Paying it forward: Returnees join the fight against polio

Refugees returning to Afghanistan find role in education and prevention

Sheraz Ayub, 25, a returnee from Pakistan, gives polio drops to an infant at an encashment centre on the outskirts of Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. 
©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Sherzad

Reporting by Lameha Sherzad

JALALABAD, Afghanistan, December 11, 2017 — The bustling city of Jalalabad in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar is one of the country’s busiest returnee centres and a main transit route for Afghans returning from Pakistan. The UNHCR Encashment Centre there, located approximately 13 km outside the city, currently processes an average of 20 families every day, including many children under the age of five.

Most are returning from refugee camps in Pakistan, sometimes setting foot in Afghanistan for the first time in their lives. They often arrive with no documentation, just a few personal belongings, and little idea where and how to start building their new lives. It’s a confusing, tumultuous time, especially for children.

UNICEF provides humanitarian services to this vulnerable and underserved group in their time of need, offering vaccinations, nutrition, child protection, and water, sanitation and hygiene services at key transit points. Protection against polio in particular is a priority.

“Having guidance on help available for returnees, especially services like vaccinations and school enrolment for children without documentation, is precious.” — Fazil Mohammad

The nearby Torkham border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is one of the busiest border crossings in Afghanistan, making children on both sides vulnerable to contracting the debilitating disease. Afghanistan is one of three countries in the world where the polio virus remains a health emergency.

A network of support

Polio social mobilizer networks play a critical role in protecting returnee children. Recently, former returnees have become directly involved in the teams’ outreach work.

Given their intimate familiarity with the challenges of returning to Afghanistan, returnees provide a powerful and effective means to support arriving families and encourage them to take advantage of the services they need to protect themselves and their children. Along with educating new arrivals about the importance of polio vaccination and the disease’s life-long consequences, they also advise on practicalities like school enrolment and housing.

Sheraz Ayub, 25, a returnee from Pakistan, logs the polio vaccines he delivers at the UNHCR encashement outside of Jalalabad. ©UNICEF Afghanistan/ 2017/Sherzad

About 400 children under-five are vaccinated against polio at the Jalalabad UNHCR encashment centre every month. They also receive vitamin A and deworming tablets, and get screened for malnutrition. Severely malnourished children are referred to local health centres where they can have access to specialized medical treatment, including therapeutic milk and Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTF) — energy dense micro-nutrient enhanced pastes used to treat malnutrition.

Fulfilling the dream of helping others

“As a child, I dreamed of becoming a children’s doctor. I love children. I was born in Pakistan and lived there as a refugee. Unfortunately, this meant I wasn’t able to enter public universities and I didn’t have the money for private education,” says, Sheraz Ayub, 25, a returnee from Pakistan.

“When I arrived in Afghanistan, my children received UNICEF humanitarian services at one of the transit centres. I realized the important role that social mobilizers play in the well-being of children. I made a commitment to myself to serve returnees’ children, as paid employment if I could or as a volunteer.”

“My family stayed in a village near the returnee centre [encashment centre]. A neighbour was employed as a polio social mobilizer and connected me with the UNICEF team.

“Families returning to the country are unfamiliar with the environment and different challenges and appropriate information and guidance, like where to get health services, which type of services they can access, how to enrol their children in school, and where to find proper shelter, food and clean water.” — Sheraz Ayub

“This is confusing to them and their children. Now I have the opportunity to help.”

Returnees helping returnees

“This is my first time to Afghanistan, even though I am an Afghan. Returning has not been easy; everything looks strange and unfamiliar to me. From having access to services to knowing the country’s laws and regulations. It’s all new,” says Fazil Mohammad, a 40-year father of two who just arrived from Pakistan.

Fazil Mohammad, 40, a few hours after returning to Afghanistan from Peshawar, Pakistan, with his family. ©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Sherzad

“I have two children, a son and a daughter, both under than five yeas old. They got polio vacccine drops two weeks ago as part of a routine immunization campaign, and I thought that would be enough. I had heard that more doses of the oral vaccine could cause polio paralysis and was worried about vaccinating them again [regularly]. Then I met Sheraz, a social mobilizer and a returnee like me.”

Sheraz has helped to dispel Fazil’s misconceptions about the polio vaccine.

“He told me, ‘When I arrived, I also had doubts like you. But then I learned that routine vaccines alone cannot protect children from polio because we live in an area where polio still exists and you need doses to protect children from the disease.’ He said he now gives his children two drops of the oral polio vaccine during each polio campaign. I decided to do the same thing,” Fazil explains.

“Having guidance on help available for returnees, especially services like vaccinations and school enrolment for children without documentation, is precious.”

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