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From Iran to Afghanistan: Rabia’s difficult homecoming

Rabia looks after 4 children alone since being deported from Iran without her husband. ©V. Goodban/IOM.

Rabia*, 29, recently became a single mother, deported from Iran with her 4 daughters during the coronavirus pandemic. Like many others, the Iranian authorities arrested Rabia and her family as they tried to make their way to Turkey, but in the process, her husband was badly beaten and they became separated. EU humanitarian aid provides tailor-made support to returnees like Rabia, helping them recover from trauma.

Since the beginning of the year, at least 695,000 undocumented Afghans have returned from Iran either forcibly or spontaneously. “My husband is not with me. It’s like I have nothing left in the world,” she says with tears in her eyes.

Rabia and her children found themselves at Islam Qala border with nothing. The family had spent all their money to get to Turkey. Without her husband, Rabia did not have any financial support.

Staff from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an EU-funded organisation, identified Rabia at the border and she was referred to IOM’s Protection Team for support in mitigating protection risks and responding to her immediate needs.

Since then, she has been internally referred to IOM’s Medical Health Unit for medical care and counselling, and to EU partner Word Food Programme for food packages and infant milk. Based on a comprehensive protection needs assessment, Rabia received cash assistance to help her meet her young family’s needs.

First steps to start over

“When you called me, I didn’t have one Af (the Afghan currency) to come here,” she says as she attends the distribution.

With the cash she is receiving today, she can buy basic items such as rugs, dishes and some things for her daughters. Because of her precarious situation, she has also had to borrow from family members to support her children – this will help her to pay back her debts.

Rabia receives EU-funded cash assistance to help cover her and her children's essential needs. © V. Goodban/IOM.

Since her deportation, Rabia and her children have been staying with her father’s family, but this is proving challenging. “I am staying with my family but they don’t have enough space,” she says.

Her family are poor and unable to feed 5 extra mouths. To make things worse, she has been on the receiving end of emotional abuse from her brother, who forbids her from calling the IOM caseworker or trying to make contact with her husband, blaming her for the situation she is in and saying she has behaved very badly.

She says she worries constantly about her children. One is still an infant, and the others “are very talented,” she says, “but I can’t afford to enrol them in school.”

Whilst state schools are free in Afghanistan, uniforms, notebooks cost money, which Rabia does not have. Since the pandemic hit, schools across Afghanistan have closed and it is only recently that they have started to take students back.

However, Rabia is clear what she wants for her daughters: “To continue their education and have a bright future … my daughter is very talented and likes studying,” she says with pride.

Healing from trauma

Rabia herself completed seventh grade only and her father-in-law forbid her to continue her schooling once she married. “We were not allowed to continue our education because of family problems and I regret that,” she says.

If possible, she would like to study more, but for now finding a job is her priority. “I‘m only knowledgeable about beauty,” she says shyly. “But I need to find a job and learn new skills.”

Rabia says her daughters are bright and keen to return to school. ©V. Goodban/IOM.

Based on the findings of the needs assessment, the protection caseworker has referred her to IOM’s Reintegration and Development Assistance in Afghanistan project to gain training and support to find employment. Rabia says she is ready to do any daily paid role, from tailoring to cleaning; her priority is to earn a living to support her children.

The protection caseworker has referred Rabia to mental health and psychosocial support services to obtain support for her children to attend school. But Rabia’s ongoing anxiety about her situation is evidently compounded by the distress caused by not knowing where or how her husband is.

The last time she heard from him, he called to say he was receiving treatment in an Iranian hospital for his leg injury and told her he was well and not to worry. He also disclosed that he thought he may be displaying coronavirus symptoms.

When she managed to track down and call the hospital back to find out how he was doing, they told her they had no patients registered under his name, and that a number of Afghans had recently passed away there from COVID-19. “I feel like half of me is missing,” she says, tears streaming down her face.

*Name has been changed for protection reasons.

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