An Afghan Refugee’s Story
“From as early as I can remember, I have known nothing but sadness and trouble.”
My name is "RA" and I am 19 years old. I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 15, 1988. I am the youngest of four children. I had two brothers, who were abducted by Taliban military forces and never seen again. I will tell you more about them later. I also have one sister, who is now 25, married and living in Kabul.
I do not have many memories of my early years in Kabul. In fact I remember practically nothing. I do remember that my mother got coupons from the government that she could redeem for food and other items. She would get biscuits and bring them home, then I would sell them to my brothers. So I became a businessman from a very early age!
Once (I am told) my uncles had many guests over, and I woke up after they had left and saw a small glass of clear liquid on the table. Thinking it was water, I drank it down in one gulp. But it was vodka! Since I was very young and small, I got drunk, and everybody says I was crying and yelling and saying that I just wanted to die!
When I was about 5, we moved to Samangan in northern Afghanistan. We lived in Samangan for about 3 years, then we moved to Mazar-e-sharif in a neighboring province. My family owns property there, but we only lived there about a year before moving back to Samangan, because times were very difficult. One of the abiding memories of my early years is that we moved often.
I was basically a very quiet kid, but the second time we moved to Samangan I had some friends that I played with. We played with knives, slings, and slingshots, fighting against other teams of boys. Even though I was small, I helped prepare the stones and things like that. Some of the boys even made their own “guns.” At the arranged time we would gather and shoot at each other, but because we lived in an area where there were terrible dust storms, you couldn’t even seen the other boys or who you were shooting at. If you got hit in the face with a stone, you couldn’t tell who had shot it. It was a very rough game.
My father had been killed when I was one year old, so of course I never knew him or have any memory of him. I only know him from pictures. Though all my family were Muslims, my father was also a committed communist. He lived in Russia for six years prior to marrying my mom, and had been trained there as a pilot. After my three older siblings were born, they lived in Russia for another six years. By the time I was born my father was a high-ranking officer in the Afghan military, though some rivals in the government had stripped him of some of this authority. Still, he was head over all the airports in Afghanistan.
[Note: There were two main wings in the communist government of Afghanistan, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan: Parcham (Banner) and Khalq (the People). After an initial period of cooperation following its founding in 1965, the PDPA lapsed into factionalism. In 1978, at Soviet prodding, the two sides reunited and overthrew and killed President Daoud Mohammed, a coup that is known as the April (Saur) Revolution. The PDPA proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, yet this marked the end of Khalq-Parcham amity. What "RA" briefly relates below took place on June 10, 1989, following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which lasted from May 15, 1988, to February 15, 1989. President Najibullah (formerly head of the Afghan security forces modeled after the KGB) was the USSR’s puppet, having replaced his fellow Parchami Babrak Karmal in 1986, when Gorbachev had declared that Afghanistan had been transformed into “a bleeding wound.” Even within the Parchami, as might be expected, Najibullah’s support was not uniform.]
My father was Khalqi, while the president of the country at that time, Najibullah, was Parchami. My father, along with several other Khalqi leaders, were invited to Kandahar to attend some government meetings and negotiations. On the flight to these meetings, the plane apparently exploded in midair and all aboard were killed. According to witnesses, for a while the plane flew with one wing. Three people, including one of the pilots, actually jumped from the plane before it hit the ground. The rest of the people in the plane were burned up. Altogether there were 57 people who died, including women and children. We believe that a bomb had been planted on board the airplane by Najibullah’s Parchami loyalists prior to the flight, who in one blow wiped out several key Khalqi leaders. Of course we will never know for sure what happened
[Further note: "RA’s" father’s death most probably can be blamed on internal Afghan political strife, at a tumultuous time in that nation’s history, when Najibullah may have been concerned about consolidating power in the face of uncertain times following the Soviet withdrawal. There is a remarkable parallel incident that occurred on August 17, 1988, about a year earlier. President Zia-al-Huq of Pakistan, General Akhtar, who headed the ISI (Pakistan’s secret service) for most of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel, the U.S. military attaché, and eight Pakistani generals, all died in a plane crash near Islamabad, shortly after takeoff to return to the capital after a secret mission to a desert area to watch a demonstration of the M-1 Abrams tank. Pakistani and U.S. investigators were unable to confirm (so they reported) that the plane was bombed, and some who observed its erratic flight and noted the cockpit silence before the crash, believe they were gassed. The Soviet Union, the government of India, Bhutto's People Party, Zia's own military, the CIA, Afghan communists, Israel’s Mossad, and Shi’ite separatist groups operating in Pakistan all came under suspicion, but no culprit was ever found. Democracy was restored in Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto, whose father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been executed by Zia, was elected prime minister in November 1988.]
After my father died, my mom didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Somehow, she blamed me for being “bad luck” which resulted in my father’s death. Several years before my father’s death, one of my mom’s brothers, who was a commander of security guards in Kabul, had been gruesomely killed by the mujahideen. Now her grief was overwhelming, and it seemed she was crying all the time. She simply was in no shape to care for a baby, so basically she said, “Here, take him.” I was raised and cared for by my grandfather and grandmother, my mother’s parents. They were very kind to me and I became very close to them, especially to my grandfather. He was the strongest influence in my early childhood. I miss him very much even today, and I find it difficult to talk to him on the phone without becoming very emotional.
I lived with a large group of extended family. This included my mother, my sister and two brothers, my grandparents, and two uncles (my mother’s brothers), and their wives and children. After my father died, they all came to stay with us and we were always together for the remainder of my time in Afghanistan. When we sat down to a meal together, it was a large group of people! I have memories of lots of children running around. Sometimes things were quite noisy. I remember once one of my uncles and his wife had a disagreement over disciplining one of their children. He told her not to beat the child but she did anyway. He then started beating her, chasing her all through the house! Another time one of my aunts dared to gossip about my mother in the presence of one of her younger brothers. In defense of my mother’s honor, she had boiling water thrown on her face, and you can see the scars to this day.
Though I didn’t go to school at all while we lived in Mazar-e-sharif, I attended school during the Samangan years, and I was a quiet and good boy. My friends and I did our school work and always knew more even than the older boys. They bullied us and beat us, forcing us to give them the answers for tests.
