This article is supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives

December 18, 2023

By Arshad Mohmand


PESHAWAR

Colourful eyeshadow palettes, bottles of liquid foundation, a pot of ink-black gel eyeliner and a variety of brushes, blenders and cotton swabs lay strewn about on a bench. In the brightly-lit studio, Aimen hunches over as deft hands paint steady wingtips above the volunteer mode’s lash line, careful not to muddy the gold and emerald ombre she has already painted on her eyes.

Aimen once cherished dreams of going to university, earning a professional degree and getting a well-paying job, all of which were dashed when the Taliban suddenly and violently assumed control of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021.

“[The Taliban] say that the girls do not have the right to step outside their homes, that it is not right for women to go out to work, so they have banned everything,” she says of the fundamentalist regime now ruling her home country.

Like many others, Aimen and her family arrived in Pakistan with the hopes that they would be able to resume the life she had back in Republic-era Afghanistan, where the girls were able to go to college and upon graduation work in companies and government institutions as full-fledged professionals. But instead of understanding her plight and lending a hand of support, Pakistan met her and other Afghans with suspicion and contempt.

Education is as distant a dream in this ‘sanctuary’ as it is under a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. For the past two-and-a-half years, Aimen has had to contend with the fact that she will not progress beyond 11th grade, as without any legal documents and her status as a foreigner, she will not be able to gain admission in any school here.

But the devil finds work for idle hands, and so Aimen resolved to learn new trades in order to start work early and provide for her family. She got this start through the Rangeet Welfare Organization (RWO) where she is currently enrolled in a beautician training course. There are many more young girls and boys at RWO who, bereft of the opportunity to attend a formal school in Pakistan, are trained in various creative vocational skills.

Sumbal is also a refugee Afghan who is making a living as an art teacher. A prolific artist herself, several of her paintings decorate the walls of the RWO’s studio-cum-sitting area. One of her paintings depicts a veiled Afghan woman, her head trapped in a birdcage as white doves circle her, flying freely. A painting as innocuous and sincere as this would have had the Taliban swooping down on her like carrion birds.

“I do not think I would be able to paint or teach in Afghanistan, because [the Taliban] do not like women progressing in life and doing something with themselves,” she says.

RWO founder Jalwat Huma has not only been running her organization on her own for the past several years, but is providing skill-based training to some 200 students, male and female. Roughly 30 percent of beneficiaries are Afghan while the others are young Pakistanis engaged in labor due to lack of education opportunities.

“There are many troubles in Afghanistan right now, and we pray that things settle down there,” Huma says. “[The Taliban] closed down all the beauty parlors there, and I received many students who used to be beauticians there. Now that they have spent some time here, they have been able to learn Pakistani styles and this has made it easier for them to set something up for themselves – if not somewhere outside, then at least they can run salons from their homes.”

Aimen and Sumbal are fearful that if forcibly returned to Afghanistan, they will face unimaginable persecution.

“The girls who [are in Afghanistan] face a lot of problems there,” Aimen tells Voicepk.net. “There were demonstrations [for] their rights, their freedom. But unfortunately, the Taliban killed most of them. Most of them lost their jobs, they cannot go out, because they had great positions in the government they fear that if they go [out of] their homes, the Taliban will kill them.”

According to official estimates, since October, around 500,000 Afghans have returned to their home country after the Government of Pakistan announced a November 1 deadline to deport all undocumented migrants. Per official claims, many of the repatriated migrants left Pakistan ‘voluntarily’, while on the other hand civil society organizations as well as migrants themselves say that legal, documented Afghans are also among those deported.

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