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Afghanistan: U.S. Economic Slowdown Hits Refugee Afghan Weavers

  • Charles Recknagel

Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, the American economy has slowed and consumer spending is down. As U.S. buyers put off purchasing luxury goods, one of the hardest-hit groups is Afghan refugees, many of whom weave oriental carpets primarily for the American market. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Peshawar, Pakistan, where many of the refugees live.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 5 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the grimy, teeming market of Khyber Bazaar in Peshawar, it is an amazing thing that the oriental carpets traded wholesale here remain spotless.

The carpets usually pour into this market by the hundreds each day, delivered on trucks spewing diesel fumes which bring them in from the Afghan refugee camps surrounding the city. The carpets themselves are the products of weeks of 14-hour-day labor in cramped rooms doubling as living and working space for families of up to a dozen people.

Once the carpets reach the bazaar, they pass into a warren of narrow alleys filled with jostling crowds and motor-rickshaws churning up dust. They pass newly arriving refugees from Afghanistan, who sit with emotionless faces amid their belongings on horse-drawn taxi carts. And they pass filthy street urchins begging for pennies.

But somehow the carpets remain clean, even as they are spread out in courtyards for a final touch-up shave of their piling, sometimes just centimeters from a truck getting an oil change. Then at last, the carpets disappear up winding, narrow staircases and into the closet-sized shops of the carpet wholesalers, where they will await export to the West and East.

Here in Khyber Bazaar there are some 1,500 wholesale carpet shops and almost all of them are run by Turkmen refugees. It is the commercial center of an economic world that keeps tens of thousands of refugees above the poverty line and depends almost entirely on the retail carpet markets in the U.S. and Europe.

But these days fewer carpets than normal are moving through the market. The reason, the carpet dealers say, is the 11 September attacks on the United States. The American economic downturn that has followed is causing carpet buyers in the U.S. and Europe to put off luxury purchases and forcing stocks here to back up. And the result is that the weavers are increasingly out of work.

One of the carpet wholesalers is Abdul Qadir, a 48-year-old ethnic Turkmen from Afghanistan. He fled to Pakistan in 1983 from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Since then he has built up a business that employs five full-time assistants as well as a small army of some 50 part-time porters and errand boys.

But by far the largest part of his work force is invisible: some 1,000 families from which he regularly commissions carpets and to which he supplies the wool to weave them. The families are all more Turkmen refugees from Afghanistan.

Qadir says that since the 11 September attacks, the export business among the Khyber Bazaar wholesalers has dropped 30 percent. And he says he has had to reduce his orders to the weaver families by half as the stock of carpets already in his shop no longer moves out.

Abdul Qadir explains his situation through a translator: "Since this attack, we have had a lot of trouble. All of our businesses stopped. We had a lot of customers before all over the world, especially in the U.S. and Europe and Germany. But nowadays, we don't have the customers and all of our carpets are staying here. It is all because of this war, this terrorist attack."

Qadir says the weaver families are particularly hard-hit by the slowdown because they live from the money they make from one carpet until they can complete and sell him another. That subsistence existence leaves them no savings with which to weather downturns in the market. And, he says, they often have no other skills than weaving to seek alternative employment.

Qadir's translator explains: "If you visit our refugee camps, where Turkmen are living, they only know how to make carpets. And their only chance [for economic survival] is if they are making carpets. Then they have money and can have a better life."

Turkmen community leaders say that some families are trying to cope with the situation by sending their sons to larger Pakistani cities like Karachi to work as laborers. One schoolmaster in the city of Attock, some two hours east of Peshawar, has reported that as many as a third of his male students have dropped out of school in recent months for this reason.

Similarly, the carpet wholesalers like Qadir are also experiencing severe cash-flow problems. They send their goods to Pakistani brokers who export them and pay the wholesalers only after they receive payment from their customers abroad. That means wholesalers usually have to wait months for their money even in good times. In bad times, the delays reduce their ability to cope with a downturn to a minimum.

Qadir says that the current export slump is serving as a bitter reminder of how precarious economic life is for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, even among those like the carpet makers -- who can count themselves lucky because they have something valuable to make and sell.

That precarious life includes the Afghan refugees' inability to free themselves from a chain of Pakistani middlemen with whom they have to do all their business with the outside world. The refugee carpet dealers' own outdated Afghan passports make it impossible for them to get visas to travel and sell their own goods abroad for a better profit margin. And, Qadir says, because the weavers are not making the carpets in their own home country, they are unable even to identify them as Afghan- or Turkmen-made, something he considers a point of pride.

Abdul Qadir continues, through his translator: "We sell our carpets to the Pakistanis here. And the Pakistanis sell to the others [abroad]. But they represent the carpets as Pakistani. When they want to sell the carpets to Europe, they put a 'Made in Pakistan' sticker on the back of the carpet."

Qadir says the labeling hurts the Turkmen weavers' finances because it reduces the carpet's market value. He argues that if the carpets were identified as Turkmen-made they would better benefit from the high reputation Turkmen carpets enjoy for their quality workmanship and centuries-old traditional designs.

The carpet wholesaler says that just as most Turkmen refugees today depend almost entirely on carpet sales, increasing numbers of Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara refugees who have also turned to weaving are now being hit equally by the drop in export orders.

But so far, there is no sign that the downturn in the U.S. market following the 11 September attacks will stop soon. The U.S. Commerce Department said last week (1 November) that U.S. consumer spending took its steepest dive in 14 years in September.

At the same time, the U.S. Labor Department reported the U.S. unemployment rate jumped to 5.4 percent in October, the largest single-month jump in two decades.