It had been a long day of translating and photographing in Idomeni in Greece, which was at the time the largest refugee camp in Europe. As usual, every single inch of the waiting room of the nearby hotel was filled. Volunteers littered every surface they could find. I was headed to Athens that night. I had heard there were large numbers of Afghans in three different camps at the port, and I could be of much help as a translator.
The volunteers, who were mostly European, went where the numbers were. Nationality was of less significance to them, particularly because most couldn’t speak any of the languages. For me though, I had the advantage of speaking Farsi and so sought out to help Afghanis. Exhausted from their day out in the hot Greek sun, the volunteers were either sleeping or catching up on life via their phones. I pulled up a chair and sat with my laptop and phone plugged in; the last chance for a charge. Soon after a woman from Iceland approached me. She asked me if I spoke Urdu, and mentioned a young boy from Pakistan was in need of help. I told her I couldn’t speak Urdu, but that there are some similarities to Farsi.
I eventually met the young boy. He was at that awkward stage of being a teenager; almost the height of an adult, riddled with acne, and had a few moustache hairs poking out above his upper lip. He was quite shy and had a worried look on his face the entire time… Let’s just call him Hakim. The woman explained that he had to make it to Athens in the morning, but he was alone, with no support, and no language skills.
Hakim didn’t know that the borders were now closed, and he had absolutely no knowledge of his rights now that he was in the European Union. There was no point in him idling around the highways of northern Greece. In fact, his life would be in further danger. Hundreds of children are missing on the route to and through Europe, their whereabouts still unknown. It seemed the best option for him was to head to Athens, where the woman had found an address for him to register. Apparently there he could be provided with shelter and food. The trouble now was getting him to Athens.
We eventually arrived at the train station in Thessaloniki. Hakim got out and gave the woman a hug. She handed him a train ticket, and a new backpack filled with some clothes and other items. These were now his only possessions. He became overcome with emotion, and for the first time, his body language became that of what he has – a child. He wiped his tears, thanked her, and gave her one more hug. I ushered him towards the platform. I asked him if he was ok, and if he liked his new bag. He explained to me why he got emotional. He’d left Pakistan alone six months prior, and that was the first time in six months someone had been nice to him.
We arrived at the platform, but before boarding the train, I pulled him aside. I had to tell him something that I had avoided until that moment. During that time in Europe, things were very tricky, and it seemed that border laws and rights of migrants were changing day to day. I had agreed to help, but I had not agreed to get myself in legal trouble. I told him that I was traveling along with him, but I was not his guardian. If the police were to arrive on the train and check his ID, I would have to say I was not with him.
We boarded the train and took our seats. In his bag he had been given some phone credit. He quickly pulled out a beaten up phone, and dialled the numbers on the card. He smiled, and I gave him a curious look as to what he was doing. “Momma”, I remember him saying. The train was awfully quiet, most of the seats where empty. There were a few people sitting in different areas, and one man occasionally gave us an unpleasant look. I could hear the phone ringing on the other side. Eventually the sound of a woman’s voice came through. Hakim answered, and then, through the phone, came the sounds of the woman kissing the phone, crying, and repeating the same phrases. Tears poured down Hakim’s face as he answered back. Soon after Hakim had to end the phone call to save his credit, I think without either of them having exchanged any sentences properly. Hakim told me he hadn’t talk to his mother in over a month.
I was curious about his story, the moment on the phone was too touching to ignore. So in broken English he tried to explain. His father had been a shop owner in his town in central Pakistan. Over a financial dispute, his father had been murdered in the shop the previous year, and his mother was left a widow. In desperation for her son to have a future, his mother had gathered money and sent Hakim along with the refugee rush to Europe. And so here he was, six months later, the young boy from Pakistan, far from home.
Hakim was just one of the dozens of Afghan and Pakistani boys I had met traveling alone, often with similar stories. At home, boys their age are essentially men, working towards supporting themselves, or their families. They often didn’t understand why they couldn’t immediately start working when they were in Europe and support their families. Many had never spent a day of their lives in school. They were usually under the impression that once in Greece or central Europe, their journey was over. In fact, the risky part was over, but the long and difficult part had just begun in many ways.