One day when I was about 9 years old and in the 5th grade, I had a bad fall and broke my arm. What happened was this. A couple of older boys in the high school were taken out into the school yard to be disciplined, either because they hadn’t done their school work or they had disrespected the teacher, I’m not sure which. We all crowded around the window to watch their punishment, which consisted of being beaten with a rod on the bottoms of their feet. This was to show the whole school what would happen to anyone who misbehaved. Since I was small and the window was high on the wall, I climbed up with one foot on the window sill and one foot on the back of a chair. At one point somebody yelled at us to get down from there, and since everybody moved quickly, I fell backward and landed awkwardly on my arm, breaking it badly. I was in terrible pain. I went running up to the Koran teacher and showed him that I had broken my arm. He said, “What do I care? Get out of here!” So I went to the principal and his son took me to get help.
The unkindness and cruelty of this man made a bad impression on me concerning Islam. It was not something I wanted.
I was raised Muslim, and my mother and her parents considered themselves devout. My grandfather wasn’t a mullah, but he knew the Koran better than they did, and sometimes he would mock them. He had a special book that he kept with his copy of the Koran that he sometimes pulled down to read. He wouldn’t allow anybody to look at it or touch it, but he would read it and kiss it, then carefully put it back. My mom believes it was a copy of the Injil (New Testament). But she never talked to him or asked him about it out of respect.
We used to get up at 5:30 AM to go to the mosque to read the Koran at 6:00. That’s why I know the Koran so well. But in reality, I did not like learning Arabic and studying the Koran at all. During Ramadan, they usually wouldn’t allow me to fast because I was too young. I wanted to but they wouldn’t allow it. I used to pray to God and ask for his help when something happened or I wanted something. Sometimes I went to the mosque to pray. But to be honest, I only wanted to impress people and let them see what a good person I was. I wanted to show my grandfather and my mother that I was a godly person. I didn’t really go to the mosque to worship God or pray but to show off.
My mother’s side of the family claims direct descent from the prophet Mohammad. When my grandfather went out in public people came up to him and called him “Sir” and kissed his hand. He even had a piece of paper that showed his genealogy, that proved he was “Sayed,” that is, someone whose ancestry can be traced all the way back to Mohammad. He was quite a character and loved making people think he was crazy, by the way he dressed or the way he wore his beard. Yet, he was highly respected by the people, and he was even a friend of the king, Zahir Shah. He spent a lot of time with him and often went hunting with him.
I had a good relationship with my sister and brothers, even though they were a good bit older. Sometimes we would play fight and wrestle, or play cards, or play with remote control toys they got from Russia. But I was actually a very quiet kid and usually stayed at home and stayed near my grandfather. He used to paint and repair things around the house and work in the garden. So I watched him and was his helper. My grandmother was a very kind man.
The house we lived in was nice (in Samangan and Mazar-e-sharif). We had lots of land that we hired workers to farm. We also had many farm animals. At one time we had 500 sheep with their lambs, and one of my uncles for a while was the shepherd. We also had many goats, cows, donkeys and chickens. Before we left we sold all of these animals to help finance our trip.
Near Samangan, my grandfather owned a cave that had been fixed up like a house. It was very large and many people could fit in there. I remember we had to go hide there once, one of the few times I remember being really scared. It was very dark inside the cave and there were all kinds of noises around us. A bomb was dropped near the opening of the cave but fortunately it didn’t go off.
Mostly I remember that there was always fighting going on around us and we moved often. We actually would have had a very good life if not for all the fighting and war around us constantly. We had servants who did the washing and cleaning and bread baking, though my mother and aunts did the cooking. But there was always a cloud of uncertainty that hung over us. All of it could be taken away in a moment.
In 1997, before I turned 9 years old, we moved to Mazar-e-sharif and lived there for about a year. It was a very difficult time in Afghanistan. The Taliban had come to power, and they were still fighting to control all areas of the country. The northern areas were not under Taliban control yet, but there was heavy fighting. We constantly heard the sounds of shooting. One of my uncles was a commander with the mujahideen. Another of my uncles was a Talib. Amazingly, they often lived under the same roof.
In our home there was a shelf with a bread basket on it. But instead of holding bread it had eight hand grenades in it. This was a normal thing for many households to have weapons and munitions stored inside the house. One day I was playing with my cousins and we hit the shelf and the basket of grenades fell over and rolled on the floor. Thank God, they didn’t explode. I could very easily have been killed! Often I saw my brothers handling guns, and once one of them actually fired the gun inside the house. The adults scolded him and said, “Go outside to play with that!”
In one incident in 1997, after the Taliban had finally taken control of Mazar-e-sharif, Hazara forces combined with Uzbeks and other groups and trapped and killed around 5,000 Taliban soldiers. It was a terrible slaughter. In front of our house there were corpses rotting in the streets, with blood running everywhere and dogs eating the bodies. One day some of my friends and I looked down a well and saw at least 15 bodies in it. Many wells were full of dead people.
Following this, the new local government, controlled by the Hazaras, came and confiscated all our property and our home. We had no choice but to leave everything. You do what you are told when guns are pointed at you. We briefly stayed at my mother’s sister’s home, then moved back to Samangan.
One day when I came home from school, everybody was crying and very upset. I asked what happened, but they just told me to go away and they wouldn’t tell me anything. Soon I understood that my two older brothers, ages 19 and 21 at the time, had been kidnapped by the Taliban forces. They were outside one day and some people just snatched them. As if my mother had not had enough grief already, now she suffered the loss of her two oldest sons. We never heard from them or saw them again.
Right away my uncles realized that something had to be done to protect me. Who knew whether I might be grabbed in a similar way before too long? The Taliban regime was now in complete control, constantly on the lookout for recruits for the army. Afghanistan was a nightmarish place to be. My uncle who was a Talib warned us that Afghanistan was not safe for us and we should flee. This uncle had actually been visited in Samangan by Mullah Bourjan, a high-ranking Taliban member and close friend of Osama bin Laden. He came to thank my uncle for his service to the Taliban cause, and especially to congratulate him for his work in gathering Stinger missiles. I remember he presented him with a briefcase full of American dollars. Before we fled, he returned most of this money to the Taliban.
