DOCTOR WITH A
Name: Khalil AA
Profile: Hazara refugee, living in detention in Makassar, Indonesia
Risk of Return: Detainment, torture, death
Accomplishments: University-educated (MD, medical faculty), ultrasound technician, IELTS certified, founder, director and teacher of the Elites School for Children
Advantages: UNHCR certified, full fundraising potential
Needed: Five people to serve as private sponsors in Canada
Summary: Growing up in Afghanistan, in a town besieged by the Taliban, Khalil always knew he wanted to help the less fortunate. By 2013, he graduated from medical school – an unusual for a young man from the Hazara minority – and returned to his home town to care for the most vulnerable, especially the women and children.
His generosity was repaid in violence and banishment from his country. And while Khalil has found a calling as a teacher to his fellow refugees – and the love of his life in his wife Laila – he is now the one in need of help. This is his story.
Childhood Under Seige
Khalil was born in Ghazni, Afghanistan in 1988.
Afghanistan is a country of very distinct peoples. The Qarabagh district where Khalil grew up, consists of a few villages of Hazaras, surrounded by a much bigger area of Pashtuns, who form the majority in the country. Pashtuns run both the government and the religious extremist groups – which means that the roads in and out of Khalil’s town are controlled by the Taliban.
Everyday life is dangerous for the minority Hazaras. They face roadside bombs, and the constant risk of being detained and killed by the Taliban and Isis. Fathers and children are often dragged from their homes in the middle of the night. Their persecution has been termed a genocide.
When he was young, Khalil was protected from learning about the ever-present danger by his parents, whose hope was for him to have a normal childhood. His father advised him that one of his best defenses in life was to earn an education. So from an early age, Khalil dreamed of becoming a doctor and helping society.
By the time he was seven years old, however, he started to become aware of the danger that he and his community were in. He began having nightmares of the Taliban, who surrounded his town, breaking into his house and abducting and killing his family.
When he was in Grade 4, in 1999, the nightmare became a reality. Armed troops from the Taliban entered the village and began an attack. Khalil watched as they burned and destroyed homes and schools, and opened fire on farms and farm animals. Young men were shot before his eyes.
“Many of my friends and relatives were killed by the Taliban.”
To save his family, his father took the family out of the village, on a trek that lasted for days, until they were able to find a driver to take them to Herat, a nearby city.
Student in a Hostile City
Adjusting to life in Herat was not easy. As a Hazara (and a Shia), he was in a minority that formed just 5 per cent of the city’s population. At school he faced countless acts of bullying and discrimination. His classmates assured him that a Hazara could never grow up to be a doctor or engineer, since their role was to work and serve Pashtuns.
“My classmates told me, ‘Hazaras are not citizens of Afghanistan and belong in the graveyard,’ – a phrase I heard everyday.”
Even his teachers got into the act, encouraging the other students to gang up on the Hazara stranger in their midst. They were told not to sit or talk with Khalil. He was often physically abused by both teachers and his classmates.
He was the only student who began and ended each school day in tears. And even then the persecution did not stop, as the local people would harass him by pelting him with stones and rotten fruit. He was seen as an illegal immigrant in his own country, and parents forbid their children from playing with him.
Surviving a Massacre
Six years after surviving the massacre in his hometown, violence struck again. In 2005, Khalil and his family had gathered with some other Hazara people at a mosque to celebrate Ashura, a religious event to mark the death of a Shia leader. The mosque was attacked by Sunni extremists, who killed many of those present.
The attackers then fired upon many of the Hazara houses of the neighbourhood, as well as mosques and stores. Dozens of innocent Hazaras were killed.
Khalil’s family was saved by a Sunni neighbour, who hid them in his home as their own home was fired upon. They stayed there until the violence passed.
Trying to Make it Better
Khalil’s dream when he became a doctor in Afghanistan was to make great changes to the health system in that poor and unsafe country. Every year many women and children – especially those in rural villages – die from simple, treatable illnesses. He wanted to help.
Khalil took his practise to the area of highest need – and highest danger. After graduating from the Herat Medical School in 2013, he returned to his hometown of Ghazni to practise. He wanted to share his gifts to help the most vulnerable of his community.
