Posts Tagged ‘refugees’

Winter in the Jardin Villemin

February 25, 2010

One of the joys of my last job in Afghanistan was getting to know my team. Of them all there was one young man in particular, let us call him Q, who was a pleasure to work with. (Before continuing, let me note that the use of the past tense does not suggest his demise.) Not particularly well educated, he had a curiosity and intelligence that put him beyond many his senior. It wasn’t always the case. He had been kidnapped with an expatriate member of staff and held for almost a month, forced across the mountains under the threat of death. Unsurprisingly, he had been severely knocked by the experience and it took him a long time to recover. To see him re-engage and build up his confidence was a good sight.

Last year he married, and was charmingly full of love. He was taking on more responsibility at work, and as I prepared to leave I was keen to recommend him to my manager and replacement, fearing to lose him from my department were he promoted but knowing he deserved it. In my last few days in Kabul it was decided that he would travel to France to attend a board meeting and some training courses. Within the organisation this signified great praise, and trust. Discussing it with my manager we felt that, recently married as he was, with much to look forward to, he would not abscond.

Not long after that meeting and I was walking up the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris on a bright free day and happened to pass the Jardin Villemin. It was here that several dozen Afghan asylum seekers had been camping out until they were forced out by the police, who were still conspicuously present when I strolled by. France is not known in Europe for having the most compassionate attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees. As in the Jardin Villemin, the state prefers to let them fend for themselves, until they become a public nuisance.

Some time later, and Q was in Paris. Where he did a runner. Hearing this I sent him an innocuous email asking him how his trip had been. Fantastic, said Q. But while in Kabul he had been threatened by people unknown who told him to do jihad and to spy on the kafirs and inform them of their movements. So he was not going back.

I did not believe him. It didn’t add up; this man’s background, a story that sounded too well angled to expatriates’ fears, plausible with no possibility of proof. And I was angry with him. For betraying my and the organisation’s trust, for making it harder to get visas for his Afghan colleagues to travel to Europe for training, for leaving his wife and family, and for what I felt to be his naivete in trying to seek asylum, not fully realising the new world of torment opening up to him in places such as the Jardin Villemin. I had spoken with him and many others back in Afghanistan about the difficulties facing asylum seekers in Europe, trying to tell them that the streets are not paved with gold as many seemed to think. It always felt like they never believed me, but I thought Q had more sense.

Unkindly, I did not hide all of these thoughts in my reply to Q. I told him I thought he had made a stupid mistake. Without saying I did not believe him, I told him the authorities were very unlikely to believe his story, and asked aloud if it would not be better to spend the next years with his family rather than struggling to survive in a foreign and unfriendly land. I tried to assure him that my (brutal) honesty was from a friend who cared for his well being, but he was not best pleased.

The intensity of his reply took me aback. An unpleasant part of me wondered if it was partly due to his realising the situation he had put himself in. The rest of me had to guiltily admit that no, I did not know what it was like to be kidnapped and to face death and to be threatened and to be followed and no, I did not know that when he had gone they had, he wrote, phoned his wife and threatened her and she was taken sick and had to go to hospital then moved back to her parents’ house in a different city.


I didn’t know how to reply to that. I moderated my response, said I did not think he was a bad person but was simply worried for him. Which is true. I haven’t heard from Q since then. Someone else told me he was going to try and get to Scandinavia, which would be a fairly sensible move considering. How a person sans papiers gets from France to Scandinavia I have faint idea. Or maybe he is sleeping under a bush in the Jardin Villemin. Wherever, I wish him well.


Fleeing from Boris

May 3, 2008

I heard recently that after six months the young lad from this post has safely arrived in London to seek refuge, where his troubles will just be starting.

It’s bad timing now Boris Johnson is mayor, and I’m wondering if there’ll be some asylum seekers coming the other way.

Afghan refugees

March 1, 2008

One of the reasons I wanted to work in Afghanistan was my friendship with an Afghan refugee: a personal relationship, a spark of interest. I still do not understand the full story of how he came to Britain aged 16 or so, but I have come to understand his reticence in talking about it.

