Friday, September 18, 2009

"J' 's Journey on the Refugee Highway

Most of “J” ’s life and experiences in Afghanistan would be the normal collection of variables that construct our lives.  His father was very religious, but also considered modern and open minded.  “J”, as a dignified and kindhearted man, defined himself as a mischievous boy and a jokester.  Like so many of us, the years that led him to adulthood were shaped by normalcy rather than trauma, by incidental moments rather than momentous incidents.  This was also the pattern of his life woven by marriage, four children, five years (required) in the military, and a life career of teaching.

However, 2006 would be the year of unraveling.  “J” had become increasingly aware of an internal searching for truth.  The Dari poetry he studied and taught asked questions about truth and God that echoed unanswered within himself and within the structure of Islam.  Even though “J” ’s favorite Persian poet was not free within Islam to write openly of the things he believed, he stirred questions within “J” that required answers. “The God is in you and near you so why are you seeking for God so far away?”  A similar message; “Why do you go so far to Mecca, the one who loves you is here.”  These questions were stirring at a time when “J” was also questioning Islamic thought.  He would wait with the poet for Islam to answer the charge, “Why would you kill a person for saying God lives in me”?  “J” inaudibly voiced his own questions.  “If we believe in the prophet Jesus how can we kill or dismember someone because they become a Christian?  How can it be true that a woman is only half the value of a man?  Why must women suffer so many injustices simply because they are not men?”

As these thoughts were fermenting in “J”, his daughter had secretly become a follower of Jesus.  She worked as a journalist for a private TV station, and was associated with the BBC.  In this role she met non-Muslim people from around the world, one of whom gave her a Bible and told her the basic good news about Jesus.  Being unsure of how any Muslim will react to news of someone becoming a Christian she gave her father a Bible and told him that she knew he was very open-minded and she thought he would enjoy reading it.  He and his wife read, studied and asked questions.  Later with the help of an underground pastor they accepted Jesus as their savior and Lord.  “J” says now with conviction and the gratefulness that characterizes him, “I praise God that the Holy Spirit brought me to the truth before my life was over.”
Just as the honest conviction of this decision began unraveling the pattern of his thinking, beliefs and actions so the setting in which that decision was made would set in motion the very painful unraveling of the normal, worry-free pattern of his everyday life.  “J” and his family began meeting secretly in their home every week with a small group of Christians.  Though there are many such groups in Afghanistan, they do not associate with each other for fear of drawing attention to themselves or putting so many at risk if one person is arrested.  They continue to assemble knowing that the crime of converting to Christianity is met with the swift and sure sword of beheading.   It was in the ever-present shadow of this reality that “J” answered the life-altering knock at his door that Sunday morning as the small group huddled together for worship, study and support.  Between the front door of his house that he would never see again and the small, waiting white car, he was beaten, accused of being a blasphemer and judged to be “one who needed to be killed.”  In a miraculous moment when God stepped in to be the abundant provision for “J” ’s overwhelming need, the little white car was involved in an accident.  In the ensuing, God-stirred swirl of confusion “J” found an opportunity to escape.  The remainder of that anxious day was spent knee-deep in water underneath a concealing bridge.  When the welcomed darkness assumed the role of concealing him he washed off what mud he could and found a taxi to take him to a trusted friend’s house.  The friend was not trusted enough to permit “J” to confide the true reason for his predicament, but trusted enough to be asked for shelter and aid.  His friend visited “J” ’s neighborhood the following day, claiming to be a friend who had come to stay, but was perplexed to find a large padlock on the door.  The neighbors were equally puzzled and unable to supply additional details, but the padlock and absent family members were enough to convince “J” that he would need to flee. 

A three-month stay, a momentary rest in a small anywhere town was the first exit on what was now  “J” ’s personal journey down the labyrinth of injustice and peril known as “the refugee highway”.  In a few moments strangers had separated him from his family, his house and all he owned.  As casually as they had destroyed his cell phone they had also decimated his identity as a trusted and dignified teacher.  He found work at a small restaurant where he was permitted to stay until he moved on toward Mazar-E-Sharif, avoiding anywhere he might be recognized and arrested.

He spent the next year-and-a-half on the outskirts of Mazar-E-Sharif cocooned in anxiety, unsure of the fate of his wife and family, and unable to identify any landmark of hope on the barren landscape of his future.  Here he reconnected with another trusted friend from his past when he had spent time studying and teaching in Mazar-E-Sharif.  This friend was open-minded and allowed "J" to stay and work in his small shop, knowing that he was hiding because of his faith.  Even though he had quickly escaped the authorities who came to arrest him, fear and anxiety created a very real prison from which he needed to free himself.  Four thousand euros was the price of freedom, or more accurately, the price of an attempt at freedom.  No guarantees.  No credible promises.  No cash-on-delivery clause.  This was not the price of a first class ticket to Somewhere Europe.  This did not pay for a one-way luxury cruise of the Mediterranean.  This was merely a toll to merge with the other human traffic on the heavily traveled refugee highway.  The path paved with greed, striped with blood, and littered with the remains of those whose tenuous thread of hope snapped under the unbearable weight of hardship.