Yet his dream was soon dashed. Within a year of his arrival, the Taliban staged a new attack, killing innocent members of the community and kidnapping his relatives.
When his own uncle was killed in 2014, Khalil realized it was time for him to give up his dream and escape for his life.
Fleeing for his Life
He travelled to India, then Malaysia and finally Indonesia, where many of those fleeing from the Hazara genocide have landed. Conditions in that country are bad for refugees, who are not allowed to live, study or work.
Khalil found himself forced to live in detention centres that were little better than prisons, and community centres that lacked basic facilities. He saw first hand how the lack of contact with relatives and loved ones – and of hope for the future – causes widespread depression, as well as physical and mental disorders.
“I saw so much despair and wasted potential, and wanted to do something about it.”
He began teaching English to his fellow refugees in detention, with the aim of helping them communicate with the wider world, and better advocate for themselves with local officials. He helped sponsor chess competitions, a book reading contest and friendly competitions. These were primarily designed for children, and aimed to give young refugees a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.
“Creating a sense of joy and well-being was the real aim of the programs; to bring smiles and laughter to those who haven’t experienced happiness in years, if ever"
What started as a few programs grew into full-fledged school, which Khalil and his fellow organizers called the Elites School for Children. He served as director and principal of the school for 3 semesters. He was overjoyed to see the positive change it brought to children’s lives.
“It was a place that created unforgettable memories for children, where they could laugh, have fun and play together after a long period of sadness.”
Falling in Love: Laila’s story
Another bright spot during this dark time. While still in the detainment centre, Khalil found the love of his life in Laila, a fellow Hazara refugee.
She was born in Gardez province, in the south of Afghanistan. Her family had to flee to Iran when she was just a child, owing to the threat of Taliban violence. She studied at a school for illegal refugees until the authorities caught her and asked for her ID card – and she was deported back to Afghanistan with her brother and nephew.
Back in her hometown, she learned that her father had been killed seven years ago by local Pashtuns and Taliban who had been eager to seize his property. One night when a relative invited her to visit, some armed men attacked the house.
Fortunately, Laila and her brother were not home at the time – but another neighbour warned them that they were next.
“Your life is in danger, and those who killed your father want to kill you too.”
The neighbour helped them escape to Kabul, where smugglers arranged to take them to Indonesia.
When she met Khalil, she discovered they shared much in common, including their cultural background, and their experiences of persecution and dislocation. They decided their journey would be easier together, and they were married in April 2015.
Since that time, they have volunteered on many of the same activities, as they also share a desire to make the world a better place. But the stress and uncertainty has taken a heavy toll on Laila, who suffers from persistent headaches and depression.
With his wife's health worsening, Khalil decided to step down from his position as head of the Elites School. In November 2019, a team of teachers took his leadership role at the school, which was renamed the Gifted School. The local head of the IOM (International Organization of Migration) is preparing a certificate of appreciation to thank him for his efforts.
Khalil continues to teach biology at the school, as well as providing English lessons to local refugees and providing medical visits. He offers coaching on mental health and wellness, how to stay motivated and cope with individual challenges. He plans to further develop such motivational classes in the future.
After six years of working for refugees’ empowerment and helping hundreds of people, Khalil and Laila have found a sense of accomplishment. But their future remains uncertain. Because Indonesia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, those detained in this country have nothing to hope for.
They cannot build a future, and the UNHCR has made clear that it is not going to help resettle them in a third country.
“It’s a different kind of physical, mental and spiritual disorder than what we faced in Afghanistan, but it is no better.”
Returning to Afghanistan, however, is also out of the question, since as a fleeing Hazara refugee, he would be marked for death.
Khalil and Laila have shared their story in the hope of finding sponsors in Canada. The couple has friends who have promised to help with fundraising for the amount needed for private sponsorship. What we are looking for: five caring people in the same Canadian city to be on his settlement team, to welcome him to his new life in Canada.
If you would like to sponsor this lovely couple – or if you’re just interested in helping to bring them here – please contact their friend Stephen Watt.
Reach out and discover how wonderful it is to privately sponsor good people to start a new life – with your help – in Canada!