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Fifteen Rupees This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

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The sun was slowly waning in creamy wisps of peach, mauve, and cerise. But these pastels were in stark contrast to the chalky gravel below. Scores of shops rose incongruously, overshadowed by palatial houses; men in starched shalwar kameez bought groceries, talking on mobile phones; women carried shopping bags to their cars; boisterous children dragged their mums to samosa stands.

Amid this commotion, street vendors were quick to spot business. They gave meticulously timed calls to sell their products. If anyone revealed even an iota of interest, their eyes lit up, and they would circle the client like vultures. In time they would wrangle him into buying something.

Life moved at its usual lightning pace in Islamabad. “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near …” I ­recalled carelessly from literature class as I waited in the car. Growing impatient, I turned on the radio. DJs talked animatedly about the upcoming elections.

Knock. Knock.

Nonchalantly, I glanced up and saw piercing jade eyes. They were sad, ­almost reproachful in their ­untold ­sorrow. They were the eyes of a child robbed of childhood. Yet there lay a ­glimmer of playful innocence in those pools of jade.

Knock. Knock.

Shaken from my reverie, I lowered the window.

“Please buy these flowers.” She held a fresh bunch of narcissus wrapped in her ragged shawl. They filled the air with their fragrance. The Afghan girl shook off her frayed sleeve to reveal a callused hand. She had the playful eyes of a 10-year-old, like any child I would see at school, but her hands suggested she had not spent her days in the playground. They testified to her hard work to win her family a meal in this alien land.

Draped in a threadbare shawl, there was no sign of self-pity in her face, but it was tanned to a shade of fawn. Despite her look of determination, there was a note of pleading in her soft voice. I tried to hide my emotions. I was sure she would not have liked my pity.

“How much?”

“Fifteen rupees.”

I rummaged through my purse, ­feeling a pang of guilt. Here I was, ­sitting idly while she roamed the streets to earn a morsel of bread. I rarely thought of the food I devoured. I complained constantly about exams. It was heartbreaking to know that for her school was not even an option.

After digging through wrappers, I found some money. Just 15 rupees, I thought. She would hardly be able to afford four naan.

She thanked me with a smile, then I watched her approach her siblings, showing them the money triumphantly. They rushed to clean the nearest car with pieces of cloth. The youngest ones tagged along to beg for money.

***

Life was harsh for the Afghan refugees, and I wondered at the uncertainty that time holds. Only three decades ago, Afghanistan was a peaceful country. In that long-forgotten time, these children’s forefathers must have had a pleasant childhood. Their worries would have been no different from those of Pakistani children today. They too must have had dreams about growing up. Pure white lambs playfully frolicking in the verdant meadows of Kabul.

Yet the wheel of fortune had turned. In only a few years, Afghanistan became distorted into a region of violent conflict, precarious for its residents.

Not one person could escape the malicious forces of war. ­Strife conquered the area, tearing apart families, orphaning children, and forcing five million Afghans to seek refuge in Pakistan and Iran. These Af­ghans were now stigmatized as refugees, illegal immigrants shunned by society, living in shanty towns without basic amenities – some even without water.

I couldn’t imagine arriving in an alien land, not knowing if my family was alive. Yet the Afghan refugees were patient and tried to carve out a place for themselves in a foreign land, with an unfamiliar language.

Back in their homeland, these same people were respected and many were highly educated and skilled. They left behind well-paying jobs and a good standard of living. In Pakistan, their qualifications were often not recognized, forcing many to re-train or do completely different work to support themselves.

Afghanis are known for their honor and pride. But here, now, they were degraded. In makeshift towns they lived with rampant crime and unemployment. Children yearned to go to school, but abject poverty drove them to fend for themselves. Life was now defined by insecurity. It was unclear if the refugees would ever be able to return home.

As they arrived in Islamabad, they were placed in shanty towns or camps run by humanitarian organizations. When I was eight, I remember asking my mum about the blocks of ocher mud neatly arranged to build these modest dwellings. Surrounded by heaps of rubble, they stood on the outskirts of the city. The fields around them were arid and infertile, with only a few sheep. It seemed a very strange location for a home.

The Afghan community faced hardships here. There would be dried roti for dinner, and the barrels would never be full of water. Their lives were marred by death, incurable illness, and sickness that would drain them of their energy, yet these weren’t their ­only troubles.

Ironically, these refugees had fled Afghanistan to escape violence and human-rights violations, yet their vulnerable situation now exposed them to additional threats. In this alien land they constantly risked being robbed. Their children were susceptible to kidnapping. Some were even forced to fight for military groups.

However, even worse for the Afghans, they had begun to lose their identity. Being dependent on relief agencies was detrimental to their self-esteem. Many felt hopeless, not knowing what their situation would be from one day to the next. They were left with few ways of ­expressing their ­independence.

They had a rich culture, language, and civilization, yet they were at risk of losing their national identity. Afghan­istan once was a welcoming land of blue ice-capped mountains, fields of ­asphodels, and lush green ­valleys. War had shattered yet another nation.

***

“Fifteen rupees.” I remembered that weak voice as I slipped a thousand rupee note into my back pack. She had returned to her moss-covered hut and I to my two-story abode. Though we had gone our separate ways, her image was imprinted on my eyes, blurring my ­vision, disorienting me.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the October 2008 Teen Ink Travel Contest.




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This article has 7 comments. Post your own!

OsakaSun said...
Mar. 2, 2011 at 7:26 pm:
Awesome! just one question...what is naan?
 
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irtfaz said...
Nov. 4, 2010 at 4:57 pm:

It seems a lot of people reading this article are from Pakistan... and so am I. I'm from Pakistan and Kashmir on my dad and mom's sides, respectively. 

Sometimes, I'm just at a loss about how to explain it to my friends at school or anyone who hasn't experienced it. Sometimes people are just unaware of issues like these - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and other countries that may seem far away truly aren't - we are all the same at the heart of it, and we are all connected. Thanks f... (more »)

 
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ilove2read124 said...
Jul. 31, 2010 at 8:01 pm:
im from pakistan too, but i live in america, i only visit pakistan, and i was astonished at how i saw one girl and a few other children just trying to wash cars for money.i asked my family about them,and when i learned their tragic story, it just broke my heart, this reminds me of it in the same way, of how desperate these people are, all because of war.thats terrible.but people do need to hear this, good job =']
 
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bunnyboo496436 said...
Dec. 16, 2009 at 6:20 am:
this is truly amazing and btw im paki to :D its nice to know that you write beautiful pieces
 
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puzzleyou said...
Oct. 10, 2008 at 5:03 am:
It's a nice portrayal.
 
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autumnpeace91 said...
Oct. 8, 2008 at 1:47 pm:
Thankyou so much!! =)
 
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harry-potter said...
Oct. 4, 2008 at 8:58 pm:
hey, i read ur article n i luv it! im from pakistan too n i know what u mean =) good job!
 
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