In recent years, a large number of Afghan boys are never granted asylum status, but instead kept safe and in school until 18 years old, when they are subsequently deported back home to a country in conflict and far from the reality of their previous years in Europe. Others who stay, never fully recover from the trauma they suffered early on in life. It is often when settled, and properly housed, that the mental anguish of their past becomes influential. The rate of suicides of Afghan and Pakistani underage refugees in Europe is shocking. For those who don’t make it that far, they often find themselves on the streets of the Balkans, Greece, or Turkey, falling prey to everything from child predators to the organ trade. The stories are horrifying, perhaps beyond comprehension for most.
It had been about an hour since the train’s journey started. Hakim looked bored, and I was busy working on my laptop. I turned to him and pulled out my ipod. I put the headphones in his ears, and told him I had a surprise. I scrolled through my music and found a traditional musician from Pakistan called Ustad Ali Khan. I pressed play and sat back. As soon as the music started to play, his eyes lit up. “Ustad Ali Khan”, I said. “Yes, yes! Great”, he responded.
We eventually arrived in Athens the next morning and managed to catch the morning rush of the Athens metro. I took Hakim to the metro stop he needed to go to, and on a map we found his destination. I said goodbye to Hakim, and wished him luck. I didn’t think much of the whole story with Hakim. It had been an exhausting few weeks, and I think my emotional capacity had become full.
The loud piercing horn of the bus sent echoes through the bus station. Another bus ride; it seemed endless. This time I was in Serbia. I had attempted to find a place to help out near the Serbian Hungarian border, but the authorities had made the whole affair quite difficult. I was heading back to Belgrade where I could help translate for Afghans stuck in Serbia’s capital.
In the midst of getting my stuff together, a young teenager passed by me and we made eye contact. I couldn’t believe it. It was Hakim!
“What are you doing here?” I blurted out without much thought. Hakim was supposed to be in Athens, where he was supposed to receive support. As I rushed towards the bus, he told me how the situation in Greece was no good, and that he needed to get somewhere like Germany. I listened to him intently as the rushed bus driver took my bag.
He’d been back on the road for two months he told me. He pointed down to his feet as he spoke about how long he walked, and how exhausted he felt at that point. The bus driver gave me a stern look as if to say “Hurry up…now!”.
I climbed onto the bus with a bit of remorse and guilt. I wanted to talk to Hakim longer. Like a dramatic couple at an airport, we spoke through the open bus window as he stood on his tiptoes to get as close as possible to me.
“I have to ask you for something. I am sorry. I am ashamed. I am sorry,” he said as his face turned quite serious. He hung his head down towards the ground. He hesitated. “I’m sorry”, he repeated. The bus engine kicked off, and with a final honk, the massive wheels of the beaten-up local bus moved forward.
It was too late. By the time my brain processed that he was asking for some money for phone credit, we had picked up speed and left the station. I looked out of the window back towards the station area. Hakim squatted down at the platform, and just looked out towards the fencing. That was the last I saw or heard from Hakim. I hope he is well, and to be honest, despite border crossings being illegal, I hope he is in Germany.
I could writes pages about how the stories of that summer in Europe made me feel. Each story has its own baggage of emotion and personal impact. I saw many children and spoke to dozens of teenagers, but something stood out about Hakim. I felt what it was like to be on the other side. Hearing his mother’s cries and the desperation in her voice. Seeing Hakim’s despondency and sadness. It was crippling.
Perhaps hearing about refugees or people from places like Pakistan, seems like a distant, distorted version of world that is very far from home. But to me, I can’t help but make associations from my experiences. Every time I see a news flash of another migrant ship sinking, or another few hundred children missing, my mind wanders back to Hakim’s mother. How many mothers sit at home, far, far away, riddled with anguish, knowing that they sent their most cherished loved ones into harm’s way, never to hear from them again.
The unmarked graves of countless children litter the shores of Greece, Libya, and other parts of the Mediterranean. If only they could tell their stories too, but for so many, it’s too late.