A Lost Generation’s Story: Identity Challenges of Second-generation Afghans in Iran

Oct 12, 2021  •  14 min read


Amongst many countries where Afghans have taken refuge, Iran is the second-largest hosting country that included about 951,000 Afghan refugees in 2015. In addition, it hosts a large number of undocumented Afghans, estimated to be 1.5 to 2 million people[i]. The majority have been residents in Iran since running away from the Soviet War in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Among the most important and challenging issues not covered in previous studies of migration in Iran is the issue of refugees’ identities in the host society. By considering the importance of this issue, this analysis attempts to describe the identity challenges of Afghan refugees living in Iran. More specifically, the present blog seeks to understand and present the results of other studies on the identity of second-generation Afghan refugees resident in Iran.


In so doing, the literature should be deliberated in a systematic and accurate way which the use of Qualitative Meta-analysis can gain. For this purpose, at first, some searching was performed in the databases and the following electronic journals to gather the relevant literature:

  • Databases and international electronic journals including EBSCO (Academic Search Premier); Science Direct; Oxford Journals; Taylor & Francis Online and Wiley Online Library
  • Electronic databases of Iranian articles, including Bank-e Ettela’at-e Nashriyat-e Keshvar[Iranian Journal Information Bank]; Paygah-e Ettelaat-e Elmi [Iranian Scientific Information Database (SID)];
    • Some institutions of social sciences researchers and immigrant’s websites such as Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU); Refugee Studies Center, Oxford- Homepage.

Thus, after performing the desired search, 71 chosen studies (51 in English and 20 in Persian), including Journal articles, research reports, and book sections from the abundant studies, have been selected. In the second level, after examining these published studies, only 11 included the Afghan refugee’s identity in Iran, whether directly or implicitly. That is why these studies form the basis of present research for analysis. In the next level, with emphasis on the qualitative meta-analysis method, these studies have been profoundly examined, and all related propositions pertaining to the identity of Afghan refugees have been gathered from these researches. Finally, general concepts and the model of Afghan immigrant’s identity situations were extracted by classifying, replacing and analysing the connected propositions.


The result of the review can be divided into the following items:

  • The process of refugees’ identity formation.
  • Refugees’ identity problems or challenges

The Process of Identity Formation of Second-generation Afghans

As different researches show, the process of “identity formation” is multidimensional[ii]influenced by both individual and social contexts in which people live. Accordingly, the identity formation process of the second generation of Afghans will be discussed according to the contribution of social-cultural factors.

In-group context

Saito[iii] has correctly pointed out that the formation of identity for second-generation Afghan refugees in Iran is heavily influenced by their surrounding environments, along with individual personality, family background, ties to relatives and communities, gender and location.

In fact, for the second generation of Afghans in Iran, their family space is the first place that provides the context of identity formation and answers to the question of who they really are. Since, according to the norms and values of Afghanistan culture, his individual so reproduction which is both biological and social, takes shape in this space. Also critical are some other effective factors, including norms, values, and Afghanistan lifestyle, which in the formation of the refugee as an Afghan.

Family memories told by refugees’ parents and relatives, friends and Acquaintances networks, particularly about the time before fleeing from their homeland, helped new generations to begin visualising life in Afghanistan.

Moreover, education and social interaction with other Afghans in self-run Schools[iv] or (Madreseh-haye Khodgardan) are some of the most important and effective factors in highlighting the identity of second-generation Afghans in Iran. Here it should be noted that the very reason to emphasise this kind of school (self-run or informal) which relate to the identity formation of Afghan immigrants, is that on the one hand, the Iranian curriculum did not present enough knowledge about Afghanistan and on the other hand, education space in which there are merely Afghan students and teachers means experiencing a space which they never had.

Other factors which should be noted in the formation and reinforcement of Afghan immigrants’ identity are Cultural, social and religious communities. This sphere includes different societies from Poetic and Intellectual associations such as the Anjoman-e Eslami-ye Sha‘eran-e Mohajer-e Afghanistan (Islamic Association of Afghan Refugee Poets) or Anjoman-e Sha‘eran-e Enqelab-e Eslami-ye Afghanistan (Poets Association of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) and Markaz-e Farhangi-ye Nevisandegan-e Afghanistan (Afghan Writers’ Cultural Center)[v] to Goruh-haye Talabegi or religious scholars group at the Howzeh-ye ‘elmiyeh or religious seminars[vi] and also local Afghan communities live in neighbourhoods such as a village.

