17 October L.A. Times

War Brings New Mercy to Iran's Afghans


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In a city where drought forces residents to live without water one day a week--amid an economy so strained that exchanging $1,000 nets a 6-inch-tall stack of 10,000-rial bills--hatred toward Afghan refugees is palpable.

These immigrants--close to 2.6 million by Iran's count--take away scarce jobs, consume dwindling resources and contribute to a rising crime rate, say many Iranians who struggle daily to make ends meet. Many Afghans, in turn, endure insults, occasional beatings by youth gangs and indifference from a government that banned legal immigration by Afghans nine years ago.

But the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan have offered Afghan emigres an unexpected respite from Iranian resentment. Hatred is evolving into hamdardy, or sympathy, even on the government's part. In a recent speech, President Mohammad Khatami referred to Afghans as "noble." Radio stations are playing Afghan music, and television is broadcasting images of suffering in Afghanistan. Labor Ministry raids on factories to locate illegal Afghan workers have stopped. And U.N. aid workers have praised the country's cooperation in preparing for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are expected to head toward its border if the U.S. military campaign against Afghanistan proves open-ended."We Afghans have been promoted from dirty and nasty to oppressed," said Rahimdad Ahmadi, a shopkeeper in the hamlet of Bagherabad, where more than 500 Afghan families live.

Yet this newfound compassion for his people is unlikely to last, Ahmadi said. Even now, as Iran is mobilizing its Interior Ministry and Red Crescent Society, officials are firm about having only enough resources for a maximum of 200,000 refugees for one month. The Red Crescent Society is also setting up nine camps, but they are several miles inside Afghan territory. "What we have is a fear of a massive influx of Afghan refugees toward the Iranian borders, not just because of this crisis," said Mostafa Mohaghegh, director general of international affairs for the relief agency. What the rest of the world often forgets, he said, is that Iran has been a destination for Afghans since the Soviets invaded their country in 1979.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there were 30 packed Afghan refugee camps in Iran, said Mohammed Nouri, a spokesman for the Iranian operations of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The camps, however, house just 3% of the Afghan population in Iran, Nouri said. The rest have settled into Iran's cities, towns and villages.

Wealthier Iranians, particularly factory owners, have been most welcoming to Afghan immigrants because they work for far less pay than Iranian laborers do--particularly if they are in Iran illegally. "They also don't have to pay them insurance or overtime," said Yusef Vaezi, chief of the foreign division of Afghanistan's Islamic Unity Party, which is headquartered in Tehran. "It's understandable why Iranian workers are angry."

Even with low wages, Afghans are far better off here than at home, Iranian authorities say. "They are not all refugees," Mohaghegh said. "We definitely have had economic immigrants."

Attempts to persuade Afghans to repatriate have been only partially successful. After a controversial deportation of about 100,000 Afghans in 1999, Iran began a voluntary repatriation program with U.N. help the next year. Under that program, 188,000 refugees went home, most with an assistance package of up to $240 per family plus 110 pounds of wheat, plastic sheets, jerrycans for water and transportation.

But last spring, a census by Iranian authorities found close to 2.6 million Afghans still living in Iran. The real number is probably higher, Nouri said, because many illegal Afghans might have stayed away from the registration centers for fear of being deported. Since legal immigration was halted, an estimated 700 to 1,000 Afghans are believed to have crossed into Iran each day, Nouri said. Whatever their actual number, Afghans are a readily apparent part of this country of 63 million people.

Most Afghans live as modestly as Jamileh Maghsadi, 23, a wife and mother of two. Her family shares a five-room home with outdoor plumbing in Bagherabad with three other families of seven people each. The women weave scraps of discarded industrial carpeting together to create floor mats, which they sell for about 20 cents each to supplement their husbands' meager incomes at a nearby factory. The men earn half what their Iranian counterparts do--without any health benefits, Maghsadi and other wives say.

Nonetheless, Maghsadi is part of a lucky minority among Afghan immigrants in Iran. A legal resident with a coveted blue ID card, she is married to another legal Afghan resident, meaning that their twin 8-year-old girls, like Iranian children, are entitled to a free education in public schools.

Maghsadi moved to Iran with her parents when she was 1 but feels like a stranger here, she said, still reeling from an unpleasant encounter with her daughters' teacher earlier that morning. "She demanded to know why we were in her country, why we didn't go back to our own."

Afghan boys, in particular, are sensitive to such insults, Maghsadi said. "Most don't like to go to school anymore." She added that she is as eager to move back to Afghanistan as Iranians are to be rid of her. "It's my home," she said, "even if I can't remember it anymore."

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