This article was published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Sewanee Review.
When Nurzai was eight years old, a shootout at the Afghan-Iranian border separated him from his family. It was late at night, and the family was trying to cross into Iran. Instead of being met by border guards, they found themselves negotiating with smugglers.
“They told us to get out of the car and walk… We had been warned by the smuggler’s own henchmen that he is a thief and might kidnap children, even if we paid him… we thought that if we ran for it we might escape,” says Nurzai, who was travelling with his parents, an older brother and an older sister. “They opened fire spraying bullets everywhere… Everyone else ended up in one group and I was on my own.”
Nurzai, who prefers not to reveal his real name and hometown, is now a demure, soft-spoken 14 year-old. He has spent the last six years making his way, alone, to Greece – the first European foothold attainable from Asia. The fuzz on his upper lip suggests a sophomore, but the experiences he has been through, his composure as he relates them, and his very survival, suggest resourcefulness and maturity rarely found in adults, let alone children.
Nurzai’s family had reason to take great risks leaving Afghanistan. The months preceding their attempted escape had been traumatic. A powerful neighbour sought their then-ten year-old daughter, Semiram, as a bride for his son.
The two families met to discuss the match, but the discussion went badly. “His son was not a good kid. He was a thief,” says Nurzai, “and my father said, ‘I cannot give you my daughter. She will not be happy with you.’ After that the problems began. They kept coming to our house and saying, ‘if you don’t give her to us we will kill you all,’
Nurzai’s father was a farmer with no political connections. In contrast, he says, “these people had power. They had the Taliban on their side and my father could do nothing about that.”
After Nurzai’s older brother was badly beaten up at school, the family locked itself up at home for several months. “We couldn’t go to school. We were afraid that we would be kidnapped if we left the house,” says Nurzai. “We kept hoping the man’s son would get married to someone else.”
One night in 2010, Nurzai’s family quietly got into their car, leaving behind their house, land and most worldly possessions. They were going to make a new start in Iran, but the spray of bullets at the border changed everything.
“I spent three days on the mountain alone,” says Nurzai, now 14. “A smuggler found me and took me to Bam county in Iran, where I spent three years in the smuggler’s house. I did not pay him money. Instead I did all the housework.”
If he ever baulked at doing heavy work Nurzai was beaten, but he stayed in hopes of finding out what had happened to his family. The smuggler reassured Nurzai that he would look for them. “But it turned out he was lying,” Nurzai says, who was kept on with promises of news that never came.
The smuggler often brought Afghans he was ferrying west to stay for a week or fortnight at a time. One family took pity on Nurzai and gave him money, which he secreted away until he managed to make contact with a different smuggler.
“I called and told him I had money, and he said, ‘I will come by, this is the colour of my car,’ and he got me through the Turkish border.
In Turkey Nurzai told his story to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. He spent two and a half years at a UNHCR-sponsored hostel for unaccompanied minors in the southeast of the country, but was unhappy there.
“No one asked me where I was from, who I was, where I was going. There was no school. We slept and ate there and did nothing all day,” he says. “I asked the UNHCR to track down my family, but they never did.”
Nurzai saved a monthly handout of 100 Turkish lira (about $30), and hopped on a bus to Istanbul. There he made contact with smuggling rings and was sent to the Aegean coast to work for them.
“I worked blowing up the boats for other people to cross, and I would cry and ask them to help me and take me with them,” he says. “There was a Turk and an Afghan. I don’t know if they were smugglers. I told them my story and they told me to get into one of the boats.”
On the Greek island of Lesvos, police interviewed Nurzai and registered him as an unaccompanied minor. Metadrasi, an NGO of interpreters, assigned him a minder, who showed him how to open a Facebook account and put out the word to NGOs across Europe that he was looking for his family.
Greek authorities found Nurzai permanent lodgings with Apostoli, the social services arm of the Church of Greece. For a year, he stayed in a hostel with 18 other boys from the Middle East and Africa, learning English, Greek and German. (Those who plan to remain in Greece are inducted into a multi-cultural high school, which eases their path into the Greek educational system). Thanks to Facebook, he found his sister in Sweden and has now been reunited with her, but there is no word of what became of their parents and brother, who are still missing.
Nurzai is making up for lost time. Asked what he wants to do with his life, he says he is undecided. He muses about becoming an athlete or a doctor; but of one thing he is certain: “I don’t know what I want to be, but I want to be something, and I want to help my country.”
Nurzai is one of about 90,000 unaccompanied minors estimated to be living in Europe, many of them still scattered in refugee camps. In Greece alone, the National Centre for Social Solidarity, the government agency which places unaccompanied children in state foster care or with private NGOs, has farmed out some 1,200 with an equal number still awaiting placement.