Once the decision to leave had been made, things happened quickly. We sold all our livestock and many of our possessions, and we buried under the floor of our house some important documents and pictures. (We have never recovered these documents.) We didn’t have much time to pack, leaving one night under cover of darkness at 1:00 AM. A sense of urgency was in the air. Everything was “Hurry up! Hurry up! Come on, let’s go!” There were 13 of us in all, including my mom and sister and I, my grandparents, two uncles and two aunts, along with four cousins. We made it to Kabul and quickly hired cars and drivers for the six-hour trip to Kandahar. After very little rest, we changed cars and left for Pakistan. The next day we made it to Quetta. We lied to the border guards, pretending to be crossing the border for a wedding. We made it across the border with no problems. Our journey as refugees had begun. It was about a month past my 10th birthday.
* * * * * *
Life in Quetta was really not too bad. My uncles got some work and we had plenty of money to buy food and save a little bit. Then my uncles starting managing a big hotel and making good money. Unfortunately, one of their main employees, a man they really trusted, cheated them out of a lot of money and then disappeared. We were broke again! So my uncles had to get other jobs; one of them worked as a cook. Slowly they were able to save a little money.
They came up with a plan for the two of them to go to Iran, get jobs and send us money until we had enough to pay the smugglers to take us to Iran. It is more expensive and dangerous for families to be smuggled than for singles. So, after a very difficult journey, they made it to Iran and found decent work. They began to send us money and we started saving for the trip ourselves. Though life was much nicer in Quetta than Afghanistan, it was not the kind of place where we could make a permanent home, or where I could get an education.
In the meantime, I was working with another uncle who lived in Pakistan and had now joined us. We had a watch repair shop. Also, during Ramadan we sold water and various sweets for when people broke their fast. Business was pretty good. After a few months we had enough money to start the next leg of our journey.
Once the time was right to leave Quetta, everything was rush, rush, rush. There was no time to waste. It was a very long, hot, and bumpy bus ride from Quetta to the Iranian border. The trip took about 13 hours. I was really miserable, because I get very dizzy and sick when I am riding. So it was awful for me.
At the border, we got onto a very fast, flatbed Datsun truck. We were warned repeatedly to hold on tight because if we fell off, the truck would not stop for us. Whenever it was time to depart, we were given exact times and told that if we were not there, if we were even one minute late, we would be left behind. I was always by my grandfather’s side and even slept with him. He tended to me and made sure I was always ready to go. Once we were in such a rush to get on a bus we had to leave our bags behind. When the signal comes to go you cannot wait for anything or you will be left behind and the police will catch you. Anyway, we crossed the border in this truck at night without using any of our lights. It was very dark, but of course the police realized what was happening and they started chasing us. We could hear them behind us but somehow we outran them and made it to a prearranged hiding place. We stayed there for a long time, while the police went by and searched for us. Finally we made it to the town of Zahedan and stayed at the smuggler’s house.
The remainder of our journey to Tehran was by bus. We were the only Afghans on board. The bus was quite nice. Occasionally it was boarded by the police, but we were never questioned or checked. Nevertheless, from the time we left Quetta, it took us one and a half to two months to get to Tehran. We considered ourselves very lucky that we had made it that fast. For most refugees it takes much longer than that.
We all continued to stay together as a family throughout our time in Iran. We lived in a very large, very nice house, arranged for by one of my uncles who had gone before us five or six months before. We made many friends, since as Tajiks we looked a lot like Iranians. My uncles had good salaries, and the women worked at home making things to sell. We kids were not able to go to school, so we just had a good time playing and watching TV, things like that.
After about two years in Tehran, my uncles and their families and my grandparents moved into a separate house from my mother and me. My sister, who by this time had gotten married to an Afghan boy she met there, also lived with us. This was the first time I had been separated from my grandparents since we had left Afghanistan. I had started working some, first at a sewing factory where I was learning how to make shirts, then later at a big shop that sold bulk containers of rice, oil, tea and so forth. I did cleaning for them at first and got to know them well. They liked me and trusted me, but I stole from them and it gave us lots of extra money.
It seemed that the situation in Afghanistan was improving, and we were all wanting to go back. (By this time it was 2002; the Taliban had been overthrown, and the Americans were there.) Once we had actually applied at the Canadian embassy to immigrate there and within ten days, my mom and I were accepted! But she refused to take this opportunity, thinking that if things only got better at home we would go back. My uncles and my grandparents all wanted to go back, and we said that we wanted to go back too! But they said no, let us go back first and see what conditions are like, and if everything is favorable, we will send for you. We agreed to that. But my sister, who was pregnant with her first child, and her husband returned also. So only my mother and I remained in Iran.
It was a very sad and difficult time for my mother. She was separated from her nineteen-year-old daughter for the first time since she was born. She cried often, missing her daughter so much. Suddenly she was left alone with me, a son whom she really didn’t know, who was like a stranger to her. Of course I missed my grandfather very much. (Even now I miss him terribly.) Then we got word from Afghanistan that conditions were not good there, especially for a widow and her thirteen-year-old son. Returning home was out of the question for us. We were keenly disappointed.
My uncle told us that the only thing for us to do was to continue and try to make it to Europe. (Still the goal was to find a place where I could go to school and get a proper education.) My mom called Afghanistan and talked to her lawyer, giving permission to change her will and sell our apartment in Mazar-e-sharif. So they sold it and my uncle came to Tehran (this time he came straight there and made it in one week) and brought us the money. He arranged for us to meet a smuggler, an old acquaintance of his. We moved in and lived with this smuggler—I still have his phone number to this day; he became like family to us. My uncle stayed with us as a guarantee that the smuggler would be paid. Once we were safely in Turkey, we would contact him and he would then take the smuggler back to Tehran where the money was being held.
We all went to a Kurdish village in northern Iran, close to the Turkish border. We stayed with a family there, along with the smuggler. We all became good friends, and we gave them many things that we had brought with us from Tehran. I became friends with the family’s daughter and taught her some things on the computer. From then on, the smuggler treated us more like family rather than just people from Afghanistan who wanted to be smuggled into another country. Besides his financial interest, that’s why he wanted to make sure we were in good hands and that we would have a successful passage.
