Full name: Noor Nawaz Shaiwani 
Age: 32 
  
Why did your family flee to Pakistan?  
 
During early the 1990s, the situation in country turned into a chaos. There was conflict in every corner of the country. In this situation, we lost our father. It couldn’t get any worse than that and my mother was left alone with the kids in Kabul. It was then that my mom decided to flee the country and seek refuge in Pakistan, which was the nearest country for us to get to. From what I remember and from what my mom would sometimes talk about the situation was so miserable in the country and we spent at least 1 or 2 weeks crossing the border to arrive to Peshawar.  
 
How did it feel being a refugee in Pakistan? How old were you? What was life like?  
 
I was about three years old when we arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan. As far as I remember, the living conditions were hard for us there. It was a new environment for us. Everything was new there. The overall social shift, losing our income /resources and generally handling the situation was hard. Overall, we were struggling. We spent around nine or ten years there.  
 
There was this visible difference between our life as refugees and the lives of local Pakistani people. Being a teenager, you don’t have that in-depth of an understanding of living conditions, rights, and etc. but I still remember now the way we struggled to get food, spending nights only with a cup of tea without sugar and sometimes not having money for even buying clothes. Those memories are not fond and keeps me wondering how difficult it was for my mother, family, and other Afghans and continues to be.  
 
What was the toughest part about returning the Afghanistan?  
 
There were so many things that made it difficult for us to return. The first and foremost in my mind is the social shift/change for the second time. Although, we were struggling in Pakistan, at least the environment there was secure. We were studying in Afghan Refugee schools.  
 
Acclimating back to the new environment was difficult due to the social differences we had with the community in Afghanistan and also our different perspective. I think reintegrating back into our own community after nine or ten years was a challenge we struggled with. The country was in post conflict situation and the mindsets were yet evolving. It took I think years for us to fully integrate to our own community.  
 
We felt alienated from our own community, which was a strange feeling and difficult to cope with sometimes. 
 
Is there a single moment that you can remember that inspired/encouraged you to help others?  
 
There are many actually. There are so many memories of that time that encourages me to be a humanitarian and work in this sector.  
 
The first thing is that educational system we were following there. We were studying basic mathematics. In math class, our word problems would be based off adding and subtracting ammunition, rifles, grands, knifes and etc. For instance, we were taught that if you have 5 rounds and you shot 4, how many are remaining. This is an example of a mathematical question. 
 
That was the reason I started in the education sector in NRC. To at least speak up about it and share my experience about how curriculum and teaching methods impact the mind of a child studying in primary school.  
 
Secondly, the schools that we would attend did not have sufficient key services. For instance, the WASH or hygiene services or facilities, drinking water points, recreational activity space and etc. were lacking.  
 
Thirdly, the school that we were attending was a refugee school run by aid. The school gave us a feeling of separation. I vividly remember the difference between myself and the Pakistani kids who would attend Pakistani schools. They were well organized, having uniforms, shiny shoes, good notebooks and etc. I mean these were the things that a kid would love to have for school, but we were deprived of that. We would use the same books that were used by the previous semester students from the year before us. We were handling them with very much care and we had to submit them back to the school after we would take the final exams for that grade. The reason was the schools did not have enough new books to distribute to all the kids in every school year.  
 
Last but not least, there was very little done for integration. There were these visible differences among the refugees and local people in terms of living conditions, education and etc. I can’t remember any competitive program or academic exchange visit to any of the Pakistani schools or universities that would encourage integration or understanding each other. There were no specific things done for the refugee children to be able to develop goals or objectives to see ourselves or place within Pakistan or our community in Afghanistan. developing a goal as child for you to see yourself somewhere as an adult in your community. There was no such thing at that time. 
 
What do you like about being a humanitarian?  
 
I believe that every moment of working as a humanitarian is honor. I strongly believe and have experienced and seen that how these steps that we take accumulate and build up resilience, hope and respect for the internally displaced, refugees, or returnees in our country and community. I can see how integration play key role and is live saving.  
 
I can feel the emotions the way one could feel being heard when they are far from their home displaced due to conflict and settled in a new environment. As I myself saw how it hard to be not part of a community and being neglected.  
 
When establishing moments as such is I think the notion I love the most being a humanitarian.  
 
How does it feel to be featured in the exhibition?  
 
In my opinion, it is an honour. This allows us being heard and reflect the reality of how bad the war is. How it feels to be a refugee and what to be done to stop it. It is our collective duty to ensure that whatever we do is that we keep saving lives, listening to individuals or communities neglected, displaced from their homes and living in a chaotic situation are heard and ensure we are all doing our duties responsibly to protect their dignity, rights and lives. 
I also believe that as a refugee once, being heard even after years is encouraging feeling. There could be thousands or hundreds of thousands people having the same problems or even worse are not heard. This allows me to raise up the voice and educate other humans about the feelings you would have when you are a refugee or had to flee your home because of conflict.   

Photo: Javid Ahmad Hiwadwal / NRC
Afghanistan

My story of deprivation, alienation and hope

As a refugee child in Pakistan, Noor Nawaz Shaiwani, now 32, never felt like he fitted in. When he returned to Afghanistan, he felt alienated. He’s determined that displaced people today should have a sense of belonging, wherever they find themselves living.

“During the early 1990s, the situation in Afghanistan turned into chaos. There was conflict in every corner of the country,” says Noor.