Many were separated from family members en route. Caring for them is complicated. Not only do they need shelter and education; they are vulnerable to exploitation by organised crime rings and many are in need of psychological support.
“While [minors] have escaped poverty and war, they are exposed to other dangers in Europe, such as exploitation for cheap labour, prostitution and the organ trade,” says Christos Dimopoulos of the Centre.
Early in 2016, Europol announced that some 10,000 unaccompanied minors had gone missing in 2015. This may be a statistical error, says Vasiliki Yamali, the social worker who ran Apostoli’s shelter for five years. “There is always either a family or a trafficker behind these kids,” she says “There’s a great deal of pressure for them to continue the journey to their destination country, because conditions there are better, they’re going to be able to get a residence permit, they’re going to make money to send back home. So in some ways their future is foreordained.”
This migratory impetus means that minors often register in one country, only to move on to another, thus registering as statistical disappearances. The Europol figure was a tally of national figures in which the same minors may have featured several times as they moved across borders, registering with different authorities each time.
This does not mean that disappearances don’t happen. Unidentified corpses have washed up on Aegean islands after refugee boats drifted off course and sank. Sometimes carcasses spend weeks on the sea floor before a storm dredges them up. Since no one witnesses many of these sinkings and no one survives them, it is impossible to know exactly how many minors may have been lost in the dangerous sea crossing from the Turkish coast.
Some, like Nurzai, are separated from their families by violence; others because smugglers loaded them onto separate rubber rafts on the Turkish coast, and others still are separated for financial reasons.
Dan Biswas, who co-founded Faros, an NGO for unaccompanied minors, remembers the case of Fatima, an 11 year-old Syrian girl who came to Greece with her mother and younger brother.
“They were staying in the so-called Afghan hotels, which are refugee apartments,” he says. “The mother didn’t have enough money to take the whole family, so one night she disappears with the brother and leaves Fatima in the apartment. From the road north she calls a young couple living in the apartment and she said, ‘I left, I couldn’t take Fatima with me, please take care of her.’”
Fatima, who was asleep when her mother left, went into traumatic shock when she discovered that she had been abandoned. “She couldn’t speak for days,” says Biswas, who eventually placed her with a home for minors in northern Greece.
Youth and separation from family render children like Fatima vulnerable. Xenophobia in the West has misdirected public attention, says Iraklis Moskoff, the Greek National Rapporteur for Trafficking.
“Trafficking, forced criminality, sex, begging, … these things exist,” he says, “but people aren’t interested because people are afraid that these refugees are a public health hazard or a terror threat, rather than seeing that we, too, are a threat to them.”
Moskoff believes that the political debate should shed its emphasis on jihadists entering as refugees. “We are hostages to the Fortress Europe policy. This fear of terrorism is butter on the bread of repressive policies.” Only once this policy is dispensed with can politicians engage with law-enforcement and charities to develop a fact-based immigration policy, he believes.
Shackles of poverty
Despite the difficulties, there are happy endings. Ali, another Afghan whom Apostoli rescued, has, like Nurzai, a story of Dickensian misfortune and bereavement.
In 1996, when Ali was six, the Taliban swept into Kabul, dragged the last Soviet-appointed president, Mohammad Najibullah, out of the UN compound where he had sought sanctuary, and beat him. They dragged him, Hector-like, through the streets of the capital from the back of a van and hanged him from a lamppost. Ali’s father had served in Najibullah’s cabinet, and was in danger as the Taliban swept the capital for other leaders of the former communist regime. “We wanted to move but we couldn’t,” says Ali. “All the roads were closed.”
“There was a communist neighbour and the Taliban asked him where we lived. My father had gone to collect firewood, and while he was gone the Taliban arrived in 15 or 20 cars.
“They came into our house and tore everything apart searching the place. We had guns in the house and they took them.” When Ali’s father returned, the Taliban pretended not to have found the guns. “My father came into the house and they asked him, ‘Where are the guns?’ He said, ‘I have no guns.’ And they said, ‘We’re going to search.’ And they found everything – Kalashnikovs and all sorts of weapons. There was a false floor and they opened it. And they killed him in front of us, inside the house… I saw blood flowing from everywhere. What could I do? I was crying. I was afraid for us, too… They left saying ‘we will come and get you too’.”
Ali’s mother and older brother, Hasan, aged 9, were left to weep over the body. When they held the funeral, very few people showed up, presumably out of fear that they too would be targeted as sympathisers of the old regime. Ali’s mother tried to move house but the family was tracked down and threatened again.
