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Girls & Women

Iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ Is a Homeowner After 30+ Years as a Refugee

You may not know Sharbat Gula’s name, but you would recognize her if you saw her. 

In 1985, Gula unwittingly became the face of Afghan refugees when she was featured on a now-iconic National Geographic cover.

Now, over 30 years after, photographer Steve McCurry took her photo at a camp on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gula finally has a place to call her own.

The Afghan government recently gifted Gula with a home in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan; she joins the leagues of just 17% of Afghan women who independently own homes in the country. The government will also provide her with a $700 monthly stipend for living expenses and healthcare, according to a spokesman for the Ministry of Communication.

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The house and financial support are fulfillments of a promises the government made to Gula earlier this year, the BBC reported, when she returned to her native Afghanistan after 35 years in Pakistan.

Though Gula was warmly welcomed home by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani himself, her homecoming was bittersweet.

Gula recently told the BBC she was just 10 years old when her picture was taken. And while she gained international fame as McCurry’s photo subject, her fame turned out to be a double-edged sword.

For decades, Gula lived what she described as “a very good life” in Pakistan, but last year authorities arrested Gula and charged her with illegally obtaining a Pakistani identity card, the New York Times reported. Gula spent 15 days in prison and was then deported to Afghanistan.

Upon her release, Gula told the AFP, “Afghanistan is only my birthplace, but Pakistan was my homeland and I always considered it as my own country...I have no other option but to leave.”

Read more: This Is What It Actually Costs Countries to Accept Refugees

Gula’s arrest made international headlines because of her fame, prompting the Pakistani government to later offer her the chance to stay, but Gula declined the belated offer, the BBC reported.

"I told them that I am going to my country. I said: 'You allowed me here for 35 years, but at the end treated me like this.' It is enough," she said.

Because Gula is a symbol to many, she was very publicly “granted a warm welcome upon her arrival back in Afghanistan,” Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, told National Geographic. But “thousands of other Afghan women are being forcibly returned without any family, home, job, or possibility for a secure, stable life,” she said.

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Some 2.5 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan, according to Human Rights Watch.

Read more: Born an Afghan Refugee, This Pilot Is the Youngest Woman to Fly Solo Around the World

Around half a million Afghan refugees were forcibly returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan last year. Almost 365,000 of these people were registered as refugees in Pakistan, which previously protected them from being deported, but more than 200,000 were undocumented, like Gula, and turned to forged documents, Human Rights Watch reported.

"I told the police that I have made this ID card for only two things - to educate my children and sell my house - which were not possible to do without the ID card," Gula told the BBC.

Just three years after her encounter with McCurry, Gula became a bride. 

“If I could go back to being 10 again, I would have studied. I wouldn’t have married at age 13,” Gula told the BBC.

When McCurry found Gula again in 2002, she was a mother, hoping to give her daughters the education she did not get, according to National Geographic. Now that Gula and her daughters have returned to Afghanistan, it is unclear whether or not her daughters will be able to get that education. About 3 million girls in Afghanistan are out of school.

Global Citizen campaigns to #LeveltheLaw to ensure that girls and women have equal access to all opportunities, including education. You can take action here to stand up against child marriage and help keep girls in school.

Gula, who is now a widow, told the BBC that she wants to help others and rebuild her life in Afghanistan. 

"I want to establish a charity or a hospital to treat all poor, orphans and widows," she said. "I would like peace to come to this country, so that people don't become homeless. May God fix this country."