The Soviet-Afghan war, which finally came to an end in 1989, had cost hundreds of thousands of lives and caused extensive damage. When the Soviets withdrew, it was unclear what would happen next in the war-torn country. A full-blown civil war ensued.

Amid the chaos, Noor’s father died. His mother was left alone with Noor and his siblings. She had no option but to flee with her children and seek refuge in neighbouring Pakistan. Noor was only three years old at the time.

“From what I remember, and from what my mum would sometimes talk about, the situation was so miserable. We spent at least one or two weeks crossing the border to arrive to Peshawar.”

Read caption The Torkham border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is still actively used today by those fleeing and returning. This photo was captured in March 2017, when thousands of Afghans attempted to return home after the border had been closed for two months. Photo: Muhammad Sajjad/AP Photo/NTB

The feeling of separation

The family found safety in Peshawar, Pakistan. But survival continued to be an uphill battle.

“The living conditions were hard for us there,” Noor recalls. “It was a new environment for us. Everything was new there. The overall social shift, we’d lost our income and resources – generally, handling the situation was hard.”

“There was this visible difference between our lives as refugees and the lives of local Pakistani people. Being a teenager, you don’t have an in-depth understanding of living conditions, rights etc., but I still remember now the way we struggled to get food.

“We spent many nights with only a cup of tea without sugar. I’m not fond of these memories. Now, as an adult, I keep wondering how difficult it must have been for my mother, my family, and other Afghans, and how difficult it continues to be.”

Noor remembers being treated as “different”, like he didn’t really belong. The school he attended was a school for refugee children, run by a humanitarian organisation.

“The school gave us a feeling of separation. I vividly remember the difference between myself and the Pakistani kids who would attend Pakistani schools. They were well organised and had uniforms, shiny shoes, good notebooks, etc. These were the things that a kid would love to have for school! But we were deprived of all that.”

Read caption Noor (pictured second from right) and some of the male members of his family. Photo: Private

Alienated from their own community

Noor’s family eventually returned to Afghanistan, about ten years after they first fled. The country felt changed. They felt changed.

“Acclimatising back to the new environment was difficult because of the social differences between us and the community in Afghanistan. Our perspectives were different. The country was in a post-conflict situation and people’s mindsets reflected that.”

He says it took years for his family to fully integrate back into their own community.

“We felt alienated from our own community, which was a strange feeling and difficult to cope with at times.”

Read caption Students at an NRC school in Herat, west Afghanistan. Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC

Determined to help others

Noor now works as an Area Manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Afghanistan, inspired by his own experience of being a refugee.

“I have so many memories of that time, which encouraged me to become a humanitarian and work in this sector,” he says.

Noor’s first job at NRC was in the education unit.

“I wanted to speak up and share my personal experience of how curriculums and teaching methods affect the mind of a child studying in primary school,” he recalls. “And also, of how the schools we attended did not have adequate services. For instance, the hygiene and sanitation facilities, the drinking water points, the recreational activity spaces were all lacking.”

“But more than anything, there were very few efforts at integration. There were these visible differences between the refugees and local people in terms of living conditions and education.

“I can’t remember any competitive programme or academic exchange visit to any of the Pakistani schools or universities that would encourage integration or understanding each other. There was nothing to help us refugee children find our place in Pakistan, or in our community in Afghanistan.

Noor recalls the unusual way his class was taught maths in Pakistan. He learnt to add and subtract using ammunition, rifles, grenades and knives as examples. “For instance, we had questions like: ‘If you have five rounds and you shoot four, how many are remaining?’”

“A child should be able to see themselves as an adult in their community, and should be able to set goals. There was no such thing at that time.”

Ahsanullah, 15, an eighth-grade student, recalls the incident and explains the aftermath of the attack on his fellow classmates. Ahsan’s classroom is among those that has been damaged by the explosion so his class was shifted to another room with only minor cracks on the walls. Other students have been shifted to temporary classrooms in tents provided by NRC. 

Ahsan and his friends take me to their original class and show me where he was sitting. He also took me to those classes that have been flattened. 

“Since the security situation has deteriorated in the area, the government has banned all the motorbikes and those students living in far-away villages can’t get to the school. 

Ahsan lives in far distance from school and it takes him and his friends an hour and half to reach to school. They usually collect money to pay for the petrol and use one bike to get to school. Now, as there is ban on the motorbike riders in the district, some of his friends can’t make it to school. 
Photo: Enayatullah Azad / NRC
Read caption A group of teenage boys at their school in Kandahar, where Noor is the Area Manager. Their school was recently damaged when a car bomb, targeting a police station nearby, exploded. Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC

Being heard at last

Noor’s story is currently featured in the UK’s Imperial War Museum North exhibition, Aid workers: Ethics under fire. He also appears in a short BBC Ideas film, Why do aid workers risk their lives to help others?, which was made about the exhibition.

Noor says that it is an honour to be recognised in this way. “It allows us to be heard and reflect the reality of how bad the war is. How it feels to be a refugee and what can be done to stop it,” he says.

“It is our collective duty to keep saving lives, and to listen to individuals and communities that feel neglected, or that have been displaced from their homes and are living in chaotic situations. We need to make sure their voices are heard.”

***

The Imperial War Museum North exhibition is open to the public until 26 September 2021.