refugee crisis has taken the front and center of the world’s attention, it is indeed a perplexing read of someone’s voluntary return to a conflict zone. Particularly, when the return destination happens to be the second largest exodus of the current refugees crisis. Tragically, Afghans are again leaving their country by thousands daily. The causes are escalating insecurity and more than a decade of economic underdevelopment that has become quite difficult to bear.
Return migration is an emerging phenomenon and I am certainly not alone. There are thousands of young dedicated Afghans who have voluntarily returned and are now working in Afghanistan towards a better future. This is precisely why I have chosen to write, to share my experience in the hope that the young generation in my country will choose not to leave.
Perhaps as someone who has left the country himself almost two decades ago, I do not have any right to call on Afghans who will embark on this dangerous path today. This goes as well for many of the afghan leadership today who themselves are Afghan diaspora returnees pocketing dual citizenship and yet calling on young afghans to not leave their country.
But my plea is not that of our elite class who speak from a secure and rather comfortable vantage point. I do not voice our former president Karzai’s disgraceful rhetoric that ‘stay and build your country’ who very much laid the foundation for the current despair. I am truly dumbfounded how a person who presided over the last decade of ailing socio-economic condition and responsible for the misery of the nation today is still allowed to appear before the nation in an eccentric pretentious fashion and preach.
My appeal to my fellow Afghans is as a citizen who has lived abroad and believes there is no salvation in Europe and beyond. Despite the fact that today Afghanistan is marred by increasing violent insurgency and terrorism, the chances are not much worse than staying alive on route to Europe. In Afghanistan the young generation is unfortunately a mere target of insecurity, but by leaving and uprooting oneself, the young Afghans become dispersed moving targets. Even if one succeeds to reach the shores and borders of Europe after a long tortuous journey, what is next? Is the life purpose to stay alive or to live to one’s full potential? A foreign land can hardly be a resourceful prospect for a refugee.
The total estimate of Afghan diaspora stands at over four millions. For many Afghans who left their country and settled in the Global North, there was a grave socio-economic shock, from being once part of established elite, to struggling new immigrants. Afghans who held high government positions in the homeland, it was impossible to obtain a job in the host country that would be commensurate to their previous status in Afghanistan. Hence, the previous generation of Afghans who left their homeland all have had to come to terms with socio-economic downgrades in their host country.
It is important also not to misconstrue challenges that Afghan Diasporas in the Global North face with the banality of imagery being propagated within Afghanistan today. I am referring to the assumptions that all Afghan Diasporas are taxi drivers, restaurant cleaners, and many other labels comprised for the purpose of demeaning. Yes, Afghan Diasporas in Europe and beyond have historically faced many challenges in their host countries. Afghans like any other immigrant groups learned to persevere in the face of obstacles that the host country structurally places upon them. Parents often do sacrifice themselves by working labour intensive jobs in order to provide a better future for their children. These pervasive clichés emerging by irresponsible propagandists inside Afghanistan is not useful in deterring the mass exodus.
The previous generation of Afghan refugees were the largest in the world for more than a decade and had the Western sympathy for being victims of Soviet War. Today an Afghan refugee has to compete with growing and more desperate refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Many of the states in the global north are reluctant to grant asylum to Afghan refugees because they still sell to their public that their decade long involvement in Afghanistan had been a success.
Afghans today leaving their country endure being smuggled through dangerous routes for months, walking painfully, running fearfully, being insulted, kicked at, shot at, loved ones separated amidst chaos, and if still did not drown or die of exhaustion, they reach the borders of so called “safe havens”. It would be a blessing if this was the end of their struggle. Little do they know that their enduring hardship will be structured and systematized under the guise of immigration policies of their new host country.
Today Europe, North America and Australia is a much more different host for asylum seekers. These countries are in most part enduring an economic recession that has led to a re-emerging right wing nationalism and a substantive islamaphobic segment of a population. It is not just a question of challenges of cultural shock and integration for immigrant communities in the host society. It goes beyond structural violence as the attacks on immigrant communities and Muslim immigrants in particular is a documented concern in most of these refugee hosting countries.
Afghans who choose to flee quite understandably have all the rights to do so, but should be informed on what awaits ahead in their destination. It is the responsibility of all concerned including the Afghan diaspora to share their experience. In my return as I share with my generation of Afghans this dreadful cycle of protracted war and bleak socio-economic condition with no light in sight, I hold on tight to the feeling of belonging to a homeland and its people that was always missing in the diaspora.
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