Wednesday, 9 March 2016

I Sat Down With a Refugee in Lesbos: This is His Story


The sky is clear tonight. A bitter cold seeps through Moria Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Men, women and children line up outside the clothes distribution tent, shivering. Somewhere amongst the crowd of chattering teeth and clasped hands is Zahir, a 23 year-old refugee from Afghanistan.

Zahir is one of the two and a half thousand refugees who reached the shores of Lesbos today. He is exhausted, wet, and caked with vomit, and with the darkness of night comes the risk of hypothermia, a risk that is all too real for the refugees passing through Moria registration camp in the cold of winter.

When Zahir has some dry clothes and a warm jacket, I take him over to the tea tent in the part of the camp nicknamed ‘Afghan Hill’. Hundreds of people wander confusedly through the mud, anxious and lost. Most refugees are driven in UNHCR buses to Moria as soon as they arrive on the Greek island, hardly certain of where they are or whether they are safe. Depending on where on the island their boat lands, the drive can take up to 2 hours through the winding hills of Lesbos.

“Are you a football fan? I’m a Gunner,” Zahir tells me. Surprised by his seamless English, I ask him how he has become fluent, and he explains that he worked for 2 years as an airport supervisor in Kabul after studying civil aviation in India. In fact, he speaks five different languages, all of which he practiced while working with Safi Airways in Afghanistan.

Zahir wraps his arms around himself to shield himself from the cold. Under the camp’s neon light, I can see his eyes twitching from side to side. Though he is evidently in a state of shock following the day’s events, Zahir says he is keen to tell his story. He wants the world to understand how dangerous the journey to Lesbos really is.

At 10 o’clock this morning, Zahir arrived with 65 people crammed into a small dinghy, barely floating above the water. The engine cut out three times in the middle of the sea. Children clung to their parents. Women screamed. One young girl was knocked into the ice-cold water, but luckily, because the boat was moving so slowly through the waves, she was pulled back in.

Zahir was sitting at the back of the boat, crushed on both sides by arms and legs sparring for space. All around him people were being sick. The larger waves flooded the sides, and despite efforts to bail water out of the dinghy, it was perilously close to sinking. Zahir had heard stories about the dinghies sent across the sea, about the refugees drowning and washing up on Turkish or Greek shores. Now it could be his body washing up on the beach.

“I still can’t believe I’m alive,” Zahir keeps telling me, shaking his head with amazement. He says that there have been two occasions in his life when he thought he would die. The first was on the 6th of August, 2015, when the Taliban killed at least 35 people and wounded hundreds in numerous bomb attacks throughout Kabul. One explosion went off just north of the airport where Zahir was working. The second occasion was today, when the dinghy’s engine cut out halfway across the Aegean, and when his ears rang with the terrified screams of those around him. He thought he might never stand on dry land again.

It was when the US army started leaving Afghanistan that life became horrifying, Zahir says. In an almost detached manner, he tells me how his best friend, a young law student just about to begin his practice, was one of many people killed by the Taliban during the seven-hour siege of a court in Mazar-e-Sharif. He was shot in the forehead by a gunman dressed in military uniform.

Zahir decided to leave Afghanistan in August, just days after the Kabul terrorist attacks. It wasn’t for economic reasons that he left – he had a good job earning $1500 a month, and he was greatly respected in his community. Rather, he left for his own safety – life, in his own words, had become unbearable, particularly for educated young men, frequently targeted by groups like the Taliban and Islamic State.

As it’s now nearly impossible to get hold of a Turkish visa, Zahir flew to Iran instead, where he contacted smugglers to get him into Turkey illegally. After 15 days in Iran, once his Iranian visa had expired, he met the smugglers at the foothills of the mountains of northern Iran, bordering Turkey. Zahir was one of about 150 refugees led through the mountains by night, a journey that left him physically and emotionally exhausted.

At this point, Zahir begins to shake his head again, but this time with a grave look on his face as he describes his experiences. During the perilous six hour trek, he saw bodies lying lifeless in the knee-high snow beside the mountain passes: the bodies of those too exhausted to go on and too weak to turn back. He saw families with young children giving up, unable to continue the hazardous journey through the blizzards and storms of the Iranian mountains. Most refugees who journey through the snowy mountains suffer from severe frostbite and hypothermia, adding to the dangers of their passage.

When he finally arrived in Istanbul, Zahir was put in touch with a smuggler called Ahmed, famous amongst refugees and Turks for illegal people trafficking. “I paid $2000 for a safe fishing boat, but when I got to the beach in Turkey, there was only a dinghy. A smuggler pointed his gun at me and told me to get in the boat. I thought he would shoot,” Zahir frustratedly explains. Some of the refugees tried to fight back, shouting and begging for another boat, but the smugglers held them at gunpoint and forced them in. Having already handed over their life savings, what else could they do but give in?

Zahir’s smuggling experiences are typical of what happens at Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Most refugees will, upon arrival, spend a number of nights on the streets of Izmir in makeshift camps. According to some estimates, there are up to 2000 smugglers in Izmir, so contacting one is easily done. Once refugees have spoken with a smuggler, and once they have been falsely assured that their journey will be safe, they wait to be told when and where their boat will be departing.

There’s a moment of silence. I catch Zahir contemplating the muddy wasteland surrounding us with a look of despair on his face. The terrible conditions of Moria registration camp, exacerbated by the careless approach of the Greek authorities, have left him shocked and saddened. Even though he collected his registration ticket as soon as he arrived, he will have to wait in the cold until about seven in the morning to be officially registered. That means up to ten hours standing in line, with no sleep and no food.

He also misses his family. When he begins to tell me about his girlfriend in Kabul, his voice falters and his eyes gloss over with tears. Because unmarried couples are looked down on in Afghanistan, Zahir and his girlfriend would see each other secretly about once a week, going to small restaurants and bars. When he told her he was leaving for Europe, she was heartbroken – her family wouldn’t let her accompany him. He also tells me about his mother, a doctor living in Kabul. She was too fragile to join him on his perilous journey, and she wouldn’t have survived the cold mountain passes and the treacherous Aegean, Zahir says. Though he was sad to leave them behind, he knows it was for the best.

“I would like to go to England,” Zahir says, “but I know it’s impossible.” His sister and his cousin have been living in Newcastle since 2001, and he has a number of friends living in the UK. But he’s seen the horrendous images of the Calais ‘Jungle’, and he knows how dangerous it can be to jump the trains to London – he’s not willing to risk his life yet again. Right now, he is just happy to be alive, and he plans to take every day as it comes. When he reaches Athens, he will decide where to go from there.

What strikes me most about my conversation with Zahir is his awareness of the problems Europe faces. He understands the trouble Greece is having in responding to the refugee crisis, and he worries that countries like Greece and Italy are not being supported enough by the international community. He sees it not just as a Greek problem, but a worldwide one. 

He is also anxious about what the future holds, not just for refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries, but for the Muslim community as a whole. He has watched with fear the rise of far-right groups throughout Europe, and he has seen the increase in Donald Trump’s popularity in America. Astonished by what he sees as the ignorance of so many, he tells me with anger in his voice, “I’m not the kind of Muslim who interferes with others. We’re not all terrorists.”

When I say goodbye to Zahir and thank him for talking to me, he is standing outside the barbed-wire fence of the registration compound, once a detention centre for criminals. As I walk away, I wish I could believe that the sorrow and the brutality of his story are unique.

Sadly, however, every refugee has their own terrible story. Zahir is one of many young men who once lived a successful, happy life, but whose world was turned upside down by terror and violence. He is one of many people just like you and me, but whose dreams and ambitions were shattered by the horrors of war.

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