Islamabad, Pakistan – On a recent October evening, 41-year-old Shakira Aslami was washing dishes in the tiny kitchen of her two-room apartment when she heard a commotion outside.
As she opened the door, her son rushed in. “They are here, the police are here,” Milad told his mother in a panic.
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Shakira knew what she had to do: she searched the apartment for the bag that contained her family’s most prized possessions – their passports and visa papers – while her daughter, Lima, kept watch from the stairwell as three police officers made their way through the building.
“I could see from the stairs of our fourth-floor apartment, three men were on the first floor, shouting and yelling,” Lima recalled.
Shakira found the bag – a blue backpack that Lima used to take to school with her back in Afghanistan – and frantically pulled out the papers, just as the men began banging on her door.
She presented the passports and documents to the police officers – two of whom were in plain clothes and the other in uniform and carrying a gun. One of them, she said, “shouted that I cannot live here and tried to snatch the papers from me, threatening to arrest me”.
Her neighbours – almost all of them refugees like Shakira and her family who had fled Afghanistan for Pakistan after the Taliban returned to power in August 2021 – came out of their apartments and began remonstrating with the police officers.
“Our neighbours came out and shouted: ‘You cannot enter a house like this, a woman is alone there’,” she said. Shakira’s husband was at the market buying groceries and she was alone in the apartment with their four children – seven-year-old Mansoor, 10-year-old Masood, 13-year-old Milad and 17-year-old Lima.
Shakira said the police officers eventually left, but not without being bribed. On two occasions since, other police officers have visited her home, with each set more threatening than those who came before them.
“They said if we want to continue living here, we must give them something to stay quiet or else,” she said, adding: “This is what worries me the most. They know we all live here, they can come back anytime they want and throw us away.”
Living in limbo
Although Shakira was alarmed when the police first came, she was not surprised. She had heard about the Pakistani government’s campaign to repatriate undocumented Afghans by the end of October. She had even learned from neighbours that countdown advertisements were being placed in newspapers and on television as the deadline for people to leave approached.
Pakistan is home to almost 3.8 million Afghans. They fled to Pakistan in various waves in the decades since the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979. Between 600,000 and 800,000 are believed to have arrived since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.
While the majority hold some form of documentation permitting them to stay in Pakistan, government officials say more than 1.4 million are undocumented. Among them are people who were born in Pakistan and have never even been to Afghanistan.
Shakira and her family arrived in Pakistan on a one-year visa in February 2022.
“My family applied for a visa extension in May – all six of us – but we have not received any response, neither to tell us it has been rejected or accepted,” she explained. “We had to pay close to 10,000 rupees ($30) per person to apply for a visa. If the government doesn’t want to issue us a visa, why take our money?”
To illustrate the point, Shakira’s husband, 40-year-old Ahmad Fahim, removed the family’s passports, identification documents, academic degrees and employment cards from the backpack and spread them out on the carpet.
“We are living in limbo and have no way to find out the fate of our application. Now, we are scared we may get thrown out of the country,” Shakira added, clear about one thing: she will not return to Afghanistan.
“Kill me here, or let me live, but I am not going to go back,” she said, defiantly.
‘Leaving our entire lives behind’
Back in Kabul, Shakira, a former history and geography teacher, worked as a medical technician in the same hospital where her husband was a logistics manager. They had a good life, jobs they enjoyed and a home that was a hub for friends and family who would gather there to appreciate Shakira’s cooking and hospitality.
Shakira remembers her home with pride. It had three bedrooms, two large drawing rooms – one for men and one for women – and was in an affluent neighbourhood popular with ethnic Tajiks like Shakira.
Ahmad Fahim, a broad-shouldered man with a friendly disposition and an expressive face, is an ethnic Uzbek. The two are paternal cousins and married almost 20 years ago after their union was arranged by their families. At first, they lived in their home province, Faryab, which is close to the border with Tajikistan before moving to Kabul, where they raised their family and built a happy life together.
