Garana: A day in the life of a refugee

Kent Page

The TES-UNICEF Children Helping Children appeal aims to raise funds to help educate Afghan children.

Kent Page reports from a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, on why your help is desperately needed. Photography by Patrick Andrade

arana is woken at 5.30 every morning by the azan's hail from the mosque at Shamshatoo Afghan refugee camp: "God is great! It is better to pray than to sleep! Come to prayers!" She rises sleepily from a mat on the mud floor of her one-room home, pushing aside a thin dusty quilt. She shares the mat, quilt and two pillows with her mother and two brothers, aged eight and 11. The room is unheated and sleeping together helps them keep warm.

Garana puts on her much-repaired black robe, covers her head in an old, worn shawl, and goes out into the chill morning. At the mosque, she recites the Qur'an with other children from the camp before going home for breakfast.

Shamshatoo has been her home for 18 months. It houses 50,000 Afghans who have fled conflict and drought in the rocky, arid hills outside Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

Garana means "loving child", yet she is more like a woman trying to make ends meet than a 10-year-old. She hasn't seen her father for six years. He left her mother a note saying he was leaving. Fatima, Garana's mother, tells her children he is dead. "Maybe he is dead. It doesn't matter; we'll never see him again. The children always cry when I tell them he won't be back."

"Mother makes breakfast," says Garana. "We have hot tea and bread. Sometimes we have an egg if the chickens are laying." In the yard there are chickens, a clothesline, a mud-brick outhouse with a hole in the ground, and a small fire which is heating tea in a battered pot.

After breakfast, Garana washes up. Five or six times a day, she has to fetch water in a plastic bottle from a pump 500m away. She is not very big. She grasps the pump handle with both hands and lifts her feet off the ground, using her body weight to pump the handle and fill the bottle.

"Every morning, I take flour to the baker in the camp," says Garana. "I pick the bread up after school so we all have something to eat for lunch, dinner and the next day's breakfast." The baking is free, but there is a rumour they will soon charge100 Pakistan rupees (pound;1.18) per family per month. Fatima is worried: she relies on humanitarian aid to provide for her family and 100 rupees is more than they could afford.

Garana shares her 8.30am to 12.15pm class with 34 other girls aged six to 12. The teacher, Shapiry, says: "During the Taliban, none of the older girls could go to school and when they became refugees they forgot what they knew. The younger girls are going to school for the first time and girls like Garana have never been at all."

Sitting on mats on the concrete floor, they learn mathematics, the Afghan languages Pashto and Dari, and the English alphabet. Children's drawings, mostly of flowers and donkeys, are taped to the walls. Garana says: "My favourite subject is English. If you can speak languages, you can understand what people are saying and get things done easier."

The girls in her class are mostly dressed in black robes with white shawls covering their heads and hair. It is the school uniform for those who can afford it. Garana stands at the blackboard and leads the class through the English alphabet, getting mixed up on "b" and "d".

Some 230 girls and 270 boys attend classes six days a week. They only go to the second grade for girls and the third grade for boys, but it is a start. "When we came here two years ago, classes were held in a tent," says the headmaster, Hussein. "Now we have a building and get support from different organisations, including UNICEF. I walked for days through the camp, encouraging women teachers to come. For the first six months, none of us got any salary, but I said, 'For God's sake, let's not wait for salaries to begin teaching our children. Let's start now and the salaries will come later.' Thankfully, they did."

"I do most of the work around the house," says Garana. "My older brother works all day and my younger brother is too small, although he helps me with some chores." Her older brother, Sunatullah, is weaving carpets from 6.30am to 8pm, with a break for lunch. He works with the three children of the carpet-weaver, who lost a leg in the Soviet-Afghan war.

"I would rather that Sunatullah was in school, but we can't live on the rations the camp provides," says Fatima. "He makes 400 rupees (pound;4.70) a month but if they make us pay 100 rupees for bread, we won't be able to afford it.

"When Garana gets sick, she needs medicines. She always has a bad cough."

Fatima gave birth to two other girls before Garana. Both died while babies.

Garana takes the bread home and fetches more water. Then she cleans out the teapot, puts it on the fire and brings in the potatoes and onions her mother has made for lunch. "Some days we have potatoes, some days rice, some days beans - whatever we eat for lunch, we have again for dinner. Rice is my favourite food," she says, without much enthusiasm.

"Life is not easy here," says Fatima. "We left Dahi Bibi in Kapisa Province 18 months ago. At least there is peace and quiet here."

"I would like to go back to Afghanistan," says Garana. "But I don't want to go until there is peace everywhere."

"I like Garana because she takes care of her mother, doing all the work because her mother can't see," says her best friend Assia, 10. "She's my neighbour and we sit together in school. We like to talk and play games such as panjak." Panjak is played with five stones: they are tossed in the air and the girls try to catch them in alternating numbers in the palm or back of their hands.

After lunch, Garana collects more water to wash up, sweeps the house, cleans the yard and feeds the chickens. If there is money, she goes to the shop to buy food: this doesn't happen often. Then she does her homework or plays with Assia in the remaining daylight.

"I don't want to be like my mother," says Garana. "I want to be like my teacher. She's smart and can read and write and speak English. I love my mother, but she can't read or write and that's why her life is so hard."

Fatima puts her head in her hands. "Garana is right. I'm not very useful because I can't read or write and now I can't see very well. She wants to be a teacher and I hope that she will. I want her to have a better life than I have had."

Garana doesn't know when her birthday is. "We can't afford to celebrate birthdays, that's why you don't know," her mother tells her.

Assia whispers something to Garana. "The best thing that Assia and I like to do is to sing songs and read poems and prayers. Do you want to know my favourite?" She sings in Dari: "You taught me all the good things while I was in my cradle and now I'm following all those good things throughout my life!" Assia joins in. For the first time everyone smiles and Garana is a happy, carefree child. All day, she has been serious, distant and tough. She stands to say goodbye and walks with us through the yard; her steps get slower and her eyes well with huge tears.

Our female translator gives her a big hug and tells her everything will be all right. Garana holds on to her for a long time.

She is just a little girl with a tough past, living in a challenging present with an uncertain future.

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