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Ali, his wife Marina, their daughter Toba and son Ruhollah left the Afghan capital Kabul 10 days ago. Their purpose is to escape the country’s decades-long war; to find safety, peace and a school that the children can attend without the fear of all-too-frequent explosions. And to ensure Toba, who is 13 years old, isn’t kidnapped by the Taliban – a fate that befell the daughter of a close friend.
“The girl was taken in the middle of the night, in the bed sheets,??? Marina tells me.
“Our eldest daughter was married two months ago. She is 17. We were afraid for her safety. If they marry, they don’t get taken.???
I meet the family on the Greek Island of Lesvos, close to the town of Mytilene where they are staying at a refugee transit camp run by the organisation The Village of Altogether, a partner of Al-Khair Foundation.
Once a holiday camp for Greek children, it has comfortable wooden huts for sleeping, a kitchen/dining area to cook and eat food, and a large play area with lots of different activities.
Following their arduous journey, it is a welcome relief for the refugees – a time to reflect on how far they have travelled, and to consider what lies ahead.
38 year-old Ali used to be in construction, but a car accident left him unable to work. He has been unemployed for the last five years.
Marina tells me she is not allowed to work in Kabul because she is a woman.
She says the children haven’t been to school for many months.
“A bomb exploded nearby. The children were not hurt, but now I’m too scared to let them go,??? she says.
They sold all their possessions and managed to raise 200 US dollars.
Their journey took them by bus from Kabul to Nimruz on the Iranian border.
From here, to Zahedan where they were squashed into a small van along with 26 other refugees and driven to Bandar Abbas on the southern Iranian coast.
The children had never left Kabul before. Now there was the distinct possibility they were never going back. I ask how they are dealing with the sudden upheaval.
“They are brother and sister, they fight most of the time,??? says Marina with a smile on her face. “It’s normal.???
I realise at this point that anything ‘normal’ is a bonus. The continuous sibling fighting, although exhausting, was probably a welcome relief.
From Bandar Abbas it’s a three-day journey to the north and the border with Turkey. At night, they would sleep at the side of the road.
The route that had been laid out before them, and taken by so many others, is the only viable option left to escape the instability in Afghanistan. But as Ali begins to relive the journey there’s an immediate fear in his eyes.
He pauses and takes a deep breath before continuing.
The area between Iran and Turkey is swarming with smugglers or ‘the mafia’ as they are so often called. “Many of them are former Afghan refugees,??? Ali says, people who have stayed in the area to pray like vultures on the scared and vulnerable.
When they reach the border it’s dark and Ali and his wife have no idea where they are going.
“Go left, go right. That’s what they’re shouting,??? says Ali. He’s talking about the smugglers ‘guiding’ them through the darkness onto Turkish soil.
“We must go at night because if the Iranian border police catch us, they will arrest us and deport us back to Afghanistan.???
They followed as best they could but Marina was struggling to keep up because of her asthma. Soon, they were lost.
“It took us four hours to reach Turkey,??? says Ali. A trek that should have taken only minutes.
With the panic and exhaustion, Marina was struggling to breathe, so Ali had to carry her.
“I had a child’s hand in each of my hands,??? he says. “I wouldn’t let go, I was dragging them all.???
I pause for a moment to picture the chaos – Marina on his back, holding onto his children.
“What did you do with your bags???? I ask.
“We lost them,??? he tells me. “And all our money. People running in all directions, children crying, smugglers shouting instructions at us, this is when they take the opportunity to steal. If you put anything on the floor it will be taken,??? he says.
“When you reached the border, then what???? I ask.
“We walk a few minutes, then we have to go through water, it’s very dirty.???
“You have to swim???? I ask him.
“No, it’s waist deep so we can walk across, but it’s very dirty so I had to put the children on my shoulders to carry them.???
There was a small metal tub just big enough to hold his wife, he tells me, so he pulled her along.
I pause for a moment as Marina is coughing uncontrollably. Her son comes to join her on the bed and leans his head on her shoulder.
“Does she need water???? I ask Ali, who is watching with concern.
Marina eases herself off the bed and walks to the door, I can hear her wheezing – I’m trying to breathe for her.
“She is ok,??? he says, “she just needs air.???
In Turkey, they have to wait for a car, again dependent upon smugglers. Ali tells me three cars arrived to take the 70 refugees who were waiting. They squeezed themselves in for a journey that was to take an hour and a half to the nearby town of Van. Here, they would rest for the night.
The next day they travelled to Istanbul by bus.
“How did you pay???? I ask Ali.
“The other refugees helped us,??? he says.
Ali and his family were also ‘helped’ with tickets for the boat ride to Lesvos, 1000 US dollars per head.
While global divisions deepen over conflict, oil and economic power, the refugees, most of them borne from such issues, are providing support for each other, regardless of race, religion, country or colour.
I’m told that while there are those who cannot afford to pay, there are many who can. They make sure no one is left stranded.
“They were so kind and generous,??? Ali tells me. “I will never forget.???
The boat left Canakkale, a beach on the north-western coast of Turkey.
“I was so scared,??? Marina tells me.
“When I see the sea, I don’t want to cross to Lesvos, it’s so risky, but my husband said I must get in the boat.???
From what they remember, they tell me the boat was around nine metres long and three metres wide. On board, about 45 people. A fellow refugee was at the helm – it’s fair to say he’d probably never piloted a boat before.
The UN high commissioner for refugees has long warned that desperate people will continue to resort to paying smugglers to transport them on unsafe boats – with ‘discounts’ for when the weather is bad.
Marina lifts up her trouser leg and shows me severe bruising.
“The boat, it was so squashed, so many people. When it goes from side to side in the water, people fall, they kick you and stand on you,??? she tells me.
It took them just over an hour to cross the water.
From Lesvos, you can see clearly the outline of the Turkish mountains during the day. At night, you can see the bright lights that illuminate the Turkish coast.
Most of the refugees cannot swim, and many have never even seen the sea.
“In the middle, it’s so black. You can’t see Greece, you can’t see Turkey,??? says Marina, shaking.
Halfway across, the boat began to fill with water. Ali grabbed his children and put them on his knees. The shore was visible, yet still so far. Marina had begun to panic, triggering her asthma.
There was nothing Ali could do to alleviate the fear other than lay a gentle arm around his wife’s shoulders and try to calm her.
An hour seemed like a week for those on board.
The chaos of getting out of the boat is a blur to Marina. She could barely breathe when they arrived at the beach in Lesvos.
She was taken to a clinic at a nearby camp then transferred to hospital where her husband and children later joined her. She was there two days before she was discharged.
“I’m so happy we’re in Greece,??? she tells me. “So happy the children are safe.???
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For both Ali and Marina, keeping the children safe has been the most difficult part of the journey. The risks they have taken to escape Afghanistan, however, are nothing compared to living through the violence and threats day after day.
I turn to Ruhollah and Toba who have been sitting quietly throughout the conversation.
“The boat ride was so scary,??? they say. Neither of them had seen the sea before, let alone been in water.
And what they are looking forward to when they reach their new home?
“I want to learn to swim,??? says Ruhollah.