However, from the author’s point of view, a religious assembly that gathered young immigrants on religious commemoration together should be added to these societies. And for the last extracted factor, as Monsutti points out, practices or programs food and its relation to Afghan immigrant’s identity should be considered. Practices and programs sometimes reflect the Afghan lifestyle and sometimes present sources for feeling away from the host society and a resource for their shame[vii].

The mentioned factors jointly create a space or a world in which priority is total with Afghan culture, and this space can be called an in-group context in the process of Afghan immigrants’ identity formation.

Others context

But the in-group context is not the only space surrounding Afghan refugees. They refuge in another society, a new environment that has different cultural elements in comparison to their original society. It seems that for the second-generation refugees compare to the first-generation, this new space has special importance in the identity formation process. Because it has been said that the second generation of Afghans stands between two different social and cultural worlds[viii] thus, they face a different socio-cultural space in the host society and interact with the people who are not bearing Afghan values and norms.

To comprehend such kind of space and its effect on the identity formation of second-generation Afghans, one can analyse the facts which affect the refugee-host interactive area at the macro level.

Accordingly, on the one hand, the role of a macro of host government has been analysed in regard to the identity formation of Afghan refugees, and on the other hand, it is hinted to the image of Afghan immigrants reflected on the Iranian mass media. The mentioned literature shows that what appears in the mass media about Afghan culture is nothing but war, conflict and destruction. Moreover, what is usually presented by Afghan residents of Iran is a negative feature. As if Afghans in Iran are officially and unofficially blamed for a variety of other social and physical ills, including increases in crime, drug trafficking, prostitution, increased rates of infectious disease (AIDS, malaria, TB, cholera), and a large number of street children[ix].

According to various studies, the policies and programs of the Iranian Government have been changed in relation to the Iranian government refugee policy: “the challenge for those second-generation Afghans who identify themselves as modern, like their Iranian counterparts, and seek to remain in Iran, is the fact that the government of Iran identifies them as non-nationals, and accords them different rights and status[x].” This feeling of non-belonging is the consequence of changing government policies that have gone so far that even when their ID card shows the legal status of the refugee in the host society, it reminds them that they are foreigners.

So far, it seems that these policy changes also have some other unintended consequences. Emphasis on this point that Afghan refugees do not belong in Iran provide them with the opportunity to learn about Afghanistan and themselves as Mohajer or refugee, and in other words, it has highlighted the Afghan national identity. For instance, in her research, Hoodfar clearly points out that: “In Iran, their primary interaction has been with their own kin and ethnic groups, and many of our young interviewees had their first experience of ‘Afghan-ness’ not through some sense of shared history and culture, but because they were all subject to the discriminatory regulations of the Iranian Government, which tagged them as unwanted Afghan refugees and barred them from educational institutions[xi].”

Thus, on the one hand, Iranian culture is internalising its cultural elements in the Afghan refugee. On the other hand, it is seeking to induct and transfer the difference sense, distinction and being out-group to the second-generation Afghan refugees. This is the space that we hinted at, which is “others context”.

Identity Challenges of Afghan Young Refugee

In regard to second-generation Afghan refugees, as it was shown, from one aspect, they are born in an Afghan family sphere where the norms and values of Afghan culture are dominant, and from another aspect, at the same time, they live in a space containing norms and values of Iranian society and is different from the first context. Standing between two different social and cultural worlds (Afghan and Iranian cultures) at the same time results in a special situation for second-generation Afghan refugees and faces them with serious challenges. Here one of the complicated and contradictory problems is the sense of dazzling and ambivalence about the similarities and differences that the second-generation finds in these two worlds.

Culturally, they cannot consider themselves not as Afghan nor Iranian. For instance, as Saito points out: for the second-generation refugees who lived in Iran, “unlike their parents leaving Iran usually means leaving their friends and the “primary “or the “only” home they have known when they know a little about their homeland[xii]. The second-generation Afghan refugees feel that they are alienated & blamed, denied, discriminated against, socially excluded,back-warded or uncivilised. Such generation is entangled in a confused identity, and according to Olszewska, it is like a “riddles full of paradoxes.”


