‘Illegal refugee’ adds his craft to Canberra

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Hazara People note: We do respect all ethnic groups, but Hazara People are not Afghan. Afghan or Pashtun is another ethnic group in Afghanistan.


Afghan refugee and craftsman Hashmat Shafaq working on a table leg in his store Rosewood Furniture in Woden. He was a woodworker in Afghanistan before he came to Australia in 1999. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
Afghan refugee and craftsman Hashmat Shafaq working on a table leg in his store Rosewood Furniture in Woden. He was a woodworker in Afghanistan before he came to Australia in 1999. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Hashmat Shafaq has the Afghan Communist party to thank for his becoming an old world carpenter who uses ancient skills to craft exquisitely carved furniture at his Woden workshop.

The 58-year-old was born in Behsood, near Kabul, to a middle class family.

“My father was a shopkeeper,” he said. “We had the equivalent of a small community supermarket.

“I liked to study but when I was 13 or 14, the communists came. They wanted a secular state and targeted all Muslims, especially Hazara like us.”

Within a short time membership of the communist youth organisation had become almost mandatory and Shafaq realised no matter how hard he worked he would not get good marks unless he effectively renounced his faith.

“I told my father and he said, ‘forget school’, and took me to a woodworking factory owned by one of his friends,” he said.

“It was quite small and employed 10 or 12 men; the youngest workers were 12 or 13 and the oldest were in their 30s and 40s.”

Skills were taught in time-honoured ways with apprentices starting off on small jobs and then working up to bigger ones.

“You watched, you learnt and then you tried it yourself,” Shafaq said. “If it wasn’t good enough you were made to try again.”

Wood carving was a special skill.

“Woodcraft was not difficult for me; I learnt wood turning very quickly. One of my friends [in the factory] was a carver. I watched him and then I picked up a chisel and learnt.

“The first test is the leaf of one small flower: you start there and then you work up.”

Shafaq, who has completed complex commissions for some of Canberra’s major foreign embassies and can carve folding book stands out of a single piece of timber, said patience and the ability to work with the wood were vital.

“You have to have a vision, a picture in your head. Then you have to take it out of the wood. The carving is a creative process. It is most enjoyable for me.”

The Hazara, one of Asia’s oldest racial minorities, have an artistic and cultural heritage that dates back to before the 6th century AD.

Formerly Buddhists who converted to Shia Islam in the late 16th century, today’s Hazaras claim descent from the artists and the craftsmen who created the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in the late 6th and early 7th centuries.

Hazarajat, the people’s homeland for more than 1500 years, occupies much of central Afghanistan. Bamiyan is only 230 kilometres north of Kabul.

The destruction of the Buddhist statues, reportedly on the orders of Osama Bin Laden, by the Taliban in March 2001 made headlines around the world.

Shafaq contrasts that reaction, which led to a multimillion-dollar aid program to rebuild them at an unspecified future date, with global indifference to the massacre of between 10,000 and 15,000 Hazara civilians at nearby Mazar-e-Sharif three years before.

It was this unrest that drove him to leave his wife and six children with family and friends while he sought refuge for all of them in Australia.

“The Taliban said they were targeting the Hazara,” he said. “I had to find a place of safety for my family.”

The destruction of the statues was an extension of the Taliban’s intention to wipe out the Hazara.

“The Taliban were against the Hazara people,” he said. “Our land had been Hazara land for thousands of years. The statues were evidence of how long the Hazara had lived here.”

Shafaq dismisses Taliban claims the statues were destroyed because they offended Muslim views on making images.

“Afghan Muslims had been happy to live with the statues for more than 1000 years,” he said. “They were also tourist attractions.”

Shafaq said there was no difference between the Taliban onslaught against the Hazara and Islamic State’s more recent attempts to exterminate ancient religious and cultural minorities in Iraq and Syria.

Until the Taliban’s rise to power in the mid-1990s Shafaq and his family were doing well by Afghan standards. They lived in Kabul, the national capital and the largest and most developed of all the country’s cities, and operated a furniture business.

