By Aida Ghajar
February 12, 2019
His journey to Turkey was not difficult. He sat in a car for most of the way and only passed through a shallow river on foot from the Maku border crossing.
The challenging part was getting to Greece from Turkey. From the city of Izmir, they headed for the beach with the aim of crossing the Aegean by boat.
The trafficker loaded 65 people onto the six-meter dinghy. After passing Turkish territorial waters, a large ship passed them by and the waves it caused tore their small boat apart.
They were stranded in the middle of the sea in the dark, looking for the closest island. They weren’t sure if they would survive.
“The Boat Tore Apart and Sank”
I met Reza in Athens, a young Afghan boy born and raised in Iran. Because of the Islamic Republic’s discrimination against Afghan immigrants, he decided to leave for Europe in the hope of completing his education and having a better life.
He was in Greece for three years until the authorities finally approved his case to move to Germany to live with his uncle, a German resident.
But after all those years of waiting, Germany then rejected his case.
We went to a café in Athens close to a square full of human traffickers and asylum seekers. He pointed out two cafés across the street.
“These two cafés, Tehran and Afshin, were famous for the underground immigration business,” he said. “They were all Iranian traffickers who all got arrested by Greek police last year. There were 67 of them.”
We sat down at a table and Reza continued to tell me his story.
On the boat, many of the passengers, including Reza, did not have a life vest. The captain was just a young refugee who was allowed to travel for free in return for sailing the boat. Most people on board were families with small children.
“First water got into the boat and came up to our knees, and people started panicking,” said Reza. “Then the boat tore apart and sank. We were afraid we were going to die.
“It was many hours before the Greek coastguards came to our rescue.”
“Some People Burned Themselves Alive”
After reaching a Greek island, they were registered and allowed to leave for the mainland – something that is no longer permitted. Now, all refugees must be processed and remain in the first camp they enter. The islands have turned into prisons, with some people stuck for years.
Reza went to Athens to continue his journey to western Europe. He headed for Macedonia with some friends, but it was a popular route and they were unlucky: the European Union closed the border on the same day.
Reza and his friends got stuck on the border. The first day there were around 100 people waiting there, but soon there were thousands.
“Every day there was a fight happening somewhere,” he said. “The police came and told us we all needed to go back to Athens. Some people committed suicide and burned themselves alive.”
They went back to the capital and Reza spent five months living on the streets and in cheap motels. Finally, he met a trafficker in Victoria Park who told him he would take him overland to Europe for €1500.
But first Reza needed to obtain his asylum seeker identity card. If an asylum seeker is caught and does not have this document, he will be fingerprinted and have to stay in Greece permanently.
Reza received his card after those five months in Athens. The agent did not believe he was 19 and instead put 17, which is considered under-age.
The trafficker sent him to the Macedonian border again, but this time after a week he ran out of money and had to return. The trafficker hosted him in his house and asked him to wait for the next window. But after four days, the house was raided and the trafficker was arrested.
A week later, Reza received a call from the immigration office saying his case for going to Germany had been accepted.
“It was a Long, Horrible Limbo”
Reza had to wait another two years before his flight to Germany was arranged. In the meantime, he was given an apartment to live in and spent his time helping the homeless and other asylum seekers.
When he was homeless himself, he said, he also met with the anarchists. They would offer refugees shelter and food in return for help fighting the police and fascists.
Reza said the anarchists even had training classes for refugees. “They said they liked us because we came here illegally and they hated the law.”
After participating in one of their street riots, Reza lost his nerve. “I was scared. They burned buses and broke windows. The police had no mercy either and would fight the protesters with force and violence.
“I was afraid of getting a serious injury, or even getting paralyzed. Police shot some tear gas and I couldn’t see anything. I was just running for my life with police chasing me 20 meters behind.
“It was like a battlefield. I spent that night in the streets. It was very cold.”
Suddenly, Reza looked at me full of happiness. “I got my ticket yesterday,” he said. “I’ll fly out of Greece on September 5 and finally I’ll be free.”
He continued: “The most difficult period for me during this whole journey was the time waiting for the ticket. It was a long, horrible limbo without any clear answers.”
Freedom Snatched Away
Reza came to Greece with a high school diploma. He wanted to study architecture or medicine, but Iranian universities ban Afghan immigrants in most majors.
In Athens, he learned several foreign languages, including Greece, German, English, and Greek. He taught himself how to play the guitar and started acting in the theater.
He said he wanted to continue his drama work in Germany and study architecture at university. He told me about all his future hopes and dreams.
In Athens, Reza taught himself several foreign languages, including Greece, German, English, and Greek, as well as how to play the guitar.
At 8.30pm on September 5, Reza boarded the plane and flew to Berlin. When he arrived, he couldn’t find his uncle at first. Instead, two police officers approached him.
“They told me I had to go to a refugee camp,” he said. “I was shocked.”
When he saw his uncle, they hugged each other and cried. “It was an emotional moment. I was exhausted. I told him what the officers had said: that I couldn’t go with him and had to go to a camp.
“We had just found each other and we were already being torn apart. We couldn’t believe it.”
“Borders Are Not Just Physical”
It was 5km from the train station to the camp. “We took a bus for 2.5km and the rest was on foot,” said Reza. “In the new camp, they took my information as if it was day one. Everything started from the beginning again.”
Reza still lives in this camp today. He has found a friend who also plays the guitar, and he has started a theater group. They named their first play Borders.
The banner for Reza and his friends’ play in the camp.
The play was based on his own life and the idea that borders and their restrictions follow people from place to place.
“I passed through borders on land and by sea. I nearly drowned. I waited three years in Greece to get to Germany. But the borders are not over for me, they are still hunting me down. I’m not free.
“Borders are not just physical. We are exhausted and frustrated, physically and emotionally. As a 20-year-old boy, I should have other hobbies and occupations. I should not be spending my time sitting in endless interviews to the point that I cry.
“Borders continue in our imagination.”
The news of their play at the camp, reported in German papers.
Reza had a hard time at his first interview at the camp. “The judge told me that he knew this was an important day in my life, and that if the interview went well I would have a new life.
“But the translator didn’t do a good job translating my responses. He treated me aggressively. I was under such a pressure halfway through the interview that I cried.
“I asked them, ‘What are you doing? Why are you acting like I’m a murderer?’ I was talking about my hardships and the judge would interrupt me frequently.
“I told them, ‘You don’t even listen to what I’m saying. I’m not a liar.’”
“Germany Has Ruined My Life”
It was just a few days before The Border opened when Reza was notified that he had a letter. He ran all the way to the camp post office and tore it open it anxiously.
He scanned the papers until he saw the result: his case had been rejected and he had a month to leave the country.
Reza’s voice shook as he told me this on the phone. “I haven’t seen my mother for the last 3.5 years and can’t even talk to my parents on the phone for more than a minute. If I did then I would cry, and I don’t want them to hear it.
“Germany has ruined my life. I kind of had a life for myself in Greece, but Germany accepted my case and brought me here only to reject me. They know that I’m not a freeloader and have things to offer.
“But now I have to wait one more year for the appeals court. The thing that upsets me the most is that I have to wait another whole year to pursue my dreams.”
I remembered the photo he sent me when he reached Berlin Airport. He looked so joyful. He thought the doors of progress and prosperity had opened for him and he could live the rest of his life in freedom.
But the doors opened just a crack and then slammed shut again.
“I can’t take it anymore,” he told me. “My whole life has been in refugee camps. Why should I have grey hairs at this age? Why should so much of my life have been wasted?
“Why has Germany done this to me?”