Magazine article The New Yorker

Refugee

Magazine article The New Yorker

Refugee

Article excerpt

The burka wasn't the first or the last of Afsana's disguises, only the one you would have noticed the most, and, in the event, she left her burka in Afghanistan. When the Dover police found her wandering up the A2 at four in the morning, three years ago this winter--dragging a small suitcase and two dazed children toward what she hoped was London--it was all she could do to keep her black shawl from slipping off her head. And never mind that it was freezing; Afsana would have worn the shawl in August. It was part of the checklist she had had to memorize thirty-five hundred miles away in Peshawar, Pakistan, a few days into a journey that began in Kabul and ended that morning at a Dover police station: Don't use names. Don't ask where you are or how long you're likely to be staying. Better still, don't say anything at all. Not on the plane to Russia, or in the vans you'll ride in, or on the treks you'll make in the middle of the night, crossing borders--not even in the back of the big truck that will drive onto a boat and take you, in darkness, across the water. When the truck stops, climb over the boxes until you feel the tarp. Cut an opening. Climb out, and be careful not to drop the children, because in England the roads are paved. And, remember, put your shawl on your head and tie it, so that whatever Englishman finds you will know you for a good, modest Muslim woman, a mother with her young, fleeing terror, and maybe even forget that you're about to ask him to let you stay.

There was never a doubt in Afsana's mind that if she managed to leave Afghanistan she would try to get to England. Among refugees, England is the destination of choice in Europe. Its doors are ajar, if not entirely open; its pockets are deep, if not actually stuffed with cash; and its big cities are so polyglot that no one who survives the traumas of what is by all accounts a humiliating and very dangerous journey will find himself entirely alone. Every year, seventy thousand refugees cross the Channel into Great Britain. Like Afsana, they emerge, silently, from the backs of trucks, or simply appear at a police station or a refugee center--anywhere but the official points of entry where they could be detained or, more often than not, turned away. Afsana was one of the lucky ones. She complains bitterly about her welcome now that she is safe in London, for all practical purposes British herself. (She was granted full refugee status, or, as the Home Office, with characteristic ambivalence, prefers to call it, "indefinite leave to remain," in the near-record time of a few months.) But the truth is that most of the twenty-five thousand Afghans who applied for asylum in Britain in the course of two decades of almost continuous war at home were given, at best, temporary refugee status. Afsana was one of fewer than three thousand Afghans to win the unconditional right to stay.

Twenty years ago, there were hardly any Afghans in England--eighteen or nineteen families. Today, there are as many as forty thousand. But forty thousand isn't really a lot of Afghans, given the attrition in Afghanistan, and, in any case, those Afghans are hardly what the British would consider a typical immigrant community. Many of them are highly educated professionals--men who were raised to privilege, influence, and even power, and who fled with their families (those lucky enough not to have lost their families to torture or slaughter), convinced that the danger in Afghanistan would eventually pass, and that once that happened they'd be going home to put their country back together. "Stranded by history" is the way Jawed Ludin, a young Afghan intellectual and aid worker, himself stranded in London, described them. "You go to a pizza-delivery shop where Afghans work, and you'll find that they're doctors, they're engineers," he told me. "They're thinking about home."

The rule of thumb in most of the Third World is that men get West and women get left behind. Even the women who did manage to flee Afghanistan rarely got much farther than the refugee tent camps across the border in Pakistan or Iran. …

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