The Soviet invasion in 1979 drove them out of their homes - but decades on, millions of Afghans face persecution in Iran
YAZD, Iran - Abdul-Ali doesn't accurately know his own age, but believes that he turned 65 a few years ago.
He approaches the overflowing handcart, close to a dump at the edge of the street. Farukh, his seven-year old granddaughter, takes advantage of the stop to eat some candy.
It's Friday night. The roads of the ancient city of Yazd are full of plastic cups, food debris and cartons stacked by shopkeepers.
Abdul-Ali has worked as a street-sweeper in Yazd since 1979, when he moved to Iran from Afghanistan at the start of the Soviet occupation. He is sick. The doctors have warned him to stop working, but he can't: the medicines for his back condition are too expensive.
Most importantly of all, his job is the only source of income for the numerous family of his son Ashraf, who has now been unemployed for two years.
"During the last few months, Abdul-Ali's granddaughter has helped him by collecting the smaller waste" (MEE/Luca Ortello)
Another son, Maher, is somewhere in Afghanistan - Abdul-Ali does not know where - after he was deported by the Iranian police several months ago.
Abdul-Ali hasn't heard any news from him for two weeks now, and fears that he may have been killed by the Taliban or the Islamic State group.
“I pray for him everyday, but I'm prepared for the worst: a blast, an abduction... only God knows if he is still alive,” he says while wiping off his sweat. “When I left Afghanistan there was the war, but it wasn't like that: now it's like hell on earth.”
During the last few months, Abdul-Ali's granddaughter has helped him by collecting the smaller items of waste, which prevents him from bending down too often.
But as the pain grows, his mind is overwhelmed by fear of dying and leaving his family without any means of support.
“We are Afghans, our destiny is to do what Iranians don't want to do,” he tells us, before grasping again the handcart and continuing his journey with little Farukh. “Until death.”
Targets for hate
Yazd, a city of almost half-a-million people, is located in a remote desert location in central Iran. It is recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its Zoroastrian heritage and earthen architecture.
It also hosts thousands of Afghan refugees, who usually illegally live in the old town in abandoned houses made of mud and unbaked brick.
Mainly employed as bricklayers, sewer workers and porters, they are commonly the target of insults from locals, some of whom have organised several unofficial protests against them during the last few years.
The walls of the city centre are repeatedly littered with graffiti against the presence of the refugees, each signed with the same autograph: “Citizen of the neighbourhood.”
“I would rather call it a concentration camp” (MEE/Luca Ortello)
A neighbourhood mullah from an Afghan Hazara background says: “We can't say that all the inhabitants of the city hate us. We share the same religious roots and have similar customs.
“But we live in a context of discrimination and segregation which allows extremists to do whatever they want against us without any risk of being punished.”
What happens in Yazd is not so different from what Afghan refugees face daily in every major Iranian urban centre.
Nearly four decades after the start of the big exile, the country shelters around three million refugees amid its 80 million population.
In May 2016, during a meeting with visiting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Tehran, Iran's leader Ayatollah Khamenei stressed that “unlike certain countries, such as the US and UK, the Islamic Republic of Iran has always treated the Afghan people with respect, brotherhood and hospitality”.
His declaration might be seen as a mockery by refugees born and raised in Iran. Unlike other minorities such as Kurds, Arabs or Balochi, Afghans can't obtain citizenship. Instead, they suffer an endless litany of discrimination which often pushes the younger generation to dream of reaching Europe and so turn to smugglers.
A report by Human Rights Watch from 2013 said Iran had in recent years limited legal avenues for Afghans to claim refugee or other immigration status in the country, even as conditions in Afghanistan worsened.
Being an Afghan refugee means you cannot own a car, a house, a bank account or a SIM card (unless through an Iranian third party)
HRW added that the Iranian government had failed to take necessary steps to protect its Afghan population from violence linked to rising anti-foreigner sentiment in the country, or to hold those responsible accountable.
Being an Afghan refugee means you cannot own a car, a house, a bank account or a SIM card (unless through an Iranian third party). You cannot be an employer. You can be sacked at any moment.
A school principal decides whether or not a child refugee gets a place in their following academic year only when all the Iranians have been enrolled.
If an Afghan is stopped without documentation or residence permits, then they might be arrested and deported to areas of Afghanistan where there is a high and significant presence of the Islamic State group.