“We had the business for about 20 years,” he said. “I started it after finishing my training as a woodworker and carpenter.”

Free enterprise was permitted under the country’s home-grown form of communism. When that regime fell in 1992 it was replaced by the Islamic State of Afghanistan. This was a loose coalition of the forces that had opposed the Russians during the Soviet war in the 1980s.

A power vacuum was created as the various factions, many serving as proxies for foreign countries including Saudi Arabia and Iran, escalated their differences into a full-scale civil war.

The rise of warlords across the undeveloped south resulted in widespread abuses of power and drove the emergence of the Taliban. This was, in its earliest incarnations, a religiously motivated vigilante force that provided summary justice in places where no government’s writ ran.

By 1994 it had become a power in the land, capturing Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, before seizing control of 12 provinces.

Kabul fell to the Taliban in September, 1996, and within weeks the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was consolidating its hold on the country.

With the Hazara, who as Shia were not even considered Muslims by the Taliban, in the new regime’s sights, Shafaq was forced to go underground.

It is believed at least 15 major massacres were carried out between 1996 and 2001. The worst of these was the mass slaughter at Mazar-i Sharif.

In an atrocity of Cromwellian proportions the Taliban, reinforced by well-equipped foreign fighters from Pakistan, slew 1400 of the city’s 1500 defenders before starting on the civilian Hazara population, Shafaq said.

Described by international observers as a clear case of ethnic cleansing, the 8000 plus murders that followed were often brutal and cruel. Some victims were reportedly locked in sealed canisters and allowed to smother to death.

Over the next few months more than 100,000 people in Hazarajat were forced to flee their homes and, in many cases, their homeland.

Shafaq, who fled to Pakistan before catching a plane to Australia, prefers not to discuss just how he got out of the country.

The Taliban remains a force to be reckoned with in Kabul. He fears for the safety of those who helped him and his family.

“I came in [to Australia] as an ‘illegal’. I did not have time to go through the formal refugee application process,” he said. “I just arrived. I was lucky that when I came refugees were treated differently [to what happens today].

“We were made welcome and given hope and opportunity. Now it is very bad [for people seeking refugee status in Australia]. I was finally able to get my family here in 2002.”

Shafaq, who settled in Canberra soon after his arrival, said his first job was as a cleaner and kitchen hand.

“While I had 30 years of experience as a woodworker and furniture maker in Afghanistan none of that was recognised here,” he said.

Within a short time he found work with Ex-Government Furniture in Hume and, as a sideline, began buying, restoring and selling furniture for himself.

“When my family arrived I decided to open my own business,” he said. “One of our children has a health issue. Being self-employed gave me more flexibility with my time.”

That business was Rosewood Furniture, a retail furniture business selling pieces sourced from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China and Lebanon, that now operates out of Westfield Woden.

“My two greatest achievements in Australia have been the life my family has led and the business we have built,” he said. “Canberra has been very good to me. I have met many kind and helpful people who are interested in my story.”

Shafaq named the business after his favourite timber, and one he had never seen before coming to Australia.

“In Afghanistan walnut was the preferred wood,” he said. “Another timber, known as archa, was also popular. Rosewood is from New Guinea and I first tried carving it in Australia. I like it very much and use it a lot in furniture.”

The business was very much a family affair and in the early days Shafaq worked from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week.

“It was good for the children to be involved,” he said. “The experience [working in the family business] gave them the skills and the confidence to succeed in their own lives.”

Shafaq said Afghans would continue to seek refuge in Australia despite the draconian policies favoured by both sides of politics.

“Afghanistan is not fixed,” he said. “It is still dangerous. Islamic State is now establishing a presence there.”

Shafaq believes in humanity and said people everywhere had much in common.

“It is unfortunate that some, such as the Taliban and Islamic State, focus on differences and, as a result, are cruel and intolerant,” he said.

“I believe in compassion. Before I left Afghanistan I was thinking there would be lots of good people in Australia. When I came here I found them.”


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