Most Afghans with legal status in Russia came during the 1990s, following Moscow’s disastrous, decade-long war in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion is widely acknowledged as the onset of the decades of blood and turmoil that continues today.
For the Afghans in Moscow, there are few hard feelings. Instead, their anger is directed at America, whose 16-year fight against the powerful Taliban is a source of immense frustration. “NATO is so powerful, but how did they train such a weak army?” asks Ghulam Jalal, the head of the Center for Afghan Diasporas, a non-governmental organization that presides over the 10,000-strong community in and around the Sevastopol. His center estimates the Russian capital is home to 50,000 Afghans in total.
“We’ve waited for peace for forty years. It’s someone else’s turn now,” says Jalal, who came to Moscow in 1993 after serving in the Afghan army alongside Soviet soldiers. With his purple suit and bushy black mustache, Jalal is a striking figure. His office is decorated with plush Afghan rugs and paintings of the sun-bleached countryside where he grew up. Stretching across the entire ceiling is a map of Afghanistan. “That way I’m never far from my homeland,” Jalal says, his voice pinched with emotion.
Almost twenty years ago, Jalal opened a small school on site, so children growing up in Moscow could learn their parents’ languages, Dari and Pashto. Kadria has been teaching there since the beginning. “It’s important they don’t forget their heritage, that we are Afghans,” she says, next door to where the women are studying Russian.
Sensing lunch time was nearing, her pupils become restless, and start talking among themselves in Russian. Kadria lives with her husband and three children, whom she also teaches, in a one-room apartment on the outskirts of Moscow.
“We like it here, there’s no war,” she says solemnly. “But we don’t love it.”