One night Ali’s mother disappeared from Kabul and took her sons to Nimruz province in southwest Afghanistan. There, she told them, “I can’t walk, my children, you must go away on your own.” Completely alone for the first time in their lives, Ali and Hasan crossed into Iran on foot. “We were afraid to speak to Afghans in case someone should recognise us... We spent very difficult weeks in the woods. It took us three or four months to get to Zahedan,” Ali says, indicating the town in southeast Iran where he and Hasan were able to speak to people again. The entire trip from Kabul to Zahedan had taken a year and a half.
“We communicated with our mother again after two years,” he says. “We didn’t have cell phones and that sort of thing.”
Afghanistan has been in a near-constant state of war since the Soviet invasion in 1980, and that has produced waves of immigrants to neighbouring Iran. There, Afghans have acquired the status of second-class citizens, doing construction or other manual labour for less than Iranians would be paid. During the great westward flux of refugees of 2015, many Afghans who had lived or been born in Iran seized the opportunity to get out.
Ali and Hasan were even more vulnerable than most, because they were very young and had no residence papers. They didn’t want to attract the attention of the authorities, so they accepted an offer of work in a marble cutter’s workshop, in which they were locked every night. “We slept inside, in a small room. The boss was Iranian. We worked for 25 tuman a month – it was enough for food, nothing else,” says Ali. He and his brother put up with eight years of this indentured servitude.
“As I grew up I decided that I don’t want to live in jail,” says Ali. They approached their boss. “We said, ‘Can you give us something more? We have our lives ahead of us.’ And he gave us a little more.”
Ali and Hasan saved as much of their money as they could, but they still didn’t have enough for both of them to travel to Europe. Hasan sacrificed himself for Ali’s sake. Hasan said, “You go, and I will put my money in so when you get to Istanbul you can pay a smuggler.”
A fellow worker at the marble cutter’s brought Ali a smuggler’s telephone number. “We did the deal over the phone. He said, ‘Tomorrow night you must have so much money with you. If you have it, you can travel. If not, I can’t take you.’ I said, ‘I will give you so much, and when I get to Istanbul my brother will give you the rest.’ And he said, ‘OK’.”
Ali spent several years working at construction sites in Turkey. As an illegal, his pay was low but he managed to scrape together €5,000 to pay a smuggler to get him across the Evros River, which forms a natural border along the slim, Thracian land border between Greece and Turkey.
Ali walked to Alexandroupoli, and hopped on a train to Athens. The journey took him and a refugee companion longer than usual. “Every time there was a ticket inspection we were thrown off the train and had to take the next one, until finally someone in Larissa bought us our tickets.”
At Athens’ main train station, they perched on a bench. “We had nowhere to go… A man came and asked, ‘what are you doing here?’ We said, ‘We’ve just arrived in Greece and we don’t know what to do.’ We spoke to him a little in English and a little in Farsi. He said, ‘Come with me to work picking oranges.’ We were in difficulty and would take any offer.”
The orange farmer paid Ali and his comrade €20 a day – slightly below the €25 rate given to illegal Pakistanis now. Ali worked from 7am to 8pm. The farmer kept three euros a day for the room and another five for food. Ali says he cleared about €10 a day, and saved 200 euros over two months. By Western standards the pay is paltry, but Ali made as much in a season as he had done in years in Iran.
At the end of the picking season, the farmer gave Ali an address where he could apply for asylum and ask for a place to stay with the church. “I went to the address and explained what happened and they told me to expect a call,” he says.
“We lived at the train station for a month,” says Ali. “Then they called me and said, ‘We’ve found a shelter. You can stay at the church shelter of Apostoli.’ I said, ‘Wherever you send me I will go.’”
Although most Greeks are unaware of it, Greece has given boys like Ali and Nurzai a chance to restart their lives. Sometimes this is all they have. Ali’s mother died in Afghanistan. His brother, who in 2012 made his way to Russia, was killed by a drunk driver. He is alone in the world, but has wasted no time in getting on in it. He already speaks Greek, Dari, Farsi, Pashto and Urdu, and works as a translator for NGOs, helping other refugees. Now 22, he is preparing to graduate from Greek high school. He plans to sit university entrance exams to read sociology.
All this was made possible because Apostoli took Ali in hand, taught him Greek and enrolled him in Greek school at 7th grade, although he was already 17. He did the full Greek curriculum, taking lessons in Modern and Ancient Greek. “I came here and spoke with the people and they offered me a path,” says Ali. “They sent me to school and did everything for my life to move on. Truly, in the end, I believe God is love. What they did for me is greater than God.”