A new life in Belgium after 40 years of war in Afghanistan?

Afghans in Antwerp: ‘The journey begins once we reach our destination’

© Visit Flanders (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

The 40-year war in Afghanistan is pushing more and more Afghans to become refugees. Their numbers are also increasing in Belgium. In the port city of Antwerp, Afghans have become the fifth largest nationality group. Gie Goris went to Antwerp and listened to older and younger, male and female, Pashtu and Dari-speaking refugees and migrants from Rebel Country.

‘The Scheldt quays,’ responds Hasib Jan Habibi when I ask which place he cherishes most in the city where he lives. ‘The combination of silence, a slow-flowing river and birds is wonderful.’ Dawood Shujazada also prefers the silence of nature and proclaims the Rivierenhof as his favorite place in Antwerp. ‘When I go cycling there, I am in paradise,’ he says. But it is not difficult for him to make a longer list of cherished places: the Permeke library, the Kiel park, even the Luchtbal district with its decrepit apartment towers has something appealing for him. Hamida Mahaber recalls the first time she arrived in Antwerp, by train. ‘I was incredibly impressed by the Central Station. It was as if the train had pulled me right into a museum.’

The Afghans of Antwerp I spoke to over the past few months would make excellent city guides for rural Belgians, like me. During every conversation I had for this article, the Afghans speak with great warmth and affection about “the Belgians,” but never refer to them as Flemish.

‘When you really get to know the Belgians, you have positive experiences with them,’ Hasib Jan Habibi knows. And if a xenophobic remark is made in trams or trains – the great exception, I am told – there is always a daughter who comes over to apologize for her father’s misbehavior.

Someone later warns me that those heartfelt words of appreciation about the friendly and helpful Belgians do not tell the entire story. ‘They won’t say it straight to your face, because they want to be exemplary citizens. But among themselves there is a fair amount of complaining about the sullen aloofness and lack of hospitality of the Belgians. And certainly about the lack of respect for parents or the elderly.’

The Afghans of Antwerp I spoke to over the past few months would make excellent city guides for rural Belgians, like me.

The Afghan community

‘The Afghan community in Antwerp does not exist,’ says Hakim Nawabi. He fled the Taliban in 2000 and has been working for years as a counsellor in the asylum center in Arendonk. With his statement, Nawabi refers to the many differences and contradictions that divide Afghans: Pashtuns versus Hazaras, Dari speakers of different political persuasions, minorities versus majorities, recently arrived youth versus older people who have been here for several decades, conservative men versus women who want to spread their wings, former communists versus fundamentalists … These differences do not lead to real conflicts, but neither do they help shape one community that can be represented by a singular voice. Perhaps it is better to speak of the Afghan population, with all the differences that are implied therein: origin, socio-economic status, talent, philosophy of life …

In 2012, there were about 2,500 people of Afghan origin living in Antwerp. According to the city’s most recent data, on 1 January 2020 there were 7535. That is as if you were to add, say, the municipality of Wachtebeke to Antwerp. And if you go by the estimate that most observers use spontaneously, in which they also take into account undocumented migrants or people who have their residence elsewhere, you can add Holsbeek with its more than 10,000 inhabitants to the city.

This “Afghan municipality” is relatively invisible, despite the fact that Afghans have become the fifth largest nationality in the city, after Belgians, Moroccans, Dutch and Turks. That growth is part of a broader, European trend. In 2019, some 52,700 Afghan asylum seekers arrived in the the 27 European Union countries, an increase of 34.8 percent over 2018. In Belgium, Afghans were the largest group showing up at the door of the Immigration Department that year with 3,400 protection applications, even ahead of Syrians. In other words, more and more Afghans no longer live in “Farawayistan”, but next door, in our street, in our city.