After about a month, we were put on another flatbed truck. I’ll never forget that truck. It was a high, big truck, but it was very cold. We ran through several police checkpoints in this mountainous area. We were taken to another village a little closer to the border, where we waited for a while, and then one night we were transferred to another house. We were told, “Get dressed!” and we understood that we needed to put on our warm clothing. The next thing we knew we were on horseback in a caravan of about twenty horses. We rode these horses, at night, about six hours to the next Iranian village, closer yet to the border of Turkey. The snow was very deep, and the wind and snow were blowing so hard you could not see what was in front of you.
We reached a small village, but were warned that the cops were coming. Apparently they had been tipped off that some people were being smuggled. We had to hide on the side of a mountain, exposed to the wind and the snow. It was extremely cold, and we were freezing. We stayed there until the police were gone. Finally, frozen and exhausted, we reached the village and stayed there three or four nights. We were fed and cared for, though of course we had to pay. At any home we stayed in along the way, we had to pay.
At this point my mother and I were separated. As it turned out, she had a rather easy trip to the next village, but I almost didn’t make it. My mom bore a strong resemblance to the smuggler’s mother, so he used her passport and crossed the border with my mom in the car, posing as his mother. It didn’t hurt that the smuggler had a policeman friend who was riding in the car with them! So, she made it easily to the city of Van, Turkey, on the eastern shore of Lake Van, and waited for me to join her.
Meanwhile, my journey across the border was much more difficult and perilous. As I’ve said, it was wintertime, and the mountains were extremely cold and snowy. The only way across for us was to walk as we tried to sneak past the border guards. By this time, in addition to our guide, there were six of us refugees, all Afghans. As we crossed the border and were walking through the first small village very close by, the guide was ahead of us and we followed two by two, with some distance between us. Suddenly, we heard a commotion behind us and the man with me said, “They got them! Look behind you!” I looked back and could see some very large Turkish policemen in the process of apprehending the other four guys. They were treating them very roughly. (I found out later that on that very same evening they were deported back to Iran. Basically they showed them the way back to Iran across the mountains and said, “Here’s the way to go. If you’re lucky, you will make it and the police will catch you and send you back to Afghanistan. If you don’t make it, you will freeze to death and the wolves will eat you. Sorry!” Fortunately, these four guys made it back to Afghanistan, and as far as I know, they are still there today.)
[Note: "RA" explained to me, after I expressed a bit of confusion, that there were numerous police checkpoints on both sides of the border. People who are from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and other countries from that area of the world, do not think of a border as one imaginary line that once you have crossed is behind you. A border is something that has to be continually crossed as you deal with numerous police checkpoints from the two countries who share that border. He said that many Afghans have expressed amazement to him that, for example, when they crossed into Holland, “There was no border!”]
We walked as fast as we could and suddenly a car pulled up beside us and we got in. I was small and they practically threw me in as the car was still moving. They drove us for about 20 minutes, then stopped and showed us a place on the side of the mountain to go hide. We had some biscuits in our bags, but we had no water, so we could only eat snow. So we waited in that spot for two or three hours, while the smugglers went to do whatever business they needed to do for our continued journey (probably bribe some policemen). We weren’t afraid because from our hiding place we could see cars going back and forth; it was a big street.
When the car came to collect us, we were told that it was not possible to make it to Van that day, so we went to stay in a house in another village. That night we were told to sleep near oven where they bake bread, called a tandoor. After we were there for a couple of hours, talking and relaxing and getting warm, we saw a snake. We killed it, but after that we couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night!
There were also lots of chickens in this place, and the smell was horrible. I can smell the stench even now. In the morning the door was opened and we were given some bread, a very small amount of cheese and two tiny glasses of tea. After that, nothing! We stayed in there all day, without any other food except for the biscuits we had in our bags. Finally, around 7:00 PM the smugglers came and picked us up, and once again our journey started. They drove us to a place where we started walking over the mountains again.
We walked for about eleven hours. It worked like this. We had to walk, sometimes run, around every police checkpoint, led by a guide. A car, carrying a fresh guide, would then pick us up and drive us about 20 minutes or so until we neared the next police checkpoint. Then we had to get out of the car and walk around the checkpoint, which usually took about three hours. The snow was very heavy and the wind fierce. We were cold and exhausted, not having had any sleep the night before, and very little food. We were not given any food or water, so we survived by eating snow and eating our biscuits, which we carefully rationed.
We got very close to Van, but the smugglers put us out of the car and told us to wait at a spot next to a small river. We had been sweating heavily from exertion, though it was very cold, and we were exhausted. We were complaining a lot in our language, but of course they couldn’t understand what we were saying. But they knew we were upset. They told us that Van was very close and that we should be quiet. I was so tired I went to sleep, and my companion was afraid I had died. He tried to wake me by hitting me and talking to me but I didn’t respond. He was really scared that I was dead, and began thinking, “How can I go to this child’s mother and say, ‘I’m sorry, but your son is dead?’” Finally the car came and he said “Wake up!” and to his amazement, I stood up and got in the car.
They told us that this was the last leg of the trip. We were so tired we complained about having to carry our bags. They told us to leave them in the car and we could get them later. (Of course we never saw them again!) So we started our final trek over the mountain before reaching Van. We went up and over two hills, then came to a third one. My companion said, “I cannot walk anymore. I can’t go any further.” The guide said, “Well, if he can’t come, just leave him! Let’s go! Let’s go!” He tried to scare him by saying that if he stayed there the wolves would eat him. But he insisted that he couldn’t walk anymore.
I thought, I cannot just leave him like this! So I turned around and put his arm around my shoulder, and we walked together. When the guide saw this, he came to his other side and supported his arm on his shoulder, which made it much easier for me, of course. Remember that we were in very deep snow, so the walking was extremely difficult. In some places the snow was very hard on top, but in other places is was soft and you would sink down in it. It was sort of like quicksand. The harder you tried to get out, the worse it got, or so it seemed. Finally this man became warmer and he was able to walk on his own.
