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Angelina Jolie urges more focus on reintegration for former Afghan refugees

© UNHCR/J.Tanner

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie has called for a greater focus on the reintegration of former Afghan refugees as she concluded her second visit to the nation since 2008. During her two-day trip in early March, the acclaimed actress met internally displaced people and refugee returnees still struggling to survive and reintegrate almost 10 years after returning to Afghanistan from years of exile.

More than 5.5 million refugees have returned since 2002, mainly from Pakistan and Iran, and now make up 20 per cent of the population. UNHCR is concerned that too many of these former refugees continue to live without jobs, shelter and other basic needs.

The Goodwill Ambassador called for actors to "revisit the idea of what return is and the difference between just returning and reintegrating," with a specific focus on "making sure there is water, job opportunities, a school for the children and medical clinics."

Jolie returned to visit families living in a dilapidated warehouse in Kabul that once served as a storage facility for the national bus company. This depot is now one of 30 UNHCR-identified sites in the capital where returned refugees and internally displaced people can live while they eke out a living. The Goodwill Ambassador re-visited Khanum Gul in the small damp room she shares with her husband and eight children. On Jolie's first visit in 2008, Khanum had just given birth to her son Samir and the Goodwill Ambassador remarked that "It was very distressing to see that, because of the poor conditions, Samir seems to be suffering some form of developmental delay due to malnutrition or lack of medical care. He can't walk and is barely surviving."

Khanum's husband, Eshan, tries to earn a living as a daily labourer. He waits for hours every day but is rarely picked for work, while his children go onto the streets to wash cars for a dollar a day so the family can eat. However, it was clear to Jolie that "the Afghan people don't want to become beggars. They want the opportunity to work for a living with dignity so they can provide for their families."

The Goodwill Ambassador also travelled to the village of Qala Gadu, the scene of fierce upheaval since the late 1970s, where almost everyone is a returned refugee or was internally displaced before 2002. Jolie met a group of young girls who will study at a new primary school that is being built with funding from the actress. The lack of a proper classroom means most girls can't study beyond 4th Grade, but ten-year-old Sahira, who wants to be a doctor, presented Jolie with flowers on behalf of her classmates, saying: "If you build this school, I promise I will work really hard and study until the 12th Grade."

UNHCR is currently rallying support from donors and humanitarian and development agencies to redouble efforts to help returning refugees integrate in Afghanistan.