Single | Muslim | Male

a photo essay

Migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan in Belgrade, Serbia. July 2017

Abstract

The term “vulnerable populations” as described by the post 2015 development agenda of the United Nations, focuses heavily on “providing opportunities and protecting the rights of women, children and persons with disabilities.” In particular, women and children are being recognized as victims of discrimination and violence in many regions of our planet. These groups also tend to garner more empathy within the Balkan asylum system, increasingly leaving the ‘single male’ phenomenon out of this particular narrative and perhaps neglected in the larger picture. This scenario potentially increases the risk of migrant men becoming lured into human trafficking, prostitution and radicalism.

In general migrants face job insecurities, discrimination due to religious practices, racial profiling and linguistic barriers. Being singled out or perceived as a threat for being young, single, and male adds another layer of exclusion towards a specific percentage of the migrant population. Preference by several countries and international organizations in assessing resettlement procedures for families, couples or unaccompanied minors further complicates the situation, highlighting the vulnerabilities of single men, who form a majority of the migrant population in the Balkans. The situation has been further amplified due to vivid newspaper headlines on mainstream media depicting attacks allegedly conducted by male Muslim/Arab asylum seekers on European women (The Washington Post July 2016). Such accusations have galvanized various groups across Europe into an anti-refugee or anti-migrant rhetoric. The single, young and male phenomenon has become a security threat where they’re not seen as individuals but as a larger group of potential suspects.

Concept

The following photo essay focuses on the daily rituals of young, single, male Muslims I encountered across the Balkans. Through their often desperate, attempts to cross the heavily monitored Balkan borders, they simply seek to belong to a society outside of their own country, which many will never return to. The lives of these young men have been fractured due to years of war, and the insecurity faced in their home countries. Many of these men are the only capable bread-winners for families left behind in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Libya or Syria. Their aim is to send back remittances to support parents and siblings; a few leave behind wives and children.

Bilal, a Pakistani who’s been happily living and working in Leros, Greece for the past 9 years

During our boat ride in the first half of the trip between the coasts of Greece and Turkey, the New School IFP team visited several Greek islands to conduct research on aspects of shifts in mobile populations on the eastern Mediterranean route. These islands hold particular significance as their beaches had witnessed the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers, men, women and children, generally Levantines who’d arrived upon these shores during a critical time period between 2014–2016. On each island we would run into groups of older men or youths walking the streets, talking amongst themselves or just hanging around street corners communicating through their cell phones. A majority of the men on the Greek islands were Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Afghans, Pakistanis, and a number of Africans from Western Sahara.

Man Praying inside Camp Souda, Chios. May 2017

Upon arrival from New York city, we took the ferry from Pireneus port in Athens to Lesvos. From Lesvos, we traveled to Chios, where we visited Camp Souda. Camp Souda was originally an informal settlement housing several hundred migrants, but since our visit in May 2017, Camp Souda lies empty. The population has been relocated to Vial, another camp located on Chios. While still in existence, and as we traveled back and forth across several islands, a group of us walked on the outskirts of the camp, but were barred from entry as we lacked the requisite authorization. On the street, I had started a conversation with a few young men who lived in the camp. Not speaking Arabic, the conversation was translated into Spanish, a language I speak fluently, by one of them, Mohammad — who offered to be a guide during my visit inside the camp, as his guest. Mohammad was a young man from The Sahel, who had lived in the Canary Islands for five years. He told me about his family — a wife and daughter — his past life, and shared some of the many difficulties faced as a prospective asylum seeker.

Mohammed from Western Sahara. Camp Souda, Chios. May 2017

All single men live in a separate section away from the main camp, right on the beach, in small tents which aim to provide shelter. Two or three men could be made to share a space of 6 x 8 feet inside a larger tent or corrugated iron structure, like the one Mohammad was living in. I spent about an hour inside the camp listening and conversing with several men in Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi. Many of the migrants understood one of these languages as they’re spoken along the Pakistani-Afghan borders with the more common Pashto, Darii or Balochi.

Syrian youth, Camp Souda. May 2017

Undocumented migrants can be welcomed in countries where their offer of cheap labor is deemed attractive, although as persons they are considered disposable. Migrants work for low wages in factories, restaurants, shopping centers, car washes, farms etc. In Greece, due to the recent economic challenges facing the country, opportunities for the migrant population are difficult to find and none of the men I spoke to wanted to stay in Chios. The Afghani and Pakistani men expressed frustration towards the authorities, who favored the Syrian population. A large percentage of the migrants were unable to understand the complexities of the asylum system they were navigating, and simply felt stuck in the Refugee Camps.

Raza Hussein, a Pakistani migrant on the island of Kos. Greece, 2017

Communication and Agency

While in Serbia I began to form friendships with a group of young male migrants from Afghanistan and Azad Kashmir, Pakistan. I would often visit them in Bajrakali, the only mosque in Belgrade, bringing fruits and small food items to aid them in breaking their Ramadan fast. The men would convene in the mosque, sharing stories, bruises and the latest news from their perilous journeys colloquially nicknamed ‘the game.’ The mosque was a place of refuge where they could find companionship, prayer and mutual consultation.

Maghrib Prayer at Bajrakali Mosque, Belgrade Serbia. July 2017

Almost all the migrants we met in Turkey, Greece and Serbia carried cell phones — a tangible connection with family and friends back home. Belgrade provides free wi-fi in all the local parks, where groups of asylum seekers would congregate daily. On occasion, they would ask me questions about legalities which they couldn’t understand, and wonder if they would ever be able to make their case directly to officials.

Afghan migrants at an event sponsored by https://refugeeaidserbia.org/ Their experiences were highlighted in a recital by several volunteers. Belgrade, June 2017

During the last few days of my stay in Serbia, I asked my new friends to dwell upon some thoughts they’d wish to share with the world:

“I’m originally from Nangarhar in Afghanistan. From there accompanied by my uncle, we walked to Iran then to Turkey to Bulgaria and finally arrived in Serbia. For one year we crossed jungles, rivers, seas & security guards”
 — Hayat Ulla, 15 yrs old in Belgrade. Current location unknown
“I want to tell the world there’s no place like home. I’m here because of all the restraints faced in my country”
 — Tanzil Shabaz from Pakistan (on the right) Currently location: Italy
“Respect life and people, you will get respect back. Look deep within yourself to find humanity”
 — Usman Raja from Azad Kashmir, in Belgrade. Current location: Italy
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