Happy Women’s Day, Tourpikay!

Tourpikay Quadery fled Afghanistan as a young widow with four small children. She arrived here 20 years ago, she became a Hungarian citizen 12 years ago. Today she works as a school secretary in Csepel and also as an official interpreter. Her moving life story is a real Women’s Day gift for all of us.

I arrived here in 1993, that was already the period of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I am a teacher originally, I graduated from Kabul University in Persian literature. My mother tongue is Pashtu but my Persian is equally good. I speak English and now also – hopefully – Hungarian well. I have four children, two boys and two girls. Although we are from Kabul my husband was called up as a reserve soldier and our family moved to Nimruz next to the Iranian border during this time. Our youngest child was 7 months old; our eldest was not even eight when my husband died in a motorbike accident. He was 35 years old. He was repairing a motorbike, he wanted to try it out and went for a ride but the brakes did not work and he smashed into a tree. He died immediately. Our 8-year-old son was also with him on the bike, and he was also badly injured and fell into a coma. His skull was crashed and his thigh bone broke into splinters.

In Nimruz there was virtually no medical care, infusions and drugs were brought in from Kabul. Transportation is terribly difficult out there and if the weather is bad even a helicopter cannot approach the city. A local doctor told me that if my son does not get adequate treatment within 24 hours he will die. You can imagine how I felt after just losing my husband, whose head was crushed on a tree trunk, and I needed to react quickly so that my little boy would get at least a chance to survive. I never saw my husband’s body because they did not dare to show it to me. They told me not to look at it because as you take your son with you, you will always think of the horror, but it is also possible that you will not be able to leave. So my last memory of my husband is from the time when he was still alive.

There was no doubt, I had to run. But where to? No Afghan town could be reached quickly. Even if I had no passport our best chance was to get over to Iran somehow. I gave money to an old man who knew the smuggling routes. I tied my little daughter on my back, my son was placed on a stretcher, and then we set off. It was dangerous, risky, but we had to proceed. We had to cross the river, spotlights of the border guards kept scanning the countryside, so we proceeded very slowly. It took us eight hours to get to Iran where people were really kind and helpful. But they gave up on my child’s life they said, sadly, ma’am, he will not survive, because he lost a lot of blood, but it is also possible that he will stay in a coma for years. I could not accept this. I was constantly talking to him, that “My son, do not leave me, your dad has just died, your brothers and sisters are waiting for you, I need you.” It was instinctive, but now I understand how important it was to him that I did not let him go, did not give up, but kept his spirits up, and he also wanted to live. The 24 hours that the doctor from Nimruz said was just up when he groaned and his eyelid moved a bit. I called the doctor, he examined his pupils, but he did not see anything promising. Then, when the second time he groaned, everybody cheered up – It was a miracle, the dead has come back to life! – they were shouting, and even, believe it or not, the doctors were kissing each other. They kept asking me what I did with him. All I did was that I remained a mother and did not give up, and my son felt this.

He was put into a plaster cast from his navel to his knees, and we stayed for another week until the great Iranians arranged that we could go back home by crossing the border legally. I hurried back because I did not want my husband’s body taken to Kabul without anyone escorting. However, while I was still not there the sun suddenly came out, and the helicopter could land and his body was taken away from us to his parents. Then the weather turned bad for a month and a half, and we got stuck in Nimruz.

I was left on my own with the children. When I returned to Kabul, my husband had been buried for a long time. It turned out that I lost not only my husband but also my job and had no way to make a living. I also lost hope. The Taliban moved in and closed the schools, where as a woman I could not teach anyway. Until then, we had dressed just like European women, wearing pants, skirts and short-sleeved shirts, but the Taliban banned this. We would have tolerated the chador more or less if we could have lead our lives as we did before, but we were not even allowed to leave our homes. The streets were full of armed men and if they saw a woman they sent her home “The place of a woman is at home” – they said. You can imagine how impossible it would have been to care for my children on my own when I could not even go to the shop. I had to go, I had no choice. I was begging the guards to understand that I could not do anything else. Some of them understood this, some did not. So I went home, I was checking from home when there is a change of the guards so that I could buy bread to feed my children. At that time there was already a war in the city and they were shooting all the time. We were hanging on for another three to four months in Kabul. Then our neighbor’s house was hit and when the house collapsed its brick fence fell upon the side of our house.