An unknown country becomes the Promised Land

The fact that more and more Belgians have an Afghan neighbor is not because our kingdom at the North Sea is popular in Central Asia. ‘You only end up in Belgium if you already have family here, if your asylum application was rejected elsewhere or if you have bad luck,’ says Hakim Nawabi. He belonged to the latter category in 2000: on his way to Denmark, he stranded in Zaventem with his forged passport. Jaweed Ahmadzay fell into the first category: when he left in 1999 he had Antwerp in mind because his grandmother already lived in Merksem.

‘You only end up in Belgium if you already have family here, if your asylum application was rejected elsewhere or if you have bad luck.’

Most, however, left without a real plan, hoping to get protection somewhere ‘in Europe’ in order to build a new future. Others had the explicit intention of going to Germany or the United Kingdom, often to connect with distant or close relatives, who could help them make a new start. But the unpredictability of the migration routes and the dependence on smugglers often resulted in a different outcome. ‘At 4 a.m., alone with two daughters, I was left by a smuggler on the streets of a city I did not know, in a country I had not chosen,’ Hamida Mahaber recalls.

For Hasib Jan Habibi, a twenty-something who now lives in the Abdijstraat, the journey lasted little under a month. Sakhi Mirbaz, a lawyer who lives in Antwerp Linkeroever, took just over a year to make it here, while Sahadi Daria was on the road for about fifteen years, from the time his mother first wrapped him in moving clothes to his arrival in Brussels as an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker.

There is no single story of refuge or migration and no single story of arrival: each individual story began and evolved differently. Marzia Masjidi and Malalai(*), for example, both simply bought a plane ticket to Zaventem after marrying a Belgian Afghan, while most of the young people who arrive have gone through a traumatic journey which they can hardly express in words – even if they were able to find people willing to listen.

In the end, for all the Afghans I spoke to, the journey is not what counts, the new life for which they undertook the journey is. It turns popular wisdom on its head: not the journey is the destination, but only at the destination the journey truly begins. Or to phrase it more correctly: the new life begins the moment the waiting period is over, when there is positive news on the asylum or protection application, when all the necessary paperwork for a legal existence arrives.

© Gie Goris

But a new life does not suddenly and automatically blossom. Some come as adolescents, others had important positions or successful careers in Afghanistan, but everyone must “go back to Start”. The same goes for those who don’t arrive as refugees, but come to join their spouse. Marzia Masjidi, for example, worked in the world of international organizations in Kabul until late 2012. After her marriage, she quit her job and moved to Belgium. The deputy director, who was responsible for 300 employees, who was in contact with embassies and ministries, who provided income for the family, who had a car with a driver, suddenly found herself at home with nothing to do. In a city dominated by a foreign language.

Dawood Shujazada recognizes the feeling. He studied mathematics and physics, taught for twelve years and later worked for the Ministry of Youth, among other things. When his wife, who worked as a documentalist for the parliament, was pressured to deliver security documents, she had to flee. Dawood followed her to where she ended up: a small studio apartment on the Amerikalei in Antwerp. They moved to Hoboken and now live in Borgerhout. ‘It was anything but easy to build a new life,’ says Dawood. He retrained as an electrician, did a temporary job in Aartselaar, applied for jobs constantly. But his lack of experience, his feeble Dutch and a driver’s license that isn’t valid here form barriers he has to cross, time after time.

Never giving up

It is typical of Afghans to stubbornly persevere. They refuse to be victims. They are willing to start again from scratch. Hakim Nawabi struggled through Dutch and got a master’s degree in law. Marzia Masjidi set up the Humanitarian Welfare Association, a non-profit organization focusing on human rights, gender equality and sexual harassment, aimed at Afghan migrants and asylum seekers. Farid Safi started The Third Line, an Afghan initiative focused on better information about living in Belgium. Shakerullah Nanikhel and Jaweed Ahmadzay each separately set up two Afghan mosques as a meeting place for Antwerp Afghans. Sakhi Mirbaz, who began his stay in Belgium with a month’s mandatory stay in the closed center 127bis in Steenokkerzeel, pulled himself up by his bootstraps and is now a lawyer, specializing in immigration law. This is his answer to what he calls ‘the trauma of his life’: ‘I was locked up because I wanted to ask for asylum. That didn’t match the image I had of Europe.’ Perhaps the most striking success story is that of Sahadi Daria, who spent literally an entire childhood on the run and thus could never attend school, but is now the principal of an urban elementary school in Linkeroever.