“Our home had an open door for all our relatives and friends visiting the city. They’d come to stay with us, and I loved hosting them,” Shakira recalled with a smile as Lima brought kava, a beverage made by boiling green tea leaves with cinnamon and cardamom, in the thermos flask the family brought with them from Afghanistan. She poured it into glass cups and offered a bowl of brightly-coloured candies.
As Shakira described how she used to love to buy new home furnishings for their house, Ahmad Fahim interrupted her. “Even though we both earned well, it seemed as if she had a hole in her hand,” he joked, shaking his head.
“I like good things!” Shakira protested gently.
She had to leave all of those things behind – a favourite sofa and the family’s bedsheets were among the most painful possessions to part with.
Shakira had been a member of women-led groups that demanded greater rights for Afghan women and when the Taliban returned to power, she participated in several protests.
Her female manager at the hospital also participated in the protests and was warned by the Taliban authorities that if the marches did not stop, the participants would be imprisoned. Then, Shakira’s manager was fired and replaced by a Taliban official. A month later, Shakira and four other female employees of the hospital were told to stay home.
Fearing further reprisals, Shakira and Ahmad Fahim decided to leave the country. They applied for Pakistani visas and began selling off their belongings. A month later, they received their visas.
“We left our home one day after receiving our visa documents. I did not want to stay back for a second. I didn’t want to put myself or my family in any kind of danger,” Shakira said.
They headed for Torkham, the main border crossing between the two countries, “leaving our entire lives behind”.
They took only what they could carry with them – a suitcase, the thermos, a large quilt, the blue backpack, a laptop, a sewing machine and nearly 500,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,800).
‘Worth less than a rupee’
Now, their home is a sparsely furnished rented apartment in a low-income neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Since the government announced that undocumented Afghan refugees would be forcefully repatriated, Shakira said, it feels more like a prison than a home. Every time there is a knock on the door, she is filled with dread.
But it was not always this way, she explained, as light drifted in through the only window in the room and her husband and children sat around her. When they first moved in 16 months ago, the apartment felt like a refuge, she said; a huge improvement on the tent they had spent three months living in before they moved in.
It was difficult to find somewhere to live. With an influx of Afghan refugees arriving in the months after August 2021, rents in Islamabad had skyrocketed. And property owners often either charged a premium from Afghans or refused to rent to them. As they searched for a suitable place, Pakistan’s worsening economic situation and rising inflation ate up their savings – making it more and more difficult to find somewhere they could afford.
Shakira and Ahmad Fahim found odd jobs – she sewed clothes; he worked in laundries and as a barbecue chef in restaurants across the city.
“The problem is, because we don’t have any documentation, nobody wants to hire us, even though we were both working professionals in Kabul,” Shakira explained. Ahmad Fahim nodded.
He often takes odd day labourer jobs in the hope of making some money but says that employers sometimes take advantage of his undocumented status – refusing to pay him or paying him less than was agreed once he has done the work.
But what hurts his pride the most, he said, is the xenophobia he has encountered. “I have met quite a few people while trying to find work,” he explained, emotion creeping into his voice. “Some of them have quite literally said I am worth less than a rupee. One person said I am not even a human, just because I am an Afghan without documentation.”
He said many Pakistanis suspect Afghans like him have dollars – believing that they must have worked for US organisations before the United States abandoned the country. “They see us as a golden goose for them to fleece and flog,” he said. But, he added, “if we had dollars, we’d have given bribes to get ourselves visas.”
Still, Ahmad Fahim said he does not tar every Pakistani with the same brush. “Most of the Pakistanis who are poor like us, I found to be the most helpful and supportive,” he explained.
There is one Pakistani man he recalls with particular fondness. Shortly after they arrived in Pakistan, Ahmad Fahim found work in a laundry in Rawalpindi. “It was one of the first jobs I got after moving to Pakistan, and my task was to press clothes and fold them at this small laundry shop,” he said.
“My co-worker was from Mardan [a city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province] and he realised my situation. Without even having to ask, he bought me a mobile SIM [card] himself. He just said, ‘Let me help you out, don’t thank me.’”
Without a Pakistani national identity card, Ahmad Fahim would not have been able to get a local mobile connection by himself. The two men stayed in touch until earlier this year when the Pakistani man moved back to his hometown and they lost contact with each other.