After that, it was clear that we must flee because our lives were in danger. As a woman and especially as a widow I had no hope, and neither did my children. Misery, humiliation and death. One thing I knew: we had to go to Europe. It is already difficult for a widow with four small children to set out on a journey, let alone from Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban. But we had no other choice. We were not poor, I sold what I could and I put the family’s gold on myself. From this point of view wearing the chador, was a good idea because I could hide my jewels beneath. I put all our papers, diplomas, birth certificates, other certificates and my money into a bag, and I tied it around my waist. My infant daughter was tied on me in the front, and the other three children and the bags were also hanging off me. You can imagine how miserable we must have looked. At that time, we could get out of Afghanistan legally only through Russia. We took a bus from Kabul to Mazar-Sariff where we wanted to go to the Russian Consulate to get a visa. It sounds easy now, but in reality it was not. The 300km bus trip itself lasted one and a half days so that we could avoid the Taliban militias and the looters. Then I stood in the queue every day for two months during winter in a strange town in front of the consulate to get a visa. Finally, a guard took pity on me. He saw that I was waiting in vain in half a meter of snow with a child tied onto me. He revealed it to me that bribing is the only option I had. It cost $900 to get a visa, if you do not pay, you can even wait for a year, you will never get it. I had never talked to him before that, but he convinced me and I gave the money to this stranger. Of course, I was afraid of being deceived, and ending up with no money and no visa. However, the next day we did get the visa, and we could take the train to Moscow. It was clear that we did not want to stay in Moscow even if my uncle lived there. According to my plan, the next stop would have been Hungary, more precisely Mátészalka, where my sister, who is a teacher and her husband, a veterinarian lived. There we could have had a rest before going further west. Then we ended up staying for a longer time and we could not relax for years after.

The reason for this was that another misfortune hit us still on the train to Moscow.  The money, which I set aside for our new life, was stolen. We travelled in a sleeping car, and I hid my money under my pillow so that I could sleep comfortably. Once I took one of the kids to pee, and when I got back, my money was gone. I had been watched and I got robbed. Fortunately, the thief did not need our documents. In Moscow, my uncle lent me some money so that after getting a one-month visa to Hungary we could get on a train.

Even though I wanted to go further than Hungary, I was not able to do it legally, because no Western country granted me a visa and I did not want to risk my children’s lives with smugglers. I was scared. But I did not give up. At every stop of our long journey I told myself that if I got this far, I cannot turn back now. I had no other choice but to go to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and apply for a refugee status. I felt relieved, for the first time since the death of my husband, because people were very humane and helpful from the first moment on. I got my refugee status, and as I learned later, I was the first Afghan refugee woman and perhaps the only one up until today who got this far from my country without a man. I don’t regret that I have stayed here because I think that the attention that I received as a widow and the help the children got, we would not have received anywhere else. I got to know the Hungarians as very warm-hearted people.

The first years were extremely difficult. First, we lived in the Csillebérc camp for a few months, then in the Red Cross refugee camp in Fonyód Street for another few months. I could hardly speak any Hungarian but I asked István Major, the head of the camp (he has already passed away) to give me any job so that I could earn some money. First, I did cleaning twice a day, I took the kids to nursery, to kindergarten and to school, and then I started working. After a year and a half we had to move out of the camp. Even if we received some rent subsidies for another two years suddenly I had to face the problem of having to cover almost all of our costs. I had to pay all the bills and for the all food, and all the costs of a family of 5. First I could not get a job legally, but for years I took on any job possible so that we could pay the rent. For two or three years I worked two shifts a day, sometimes even 16 hours a day. My eldest son, who was only a10-year-old child himself, had to look after his siblings for most of the time. I was lucky that we always had great neighbors who often helped us when I did not get to the school in time: they fetched the kids and even made pancakes for them. It was an extremely busy period in our lives.

We moved to Rákoskeresztúr for three years, and after eight years I finally got Hungarian citizenship, managed to get my degree accepted, and I started to get good jobs legally. Even if I started earning more and more, all the money was spent on the rent. I could not save anything. I had to buy an apartment. I got a non-refundable loan of 400 thousand FT and an interest-free loan of 800 thousand FT from the state. I also sold the rest of my gold, and finally we managed to buy a two-bedroom apartment in Csepel. Since then, we have been living here. I have been a secretary in a local school for five years and in the afternoons I also work for a lawyer. And for the past 11 years I have also been an official interpreter.

I was afraid that it would be very difficult for the children. But they made friends very soon, learned Hungarian very quickly and had a good time. They have become very nice adults; they were also nice as children. The neighbours did not understand why we were so quiet even if there were so many children. They speak fluent Pashtu and Persian, but they cannot write in either language. I feel ashamed, especially as a teacher but I simply did not have the time to teach them this, as well. Luckily, all of them have found their own way. The youngest, my 21-year-old daughter, who studies Economics and Communication at Corvinus University has begun to learn to write in her native language.

Last year I received a plane ticket to Kabul as a gift from my two oldest children. You can imagine what those three weeks were like when finally, after 19 years, I could go home and meet my three siblings.  My “Hungarian”’ sister now lives in Germany, and another one in Iran.  And now we could be all together in my brother’s place in Kabul. At night we heard the gunshots, which of course, were terrible, but we were still happy because, we had not been together like that for 30-35 years. We barely had any sleep and we had so much to say. We were talking to each other non-stop.

Intuition is a strange thing. I was told that I should never tell my son what had happened to his father, because who knows what kind of shock that could cause. So I never told the others either. At first, my poor boy kept asking where his Dad was. But then he stopped, and did not mention it for years, so much so that after a while I was confused why he was not interested. He was around 16 when it was suggested to me that now I should talk to him about his father’s death. Then it turned out that my son had already known about it. – Did you think, Mom, that I’m an idiot? I just did not want to bring it up when you wanted to keep quiet about it – he said  as a teenager. He could not be fooled, but he did not want to cause any trouble for me.

Translated by Vera Kozma

Click here for the Hungarian version.

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