© Gie Goris

‘The most beautiful moment since I arrived in Belgium,’ says Hamida Mahaber, ‘was when I found work.’ She doesn’t like doing thus. And so the corona pandemic caused a low point in her Belgian years: ‘Suddenly I couldn’t get a job. And I realize that applying for a job is becoming more and more difficult: my age is not helping either, and despite my continuous efforts to learn Dutch, language is still a weak point in every application.’ But she continues to dream of a new job.

When they themselves talk about success, most Afghans – in a typical reflex for first generation migrants – look beyond their own struggles with language, environment and the past. The fact that they themselves, despite diplomas or impressive resumes, had to work as dockworkers, unskilled laborers or helpers in an old people’s home is accepted without much grumbling. Though they don’t resign themselves to it. One fights until he becomes an ambulance driver, the other until she becomes a point of contact for city policy makers. 

The real success stories are the diplomas of the children who are already old enough: law, biomedical sciences, medicine, pharmacy, architecture … Those who still have small children are already looking ahead with great anticipation to the moment when they themselves can present such lists. But this upward ambition of the older generation does not prevent a social drama from unfolding among the Afghan youth.

The youth is the future?

‘Young people arrive here with great expectations, aroused by the smugglers,’ says Bazsaz Gul Ahmad, a communist veteran who arrived in Belgium as early as 1997. ‘They almost believe that legal documents, housing and comfortable incomes are waiting for them. When these promises turn out not to be true – none of them – the disappointment is big, they lose hope and often also the energy to make something of the situation on their own. Shakerullah Nanikhel, grocer and driving force behind the mosque and the youth center in the Tulpstraat, is also concerned. He thinks the government should do much more, especially for the unaccompanied minor asylum seekers from Afghanistan: ‘Because if there is no investment in these young people now, I fear tomorrow they could become the new “lost generation” in the city.’

© Gie Goris

‘The Afghan youth who end up here have been through a lot both at home and on the road,’ says Sahadi Daria. ‘That makes them strong. It made them adult survivors. Yet you see that they have a hard time keeping on the straight and narrow once they arrive in this Promised Land.’ That, he adds, is because Afghan education is very strict, but lacks structure. In Belgium, it’s the opposite: too much structure and rules, but not strict at all. ‘They suddenly have to make their own choices, they are responsible for their own self-development. They are not equipped to do that.’

Hakim Nawabi underlines that the Afghans who arrived in recent years have a very different profile than the people of his generation. Most young Afghans in Antwerp today are uneducated or low-skilled, and quite a few are almost or completely illiterate. It is a generation that was born and grew up in war conditions. If they were able to attend school at all in Afghanistan, the education offered was substandard.

The boys grew up without rules or authority because their fathers were absent – either because they were embroiled in the war or because they were working full time to earn some income for the family. Their mothers were uneducated and powerless to exercise authority over their sons in the rapidly changing world. When they arrive here and are placed in asylum centers, they drown in the tsunami of rules, commandments and prohibitions. Naturally, that clashes.’

Moreover, the young people left home with the mission to earn enough money in Europe to support their family back home. And they are reminded of this every single day, via Facebook or WhatsApp. Sahadi Daria: ‘The uncertainty and insecurity of Afghanistan never leave them. Day and night they worry about who stayed at home, and they are reminded of their responsibilities. That stress makes for poor school results, which grows frustration and fuels the feeling that they are not at home and not welcome here. Some go to work in dead-end jobs that pay poorly, others get really off track and become street drug dealers or lurch into an addiction themselves. For far too many young people, their group of friends is the only home, but it functions more like a basket of crabs, in which anyone who tries to climb up is pulled down again by the others.’

