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THE VERTICAL

The Limits of Documentation

It’s late 2022 and singer Javid Karezi is sitting on stage with his harmonium surrounded by his new band. They’re at a wedding ceremony in Quetta, Pakistan. Karezi is mid-song when a middle-aged man interrupts him. Up until now, Karezi’s singing has only caused guests to leave. The man—apparently the host—asks Karezi to sing a song in Pashto. Karezi is taken aback by this request—he is being asked to sing in a language he is not fluent in. He tries to put it off, but eventually decides to ask his fellow bandmate, Waseem, to sing the requested song instead, and sits off to the side. 


This is a scene from documentary filmmaker Rani Wahidi’s  film, The Failed Migration, where she follows the Karezi family’s journey of deportation from Pakistan to Afghanistan. As a celebrated singer, the son of renowned Afghan singer Faiz Ahmed Karezi, and a sixth generation musician, Karezi is used to being in the spotlight. But when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, life took more turns than he could have ever imagined. 


In August 2021, after their successful takeover of Kabul, the Taliban banned music—leaving Karezi and his fellow musicians devoid of their livelihoods. By April 2022, Karezi, his wife, and 5 children, packed up their lives and moved to Pakistan by way of the Chaman border crossing—and they weren’t the only ones. They joined the growing community of roughly 4 million Afghan refugees. A majority of them have lived in Pakistan since the late 1970s and about 1.7 million are undocumented. 


If not for films like Wahidi’s The Failed Migration, the struggles experienced by generations of Afghan families in Pakistan would be largely ignored, likely due to xenophobia, political disputes, and the government’s neglect of these very issues. 


“Musicians have a gift and the Taliban took that from them. Anyone can open a shop, but not everyone has such a skillset, so to take that from someone is very bad,” Wahidi says, adding that while foreign media often covers such issues, we live our stories, we can revisit them anytime. They are close to us, we can explain them better, keeping our own contexts and lived experiences in mind, and we have a lot of time to tell our story.” Karezi had little contact with other Afghan musicians during his time in Pakistan, as he tried to focus on making a living for himself. He's proud of what he does, and is teaching his son to play the tabla as well.


Wahidi’s skillset is also her talent but it’s been unable to substantively help Karezi in the struggle of being an Afghan refugee in Pakistan. As a singer of  Dari and Farsi—languages not commonly spoken or understood in Quetta—he was only ever hired for a few functions. He found informal work that provided little economic, health, and food security. Even when he did book wedding ceremonies or events, the money wasn’t enough, especially after being divided amongst the larger band that he performed with. Coming home from a gig one night, as Wahidi’s film shows, Karezi asks his daughter what the doctor said about his wife’s condition since she’s been sick for a while, only to find out that she needs to be put on an oxygen supply and requires more medicine—which he can already barely afford. 


Like most Afghan refugees, Karezi lives on the sidelines, taking part only in the informal employment sector—but not all experiences are the same. 


 

As a development worker, Elaine Alam has worked extensively with Afghan refugee communities and divides them roughly into two categories. 


“On one hand, [there] are the Afghan refugees you see at Peshawar University or Quaid-e-Azam University. They’re coming from a certain background in order to pursue education, which does not negate their challenges but does give them a certain privilege because they have an understanding of how to acquire things,” she told me. “Then you have people coming from a tribal background. These refugees come from a larger population, and have no leadership, no security, and no safety. Their only point of contact is the Commissionerate for Afghan refugees, which focuses on government plans and allowances through UNHCR.” 


The second category are the ones most at risk for deportation and detainment, and usually live in katchi abadi (slum areas). They have no access to healthcare or education, leaving them in a cycle of odd jobs with a fear of getting caught by authorities.


Elaine puts Karezi somewhere in the middle of the two since he possesses a skillset he can use. However, his informal living situation along with a disruptive climate impedes his progress, placing him much closer to the second category. Karezi may be the spotlight of Wahidi’s film, but his story speaks to a much larger journey experienced by Afghan refugees in Pakistan. 


 

After a couple of months with his family cooped up inside a small and bare apartment, Karezi decides to take his children to a park in an effort to distract them from their struggles. With no schools willing to admit them, the five children grapple with settling in, and are distraught at having lost access to education. 


 “His two older daughters were affected the most. One is in grade 10 and the other is in grade 7, and both were denied admission to school because they were considered over age,” Wahidi says, highlighting this as one of the top most struggles Karezi faced after migration. 


But experiences of young Afghans across the country—even second and third generation immigrants born in Pakistan—show that this is just an excuse hiding a much larger problem. Miles away in Karachi, 19 year-old Shabana Ghulam Sakhi worries about the future of her education after not being admitted into any university in the country. 