We knew we were getting close and we were beginning to feel a little alive again. It was then that we heard the police dogs. Suddenly it was like we had just begun our journey, as new waves of fear and energy came over us. We started running as fast as we could. We could hear the dogs barking but couldn’t see them. Then the searchlights started. When the light came near us, we would stop and duck down, and when it left we started running. It was just like in the movies. At some point, the police stopped the chase and called off the dogs. Somehow, I can’t explain how, we outran the dogs and made it to safety. We arrived in Van at the smuggler’s house, cold, hungry, and utterly exhausted.
I stayed there for about two weeks, and after a few days I was reunited with my mother. She was very close by, but we had to wait for a good time to be brought together. At this point my companion wanted to continue on his journey, so he asked for his bag. They told him his bag was gone. In his bag he had several hundred dollars, many pictures and some very important documents that he hoped to make his case with. Of course my bag was gone too. He was very upset and disappointed, but what could he do?
(Even today, I sometimes see this man I crossed the mountain with on the streets of Athens. Once when he saw me he said, “Do you remember that night? I will never forget that night! How did we ever make it? How could we have crossed such a mountain under such conditions?” We laugh and shake our heads in amazement.)
My mom and I stayed one month in Van. After paying the smuggler, my uncle had also sent us some money, so we didn’t lack for anything. I enjoyed my time there. I had a girlfriend and started learning Turkish quickly. We lived in a nice house, had our own TV, ate good food, and had lots of nice things. We even did some sightseeing. After one month, when we left, we gave it all away.
Before we left Van we presented ourselves at a UN office to be officially accepted as refugees. After ten days we got the acceptance. They were going to send us either to Norway or Canada, but my mother didn’t want to do that. She only applied so we could get the official refugee card. So, as long as we stayed in Van we were legally recognized refugees, but the minute we left, we were illegal again.
[Note: This makes the third time that "RA" and his mother were accepted for immigration to a western country (once in Quetta, once in Tehran, and now here) and the third time she turned it down. Apparently the sight of this widow and her young son moved people to help her. It is unfathomable to me that this dear lady turned down the opportunity to go to Canada not once but three times! I wish I could explain it to you, but I for one cannot grasp it. What was going through her mind only she knows. "RA" told me that after being accepted in Van and turning it down, her mom said that they had made it so far on their own and they could continue in the same way. Apparently she was influenced also a little by the smuggler, who had a financial interest in seeing her continue on her journey. So there was an element of pride involved, as well as, unfortunately, serious ignorance about how the system works. It seems also to reflect the fact that in Afghanistan all decisions were made for her. There, women have no say so at all. Now they are stuck in Greece in a bureaucratic nightmare, still illegal after four years. "RA" has no identification at all, and his mom is not much better off. Any time "RA" is out on the streets there is the distinct threat that he will be stopped by the police and asked for his papers. This is a potentiality that we all hope never takes place. Meanwhile, "RA"’s mother continues to wait for an answer to her green card application, but for reasons too complicated to go into, it looks very grim indeed. A bureaucratic miracle is needed.]
We got on a bus headed for Istanbul. It was a very nice bus, but we had to stay in the bathroom of the bus with two other Afghan guys, often for hours at a time. It was beyond miserable. We were sweaty and smelly, and there was no fresh air. During the times they let us come out to sit in the bus, they brought us tea or whatever we wanted. One of the Afghans, who spoke Turkish, translated for us. They even had a waiter! It was very nice; I will never forget it. This lifted our spirits considerably, and we spoke of our hopes and dreams for a better life. Finally we made it to Istanbul.
Our living conditions in Istanbul were good. We had enough money to rent a nice house. We bought all the furniture and things that were in the house, including genuine Afghan carpets. But our goal was not to stay in Istanbul. We wanted to make it to Europe, to some country where I could go to school. We expected to be in Istanbul at least six months, but it turned out to be a stay of only about two-and-a-half months.
I had several jobs in Istanbul. Once I was waiting in the square and they took me to work in construction at a big mosque, which also had a school for studying the Koran. Just before prayer time one day, a man approached me and started asking me questions about where I was from, my age, and so forth. (By this time I knew how to speak Turkish pretty well.) He asked me how long I had been in the country, and when I said about two to three months, he said, “In two or three months you speak this much Turkish? Wow!” He was amazed. Then he told me that he was the principle of the school at this mosque, where they taught English, French, Arabic, and of course Turkish. He suggested that I should come to school there, where I could learn to use the computer and most importantly, learn to study the Koran and become a mullah. He said I didn’t need to be working and should be in school. He said they would even pay me each week so I could buy the things I wanted.
I knew if I told my mother of this opportunity, there was a 100% chance she would say yes. When she heard “English” and “Koran” she would say, “Let’s stay and you can go to school here.” When I realized what was happening, I lied to my mother and told her that the car that had been coming to take me to the mosque no longer came. I never went back to get my paycheck for that week. I did not want to become a mullah! No way! Naturally, my mother was very disappointed.
I had several other jobs, such as making t-shirts or washing dishes at a hotel. One day the smuggler showed up unexpectedly, and without really understanding what was going on, I found myself on a bus leaving Istanbul. We reached an area near the sea where you could see a Greek island in the distance. There were several people there who had been waiting for over a month for the right time to leave. But we didn’t even have time to finish our tea before a van came along and they told us, “Hurry! Hurry! Get in, let’s go!” It was like in the movies when they are robbing a bank, exactly like that. Everything was always in a big rush.
The van took us to a speedboat. There were eleven of us, and because I was small, they put me up in the front under the deck. My mom sat in a comfortable chair by the helm. The odor of petrol was very strong and I was cramped with my knees against my chest. I wanted to throw up, and as the boat bounced up and down against the water, I either banged my head or my knees. But thank God, the trip lasted only about 20 minutes. Soon we were dumped onto the shore of a Greek island. I don’t even know what island it was.
My mom and I, along with another Afghan guy, got separated from the rest of the people on the boat, who were Kurdish. We hid under a big bush until morning and then started walking. We wanted to turn ourselves into the police. We signaled for several cars to stop but nobody did. We walked about four or five hours on a very hot day—it was the beginning of summer. We had no water and no food, so we were extremely hungry and thirsty. The olive trees were just beginning to have some green olives on them and we tried to eat them but that made us even worse. We were getting desperate, because for over four hours we had nothing! Finally, we came to a hotel and decided to go in and see if we could at least get some water.
