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Sharbat Gula: National Geographic’s ‘Afghan Girl’ Is Back in Afghanistan, Called ‘Afghan Mona Lisa’

After 30 years in refugee camps, National Geographic’s famed Afghan girl now has a home.
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U.S. photographer Steve McCurry poses next to his photos of the "Afghan Girl" named Sharbat Gula at the opening of the "Overwhelmed by Life" exhibition of his work at the Museum for Art and Trade in Hamburg, northern Germany on June 27, 2013. (ULRICH PERREY/AFP/Getty Images)

Return to a broken country

The Afghan government recognized an opportunity, and negotiated to bring her home so she could become a symbol for hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees.

In 2016, more than 370,000 Afghans refugees returned to the country of their birth. As she was once the face of the diaspora, she became the face of the homecoming.

Now widowed, Gula had been raising her four children alone, now sick with hepatitis C contracted from her deceased husband. Yet she liked her life in Pakistan, where she had made friends and become a member of a caring community of fellow refugees.

“Afghanistan is only my birthplace, but Pakistan was my homeland and I always considered it as my own country,” she told AFP. “I am dejected. I have no other option but to leave.”

President Ashraf Ghani personally handed Gula a key and a deed to a new apartment, and promised that her children could go to school, and her medical bills would be covered.

“I welcome her back to the bosom of her motherland,” Ghani said in a small ceremony. “I’ve said repeatedly, and I like to repeat it again, that our country is incomplete until we absorb all of our refugees.”

Gula is being encouraged to start a foundation that will help educate kids, although she appears to shun media attention, preferring a quiet life. But she is considering it.

“My message to all my sisters is not to marry their daughters at a young age,” she told BBC Persia. “Let them complete their education the same as your sons do.”

But this seemingly happy story does come with hard edges. After a generation of war, which has followed generations of war, Gula’s children will grow up in a poor, rough society that isn’t kind to women. Only half of Afghan girls attend school, and those who do often drop out around 12.

Gender equality is abysmal, among the worst in the world, and most women need a male companion to run errands or take a stroll. In some cases, women like Gula are considered immoral or tainted because they grew up in a foreign country. Violence against woman is rife.

So the government provides Gula with security, and she must be careful about who she lets into her home.

Nevertheless, her late husband’s nephew, Niamat Gul, says that she is settling in, frequently visited by well-wishers bringing gifts, who wish to take their pictures with the famous Afghan girl.

“She is happy now,” Gul says, “because Afghanistan respects her.”

Gula now gets to help others who struggle as she once did.

“Before this, I was a villager, I did not like the photo and the media,” she told the BBC. “Now I am very happy that it gave me honor and [made] me popular among people. The income from the photo has helped a lot of widows and orphans. Now I am proud of it.”

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