WHY Shadleen fled Afghanistan

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By Ruba Nackeeran

It was a sunny Saturday morning in early November 2018 when Shadleen* welcomed me into her flat in Kuala Lumpur and offered me a glimpse into her life. As I stepped inside, I noticed every inch of the floor was covered with carpets and the furniture was intentionally kept minimal, a common feature of Afghan homes.

Sitting cross-legged in front of me with her 2 young children sprawled on the carpet watching videos from her mobile phone, Shadleen pours me an aromatic cup of Afghan tea and begins to share her journey from Afghanistan to Malaysia and her life as a refugee here.

Born and raised in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Shadleen was the youngest of three. Her traditional family like many others, prohibited communication between men and women who were not related, and marriages were arranged only between families who knew each other.

Shadleen met her husband, Moinkhan, while at university as a second year Economics student. The first time he approached her father and brother to ask for her hand in marriage, he was given a stern warning and threatened with assault if he ever returned. Undeterred, he approached them again sometime later and was brutally beaten with wooden bats until he was unconscious and bleeding profusely.

Moinkhan was hospitalised for almost a month and Shadleen’s father used his influence to have Moinkhan detained by the police as soon as he was discharged from the hospital. As Shadleen was prohibited from leaving her home, she was unaware of Moinkhan’s predicament.

Shadleen’s lecturer noticed Shadleen’s long absence from classes and paid her father a visit to persuade him to allow Shadleen to continue her studies as she was one of the brightest students in her batch.  Persuaded, Shadleen’s father allowed her to step out again but with a final warning that no man should so much as look at her and that if she were to marry it must be with one of her distant relatives.

After Moinkhan was released by the police, he sneaked into Shadleen’s university to see her and explained everything that had happened to him. Moinkhan expressed that despite being beaten so brutally, he still loved her and wanted to be with her. He suggested they elope to his village but Shadleen felt conflicted between wanting to be with Moinkhan and not wanting to dishonour her family.

However, the more she pondered, the more she realised she did not want to be subjected to her father’s dominance any longer or end up in a loveless marriage like her parents.  Soon they left for Moinkhan’s village which was 3 hours away from Kabul and within a month they were married after Moinkhan’s parents overcame their initial disapproval of the couple’s decision to elope.

In his village, Moinkhan started work as a driver transporting fuel to foreign troops based in Kandahar and Jalalabad. He was aware that although his job paid very well, working for foreign troops was deemed illegal by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist armed group which was very active at the time.

Months into his job, Moinkhan and his colleagues were driving their fuel trucks when they decided to stop for a nap during the early hours of the morning. They were jolted awake at the sound of a loud explosion. Two fuel trucks parked ahead of them had gone up in flames. Moinkhan later learnt that the Taliban was responsible and that a detonator was stuck to the first fuel tanker which caused the explosion.

Many month later when Moinkhan was on his way home, he was kidnapped by four armed men and taken to a remote building. The abductors identified themselves as members of the Taliban and stated that Moinkhan is wanted by the Taliban for the ‘crime’ of working for foreign troops. They offered to ‘acquit’ him on condition he works for them to provide information on the foreign troops. However, if he were to approach the police or flee, the safety of his family would be compromised. Moinkhan was then released.

Visibly shaken, Moinkhan returned home and told his family they must pack up and leave immediately as he did not want to work for the Taliban and jeopardise the lives of the foreign troops. However, Moinkhan’s parents who were deeply rooted in their village life, refused to leave rationalising that they were not involved with foreign troops and as such would not face harm from the Taliban.

After much debate, Moinkhan and Shadleen fled the village and went to Kabul with their then 6-month-old baby. While in Kabul, they lived in constant fear of being discovered by the Taliban or by Shadleen’s family.

They heard from a friend in Kabul that they would be able to seek asylum in Malaysia. As they were preparing for the journey, Moinkhan received news that the Taliban were relentlessly searching for him all over his village and that they had murdered his parents. Moinkhan was emotionally shattered and until today, he is unable to let go of the trauma and guilt of leaving his parents behind.

In April 2014, Shadleen, Moinkhan and their child arrived safely in Malaysia and applied for asylum through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).

Though Shadleen feels safer in Malaysia, life as a refugee here has proven to be difficult since Malaysian law makes no distinction between undocumented migrants and refugees. Thus, people have a limited understanding of who is a refugee and often confuse refugees with illegal economic immigrants.

When they arrived, they found it difficult to find a place as most landlords refused to rent to refugees. When they did finally find a place, they had to share their small space with 3 other families to spread the monthly rent of RM1,000.

Refugees in Malaysia have no legal right to work but as a means to survive, many take up work in the informal job market and are often exploited and underpaid by employers.

Shadleen and Moinkhan initially relied on the generosity of other refugees to survive and it was only after 3 months that Moinkhan managed to secure work as an automotive painter.

Moinkhan had suffered a shattered thigh bone from the impact of the wooden bat which was used on him by Shadleen’s family. This has made it very difficult for him to work regularly due to the pain in his thigh. The surgery to treat his thigh will cost at least RM2,000 and the recovery period will put him out of work for almost a year. As they are still paying off a medical debt they took for the delivery of their second child, Moinkhan will have to continue to rely on heavy painkillers to go about his day until they are able to afford his medical care.

Securing housing, a job and managing medical bills was not the end of their worries in Malaysia. Both Shadleen and Moinkhan are often stopped by the police who would confiscate their UNHCR documents and demand for money. Moinkhan once paid a police officer RM300 for the return of his documents. As their UN documents are their only form of legal identity while in Malaysia, refugees have no choice but to pay the exorbitant bribes, even if it means losing half a month’s salary.

Shadleen is very grateful Malaysia has granted her temporary asylum. However, she does not feel very welcomed in the country. Her hope is that someday, she will be offered the opportunity to be resettled to a third country which will integrate her into their society and provide her basic rights so that she can work and live as a free human being.

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.