It seems half the people I have met here have a relative in Europe or the US. Given the conditions in Afghanistan it’s no surprise that people look to these places with a degree of longing. From volunteering with refugee organisations and from knowing the high expectations my friend’s family in Afghanistan had that he would send them money, I have been keen to tell people here that the streets of London and Berlin are not paved with gold.

I have found it hard though to talk of the difficulties asylum seekers face in Europe. Even in English it is difficult to explain why many people there do not look kindly on foreigners, the bewildering laws and bureaucracy. Talking in pidgin English/Dari and mime it has usually been beyond me.

The dank peeling walls of a London bed-sit are so far from here and so far from people’s imaginings of London as seen on TV it seems impossible to describe. Yes, I say, a person can earn more in a month there than they would here in a year, but the cost of bread is 50 Afghanis rather than five, the cost of accommodation so much I feel embarrassed to translate it.

The hospitality I have encountered here has been overwhelming. The contrast with the welcome many Afghans receive in my home country made uncomfortably apparent.

A colleague’s wife’s brother’s son is in London. From the barren, starkly beautiful mountains in central Afghanistan he asked me to call this young man. I did not understand why, and could not think what I would say, but from a place where friends and family count for so much it somehow made sense. It was difficult to hear him over the sound of a bus or heavy machinery coming through the phone. He apologised, said how busy he was at work and that he would call me some other time. Completely understandable now I think about it, at the time I was taken aback, not knowing what to tell my colleague.

I was reminded about a documentary film following a young Sudanese boy in the US. Living in a bad way, when he phoned his family in a refugee camp in Kenya he couldn’t help but lie and tell them how wonderful it all was for him – aware of their expectations and hopes, and embarrassed at his fortune in having got out and achieved what so many others still wanted.

I have sensed from my friend in London how difficult it is to tell his family about his new life. To explain why, as a penniless student forbidden to work legally, he had been unable to send them money. Perhaps harder than that however, to explain the innumerable little things – like not being supposed to take private phone calls while at work – that add up to the cultural divide.

It would be easy to overstate that, to speak of two separate worlds. I met another young man, a refugee in London, who had come back to meet his fiancé for the first time. He stood out a mile in his flash London clothes, was sorry to be leaving the comfort of his extended family to go back to the UK, and seemed to have no difficulty reconciling these two places.

The UK heavy-handedly promotes returns to Afghanistan, while Pakistan and Iran continue to force people out to a home beset by strife. I have often wondered what exactly ‘home’ means, and the challenges of coming back to Afghanistan have been a frequent topic of conversation. I was taken off guard when the conversation fell to people going the other way.

Some days ago another colleague asked for my help. A close relative of his, he told me calmly, a fifteen year old boy, was on his way to England. Does he have a visa I asked, knowing from his expression it was a stupidly naive question before I even asked it. The boy, he continued, was currently in Greece with a dozen other people, all waiting for the onward stage to their journey. It might take a week it might take a month. Could I help him when he arrived? I tried to put the news stories of dead bodies found on trucks out of my mind, only muttering how dangerous the journey was, and instead asked if he planned to go the police, when he arrived, if he had any contacts in Britain. Yes, and yes, and again I didn’t know how to begin to describe the difficulties this lad faced, barely being able to imagine them for myself.

The Taliban have re-occupied the boy’s home village and threatened his family, who have contacts with the wrong people. As a minor they believe he will be allowed to stay in Britain, to get an education, learn English, get a job.

I told my college to tell this boy to go to the police as soon as he arrived. I gave him the contact details of some refugee organisations. I emailed my friend to see what he would say about this person in a situation not unfamiliar to him. I wondered if I should give him my parents’ number, to show the same degree of hospitality and support through distant connections as has been shown to me.

My fear for the boy and despondency for his future combined with a sense of shame at my impotence to help. My Afghan friend in London left at a similar age and through dogged determination is doing well for himself. But he left before the Taliban were ousted, before the policy in Britain changed and Afghanistan became considered a safe country to return to, even if it is still not always a safe country to live in.