There And Back Again: One Afghan's Journey To Find Home

Dec 4, 2013
Originally published on December 4, 2013 7:28 pm

In 2000, Auliya Atrafi paid thousands of dollars and risked his life to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He spent 12 years in England getting educated and becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Last year, he gave up life in the West and returned home to southern Helmand province. Now, he's the father of twins and he's working in a rural government office while trying to readjust to life in a conservative society that he finds dysfunctional.

Atrafi grew up in a prominent communist family in the rural and undeveloped Nad Ali district of Helmand province. In 1996, when Taliban militants were taking over the country, life took a turn for families like his.

"Taliban were initially harassing us; they tortured my brother," Atrafi says.

His older brother escaped, but Atrafi stayed on for several years. Then, when the Taliban started sending young men like him north to fight in the Afghan civil war, Atrafi knew it was time to leave.

"So, I fled to England as an asylum seeker."

That journey took four months and cost about $12,000. He traveled from Afghanistan to Pakistan and then through Uzbekistan, Russia and Ukraine.

The travel was punishing. It was winter, and he spent long hours crouching in tiny compartments of trucks with urine dripping on him from the compartments above.

Things got worse when he left Ukraine.

"On the border between Hungary and Slovakia we got arrested and detained for one month," he says.

But by then, Atrafi had learned the tricks of this underground railroad.

"You would always have a cover story to mislead them to avoid them again from sending you back," he says. Like telling officials in Germany that he and his companions were taekwondo competitors from Brazil.

Eventually, he made it to Belgium, where he climbed into a truck that was loaded onto a ferry. He landed in England on March 22, 2000, he says.

"It was beautiful morning. The sun was shining unusually for England," he says. Atrafi settled in Hull in northern England.

Surprisingly, Atrafi says he didn't like the place, calling it "very backward." But he spent 12 years there anyway.

He studied English and computers while working multiple jobs — some legally, some on the black market — until he got his proper paperwork.

"Eventually, it got too much, and one day I collapsed from a panic attack," he says.

His brother took him in and made him quit working so he could focus exclusively on school. Atrafi got into university to study journalism. After university, he began making documentaries for the BBC about the Muslim cultures and Muslims in the U.K. He says he chose those themes in part because of the rampant anti-Muslim sentiment following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"So, [in Afghanistan] my family was fighting al-Qaida; over there, I was known as al-Qaida by local kids," he says.

Atrafi says that over time, he found it frustrating to live in England and watch news stories about his homeland on TV. He felt a growing desire to do something for his country, and he was having trouble raising money for new projects.

"I made a lot of proposals ... [and] no response, and then I gave up. My dad was ill here, so I came back to Afghanistan," he says.

When he returned to Helmand in the spring of 2012, Atrafi found work as a journalist, though he says the money wasn't great nor was the quality of journalism. His cousin and childhood friend was then the district governor of Nad Ali, and he convinced Atrafi to work for him.

"I'm enjoying actually governance more than I enjoyed journalism," he says.

He says it's rewarding to help improve schools and services. And yet, he says it's also extremely frustrating.

"To tell you the truth, everything here is frustrating. Governance is frustrating, and so is the public," he says. "Nobody's doing their job as well as they should be doing."

Atrafi says it's very difficult being back in what he describes as a culture where people don't take responsibility for their lives.

"People, even though they consider themselves poor, they don't have money for medication, but they do have money for big weddings," he says.

Atrafi says he does miss the money and the lifestyle he had in England. But, he says unless things get extremely bad here, he's planning on staying in Afghanistan.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Millions of Afghan refugees have returned home since the overthrow of the Taliban government back in 2001. One of the more recent returnees is Auliya Atrafi. He fled the country the year before the Taliban's defeat.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

What followed was a grueling trek, a long and twisted journey that ultimately landed him Great Britain where he got an education and became a journalist.

GREENE: And then, last year, Atrafi gave up life in the West and returned to his home province in Southern Afghanistan. Now he's the father of twins, working in a rural government office and readjusting to life in a conservative society.

NPR's Sean Carberry tells his story.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Auliya Atrafi grew up in a prominent communist family in the rural and undeveloped Nad Ali District of Helmand Province. In 1996, when Taliban militants were taking over the country, life took a turn for families like his.

AULIYA ATRAFI: Taliban were initially harassing us. They tortured my brother.

CARBERRY: His older brother escaped, but Atrafi stayed on for several years. But when the Taliban started sending young men like him north to fight in the Afghan Civil War, Atrafi knew it was time to leave.

ATRAFI: So, I fled to England as an asylum seeker.

CARBERRY: That journey took four months and cost about $12,000.

ATRAFI: From here I went to Pakistan. And from Pakistan, I went to Uzbekistan. From Uzbekistan to Moscow, and from Moscow to Ukraine and Kiev.

CARBERRY: The travel was punishing. It was winter. He spent long hours crouching in tiny compartments of trucks, with urine dripping on him from the compartments above. Things got worse when he left Ukraine.

ATRAFI: On the border between Hungary and Slovakia, we got arrested and detained for one month.

CARBERRY: But by then, Atrafi had learned the tricks of this underground railroad.

ATRAFI: And you would always have a cover story to mislead them to avoid them again from sending you back.

CARBERRY: Like telling officials in Germany he and his companions were Tae Kwon Do competitors from Brazil. Eventually, he made it to Belgium where he climbed into a truck that was loaded onto a ferry.

ATRAFI: On 22nd of March, Year 2000, I think, we landed in England. It was beautiful morning. The sun was shining, unusually for England.

CARBERRY: He settled in Hull in Northern England.

ATRAFI: And surprisingly, I didn't like that place. It was a very backward place.

CARBERRY: But he spent 12 years there anyway. He studied English and computers while working multiple jobs - some legally, some on the black market - until he got his proper paperwork.

ATRAFI: Eventually, it got too much and one day I collapsed from a panic attack.

CARBERRY: His brother took him in and made him quit working so he could focus exclusively on school. Atrafi got into university to study journalism. After university, he began making documentaries.

ATRAFI: I made programs for the BBC about the Muslim cultures and Muslims in the U.K.

CARBERRY: He says he chose those themes in part because of the rampant anti-Muslim sentiment following the 9/11 attacks.

ATRAFI: So here, my family was fighting al-Qaida. Over there, I was known as al-Qaida, you know, by local kids. Hey, al-Qaida, bin Laden.

CARBERRY: Atrafi says that over time, he found it frustrating to live in England and watch news stories about his homeland on TV. He felt a growing desire to do something for his country. And he was having trouble raising money for new projects.

ATRAFI: I made a lot of proposals, send it away, no response. And then I gave up. And my dad was ill here, so I came back to Afghanistan.

CARBERRY: When he returned to Helmand in the spring of 2012, Atrafi found work as a journalist, though he says the money wasn't great nor was the quality of journalism. His cousin and childhood friend was then the district governor of Nad Ali and he convinced Atrafi to work for him.

ATRAFI: I'm enjoying, actually, governance more than I enjoyed journalism.

CARBERRY: He says it's rewarding to help improve schools and services. And yet, he says it's also extremely frustrating.

ATRAFI: To tell you the truth, everything here is frustrating. Governance is frustrating and so is the public. Nobody is doing their job as well as they should be doing.

CARBERRY: Atrafi says it's very difficult being back in what he describes as a culture where people don't take responsibility for their lives.

ATRAFI: People, even though they consider themselves poor, they don't have money for medication, but they do have money for big weddings.

CARBERRY: Atrafi says he does miss the money and the lifestyle he had in England. But he says unless things get extremely bad here, he's planning on staying in Afghanistan.

Sean Carberry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.