The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) won’t provide help to Sharbat Gula, the woman who gained global recognition as the “Afghan Girl” after a photo of her appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. Gula was arrested on Wednesday at her home in Peshawar on fraud charges for allegedly being in possession of a forged identification card. She’s facing up to 14 years in prison.
As a young girl Gula, who is believed to be 12 years old in the famous photo, fled Afghanistan with other refugees during the nation’s bitter war with Russia. In the intervening years, she reportedly returned to Afghanistan and then at some point, as turbulence erupted there again, came back to Pakistan. But she’s not eligible for help from the U.N. agency because she’s not an official refugee. “We cannot extend any assistance to the detained Afghan woman as she is not [a] registered refugee with UNHCR,” Dan McNorton, a senior external relations officer for UNHCR Pakistan, told Dawn, the Pakistani newspaper that broke the story.
“The UNHCR would have helped her if she was arrested under the Foreign Act and if she was a registered refugee. But now we cannot help her,” Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokesperson for UNHCR explained to Dawn. According to Dawn’s report, the Afghan consulate in Islamabad will be taking up her case.
Gula has captured the imagination of millions around the world since her photo was published on the National Geographic cover three decades ago. In 2002, when her identity was finally discovered, she made global headlines again. News of her arrest made similar waves around the globe and struck a chord with Women in the World readers, as a glance at the comments on the site’s Facebook page demonstrates. While some commenters thought she deserved to be put through the legal system, the majority of those who left a comment were unsettled by Gula’s plight and puzzled over the fact that she never benefited financially from the success of the photo.
“I am fuming, that photo is one of the most iconic photos of National Geographic,” Payal Kumar pointed out, adding, “The fact that nothing went towards her and she’s facing time in prison is actually such an injustice.”
“What was she doing in Pakistan?” wondered N.m. Ayubzada. “I thought she’d be living in US or Europe a good life. After all, her photo earned millions of dollars. Why didn’t she get anything from that????”
“How sad,” Christine Amanda wrote. “I hope the media coverage brings her back to her family. She was so lovely and now looks so tired????????”
Steve McCurry, the photographer who shot the iconic image, vowed in a Facebook post on Wednesday that he would help Gula obtain financial and legal assistance. In a follow-up post on Thursday, McMurray said, “We have made contact with a prominent human rights attorney in Pakistan, who will take her case. We urge the international community to speak out on her behalf and the millions of others who simply need a place to live without fear.”