One of the world’s most famous refugees finally has a home. A big home.
Sharbat Gula, who became an instant icon when she peered out from the June 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine as a 12-year-old-refugee, is now the owner of a 3,000-square-foot residence decorated to her liking in the capital of her native Afghanistan.
The house is a gift from the Afghan government to Sharbat Gula, now 45, along with a roughly $700-per-month stipend for living expenses and medical treatment, according to Najeeb Nangyal, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Communication.
Sharbat Gula, known to much of the world simply as the "Afghan girl," received the keys to the home late last month in a ceremony led by Afghan government officials. It comes after three decades as a refugee in Pakistan and a tumultous last year back in Afghanistan.
Sharbat Gula’s piercing green eyes made her an instant icon. Orphaned at age six during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, she had trekked by foot to Pakistan with her siblings and grandmother. Photographer Steve McCurry’s picture of her made her the unwitting posterchild for the plight of thousands of Afghan refugees streaming into Pakistan. In her homeland she became known as the “Afghan Mona Lisa.”
Now she has become a symbol of a return to Afghanistan that hundreds of thousands of refugees are undertaking after decades away.
A Long Road Home
Sharbat Gula was arrested late last year for using a forged Pakistani identity card—a common practice among the 1 million Afghan refugees who live in the country without legal status. She faced up to 14 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. (Read the news of her arrest.)
At the time, she was raising four children and was suffering from hepatitis C, which killed her husband years earlier.
“When Pakistan arrested her and accused her [of having a] fake Pakistan ID it became a national cause for Afghans and the Afghan government,” says Nangyal.
After being detained for two weeks Sharbat Gula was released and returned to Afghanistan with her children. “Afghanistan is only my birthplace, but Pakistan was my homeland and I always considered it as my own country,” she told AFP before leaving. “I am dejected. I have no other option but to leave.”
In 2016 alone, 370,000 registered refugees returned from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Tens of thousands more have been sent back to their homeland from Iran and Europe in recent years, often by coercion or deportation. An untold number of unregistered refugees—like Sharbat Gula—have returned as well.
“This woman is a symbol to Afghans and also a symbol to Pakistan,” says Heather Barr, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) who has worked in Afghanistan for 10 years. “The way she was parading in front of the media by Pakistan felt like humiliation of the Afghan government: Here is this woman who had to flee your country for ours. The Afghanistan government responded by ostentatiously welcoming her back. The message was: We can take care of our own people.”
Sharbat Gula was greeted by President Ashraf Ghani, who handed her a key to a new apartment and promised her children would have health care and schooling. “I welcome her back to the bosom of her motherland,” Ghani said in a small ceremony. “I’ve said repeatedly, and I like to repeat it again, that our country is incomplete until we absorb all of our refugees.”
But in September, her late husband's nephew, Niamat Gul, complained to Afghan media that the government had not paid their rent. Nangyal, the government spokesman, says her rent and living expenses have been paid since she returned to Afghanistan. When she requested a more traditional home, he says, she was relocated to a 10-room rental near the presidential palace until a permanent house could be purchased.
Now, Gul says, people inspired by Sharbat Gula's story have come to take pictures and bring gifts to her new house. "She's happy because Afghanistan respects her," he says.
The new home has security, but they are cautious with who is invited in. Gul explains that the attention she's gotten since being identified as the subject of National Geographic's cover puts her at risk from conservative Afghans who don't believe women should appear in the media.
Her name on the deed makes her among the 17 percent of Afghan women who own their own homes.
Lost and Found
The last 15 years have seen a flurry of media attention around Sharbat Gula. The identity of the “Afghan Girl” was unknown until 2002, when Steve McCurry, who first captured her image, tracked her down in the mountains of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. An FBI analyst, forensic sculptor and the inventor of iris recognition all verified her identity. She appeared again on the cover of National Geographic, one of the few people to be featured twice.
By then, Sharbat Gula was a married mother of three and had no idea that her face was recognized around the world. She told McCurry at the time that she hoped her daughters could have the education she never had.
Now they will. Her daughters are enrolled in school for the coming year, says Gul, and "they will compete their education, Inshallah."
The Afghan government is encouraging her to expand that dream. Nangyal, the spokesman, has suggested she launch a foundation to educate and empower women and children, particularly those being repatriated, and she is considering it. “My message to all my sisters is not to marry their daughters at a young age,” she told BBC Persia. “Let them complete their education the same as your sons do.”
But Sharbat Gula’s own daughters are returning to an Afghanistan that may offer worse prospects than their mother had more than 30 years ago. Today, only half of Afghan girls attend school, and the majority of those who do drop out between the ages of 12 to 15. In rural areas, the number of girls in school is now declining.
Human Rights Watch's Barr says that gender equality in Afghanistan lags behind Pakistan and Iran, which took in a combined six million Afghan refugees during the Soviet War. Women and girls returning to Afghanistan must adapt to having a male companion escort them out of the house or make decisions for them. Sometimes, she says, these returnees are “perceived as immoral or indecent” because they grew up abroad.
As Afghans come home in droves—Afghanistan is now likely hosting some three million internal and returning refugees—these dynamics put women and children returnees at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, says Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women.
"While [Sharbat Gula] was granted a warm welcome upon her arrival back in Afghanistan, thousands of other Afghan women are being forcibly returned without any family, home, job, or possibility for a secure, stable life,” she says.
This story has been updated to reflect an interview with Sharbat Gula’s nephew.