BRUSSELS -- Mahboub and his wife, Rama, fled from Afghanistan's Helmand Province three years ago to what they thought would be a better life in Europe.
But while they no longer face threats from the Taliban, comfort has proven elusive for the couple and their growing children. They find themselves between a rock and hard place in Belgium, often spending time on the streets, their future shrouded in uncertainty.
In a cozy, one-bedroom flat in the little Belgian town of Binche, an hour's drive south of Brussels, Rama brews some tea and prepares food for her 1-year-old son. With her 3-year-old daughter away at preschool, Rama reflects on the changes her family has seen.
The flat, she says, is the nicest place they have had since they left their home country via Pakistan in 2008. But not all is for the better.
"First, when we started our trip from Pakistan, we were thinking that now the danger is finished and we are safe and that we would have a safe life," she says. "But when we arrived in Belgium, it was worse than Afghanistan."
From the life Rama describes in the European capital, it is clear the family did not find the promised land, but rather a kind of personal hell. The family has had three asylum applications rejected. And if their appeal of the last decision isn't successful, they might become homeless -- not for the first time.
Mahboub remembers when his family first came to Brussels three years ago. "We were put in the middle of the city and we didn't know what to do," he says.
"We were just shown a building where we could go and ask for asylum. When we went there, it was Christmas. We were knocking on the door and nobody came. The weather was so cold. No one was helping us. We stopped a policeman and the policeman was drunk because it was Christmastime and they were partying. It was tough."
After a week on the streets, they found shelter at a refugee camp, then a social house, followed by a hotel room provided by the state. But it was short-lived. Once their asylum application was denied, they were thrown out and forced to go back to living on the street.
Mahboub recalls a week spent in the Gare du Nord train station, in one of the more dangerous parts of the city.
"I remember that we didn't have any cover to cover ourselves. It was really cold. The cover we borrowed from our neighbor," he says.
"There were a lot of people living in Gare du Nord. We were [having] a very bad time. In the evening, we were eating some soup. The only money we had, we had to buy Pampers for the children, and milk."
They later joined about 100 other Afghan refugees
living in a derelict house in the city center, not far from the European Union government district, where they endured life with no running water, heat, or electricity. But at the urging of the Belgian authorities -- who were alerted to their living conditions when other occupants began a hunger strike to remain in the country -- they left the house and again applied for asylum.
They were placed in a new social-housing project, but once again their application was rejected. Rama's argument -- that her work teaching illiterate women in Helmand had prompted the Taliban to threaten her -- was deemed insufficient because she had no papers to back up the claim.
"The basic problem, in my [mind], is that they believed the papers more than words. Because they need more documents and we cannot provide it," she says. "How can I, for example, go to the Taliban now and ask, 'Please give me a paper that you are killing me.' It is impossible. We cannot provide such a thing for them now."
Since moving to Belgium, the family has converted to Christianity and fears persecution for this if they were to return to Afghanistan.
Helene Crokart, a lawyer who represents the family, says the Belgium asylum office argues that Christians are safe in Kabul and that the family can move back to the country because Rama is originally from the capital.
"The mother comes from Kabul, so [the authorities] told the family that they can perfectly well live in Kabul, and we don't have proof that all the family was living in the village of the father," Crokart says. "It is ridiculous because in Afghanistan it is always like this. The woman joins the family of the father and they are living in the village of the father."
Adding to the family's difficulties in moving forward is that, even if they wanted to return, Belgium does not return rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan.
"It is crazy because the Belgian state doesn't want to send back people to Afghanistan because they consider it too dangerous, even for the policeman who is obliged to join the Afghan refugees when they are sent back to their country," Crokart says.
"So they say it is too dangerous for the Belgian policemen and it is too dangerous also for the people. So we agree to say that it is impossible to send them back to their country, but [at] the same time it is possible that they decide not to give them any papers in Belgium."
When contacted by RFE/RL, the Belgian Asylum Office said it could not comment on individual cases.
Punished For Playing By The Rules
Crokart explains that the family continues to encounter hurdles. The lawyer says she sought a different route -- a procedure called 9bis that falls short of asylum but that would allow the family to stay and work in the country legally. But again, Mahboub and his family did not qualify.
While other Afghans who lived in the squat in Brussels were granted 9bis status in July, Mahboub's decision to leave at the behest of the Belgian authorities left him with no documentation that they had ever lived there.
Mahboub feels he is being punished for trying to play by the rules. "The reason I went to the occupation was because I was on the street. I am also eligible to have the paper, but I am not fighting. I am going through [the process in a] a peaceful way. I am obeying what they say. I am obeying what they do to us, where they send us," he says.
"Those people who started a hunger strike, it is like a war. They fight against the government and I didn't want war."
A further request for 9bis status has been initiated, but there is no clear timetable of when a decision might be made. Until then, the family exists on a small stipend from the state but with no possibility of finding legal work and with no certainty that their daughter can remain in preschool.
Mahboub says he would take any job to avoid living on the money supplied to him by the state, if he were only given the chance.
"I don't know why they left us in this situation. We come here not to eat the food the people provide us," he says. "We want to work here. We want our life to be a normal life, like the way other people are living."