afghan portraits

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Far from Afghanistan

»Think about a Syrian [or Afghan] refugee family. How much courage and true grit and ingenuity and energy does it take to put your two year old daughter on your back, grab your four year old son’s hand and walk across Turkey and walk across the Balkans and somehow make it to Germany [or Austria]. It’s like The Hunger Games. I want those people on my team.«

The former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Admiral James Stavridis on the »Intelligence Matters Podcast«, December 4th 2019

Refugees from Afghanistan are in the most terrible fix. They come from a country ravaged by war for almost forty one years straight. There was the war against the Soviet invaders that was followed by the civil war the Mujahidin rebels fought against the Soviet-backed government, followed by a Hobbesian war of all against all warlords, followed by the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by the Taliban insurgency against an US-backed government. If one has to pinpoint a country where the chances are high for the proverbial life that is nasty, brutish, and short – Afghanistan would come to mind.

»Internal Flight Alternative«

While the present conflict in Afghanistan is – as ever – widespread and volatile, civilian casualties are increasing, and no part of the country remains unaffected, many European countries deny Afghans asylum – and thereby paving the way for their return – on the basis of a controversial concept in international refugee law called »Internal Flight Alternative«. So do immigration authorities in Austria.

Tabloid Press & Populists

Meanwhile many Austrians – unsettled by sensationalist reporting of the tabloid press and incited by populist xenophobic politicians – choose to close their eyes to the plight of refugees in general and the Afghan people in particular, made woefully easy by the fact that we in general come across refugees in the form of impersonal numbers and statistics.

Far from Afghanistan

With this still embryonic series of portraits I intend to try and counter that tendency. To give some Afghan refugees hoping for a life in safety here in Austria a face and a sketch of a story to relate to. To give back to them some individuality and humanity beyond the numbers and statistics that are all too easily perceived as a menace.

Jawad Hosseini | St. Pölten | Lower Austria

Jawad Hosseini in his room | May 2020

Jawad was born in 1998 in the Alborz region of Iran to Afghan parents. Being ethnic Hazaras and Shias who have to endure persecution and repression in Sunni majority Afghanistan, his family fled from Ghanznie region during the civil war of the 1990s when his then two year old brother was murdered after Jawads grandfather as the family patriarch refused to take sides in the conflict.

Iranian Exile

Since most Afghans in Iran count as second class people at best and are worn down in a vicious cycle of (semi)illegality, exploitation, and persecution, he and his parents tried to exploit what then looked like a window of opportunity to seek a life worth living in Europe when its borders were open in the fall of 2015.

Fleeing to Europe

During their first attempt to cross the border between Iran and Turkey the family was arrested and deported to Herat in Afghanistan. There they spent some frightful days in a hotel before they made their way back to Iran and before long made another try to enter Turkey among a group of several hundred other refugees.
When Turkish border guards started to shoot into the air they triggered a mass panic among them during which Jawad managed to make his way to the Turkish side of the border but lost his family along the way. From there on he made his way across Turkey and the states of the western Balkans to Austria alone and arrived here in the spring of 2016. When crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece the rubber boat carrying Jawad got into distress and he lost all his belongings in the course of. Devoid of his mobile phone he had lost contact to the remaining parts of his family in Iran.
Only years later when he by chance met an Iranian acquaintance he was able to re-establish contact with his family and learned that his parents are alive but – having not made it across the border that night – that they are back in Iran again.

In Austria

Here in Austria Jawad suffered from depressions and showed symptoms of PTSD. He was shuffled between different refugee accommodations in several Austrian states but none the less managed to get himself into language courses and schools. His depressions, the sleeplessness and fatalism got better when he learned that his parents are alive but worsened again significantly when his request for asylum was declined in 2018. He dropped out of school and spent some time in a state of depressed paralysis. After some time Jawad realized that he had to pull himself out of that malaise. He objected to the ruling in his asylum proceeding, got himself a room for rent and a place in a school for social vocations. The thing most precious to Jawad here in Austria are his friends, among them fellow Afghans, Austrians, Chechens, and many different nationalities with whom he cherishes to play football. He hopes to be allowed to stay in Austria and to be able to lead a life in security here.

Morteza Ansari | Baden bei Wien | Lower Austria

Morteza Ansari in the lobby of the former hotel in Baden that is now an accomodation for asylum seekers | June 2020

Like many Afghans of Shia-Hazara origin, Morteza Ansaris parents fled their country during the reign of the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban in the late 1990s.

Iranian Exile

Morteza was born in exile in Karaj, Iran in 2000. In the fall of 2015 he ran away from home along with three friends to escape the precarious conditions many Afghans are forced to live in in Iran and to seek a more dignified life in Europe. The four teenage friends made it to Austria via Turkey, Greece, and the states of the western Balkans all on their own.

Austrian Exile

While still being a minor, Morteza was granted subsidiary protection status. That ended when he reached legal age and he is now waiting for a verdict on his application for asylum while working on his secondary school qualifications.