Interview by Eugenie Manisalidi (edits by Joshua Miguel Makalintal)
Originally published in the Ecosprinter’s Migration Working Group blog.
Ali is a smart 17-year old from Afghanistan. He has been living in a hostel for underage asylum seekers in Athens, Greece since October 2014. His communication skills and sparkling eyes make him stand out among his peers and are part of his charisma to effortlessly get people to like him. He has gone through experiences that the average European has only seen in the movies.
As part of the Strangers Next Door Interview Series by FYEG’s Working Group on Migration, Culture & Identity, we’ve published this monologue below exposing one of the harsh realities of the world and detailing Ali’s trials and tribulations as a young refugee in Europe’s most overburdened member state:
My parents got married in Pakistan and went to live in Iran, where I was born in August 1997. My father found a job there as a home builder to raise his seven kids. We stayed in Iran until I turned 2; we were “illegal” there.
Then my parents decided we should move to Pakistan, where it would be easier for us to survive as undocumented migrants and also easier for me to attend school. So we spent 8 years in Pakistan and I managed to visit school for 5 years. I dropped out when I was in the 5th grade. Since then I haven’t been back to school again.
At this time my eldest sister had just got married in Iran and she encouraged us to leave Pakistan and go back to Iran; “Iran has changed”, she said. But as soon as we got back there, we realized nothing had changed; unemployment was still high, the wages low and the educational system non-existent. Then another sister of mine got married in Ankara and she told my parents that maybe it would be better for them to be in a city, where the UN could help them.
So this time, my parents decided to take their six kids to Ankara and by the time we got there my father thought that since they had already set foot in Turkey, they should move to Istanbul, where Europe starts from and from where the access to European countries would be much easier.
In 2008 my parents managed to get to Greece together with my two little brothers and sister. They left me and my younger brother behind to live in the home of the agent that would also take us to Greece one day. The agent was also Afghan. The reason my parents left us behind was financial; the agent was asking for $800 for each person, but because my family couldn’t afford it, he asked them to leave their children to him as guarantee and only after their paying him up he would send them to Greece.
The family made their way to Athens, where they stayed for 4 years. My parents got a job near Patras; they were working in the orange fields for a Greek orange producer for €25 each per day. In Patras they were given a small room with running water, but without electricity to stay over during the week. They would come back home to Athens every weekend. Because they were only working during the orange season, they had to save money for the non-working season. Then the Greek crisis broke out and they eventually decided to leave for Switzerland in 2012.
Meanwhile, my parents had managed to collect the money asked by the agent and had a third person give it to him, just in case something bad happened to me or my brother and the money was wasted. The agent let us come to Greece by boat from Canakkale to Lesvos Island.
As soon as we crossed the Greek-Turkish border a Greek ship was waiting for us. We were caught by the Greek police. The police officers asked all 37 people on board to leave our small boat and get on their ship. They were holding big guns and their faces were covered while they were searching boys’ and men’s pockets and clothes for valuables. They threw their cellphones, gadgets and bags into the sea and took their money. Women were not being searched, so some men were giving them their valuables to hide them under their clothes.
However, it’s not that the Greek police respected women; some of them were beaten to shut their screams and cries up. A cop approached me, pulled me by the hair and threw me back into our boat. When the others saw this they rushed to the boat without even daring to complain, for they were afraid of the same thing happening to them.
The next thing the Greek police officers did was to remove our little boat’s engine and throw it in the water; and so did with the oars. Instead, they gave us a piece of rope to tie our boat, so they could tow us back to the Turkish boarders. They left us in the middle of the sea, they left us at God’s mercy.
Fortunately, a lady had a cellphone hidden, through which we called the Turkish helpline. I still remember this number: 256. Four hours later the Turkish soldiers arrived and gave us food, tea and juice before taking us back to Canakkale. Later on, the police came to pick us with a bus and took us to a camp in town. We spent 18 days there and then we were asked to sign a deportation paper. Although I didn’t understand a word in Turkish I signed it. After this, we were all taken handcuffed to Istanbul’s international airport by a police bus and flew back to Afghanistan.
For me it was the first time in Afghanistan. I was afraid of men with long beards, because I thought they were the Taliban. I was 12 by then and my younger brother was 10. It wasn’t myself I was afraid for, but only for my brother, whose hand I was holding tight every moment. My father sent me some money for us to stay in a hotel. Three days later, when I told the hotel manager I wanted to go back to Pakistan, because I felt a total stranger in Afghanistan and knew nobody, he said he knew somebody that could help me.
So he arranged an appointment for us with an agent in Kabul. The agent told me he wanted $250 for both of us to take us to Pakistan. We traveled by a little car packed with 16 kids in total for 3 hours. We saw the Taliban from a distance. When we arrived in Pakistan we went straight to our uncle’s house in Quetta, where we spent a couple of months. Then our father asked us to leave due to the danger against the Hazara people and Shia Muslims like us and go back to Iran.