I couldn’t speak a word of English or Greek, but this other guy at least knew the English word “water.” When we went in to the hotel, a beautiful place, and a slightly fat Greek guy was sitting there having coffee and smoking. He spoke to us and my companion said, “Water, water!” He motioned for some water to be brought to us. We decided to ask him to call the police so we could turn ourselves in. So we gestured and made noises to communicate that to him, and he said something like, “Problem, problem, no, police problem, don’t go to police.” He called his wife and two daughters, who were very kind to us. They gave us some coffee, my first cup ever, and some fruit. (This was before tourist season started, so there was nobody in his hotel or cafeteria.) He asked us if we had any money, and my mom showed him all she had left—one hundred American dollars. He arranged for a taxi driver to take us to the port and buy ferry tickets for us. We were at this hotel for several hours, and we were overwhelmed by the kindness of this family. It made a huge impression on me. It was a sharp contrast to how we had been treated in the Islamic countries we had been in along the way. I’ll never forget the kindness of these people. They cried and hugged us when we left.
At the port the dollars were exchanged to euros and the tickets purchased. The taxi driver gave us our change—about five or six euros. We thanked him and were going to leave, when he said, “Hey, what about me?” My mom took off her gold earrings and gave them to him. He accepted them as payment. We boarded the ferry and started the long, overnight trip to the port of Pireas. It was the spring of 2003.
* * * * * * *
We called a contact who had been arranged by a relative who is now in Norway. He took us to a “refugee hotel” at Omonia Square in the heart of Athens. There were many Afghans there as well as lots of Africans, but it was mostly single men, and definitely not an appropriate place for a widow and her fourteen-year-old son. I remember it smelled terrible! After a few hours he came and took us to another “Afghan hotel,” and after a couple of days we started staying in a small place up on the roof. It was then that we met a man from Mazar-e-sharif who went by the name of Navid.
Navid showed us kindness and actually was saying good things about life in Greece. The next day he brought us some potatoes and cherries. I had a tape of Iranian music that I loved, and he let me use his tape player to listen to it. He told us that he had some books he wanted to show us, and it was then that we understood he was a Christian. He gave us these books, saying that they would help us understand more about the Bible and about God. We took the books and Mother took a copy of the Bible and we said thank you. I didn’t realize at the time what my mom was thinking, but she told me later that she believed that we would be able to read some of this material and then convince this man that he was going down the wrong path. This material was not the truth. Navid was terribly wrong and he was headed directly for hell!
Mom read the Bible a little, opening it at random to see if God would say something to her. She would read a page or two and put it down. I glanced at the beginning of the other books but quickly handed them to my mom, leaving it to her to look them over. But she was not particularly impressed with anything at first.
The first issue we had to face was whether we wanted to stay in Greece or not. One Afghan man we met wanted to help smuggle us to England. Two of my cousins in England contacted us and suggested they could help us come there. They talked with a smuggler, and I even colored my hair yellow in an attempt to disguise my nationality. But though we showed we were really serious about wanting to do it, our cousins began making lots of excuses, saying that they couldn’t trust the smuggler and this and that. So the deal fell through.
Navid continued to visit us and bring us food. He came so often it even started to bother us! He began to explain to us more about Christianity, and it was from him that I first heard the gospel, that Jesus was the Son of God and he died for my sins and through him I could have eternal life. We thought he was crazy! Here’s this guy who brings us fruit and talks about Jesus all the time. He’s really nuts!
I remember when I was very young, probably during the time we were in Kabul, one of my uncles on my father’s side had a cross on a necklace. He had brought it for my aunt from Germany, where he worked as a policeman. I liked this necklace very much and wanted it, so according to the customs of our culture, they were obliged to give it to me. I wore this necklace with a cross on it while I was at their house, but nobody ever said anything about it or explained what it meant. Of course I had no idea what it meant. Apparently neither did anybody else, or at least it didn’t bother them that I was running around the house wearing it.
It was from Navid, a man from a town in northern Afghanistan where my family had lived, that I first heard the name “Isa Masi” (Jesus Christ in Persian). I had traveled thousands of miles over the course of almost five years and never heard the name “Isa” along the way. At first it didn’t mean anything to me. When we arrived in Greece, of course we saw all the churches and we knew this was a “Christian” country, but we didn’t know anything about Christianity. The symbol of the cross was a complete mystery to us. We had no idea what it meant.
He didn’t say much to my mom, but he asked me to compare Islam and Christianity and see the differences. He knew the Koran pretty well and so did I, so it was easy for him to point out contrasts between it and the Bible. I remember one thing that bothered him was the language of the Koran. Why didn’t they allow us to read it in our own language? Why did it have to be only in Arabic? Don’t they want us to understand what’s in it? I told him that I did understand a lot of what was in it, and he told me that I should know even better how to compare it with the Bible. He said that I had a big advantage over other Afghans who were trapped in their ignorance and couldn’t think for themselves. When he found out that my dad had been a communist, he encouraged me even more by saying that even my father was a smart person who knew there was something better than Islam!
I enjoyed Navid’s company and the conversations with him, and I did a lot of comparing of Islam and Christianity. But mostly my mind was preoccupied with what we were going to do. Would we leave and go to England? If not, where would we live in Greece and how would we survive? Navid was one of the few people who seemed to be interested in being friends with us, so I thought, at least while we are here, it’s good to have such a friend. But I was not giving serious thought to our talks because of the more pressing issue of survival.
Since we were having trouble getting our cousins in England to cooperate with us, Navid began suggesting that we stay in Greece. He told us about the Greek Council of Refugees (GCR), who would give us a “house” and money every month. So we made an application with them and because we had a good case, we were accepted right away. When they offered us their congratulations that our application had been accepted, we thought they we going to put us in a house! But instead we were given bus tickets for a refugee camp in Lamia. Navid came to say goodbye to us and promised to stay in touch. He gave us his phone number and gave me his portable tape player. The next morning, with difficulty, we found our way to the bus station and went to the camp.
At the camp, my mom continued reading the Bible, trying to find things she could use to convince Navid how wrong he was. She read the Song of Solomon and was horrified by all the things about love and sex! She said, “Look! It’s impossible for the Word of God to contain such things! I can prove to him that this is not the Word of God!”