Afghans may also end up being sent to fight with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria. Many refugees do this to protect that country’s “holy shrines”; also to secure a long-term residence permit or higher salary or bank account.
But even for those sent to the Syrian battlefield, many of these promises are never kept, reports say.
Jafar, 43, is a builder who moved to Isfahan from Afghanistan when he was a little boy. Over dinner he tells us his story.
“We are like aliens, strangers to both Iranians and people living in Afghanistan,” he says. “We live with the anxiety of being deported or arrested or simply beaten in the streets just because some policeman doesn't like our face.
“That's why we prefer risking death and trying to reach Europe.”
Two of his five children moved to Sweden last year. While drinking his tea after the meal, he receives a Skype call by two of his five children who moved to Sweden last year. While talking with them, he starts to cry.
“They both suffer from psychological imbalance and are begging me to go to them. I'm collecting money, hopefully we will leave next year.”
After disconnecting the call, he shows us the picture of his youngest son, an eight-year-old boy called Mirza, who wears an athletics uniform.
“He won several tournaments, but you won't see any medal or pictures of him in his local gym.
“The trainer told me that putting in the trophy case the name of an Afghan would be very disreputable for the school. So I bought myself a medal and hung it on the wall of our house.”
Mustafa, a 23-year-old video artist, reached Europe by boat when he was 17 and now has Danish residency.
“Being an Afghan child in Iran might be the biggest challenge in the world,” he says.
“Some examples? You can't go swimming in some public pools - they will tell you that Afghans are dirty and pollute the water. At school, if you are lucky enough to have received the authorisation to attend, teachers will encourage other students to do better than you, as it's not acceptable that an Afghan gets higher grades.
Being an Afghan child in Iran might be the biggest challenge in the world
- Mustafa, Afghan refugee
“Things will not change if you are so crazy as to go to university: you can choose what to study only from a small range of approved faculties.
“Then you must gain all the needed documents. From where? Afghanistan, of course!” Returning to Afghanistan for a refugee can be extremely dangerous.
"At the end, if you are so lucky to survive the Taliban, Daesh, warlords and corrupted officers, you can obtain a visa, come back to Iran and start your academic career.”
In July, Mustafa returned to Iran to see his mother. Although he has a regular visa and a Danish ID, he was arrested in Tehran by five plainclothes officers and brought to an identification and expulsion centre.
“I would rather call it a concentration camp,” he says. “I saw soldiers beating old people whose only crime was their ethnicity. There was blood everywhere. Kids were threatened with being sent to Afghanistan if they wouldn't join the army and go fight in Syria.
“Fortunately, at the end they decided not to deport me because of my European documents, so I was released. But I can't stop thinking about what I saw over there.”
Sold to a gang
Finding the right smuggler to get out of Iran is tough. Afghans are not allowed to move from one city to another without special permits released by the local authorities.
Usually the chosen trafficker is someone in their family or, at least, the same clan. But that doesn't guarantee that the trip will be successful, much less about the reliability of the smuggler.
Members of the Afghan community in Kashan are quick to share the infamous story of Sardar, a young refugee who chose the wrong smuggler.
When Sardar left Shiraz to start his trip towards Europe, he didn't expect that it would end inside a cave in a Kurdish village close to Urumieh, the last big city before the Turkish border.
"They didn't answer in time - so the kidnappers cut off two of Sardar’s fingers from his left hand" (MEE/Luca Ortello)
He had been sold to a gang who asked for a ransom from Sardar's parents. They didn't answer in time - so the kidnappers cut off two of Sardar’s fingers from his left hand and sent them a picture of him while bleeding.
His brother, who had moved to Germany few years earlier, got into debt to try and pay the ransom. But that was not enough to release him.
Sardar survived his tormentors only because his family collected enough money among the Afghan community in their city. He now lives in Australia and had the opportunity to adopt two Afghan orphans.
“Although everyone is aware of the high risks of crossing the border, people will continue to try to escape,” says Mustafa, while getting his affairs in order before leaving again for Europe.
“The reason is pretty simple: here everyone is scared, you hardly find someone protesting or organising a demonstration against the police.”
“We are born with the idea that things must go in this way, that we can't do anything to change the system. We just have to work for 12 hours every day and hope not to attract the attention of the police, soldiers or Sepah [the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp].
“The alternatives? Dying in Syria or paying a smuggler. I chose the second one and I don't regret it.”