Because she doesn’t have any form of Pakistani identification, Ghulam, and other refugees like her, can only attend the Afghani school—–which has very few qualified teachers. This is where she completed her intermediate exams. “My English is very weak because we study English separately as one subject, and even for that we don’t have good teachers, so we really struggle after that,” she informed me in an interview. “I feel helpless. I did a 6 month digital marketing course that the UNHCR arranged for us at our school but still haven’t received the certificate, so I can’t do anything,” she says. 


Between limited access to education in Pakistan and the Taliban halting girls' education in Afghanistan, Karezi was stuck. He came to Pakistan hoping to prioritize his children’s education but ended up having to go back. His daughter Sabia, who Wahidi has also centered in the film, often talks about how she misses school. Left with no choice but to journey back to Afghanistan, Karezi returned in 2023. Fully aware of the restrictions on women’s education, Sabia worries about when she’ll get the opportunity to go to school again. 


Several circumstances forced Karezi to leave, but others have experienced something different—deportation—following newly established policies. The second phase of Pakistan’s new policy started after Eid, when police were instructed to identify locations where undocumented Afghan refugees were living. Officials have confirmed the intention to deport Proof of Residence or POR card holders despite negotiations with various stakeholders still underway.


 

Shabana Ghulam Sakhi has spent much of the last year trying to get her brother out of jail after he was detained by the police—despite having a valid POR card. “They hid his card, and claimed he was illegal and detained him. It was only when we found a copy at home that they suddenly reproduced it and let him go,” she says. Throughout the conversation, she voiced her worries about the future, unable to identify a way to support herself and her family. 


Those who remain in Pakistan live in constant fear; they find themselves terminated from jobs, detained by police, all while struggling to get their POR cards reissued. These cards form the basis of their identity, since Afghans are not issued Computerized National Identity Cards or CNICs. Not having a CNIC was also one of the reasons Karezi was unable to find formal employment and get his daughters admitted into a school in Pakistan. 


The policies around deportation treat Afghans as second class citizens and have shaped Pakistani citizens’ mindsets for a long time. Many Pakistanis continue to believe that the Afghan deportations are a good thing. This is partly why Wahidi found it so difficult to make her film. “For me, the biggest challenge was that in Pakistan, making a documentary on Afghans is difficult, because we don't want them accepted as a society,” she said in an interview. “There’s been no documentary on Afghans in mainstream Pakistani media since the Taliban came to power,” she added.


Still, Wahidi made huge efforts to depict the reality of the Afghan refugee crisis, but there is a long way to go in resolving the issue.


“It’s important that NGOs and civil society actors continue to do whatever they can in their own capacity and power, so that they can support young Afghan refugees and children. But, until the government doesn’t sort out what the rights of these refugees are, the rights of these people living on this soil for 4-5 decades, it's hard for the other 2 entities [NGOS and civil society] to agree on something concrete,’ says Alam. 


The film ends with more questions than answers about Karezi, which, perhaps, best reflects his reality. When I last spoke to Wahidi, she said she could no longer get in touch with Javid. 


The film ends with Karezi jobless in Afghanistan, hoping to find daily wage jobs as a laborer or similar. But he wants more for his children—as does every Afghan parent—regardless of whether they choose to stay. The problem is, for now, that both situations seem equally bleak. Still, Karezi finds comfort in knowing that he and his family are home, where their identity will not inhibit their plans.

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Untitled, digital embroidery on fabric. Mohammad Sabir (2024)

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Profile
Quetta
Afghan Refugees
Pakistani State Repression
Afghan Deportations
The Failed Migration
Documentary
Film
Musician
Taliban
Undocumented Afghan Refugees
Faiz Ahmed Karezi
Rani Wahidi
Dari
Farsi
Proof of Registration Card
Incarceration
Civil Society
NGOs
CNIC
Afghanistan
Employment
Unemployment

ANMOL IRFAN is a Pakistani freelance journalist and editor. She works on gender, climate, and media, with a focus on South Asia. She also runs a book club in Karachi.

Profile
Quetta

MOHAMMAD SABIR is an Afghan artist who graduated from Kabul University and recently completed his MFA at Goldsmiths, University of London. Through his practice, Sabir investigates the ongoing discrimination towards the ethnic Hazara minority in Afghanistan. Sabir highlights this in his Genocide series (2016-present), using intricate Hazaragi embroidery motifs on human bones as well as on cut trees, clay pots, and personal objects. His works have been exhibited in Kabul, Los Angeles, Tehran and Figueres.

ANMOL IRFAN

While Pakistan doubles down on deporting Afghan Refugees, filmmaker Rani Wahidi covers the story of an Afghan musician, Javid Karezi, and his family, to bring to light the difficulties Afghan refugees face after migration.

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