In Iran I got a full time job in a cement factory making $300 per month. After 10 months I decided to quit, because the boss stopped paying me regularly and I thought that the job was too heavy for me. While working in that factory I got hernia; a problem that is following me up to this day.
Then my father said my brother and I should try to reunite with them in Athens, since I had saved enough money to do it. He advised us to travel separately. My brother got to Athens successfully, whereas I was caught at the Iranian borders by the police and taken to Harat City in Afghanistan.
There I found another agent, to whom I gave $170 to take me back to Iran. This time I was alone, but not afraid, because I was bigger, stronger, more experienced and most importantly, I no longer had the responsibility of my little brother. Besides, I had some friends with me that had been deported at the same time as I had. So then again I got to Iran through Pakistan and from Iran was taken to Istanbul by my other agent. I spent 1 month in my sister’s house in Sivas and found another agent to take me to the Greek island Lesvos for $2500.
This time our boat was good and fast and with just 11 people on board. I arrived in Lesvos in August 2014 and spent my first 25 days in Greece in a refugee camp, where I met a beautiful soul. She was a psychologist that had the gift to ask the right questions at the right time and made me open up to her. After a short session with her I was already feeling relieved. She is the reason that makes me seriously consider seeing a psychologist in the future and sharing what I’ve been through in my life. To our luck, the Greek police had a whole different attitude this time and treated us well. I think the UN might have played an important role in that.
When I left the camp in Lesvos I was taken to the Alien Department of Athens, where I was put in jail together with other 43 Afghans – who are waiting for vacancies in a hostel in Athens! We stayed in jail for 25 more days and then some of us came to this hostel and were given the yellow card: the international protection applicant card, which makes our presence legal in Greece. Since then I have applied for asylum in Switzerland, but was rejected, because I was told I’m too old. This is why now I want to travel illegally to see my parents and this is also why I hate Switzerland.
My dream is to go to Sweden or England and go back to school. Or maybe become a TV actor, a photographer or even a beautician. I don’t want a boring job and I’d love to work with ladies! Back in Pakistan I was working as a tailor for 3 years in total. Starting a family has not crossed my mind yet. All I know is I wouldn’t like to get married early. Because I want to study and work first. In the future, I’d like to have a motorbike, a Kawasaki or a Honda, and be travelling with my girlfriend, as I hate travelling by myself. And if I make enough money, I want to spend a large amount in helping sick children. But all these are just scenarios.
I’m not hiding the fact that nowadays my self-esteem is low. I don’t feel smart or competent enough and this has a lot to do with my interrupted education. I’m often pessimistic about the future, because I have a couple of serious medical problems to deal with, one of which is hernia. Both the Iranian and the Greek doctors have asked me to have these operations done long ago, but I’ve been continually postponing it because I’m scared. I want to have my parents by my side when I get operated. Another reason I haven’t done it yet is because I have been waiting for my agent’s call to take me to Switzerland and I want to be available whenever he calls me.
On the other hand though, I think all those tough times I’ve been through have made me far more responsible, mature, witty and versatile than the average teenager my age. Most likely I would be more delicate and less knowledgeable about the world out there had I lived a secure, quiet and ordinary life. I might have been traumatized, yet I’ve risen stronger and have been more experienced.
I’m really looking forward to seeing my family after seven years. Here in this hostel I have no real friends; everybody’s temporary and I cannot open up so easily to somebody that tomorrow might go. So I keep my problems to myself, prefer to stay alone and sleep, because when I don’t sleep I think about all my misfortunes and my future. The only thing I enjoy doing is attending some language classes offered to us in the hostel (provided that I like the teacher) and spending time with a young woman that comes to see me and takes me out once a week.
Although I want to, I can’t really focus on learning a foreign language right now because my mind is elsewhere. My future journey to Switzerland also scares me. Maybe I’ll lose my life on the way; who knows? It’s happened before to people, who travel hidden in ships and below trains. I’ve read it on the news. My agent has asked for €3000 to take me to Switzerland. However, a lawyer I trust said I ought to reapply for asylum due to my various medical conditions.
I’d just want to say to the Greek government and European governments in general: I’m not a tourist here. I really need help. I wouldn’t have left Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan or even Asia if things there had been better for me and I could feel safe. Apart from this, I think that 18 months in jail is too long for an undocumented migrant. Teenagers and young adults also need their parents. Why support only the kids? That’s the reason we travel illegally. There are no other option for us. I believe every case should be examined individually.
These unique coats were made by Ali when he was working as a tailor in Pakistan. You guessed right, it’s child labor.