One of the significant issues which second-generation Afghan refugees in Iran have been encountered is challenges due to their process of identification in this society.

Herein two generations can be separated from each other, the first, one who has taken refuge in Iran with their families for finding shelters and the second ones who have been born in Iran or have been brought to Iran since their childhood. On the basis of chosen studies, what is being emphasised in this research, is the identity of second-generation Afghan refugees. They are a generation who are identified at the same time, in two worlds. In two spaces with two kinds of symbols, believes, values and norms from one side in in-group context with a culture belonging to original society as an Afghan, and from another side going to encounter other context or Iranian culture as a refugee. In such kind of situation, they find themselves stuck in a limbo of contradictions: As far as they call themselves both Afghan and Iranian, and sometimes neither.

This event has gone so far that the young generation of Afghan refugees has complained by the use of poet and poetry[1] to decrease the pain resulting from differentiation feeling and their identity conflicts:

Emsal  baz  bi  Vatanim,  ey  Parandeh-ha

Yek  Ruh  dar  Do  ta  Badanim,  ey  Parandeh-ha

Didi  Bahar  Sal-e  Degar  Khandeh-‘i  Nakard

Dar  Barf  -e  Mandeh  Jan  Bekanim,  ey  Parandeh-ha  ….

Ja‘i  baray-e  Mandan  va  Raftan  Namandeh  Ast

Shab  ra  Koja  Qadam  Bezanim  ey  Parandeh-ha?

Thou art birds, this year we are homeless,  full of miseries!
Thou  art  birds,  we  have  one  soul  in  two  bodies
There  is  no  hope  in  the  next  year’s  spring
We  have  lost  in  sleet, we  cannot  even  sing
Nowhere to  go,  nowhere  to  return
Where should we pass by in turn?


[i] . United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2016 Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2015. Geneva: UNHCR. 16. Retrievable from https://goo.gl/Q86zV0

[ii] Britto, Pia Rebello. 2008. “Who Am I? Ethnic Identity Formation of Arab Muslim Children in Contemporary U.S. Society.”  Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 47 (8):853-857.

[iii] Saito, Mamiko. 2008. From Disappointment to Hope: Transforming Experiences of Young Afghans Returning “Home” from Pakistan and Iran. Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU). Retrievable from  https://goo.gl/1FbcpD

[iv] Chatty, Dawn, and Gina Crivello. 2005. Children and adolescents in Sahrawi and Afghan refugee households: Living with the effects of prolonged armed conflict and forced migration. Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre (RSC), University of Oxford.

[v] Olszewska, Zuzanna. 2007. “A Desolate Voice”: Poetry and Identity among Young Afghan Refugees in Iran.”  Iranian Studies 40 (2):203-224. doi: 10.1080/00210860701269550.

[vi] Adelkhah, Fariba, and Zuzanna Olszewska. 2007. “The Iranian Afghans.”  Iranian Studies40 (2):137-165. doi: 10.1080/00210860701269519.

[vii] Monsutti, Alessandro. 2010. “Food and Identity among Young Afghans in Iran.” In Deterritorialized Youth: Sahrawi and Afghan Refugees at the Margins of the Middle East, edited by Dawn Chatty, 213-248. New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books.

[viii] Saito, Mamiko. 2007. Second-Generation Afghans in Neighboring Countries From Mohajer to Hamwatan: Afghans return home. Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU).

[ix] Tober, Diane. 2007. “My Body Is Broken like My Country”: Identity, Nation, and Repatriation among Afghan Refugees in Iran.”  Iranian Studies 40 (2):263-285. doi: 10.1080/00210860701269584.

[x] Abbasi_Shavazi, Mohammad Jalal, Diana Glazebrook, GholamReza Jamshidiha, Hossein Mahmoudian, and Rasoul Sadeghi. 2008. Second-generation Afghans in Iran: Integration, Identity and Return. Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU). 69.

[xi] Hoodfar, Homa. 2010. “Refusing the Margins: Afghan Refugee Youth in Iran.” In Deterritorialized Youth: Sahrawi and Afghan Refugees at the Margins of the Middle East, edited by Dawn Chatty, 145-182. Oxford: Berghahn Books. 166.

[xii] Saito, Mamiko. 2009. Searching for My Homeland: Dilemmas Between Borders – Experiences of Young Afghans Returning “Home” from Pakistan and Iran. Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU). 9.