One of the hardest questions for Westerners is whether people like Mohammed Ali and Zakia are better off leaving their own country for an alien one that offers safety or staying at home and living with the possibility that because of their choice to marry, their own relatives will kill them.
Moving away sounds like a no brainer because who would put themselves in harm’s way if they could avoid it. But in Afghanistan, leaving home is a far more complicated departure than most moves contemplated by people in the West.
Leaving for a truly safe place, means leaving so much that is familiar: family, language, and landscape. And that’s just the beginning. The places that are safe, as Rod Nordland notes, are in the West and for the vast majority of Afghans, that means a place that is utterly alien, whose customs are at best uncomfortable and whose culture can grate on people from more traditional places.
For Westerners, moving is a way of life. In America most people leave home in their late teens, they move, on average, 11.4 times in their lives (according to recent surveys.) But in Afghanistan men rarely move at all. When a man marries, his wife comes to live with him in the family home and they will only move if the entire family has to flee because of war, floods or drought. Even going to the city from the country, as Mohammed Ali and Zakia did, was a disorienting and difficult experience. They were forced to live with a relative they did not know and who was not generous. When they lived alone in a small Kabul apartment, Zakia was lonely during the day when Mohammed Ali was out.
As is the case for many Afghans, the family is their world. It is the context of daily life. Family members are the people that provide company in the fields and at meals; they are there when a woman gives birth, and they are there when a family member falls ill and when he or she dies, providing comfort or at least company. This does not mean that family relations are necessarily good and for many Afghan women, beatings and maltreatment are also part of what is familiar, but it is a world they know.
When Zakia and Mohammed Ali went only as far as Tajikistan, they encountered a place where the women dressed differently, where they knew no one and where they had no one to turn to. Imagine if they were to go to America, or Canada or Britain or Germany. They can not read or write in their native language and abroad, they would be adrift in a world whose signposts they can not read, llterally or metaphorically. It is not clear how Mohammed Ali would support his family.
However, it would be a true relief to know they would be unlikely to face death at the hands of their own relatives. Ultimately, that could bring them a deep peace of mind and it is a reasonable bet that their children would grow up at home in their new country. But that freedom and safety would come at a price: the comfort of their parents.
Asylum is rarely an easy solution.