Afghan refugee family trades death threats for bullies

Guli Rahimi with her colourful ponchos at the Rohingya Refugee Education Centre Bazaar in Taman Tun Dr Ismail last Saturday.

KUALA LUMPUR: The daily prospect of being killed by their fellow countrymen was taking such a toll on their emotions that Afghans Guli Rahimi and her husband, Taher, finally decided they had no choice but to gather up their children and flee for their lives.

The Rahimis are Hazaras, a primarily Shia ethnic minority in central Afghanistan, and in 2015 violence against them by the majority Sunni Pashtuns was reaching new peaks of ferocity.

No strangers to barbaric treatment, Hazaras have been persecuted, sold as slaves and murdered for generations. But after the Taliban announced in the mid-1990s, “Hazaras are not Muslims, you can kill them,” they had no protection.

Despite the escalating death toll, many Hazaras stayed put in their homeland. Then in November 2015, a group swearing allegiance to IS abducted and killed seven Hazaras, including women and children. That was when the Rahimis decided they had to make a break for it.

Guli spoke about her family’s experiences to FMT in an exclusive interview.

“Before we ran away, we were facing so many problems,” she said. “It had become too dangerous for us. We never knew if we would survive the day. We couldn’t go on risking our children’s lives.”

Hazaras generally flee to the West in search of a safe haven but Guli and her husband chose to head for Malaysia for refuge.

“To get into Malaysia we had to walk through southern Thailand. It was scary, especially for the kids because we had never experienced jungle before. But we drew strength from being out of Afghanistan and on our way to safety in Malaysia.”

They made it to Kuala Lumpur where they now live.

They are safe but life is not a bed of roses. Afghan refugees in Malaysia face problems in terms of jobs, schooling, and general survival.

“When we first arrived, my husband couldn’t get a steady job. He cleaned houses but often they didn’t pay him. He sometimes got work in restaurant kitchens, but the police would come and tell him he was not permitted to work there.”

After much searching, Taher found work within the Afghan community itself. Through her husband’s job, Guli met other Afghan women refugees. Some of them are orphans or single mothers so life is doubly hard for them.

Guli and the refugee women started making ethnic items to sell at markets around the city. For many of them this was the first time they had done anything apart from housework.

“It’s an amazing change for us,” says Guli, now 29. “In Afghanistan, women can’t work and girls can’t go to school.”

Last November, she branched out into her own business, Guli Poncho. She buys fabric at sales and designs and sews variations on traditional Afghan ponchos.

“I use Facebook and Instagram to look for bazaars to sell my ponchos in,” she says. “I don’t have an online shop, because I don’t have a bank account. It’s difficult for refugees to get things like that.”

Guli and Taher have two children. Their son is still too young for school. Their nine-year-old daughter’s schooling is proving to be another challenge.

Unlike Rohingya refugees, who have dedicated schools in Malaysia, Afghan refugee children do not yet have schools of their own. Guli and Taher’s daughter, Sahar, attends a school for general refugees.

Guli and Taher have encountered an unexpected problem: Sahar is often bullied at school. After the life and death problems of Afghanistan, bullying may seem inconsequential, but many parents will understand this. They know the helpless feeling when their child dreads going to school.

“They make fun of her,” she says sadly. “Calling her an Afghan beggar and other hurtful things. That’s not fair. She travelled all this way and may never see her cousins and friends again. She was eager to start school and make new friends but now she is miserable when she should be happy. We are not sure what we can do about it.

“Life can be difficult here for us Afghan refugees,” she says. Then she smiles. “But I am thankful because each day I know my family will not be killed, and that’s the most important thing.”