Afghan couple caught in miserable life seeks UNHCR support in Sri Lanka

Ahmed and Rehana in Sri Lanka (Picture courtesy Ceylon Today)

An Afghan woman has been sitting at the security entrance to the front office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for several days asking the UNHCR office to grant refugee status for her Afghan husband, Ceylon Today said.

She has been listed as a refugee for the past two years but not her husband; she claims they have been living in Sri Lanka all of that time. “Our situation has become critical now.  Our lives are in danger, we need to be settled somewhere safe," said the husband.

This is the story every refugee and asylum seeker comes out with but this man, Ahmed, insisted that their case is special. Ahmed introduced the woman, Rehana, as his wife.

Ahmed and Rehana arrived in Sri Lanka on December 22, 2012, and registered at the UNHCR soon afterwards. It was only Rehana who was given refugee status, while Ahmed was denied the facility. Though Rehana's documents could be processed, she said she will not leave until Ahmed's papers are processed along with hers. She is here fighting for Ahmed.

Powerful men were looking for Rehana and they wanted to kill her. He said they were attacked thrice in Sri Lanka and were afraid to go to the police, the couple claimed.

Rehana, who lived in outskirts of Kandahar, mother passed away when she was young, so her stepmother raised her, mistreating her all her life. "She had been beaten with an iron-rod on her head, she still has headaches as a result of it," said Ahmed.

When she turned 18, her stepmother sold her to a powerful drug lord for 100,000 Afghani. The drug lord was not only over 50-year old, he was already married to three other women. Rehana would be his fourth wife. Hearing of her impending nuptials, her neighbours informed her that her future husband was a cruel man.

"I was tortured by my stepmother all my life, so I thought my life would be better once I get married. When I found out what my stepmother had done, I realized my life would not change. It would be the same. I told myself, I will take the risk and escape, if I survive, I will have a better life," said Rehana.

"When I met her, I knew I had to help her so I agreed to take her to Kabul. She did not tell me her story then, I did not know that she was on the run or who she was", interjected Ahmed.

Ahmed agreed to take Rehana to safety. They left Kabul but soon found out that they were being followed, so they proceeded to Karachi, Pakistan. As Afghans need not carry a passport in Pakistan, they slipped in quite easily.

When Ahmed called home from Pakistan, to his surprise, his family announced they would no longer support him and that he should never return home,

On October 4, 2012, they found lodging at a Christian organization, YMCA, in Karachi but Ahmed said they never ventured out of the building, in fear that the drug-lord's aides would find them there. After three months, they ran out of options, so the two sold their valuables, had fake passports made and left for Sri Lanka. They hoped if they managed to register with the UNHCR here they would be given safe haven in another country.

 For the first three months in Sri Lanka, all went well.

When Rehana registered as a refugee, she was given a stipend of Rs16,500 a month with which all expenses had to be covered.

Ahmed said they had taken an advance for the apartment, and this pushed them into severe financial stress. "For the first six months, Rehana's aunty in the US sent us money. Then she stopped, I think she could not afford to keep sending money.”

Ahmed was denied refugee status but he claimed that he too had been victimized and cannot go back.  When Rehana was asked about marrying Ahmed, she said: "When I was asked for the first time I evaded the question but then it came up again for the second time. This time I could not refuse. We got married. Ahmed has sacrificed so much for me, I cannot leave without him,” she said.

The UNHCR had asked them to lodge a complaint of the attacks to the police but Rehana is fearful of the police and thinks that Ahmed would be sent to a detention camp along with several other foreign men in the country.

Ahmed, however, is worried about Rehana. "I fear for her every day. She has lost hope… I am afraid that she would kill herself if things are not sorted out soon".

Ahmed and Rehana have asked the UNHCR to call for a medical report of her if they suspect their story, but thus far, they have not called for one.

The duo has also approached many embassies asking them to grant a visa but they all turned them down. Ahmed said he had written emails to over 200 women's rights organizations with regard to their plight but they have all asked them to approach the UNHCR. The couple is still waiting to hear the good news from the UNHCR.