The details of “J” ’s journey from Afghanistan to Greece, like an echo of the trip itself, remain concealed in the shadows of secrecy.  The belief that every human has intrinsic value and by virtue of existence has worth, deserving of respect, is shown to be an evaporating mirage on this harsh landscape.  A traveler here is not a person to be escorted, but a commodity to be shipped.  They are bartered, loaded and unloaded, stacked, herded and often abandoned as “undeliverable cargo.”  “J” was smuggled from Afghanistan to Iran, then from Iran to Turkey and finally from Turkey to Greece.  He was passed from smuggler to smuggler, traveling at night sometimes in a vehicle, other times on horseback, which had cost him extra, and when necessary he traveled on foot.  The refugee highway is a grueling labyrinth meandering through treacherous territory.  Its travelers may get lost, robbed, beaten, starved, abandoned and otherwise abused.  “J” says simply, “You would have to see it to understand.”  To set foot on this path, like venturing out onto a tightrope, is to acknowledge that you may be choosing suicide.  “You must accept”, “J” states, “that this journey may lead to death.”

If the trip to Turkey is a perilous pathway it is here that it becomes a nearly vertical descent down the face of despair.  Usually by the time refugees board whatever craft is provided for launching onto the sea that surrounds the many islands of Greece, they have heard the sobering stories of sunken rafts and bodies washed up on the beaches. They have heard of heartless smugglers who threw their human cargo to the waves in hopes of saving themselves.  Their fears are higher than the waves splashing in over the sides of the boat and their hopes are riding lower than the overcrowded vessels in the water.  For “J” this journey in one of three rafts pulled by a small motorboat was thankfully uneventful, bringing them to the welcomed shore of a Greek island.

Here the villagers were helpful and kind as “J” walked with another man for two days and one night, searching for a police station where they could register to seek asylum.  The next twelve days were spent in a refugee detention center where they were fingerprinted and given temporary papers.  From here they were taken by boat to the port of Piraeus on the mainland of Greece near the capital of Athens.  To most this seems like a welcomed initiation into the European Union – the first days of a better and more prosperous life.  Unfortunately it most often is the curtain rising on a modern Greek tragedy where Act IV finds the refugees no closer to the normal life they were seeking tin Act I. 

Happily, “J” ’s story stands in sharp contrast to the experience of the majority of refugees who find themselves in the bureaucratic quagmire of Greece.  However, “J”, like so many, spent his first two nights in Athens sleeping in an exposed park.  There were many other countrymen from Afghanistan who congregated there during the day.  It was during a conversation in the park that he heard the surprising good news.  His family was living
in a European country!   He had wondered for two-and-a-half years whether his family was dead or alive and if he would ever see them again.  Now incredibly he was being told where they lived and given their phone number by someone he met in the park!  “J” recounted the poignant scene of the reuniting phone call.  “I cried and my son laughed and laughed.  I talked and my daughter cried.  My wife and I could not speak, we just wept.”

Through a series of connections and introductions “J” walked through the doors of “Helping Hands”, a group in Athens dedicated to showing the love of Jesus to refugees.  A fellow Farsi-speaker was able to help “J” visit the embassy of the country where his family was living.  Miraculously and quickly he was granted the coveted papers that would allow him to travel.  Any attempt at explaining why “J” sailed through the often endless process and was allowed to move on from Athens legally would be simplistic and misleading.  Simplistic because there are endless combinations of factors both legal and arbitrary that intertwine in the process.  Misleading in that “J” ’s experience might cause you to naively believe that anyone who has a legitimate or compelling claim will surely meet with compassion and ultimately be rewarded with justice.

Looking beyond the insidious injustice of religious fanatics and his own subsequent suffering in the quest to survive, “J” would love to return to Afghanistan.  “Two things are always near to your heart”, he offers; “your mother and your country.”  Through the eye of the TV camera and the words of the foreign correspondents, we see an Afghanistan with its enchantment and natural beauty covered with the dust and debris of conflict.  Much of the destruction has come from outsiders, but perhaps mostly from within.  Islam has not only failed to unite these people, but sets its “holy warriors” against each other in their attempt to be the sole purveyors of truth.  At the age of sixty “J” must wonder if his hijacked country can ever be the good and safe place where he longs to return.

At the moment, “J” has found rest and safety like a ship at last anchored in a sheltered harbor, finding refuge from an unrelenting sea of hardship.  From this current vantage point he looks back on Afghanistan with a sadness fathered by frustration and nurtured by disappointments, questioning whether things will ever change.  For thirty years his country has suffered through constant conflict and repressive restrictions.  “The last seven years have seen foreign intervention and the establishment of a parliament.  Millions and billions of dollars have been spent, but where has it gone?  There is a shortage of water, electricity and jobs.    Many parents are willing to send their children on a dangerous journey, hoping they can find prosperity and send needed money back to their waiting families only to lose them to one of the many landmines of drugs or hopelessness or death hidden along the way.  “Here in Athens”, “J” summarizes, “people bring their fruit to the market to sell.  In the markets in Afghanistan they sell their daughters.”

Though hardship embitters some men, it has stirred gratefulness in “J”.  Though he knows he believed in Jesus “with an honest heart” in Afghanistan, he is grateful to his family of Christian brothers and sisters at Helping Hands in Athens for showing him the life of Jesus in action.  He wants to extend that same hand to others wherever he sees the need.  “J” and his story are for me (and hopefully for you) a nudge, reminding us of the incalculable treasure hidden within each soul we meet and the immense privilege we are granted to become for them the enlivening embrace and the helping hands of Jesus.                                                                                                                      


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