After we had been in the Lamia camp for a little over a month, Navid called us one day and said, “Why don’t you get away from there and come to Athens and we’ll have some fun together?” So we said OK. He told us to save the receipt for the train ticket and we’d get reimbursed. When we arrived in Athens, we were running late. Navid met us and we hurried to a building downtown (the Athens Refugee Center operated by Helping Hands) where there were many Iranians and Afghans. They were having a church service! This was Navid’s idea of fun? (If he had told us why he wanted us to come we would have never agreed.) An Iranian man was preaching and saying many things that were unfamiliar to us. It was incredibly boring to me.
They had taken our bags when we entered and put them in a small room called “the clothing room,” used for giving away clothes to needy refugees. Later that evening we discovered all our clothes were gone! They had been given away! My mom was so frustrated and angry. The next time we were invited she didn’t want to go because of that. But at least they gave us money, each time we came, for the train tickets to and from Lamia.
The second time we went to this church, called the Persian Christian Fellowship, my mother was impressed by the love she saw in that place. People were kind to one another, they called each other “brother” and “sister,” and talked to each other politely. By this time, she was no longer reading the Bible by opening it randomly, but was reading it from cover to cover. She knew all the stories of Abraham, Moses, and so forth. It was beginning to make sense to her, and as we were on our way back to the camp that night, she told me that maybe there was some truth to all this. Maybe this was why Navid showed such love to us. I was still quite fuzzy about it all, but when I saw my mother’s openness, it helped me overcome my fear about possibly becoming a Christian. Though this was only our second time to visit this place, I was already thinking about becoming a Christian. But it was not because of any sense of guilt over my sin or understanding that Jesus died on the cross for me, but because I saw the love and warmth of these people and thought maybe they had something I didn’t. I thought, maybe it would be a good thing to be a part of that. It was so different from anything I had ever seen before, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, or Turkey.
Conditions were crowded at the Lamia camp, but all in all we were well taken care of there. The food was good and we had everything we needed. I was able to work, and by the time we moved to Athens about five months later, we had saved about €2,000. After three months, our initial “white paper” that we got from the police had expired, so they took us to officially register, get fingerprinted, and get our “pink card.” This made us legal in Greece for six months and officially recognized us as refugees.
My mother had wanted to convince Navid he was wrong, but now she was becoming convinced herself. God was speaking to her through her reading of the Bible, which she was doing totally on her own. (I was not reading the Bible at all.) Also, the love we received from Christian people was unlike anything we had ever experienced before. It made a huge impression on us. There had to be some reason these people were showering us with such love!
The third time we went back to the Persian Fellowship, we were ready to accept Christ as our Lord. We met with Navid beforehand, and my mom had several questions for him. He answered them in his characteristic way, with great enthusiasm and feeling, and we were satisfied with his answers. He told us that later that evening they would ask us to come to the front and they would ask us some questions about what we believe. He said, “Whatever they ask you, just say ‘Yes!’”
After the preaching was over, Navid took me by the arm and led us to the front. They asked us questions like, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God?” and “Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins?” and “Do you believe that Jesus is able to save you?” We answered all the questions and then they prayed for us and welcomed us into the family of God!
Soon we attended a special class for baptismal candidates. We did not give very good answers to their questions! The leader told us that we weren’t ready and there was no way we could get baptized that day! Yet he told us more clearly what it meant to be a Christian, and for the first time, I understood. We went with the group to the sea, not expecting to be baptized. But after talking to us some more and realizing our desire, they agreed to baptize us. They asked me to give my testimony. I was a little scared at first because I had never spoken in front of people before, but then the words just flowed out. I don’t remember all that I said, but I’m sure I talked about comparing and contrasting Islam and Christianity, because that’s a lot of what I was doing in my mind. I told them about how Navid shared the love of Jesus with us and how slowly I came to see the truth.
At this point, I had a very undeveloped understanding of Christianity. I did believe that Jesus was God, that God existed as three persons, and that Jesus had died on the cross for my sins. But only in the months after that, as I grew in the faith, did I come to understand the concept of repentance and apart from Christ, my absolute guilt before God as a sinner.
After the baptism, some policemen came to the beach. They called us over to show our papers to them. Navid said as we were going toward them, “Oh no, I don’t have any papers!” He started praying and declaring the greatness of God. I think he was just trying to reassure himself, because he probably thought he was going to jail. The police then checked everybody’s papers—except Navid’s! It was a miracle before our very eyes! It made a very big impression on me and my mom. On the way back to Lamia that night, all we could talk about was how God had protected Navid, and how he had protected us all along our journey. It became clear to us that we had been prevented from going to England so that God could show us the true way of life. We were amazed, and we rejoiced together at God’s hand on our lives.
After three or four weeks, we moved to Athens to live in “the Nest,” a place for new believers and seekers operated by an organization called Helping Hands. Here we continued to see love among the Christians (and the arguments!) and many other things that strengthened me in the faith. I began attending Bible studies and learning many new things. Day by day I understood more about Christ and Christianity.
By the time the Olympics came to Athens that next summer, I had grown cold in my faith. I was doing some pretty wild things, like stealing things from shops and other shady activities. Up to that time Navid had been the main influence in my Christian life, but now another man from Iran named Mohsen reached out to me. He knew I was hanging out with some guys that were not a good influence. He asked me to come talk to him, so we had juice together. (I’ll never forget that evening.) He told me he knew I was a good boy and that I should forget about the past and press ahead in my growth. He invited me to go running with him the next morning, even though he was having many health problems. So every morning we got up at 5:30 and would go to the Acropolis or a big nearby park. We had great times talking and sharing about the scriptures.
Gradually I began to invite some of the other kids who lived at the Nest to go with us. So after running to the Acropolis, we would sit down to have juice and refreshments. Mohsen would hand me a Bible and have me read a passage and ask me to explain it. If I answered incorrectly, which was usually the case, he would help me see the correct meaning. During this time Mohsen and I became very close and I really began to grow as a Christian. One of my old friends tried to get me to start hanging out with him again, but I wouldn’t. I told him I had found a better way.
