Daunted Afghans find refuge in former foe Russia

Mon Aug 22, 2011 12:07pm EDT
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By Amie Ferris-Rotman

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Signs in Dari decorate the creaky lifts of a Moscow hotel heaving with Afghan merchants and schoolchildren who have found refuge in a former foe.

Although still haunted by the decade-long war in which 15,000 Soviet troops were killed, Russia has renewed interest in Afghanistan, quietly allowing the local Afghan community to thrive as a gesture of goodwill.

"The Russians now welcome us. It is not like before," said Ghulam Jalal, who heads the Center for Afghan Diasporas, an organization that finds work for Afghans in Russia and keeps their culture and languages alive.

Worried by intensifying violence in the NATO-led war against Taliban insurgents, Russia is flexing its muscles by proposing business and development plans in Afghanistan, which borders much of ex-Soviet Central Asia, viewed by Russia as its traditional sphere of influence.

Afghans in Russia now make up the third-largest overseas Afghan community after Pakistan and Iran, and the largest community of immigrants from a country other than the former Soviet Union.

Very few of the 150,000 Afghans in Russia -- a third in the capital -- are in the country illegally, said Omar Nessar, director of the Center for Studies of Modern Afghanistan in Moscow, in what he called a kind of a "gift".

"Over the years, you will see that few have remained with an illegal status. I suppose it is a gift," Nessar said.

Russia's Federal Migration Service declined to comment, but a former lawmaker in Kabul agreed Russia has welcomed the influx of Afghans fleeing a succession of wars as it seeks greater influence in their country.   Continued...

<p>Afghan schoolchildren learn Dari and Pashto languages at a classroom in the Sevastopol hotel in southern Moscow, July 30, 2011. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin</p>