March 20, 2017; one year later
“In Kabul every moment it’s like your life is in danger. Every moment was dangerous. If I go in the morning to work I couldn’t know if I would be alive or not. The work I did was in the city. Every bomb explosion was in the city. We were afraid every day. It was every day. It was daily life. If you go out you never know if you will be back or not.”
These are the words of Taer, a man who worked as a street peddler in Kabul, Afghanistan, and who has been waiting at Kara Tepe, on the Greek island of Lesbos, since March 20, 2016 — the day the EU-Turkey deal was implemented — to know whether or not he will be able to win asylum in Greece for himself and for his family: his wife, his mother, and his three small children, Attife, Hanife and Ali.
It was an unsettling encounter for me.
He was a street peddler after all. I had just spent time with another Afghan family, Aref & Zahraa and their son Daniel. Aref worked for NATO. He was a mechanical engineer. He was involved in building NATO bases for forces fighting the Taliban. The Taliban had tried to kidnap his son and, but for the extraordinary bravery of his wife, Zahraa, they would have succeeded.
Of course he and his family were at risk. But… a street peddler? What chance would he have of winning asylum?
Taer sensed my skepticism, and gestured to Hanife who jumped up from where she was kneeling, rummaged in the corner of the prefab container they now call home and returned with a beat-up looking tablet. She started to swipe through some photos and then stopped to show me one.
A sweet smile and a shy hello
Hanife is 9 years old. She speaks impressive English, a language she has learned since being here. She also speaks Greek. She was the one to greet me at the door with a sweet, sweet smile and a shy hello. She was also the one to busy herself offering me and my colleague, Aziz Soltani, one of the International Rescue Committee’s cultural mediators who works at Kara Tepe, tea from a flask, and biscuits which she had evenly divided so we both got the same offering. She later said that she wants to be an English teacher.
The photo Hanife showed me, at first glance, looked like a row of men, dressed in white robes, lying side by side, almost as if they were sleeping. But then I noticed the unmistakable red of blood and realized that, of course, they were dead. “This man,” and Hanife used her 9-year-old fingers to zoom in to one of the men lying there, “this man was my father’s cousin.” She swiped on some more to another photo, this time a gruesome headshot of a man, possibly her father’s cousin, a bloody white rag gagging his mouth, face bloodied and some kind of bandage on his head. Dead. It was a disturbing juxtaposition: this young, sweet, shy girl holding up a photo of this horrific image. Trying to make a point.
Taer and his family are Hazara — a politically persecuted minority in Afghanistan. Taer, with his wife Belgis by his side, asked me if I knew about the explosion at a demonstration in Kabul that killed 100 Hazaras. I did not. Belgis echoed her husband’s words:
“The whole day it was the fear of losing family.”
I cursed myself for allowing myself to fall prey to the cold and sterile way in which the powers that be deem who is vulnerable for protection and who is not.
The bar for asylum is high. For Afghans, even more so. They have always been third class citizens in this response, never eligible for relocation to another country in Europe to apply for asylum there, and in the current narrative increasingly referred to as economic migrants as opposed to the refugees most most likely are.
“A lot of people are getting their papers,” Taer says. “We have been here for one year. We are here trying to prove that we had a reason to fear.”
Taer is soft-spoken and patient but I get the sense that he can’t quite believe that here, in Europe, he has to continue to explain himself. You can be a street peddler in Kabul — and still your life will be at risk. If they had stayed, they could be dead by now.
Taer and his family had their interview for asylum in Greece one month ago, a full ten months after they arrived on Lesbos. Now they must wait some more and hope they have been able to convince the asylum judge that their lives are valuable too, that their lives are on the line, that every day in Kabul is, truly and actually, a day where every moment is dangerous, that to be sent back would be to perish.
Read part two of this family’s story
Refugee crisis in Europe and Middle East: How the IRC helps
The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping people to survive, recover and reclaim control of their future. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC has works in over 40 countries and in 28 resettlement offices across the United States. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.
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