I thank God that he provided Mohsen for me at that time. I was heading down a dangerous road, but he helped show me the way to go. I realized he was very sick, yet he cared for me and God’s love became more real to me through him. Though Mohsen didn’t have much money, he always bought us juice and snacks and was willing to get up early and spend time with us. It was a very special time. Besides developing my relationship with Mohsen, I grew deeply in my relationship with God and my relationship with the church.
One day I was on the way to church and one of the leaders was walking with me and talking about the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses saw this bush that was burning but not burned up, and when he went closer to look at it, a voice told him to take off his sandals because he was on holy ground. I began to see that my experience in Greece had been something like that. Starting with the experience at the hotel on the island where we were shown such kindness, then God bringing Navid into our lives who introduced us to the love of Christ, I realized that God was telling me to take off my sandals, and my sandals were my religion. Once I took off my sandals, it was like God said, “OK, now I am going to talk to you.” And all during that period when my heart was far from God, still God was working on me. So he brought Mohsen into my life to bring me back and focus me on the right way. I began to read the Bible for myself and ask God as I was reading what it meant, and he would show me!
When I read the story of Moses, it was as if God were saying to me, “Because I have heard the cry of your people, I have brought you all this way for you to go back and free them!” I realized that God had brought me through all these difficulties and had now brought me to himself, not for my own happiness and personal gain, but so I could go back to Afghanistan and tell my people the good news about Jesus Christ. This, I believe, is the call of God on my life. This is the ultimate result of my journey as a refugee.
God has encouraged me several times over the past few years with “miraculous” signs. Once I was invited to a birthday party, but I didn’t have any decent pants to wear, and we had no money to buy any. My mother and I were walking home from somebody’s house one night (we had gone to comfort a man whose mother had died) when it was very late—all the buses had stopped running. I was talking to my mom about needing some pants to wear, but I complained about us not having any money. She said, “Yes, if you stay at home and don’t work, you lazy person, of course we are not going to have any money and of course you will not have any pants for the party tomorrow!” I said, “Oh, but God is great!” She said, “Yes, God is great, but he doesn’t want you to be lazy. He wants you to go out and get a job and make some money. Do you think he’s going to throw you some money from the sky?” I said, “Don’t worry, he will provide. You will see!”
As we were walking, I saw a large box that wasn’t very near the garbage bin, so I kicked it to move it closer. She told me to be quiet so I wouldn’t wake people up. Again I kicked it and again she said, “Shhh!” I became a little angry and kicked the box a third time, this time a little harder. It slid over close to the bin, but as it did, a plastic bag fell out. I picked it up and looked at it under a streetlight—it was a brand new pair of jeans still in the bag! I said to my mom, “Now do you believe that my God is the Provider?” She just looked at me and said, “Get out of here!” When we got home, I took the pants out of the plastic and saw that they were very nice jeans, and they fit me perfectly! My mom and I were both amazed. She said, “Now I know that God is the provider. Sorry!” I was so excited I couldn’t sleep that night. Not only was I able to go to the party, I wore those jeans for many months after that.
This little “miracle” and other answers to prayer greatly strengthened me in my faith. I saw that just as God had performed many signs for Moses, so he was clearly showing me that he is God and he is true. He has now given me a vision for returning to Afghanistan to establish churches and Christian camps and schools. Our country has none of these things, no Christian hospitals, no avenues for reaching out to people with the love of Christ. I hope one day to see that as a reality.
Most members of our family back in Afghanistan don’t know about our conversion. My sister knows, and she accepts us for the decision we’ve made. Some of our relatives in Europe who know we are Christians no longer have any contact with us. We haven’t told other family members, not because we are ashamed or don’t want to tell them, but we know they will reject us immediately and tell us never to call them again. Even if they were interested, for their own protection they would have to reject us and say bad things about us. We don’t want to inform them of something as important as this over the telephone. One day we hope to share the gospel with them face to face. We have a plan for how we would do that if the Lord enables us some day to return.
My life has changed completely since I’ve become a Christian. I am aware of God’s presence with me, and I communicate with him in prayer. In Islam, for me, there was no sense of personal communication at all. Because of the Holy Spirit within me, I am sensitive to sins, such as lying and stealing, whereas before I didn’t care about those things at all. I was full of anger and hatred, but now my heart is full of his love. Now my life is directed by the word of God, which tells me to respect and love my neighbor, not to look lustfully after women, and many things such as that, things that are not talked about in the Koran. Many of my Islamic ways of thinking have completely changed! For example, in a family the head of the household is an absolute dictator and is only to be feared and obeyed. I no longer think that way.
Navid, my mom, and I were the first outspoken Afghan Christians in Greece, as far as I know. I lost many friends as a result of my conversion. We were well known among Afghans because we didn’t care what any of them thought about us personally—we had accepted Christ and he was our Lord, and popularity and acceptance among the people didn’t matter to us. Only once did I suffer any physical violence against myself. A Pashtun guy whose name I didn’t even know saw me at an ice cream factory where I was working. We started talking and he asked me my name. When I told him, he said, “Oh, are you the one who became a Christian?” When I replied yes, he hit me in the jaw so quickly I didn’t even realize what was happening. I never told my mother about it, but for one week I couldn’t eat anything. I could only drink juice.
Probably the biggest discouragement in my daily life is that we have not been able to get legal papers. The police lost our file which had all our papers and our case inside. Since then we have had a very difficult time. My mother applied for a green card over a year ago, but we haven’t received an answer. It’s a challenge to keep walking by faith in this discouraging situation.
It is so amazing to me how God has brought different men into my life at important times to help disciple me. It always seems to be just the right person that I need at the moment. He knows the way to take me and when to take me there! Sometimes at night as I’m thinking about my life, I see the hand of God in so many ways, and I am so thankful and amazed. It is difficult for me to explain. I am so blessed in this way.
One prayer request I have is that God would help me fulfill my vision of going back to Afghanistan, not underground, but to publicly proclaim the gospel and plant churches. My most immediate needs are: to be able to go to college (I will graduate from high school in June, 2008) and to get legal papers. Both of these things seems almost impossible. But with God all things are possible.
As told to Sam Holdsambeck, July 2007