Monday, May 6, 2019 will be a sad and shameful day.
Abbas H., my 19-year-old Afghan refugee friend will be deported from Oslo, Norway to Afghanistan where he knows no one and hasn’t lived since he was a young child. After two years of leading a safe, happy, productive life in Norway, he is being forced to leave a country he has grown to love, an older brother who will soon be graduating from a college in Oslo, good friends, and a Norwegian family who has adopted him as their own.
After his third asylum appeal was rejected, Abbas was given a choice: voluntarily agree to be deported and have the possibility of returning to the EU in three years or be forcibly deported, never to be allowed in the EU again. He chose to voluntarily leave. The date was set for May 6, 2019.
Abbas is deported in good company. Norway just deported a fragile 80-year-old man to Afghanistan. He was accompanied on his flight by two Norwegian doctors to ensure he would survive the flight to Kabul. A refugee family who traveled from Jordan has been living in Norway for 10 years. The son, who is now 16, is being deported by himself because his mother mistakenly said she came from a different city when they first applied for asylum. The conservative, anti-immigrant party in Norway seems determined to no longer be the welcoming place for refugees it had once been.
Abbas was getting tired of fleeing. As a Hazara, a persecuted minority group of Muslim Shias descended from the Mongols, he fled with his family at age 4 months old to Pakistan to find safety. They lived as illegal immigrants in Pakistan for a period of time until the family was deported back to Afghanistan. On their return, they were detained by Taliban, who were arresting Hazara families. While in Taliban captivity they were mistreated and separated. Abbas and his mother were separated from his father and brother. This was the last time Abbas would see his father. The danger for Hazara’s grew in Afghanistan so his mother made the decision that no parent should have to make. She paid smugglers to take Abbas, by himself, to Iran to escape persecution and potential death. He was 13 years old.
In Iran, he worked in a chicken packing factory for a few years until he was kidnapped by the Iranian military to become a child soldier to be put on the front lines of the war in Syria. He escaped from the military after boot camp and fled to Turkey. Like so many other refugees, he survived a precarious raft trip over the Aegean Sea to Greece. He landed on the island of Chios, where he lived in a refugee camp for several months. He was eventually relocated to Athens, and finally to Norway, where he reunited with his older brother who he hadn’t seen in seven years.
In addition to speaking Dari, Pashdu and Farsi, Abbas is completely fluent in both English and Norwegian. But no matter. When he passes through Afghanistan to find a bit more safety in Pakistan, he will continue to be considered a refugee, making it illegal for him to attend school or to work.
I met Abbas in Chios, Greece in August 2016 where he attended BAAS, the Swiss-run NGO refugee school where he participated not only as a student but also as an English tutor and translator for younger Afghan children in the school. It was there that he decided to become a photo journalist after taking a journalism workshop from a Chios volunteer.
Abbas and I reconnected again a year later in Athens, Greece. He was 16 at the time. He asked if he could accompany my American/Greek friend, Marty, and me to visit an Afghan refugee camp an hour north of Athens to deliver some supplies for the refugee school there. Abbas was hoping to reconnect with some of the younger kids he had met in Chios who were transferred to this refugee camp. Indeed, he had a warm reunion with a young boy who was delighted to see Abbas again — a friendly face from Chios. I, too, was able to reconnect with my star English student in Chios — a 6- year old girl with eyes and a smile that belies her heartbreaking life circumstances throughout her entire young life.
Once again, Abbas acted as a translator, helping the refugee school director communicate with an Afghan worker on what needed to be done in the school trailer. He and our other Afghan friend, Abbas J, helped me deliver protein bars to a squat in Athens — an old, dilapidated school in which refugees were allowed to live, as the Greek government turned a blind eye to their squatting.
For the past two years Abbas has been living with a lovely retired Norwegian couple, Eva and Torleif. He met Eva when she volunteered in Greece teaching Norwegian. Abbas had set his sights on resettling in Norway to join his brother, so he was delighted to have the opportunity to study Norwegian with Eva. They both hit it off — dedicated teacher and humanitarian and motivated learner and sweet, unaccompanied minor refugee.
When Abbas arrived in Norway, Eva and Torleif not only welcomed him into their home, but they treated him like a real son, providing him with constant love, support, and a full schedule of activities to keep him busy while he awaited his numerous asylum requests and appeals. Since he was not allowed to work or to go to school until he had Norwegian residency, Abbas’ days were filled with studying Norwegian and English, working out in the gym, praying in the mosque and visiting museums.
During these years, Abbas learned what it was like to feel safe — for the first time in his life. He grew emotional, physically, mentally, culturally and intellectually. He was happy — eager to begin studying in a “real” school and begin his new life.
But that wasn’t to happen.
Speaking with Abbas the other day, he sounds resolved in his leaving, scared of what will be awaiting him in a realistic dangerous journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and terribly sad he will be leaving the family and friends he made in Norway as he built his new life. The thought of starting all over again is daunting.
As I shared with Abbas in our last phone conversation before leaving Norway, he is strong and resilient. He was successful in living as a child on his own in Iran. He was successful in escaping on his own to Europe. He overcame obstacles in Chios and Athens where many others can and do crack under the pressure. He was successful in building a new life in Norway. He will succeed wherever he lives. This is but one more step in his extraordinary life’s journey.
But In a just world, this is not the life’s journey he should have been forced to endure.
LISTEN TO ABBAS’ STORY, IN HIS OWN WORDS, on a podcast in which he was interviewed by USC graduate students in a course on Non-Profit Marketing Communications.)