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Fifteen Rupees MAG
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.
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.
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.
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.