Daria therefore believes that the city urgently needs to invest in neighbourhood work again: people who themselves come from the neighbourhood, who themselves have a background as migrants, who are themselves “of the street”. ‘They understand the young people, speak their language and know how to connect them with institutions or services that can help them. You have to guide the young people, not by telling them what is allowed, what is compulsory or what is forbidden, but by travelling the road together. They do not want to be helped as victims, because they are not victims. They want to move forward, but they don’t know how. You have to work with their strengths, based on their pride. Repression often backfires.’

The opposite sex

One of the big cultural knots Afghan boys have to untangle is the way they treat girls and women. ‘I recently came across a man who has been living in Belgium for twelve years, but is still unable to strike up an ordinary conversation with a woman,’ says Marzia Masjidi. ‘That’s dramatic, but not surprising. Forty years of war and conflict have really destroyed Afghanistan.’ Malalai’s story makes those concerns very tangible. When she goes shopping, she says, she prefers the local supermarket. Only if she needs very specific spices or such, she will visit the Afghan stores. ‘That’s where I get too many questions,’ she says. ‘Why are you alone? Where is your husband? That makes me nervous, which is why I avoid the Afghan networks and stores.’

‘I recently came across a man who has been living in Belgium for twelve years, but is still unable to strike up an ordinary conversation with a woman.’

It’s not easy to live as a woman in Antwerp, Malalai says a little later. ‘It’s not only the Afghan men, but also the Moroccan ones who constantly force me to be stronger than I am; who turn small concerns into big problems; who make me feel vulnerable. They always want to “protect” you: you don’t know the way, you don’t know the language, you get into trouble … But that’s exactly what makes you constricted and insecure.’

Malalai has now turned the switch: ‘Let them talk. I’m going to stand on my own two feet and will deal with my own problems.’ It makes her sound tougher than she is, because showing so much courage and putting her own name to it is a bridge too far. That’s why we use a pseudonym.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Respect. This is perhaps the most important thing the older generation of Afghans want to pass on as a cultural heritage to their own children and to the younger generation. But “respect” works differently in Afghanistan than in Antwerp. Do Afghan adolescents even know how to be respectful to girls or women who don’t observe purdah and also touch them without thinking about it? ‘Many young people living alone don’t know that,’ says Jaweed Ahmadzay in an empty mosque – corona has made it hard to pray together. ‘They are quick to think that anything goes here, as soon as the boundaries they know are crossed.’ Quite a few interlocutors point the finger at conservative, Islamic standards for that cultural inability. Others are firmly convinced that it is precisely the adherence to Islam that can provide young people with the footing they lack.

‘Europe should monitor migration better,’ says Bazsaz Gul Ahmad. And he does not mean, for the record, that more military force should be used to better guard the borders. What he does mean is that the reception of young people must be improved. ‘With more supervision, more guidance, more language training, more support in their search for a job. Otherwise they are prey for conservative preachers. After all, they come from a country that has been soaked in politicized religion for thirty years. It’s always there, everywhere.’ And that leads to an almost automatic reflex when the problems become too big or too hopeless, according to him: ‘Then they reach for the Islam they know from the village mosques or madrassas.’

When Hamida Mahaber was still in charge of primary education for the whole of Afghanistan, one constant problem was: ‘The conservative Islamists, who always had a reason to be against good education: it was too mixed, not Islamic enough, too Western, whatever.’ That’s why she doesn’t go to the mosque in Antwerp. Whether a conservative Islam is also preached here, with all the negative implications for girls and their educational opportunities, Hamida doesn’t know. She also has no desire to know. She can pray at home too.

(*) Malalai is a pseudonym

This article was originally published in Dutch and has been written with the support of Journalism Fund (Fonds Pascal Decroos).

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