There are other Pakistanis who have shown compassion to the family. The couple are particularly grateful to a doctor in one of the hospitals in the city who provided free medication, a check-up and other treatment for their 10-year-old son Masood, who has type 2 diabetes.
“One insulin injection costs over 14,000 rupees [$50], almost as much as our rent. But God bless the doctor. It is a miracle to find such people in a city where you don’t know anybody,” Shakira said.
But mostly they have found support among other Afghan families. That is why this apartment once felt like a safe space. Afghan families occupied most of the apartments located along the five-storey building’s long corridors.
A young woman who lived with her family in one of the apartments would teach the children English. But when the Pakistani government began its repatriation campaign, her family decided to move back to Afghanistan.
“I wish I could get back in touch with her whenever she reaches Kabul so maybe she can teach us online,” Lima said wistfully. “Because now all I do at home is get into a staring contest with the walls.”
Shakira’s days are similarly spent stuck in the apartment. Her daily routine now involves cleaning the house, washing the clothes and dishes, teaching her children, who have not gone to school since they moved to Islamabad, and sometimes sewing clothes for other families in the building, in the hope of earning some money.
Even before the government announced that undocumented Afghans would be expelled, Shakira said, families like hers tried to stay under the radar as much as possible for fear of being picked up by the police.
“We were scared of being reported, and now with the government announcement, that fear has only multiplied,” Ahmad Fahim explained.
He avoids Pakistani acquaintances in case they report him or demand a bribe and also turns down jobs that are too far from home, in case the police come again and he is unable to get back in time to be with his family. Shakira and the children, meanwhile, avoid leaving the apartment. It is a big difference from the life they were used to in Kabul.
Milad said back in Afghanistan, he would play football outside with his older sister and other children from the neighbourhood. Lima said she misses being able to roam freely with her friends. “We had a great life, a normal life, and that is the one thing that I miss the most,” Lima reflected, adding: “I don’t think I can ever get that again.”
The highlight of Shakira’s week now is her weekly visit to a nearby market with a few other Afghan women from the building.
“I get to haggle a bit and now some of them know me, so I get an extra discount,” she said with a chuckle. “Besides, it’s not as if I buy a lot, only a little bit of potatoes, some lentils, red beans, and flour.”
To ensure the groceries last for the whole week, Shakira rations her family’s meals. Meat and rice, a staple of the family’s diet in Kabul, is off the menu here – as are many of the other dishes she used to cook in Afghanistan, including bolani, a type of flatbread filled with minced meat that her children loved, aushak, a dumpling filled with chives and topped with tomato sauce and yoghurt, and the traditional Afghan pilav.
“[In Afghanistan,] it was a routine for us to prepare dinner, sit together and tell each other about how we spent our day, and what we did,” Shakira recalled. “We still eat together, but obviously, we don’t have much to tell each other.”
‘Running out of hope’
But returning to the life they left behind is not an option for them, they said. “In earlier times, they [Taliban] were barbaric, and it was horrible. We had to wear burqas to cover ourselves completely and barely got a chance to go outside,” Shakira recalled, adding: “I don’t want that life again.”
“We cannot go back to Kabul any more,” Ahmad Fahim said categorically. “My wife could get caught by the Taliban, and my son won’t get the treatment he requires for his diabetes. I cannot put their life in peril knowingly. We won’t go back.”
But even as they remain resolute, the couple feels as though the walls of their lives are closing in on them.
“My wife and I spend nights awake just thinking and worrying what if the police carry out a raid,” Ahmad Fahim explained.
Shakira said her anxiety was now such that she could not sleep at all.
“God tells us to be grateful all the time,” Ahmad Fahim said softly, looking around at his children beside him. “I try to live day by day and say the same to my family, the way we used to in Kabul. But now I am running out of hope. I don’t know what I can do. I don’t know what choice I have.”
He has a strong faith, Ahmad Fahim said, and has always believed in miracles, but he acknowledged that for the first time, he was beginning to doubt there would be divine help for his family.