“When I was at school, a teacher once said to me: ‘you’re doing a great job! Learn, and when you’re older and wiser, teach others what you know.’ I have held that with me ever since,” shares Mostafa.
After graduating from university, he struggled to find work. But he knew that he had something unique to offer. He could use his personal experience to help his fellow Afghans in Iran to overcome their challenges.
In 2019, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Iran began a new project to improve support to Afghan refugees, by training and employing representatives from the displaced community through local NGO Society for Recovery Support (SRS), and with funding from the European Union.
These Afghan community representatives are seeing their lives change by being part of this project. And through its ripple effect, they are going on to touch the lives of many in the community they represent. To mark this year’s World Refugee Day, we would like to celebrate these Afghans and the long path they have travelled to become active members of their community and beyond.
In 2019, with the generous support of the European Union, NRC Iran started a project aimed at strengthening the civil society organisations (CSOs) working towards improving the lives of displaced Afghans in Iran. The project’s main goal is to share knowledge between organisations, equip the CSOs with the right skills and by doing so, improving the assistance that we jointly provide to displaced Afghans in Iran, including refugees.
A number of Afghans living in Iran were recruited to be community representatives. Some had received help from NRC in the past. They are helping to improve our collaboration with the Society for Recovery Support (SRS), an Iranian NGO that NRC has been partnering with since late 2017.
The Afghan community representatives who were invited to be part of this project regularly attend workshops held by NRC and SRS.
Trusted by the Afghan community
Mostafa has now been employed by a local NGO, SRS, and is contributing as a community representative. He is well-known and trusted among his fellow Afghan residents. Other refugees feel comfortable to approach him and share their concerns, needs, and feedback.
“They trust more easily when they see someone with a similar history representing them,” says Mostafa, who is a community representative in Semnan province. He oversees projects and liaises with the relevant provincial authorities.
“Once, we went to the field to identify vulnerable families, and they wouldn’t talk because of fear and mistrust. But when I spoke the Afghan dialect and they realised I was also one of them, they opened up.”
Zahra is also a community representative, but in Tehran. She was born in Iran, and has never set foot in her motherland, Afghanistan. She says that she always felt like an outsider at school but was able to overcome these challenges and graduate from university with a degree in electronics.
She is now working as a community representative in education. She explains: “I went to a school where the principal pulled me aside and asked ‘are you really an Afghan? Can you honestly convey our messages to the organisation you work for? Will you be able to help?’ I knew then that I could play a unique role in supporting fellow Afghans.”
NRC and SRS are supporting these Afghan community representatives in their important work, by providing workshops to help them increase their skills. In these workshops, the community representatives, NRC and SRS come together and have conversations, share past experiences and explore humanitarian topics from their unique perspective.
Tools for the future
Being part of this project not only allows the community representatives to help others but also opens up huge opportunities for them too. It is a gateway into future ventures. For some, this has been so meaningful that they are considering going back to Afghanistan to, in turn, help empower people there.
Hamideh was born in Iran to Afghan refugees. Her parents fled the violence in their homeland.
Due to problems with her ID papers, Hamideh was unable to start school until she was 15. But her fierce determination meant that after completing accelerated learning classes, she was able to gain a high school diploma after just eight years at school. She now holds a Bachelor’s degree in French.
Hamideh is ambitious and wants to use her skills and experience to help fellow Afghans. Being a community representative has sparked an idea of going to Afghanistan to give something back to those in her motherland.
“My dream is to go to Afghanistan and set up an art school,” shares Hamideh, cheerfully. “I hope that this will create a strong learning environment and job prospects for the next generation, and slow the trend of migration out of my country.”
The future is bright
Being an Afghan community representative for NRC has been a transformative experience. These determined young adults are taking their experiences back to their communities where they can help others in similar circumstances.
This project also enabled Mostafa to look to the future with hope.
“I have met colleagues who changed my view on everything,” says Mostafa. “I think I can do my best to alleviate pain in others as well. This path will have its ups and downs, but I know the future is bright.”
Our work in Iran
These Afghan community representatives are among the 3 to 3.5 million displaced people living in Iran. Some have been in the country for four decades while for others, Iran is the only home they’ve ever known.
Iran has been hosting Afghan refugees since 1979. Currently, there are between 3 and 3.5 million Afghans in Iran. Less than one million are considered to be de facto refugees. This population has a renewable document called an “Amayesh card” which gives them access to free basic education, subsidised health care, temporary protection while in Iran and the right to work in certain job categories, among other rights. Nearly half a million have Iranian visas, and the rest are undocumented.
In 2019, NRC supported over 91,000 vulnerable individuals in the country, including displaced Afghans and Iranians affected by natural disasters.
In Iran, NRC works closely with the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs (BAFIA) and local partners to best serve the displaced Afghans in Iran.
This EU-funded project that these community representatives are benefiting from is part of a three-year grant that spans from 2019 to 2022.