By Aida Qajar
September 10, 2019
From Calais, it was a 20-minute drive to the home of Apoo, a human trafficker from Iran.
“I ruined half of Europe,” he told me when we met, before laughing hard.
I had to walk through farmland to locate his place. He had a beautiful backyard, and I found him behind the kitchen counter waiting for me.
He was 40 years old, tall and fit, and was wearing a sleeveless shirt and cap. He welcomed me briefly, then began a conversation with the other refugees who were staying with him.
One of them had just arrived and one had been there for years. Another had only lived there for a short time, but had previously been sleeping in the woods nearby.
Apoo had built himself a bench from a broken bed frame, and he sat on it behind the kitchen counter to tell his story.
It was a difficult tale, full of arrests and deportations, suffering and bloodshed.
It began in Iran over two decades ago.
Chasing a Dream
In 1997, Apoo was just 20 years old and fresh out of the compulsory military draft. As soon as he received his passport, he bought a bus ticket and left Iran for Turkey.
He knew nothing about Europe and only knew he wanted to leave Iran.
“It was God that placed us in the wrong place to begin with, in a poor and unsafe neighborhood south of Tehran,” he said.
“If you stay there, you’ll end up a criminal. You can’t stay out of it. Trouble comes and looks for you. It was vital to escape and not to bother my family with all those troubles.
“I was a young man who could work and make money. You always start by chasing a dream, before reality hits and takes you by surprise.”
At that time, Turkey was known as the “University of Europe” among refugees. They thought that if they could survive there for a year, they could survive anywhere in Europe.
They described Turkey as a doe that does not even breastfeed her calves.
Treated Like Animals
In Turkey, at first life was not too bad. Apoo rented a motel room and began doing carpentry jobs. But then he lost his job and ran out of money.
He moved with six friends to an abandoned building in the south. The men were homeless, and had no toilet, blankets, food, or clothes. When they got sick, they had no money for medicine.
“Every morning, one of us would go to the shops to steal the bread and milk left on their doorsteps before they opened up,” Apoo said. “It was the only way we could feed ourselves.”
Eventually, they found work as builders for a contractor. He let them stay in one of the buildings they were working on, and they were able to buy food, clothes, and medicine with the money they earned.
Once they had built up some savings, they decided to leave Turkey for Greece. It took several hours of hiking to get there, but as soon as they arrived they were arrested and deported to Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian police were known to treat refugees extremely badly, and they even set their dogs on Apoo and his friends.
“The dogs were on the leash, but the police were getting them close to the asylum seekers so they could bite them. All my friends’ feet were injured and bloody.
“After the police beat us up, they sent us back to Istanbul by bus, which we needed to pay for ourselves. We didn’t have enough money, so they made us lie on the ground so they could beat us and step on us.
“They played with us as if we were not human. Many things make you feel like that as a refugee. You have no identity, no home, and no way back to Iran.
“My only comfort was that I was not alone.”
Building a Trafficking Business
After Apoo returned to Turkey, he saw a huge wave of Iranian refugees heading for Greece. Suddenly, he had an idea.
“I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t I just take them there myself?’ So I decided to find out if this could be possible.”
At first, Apoo began working as a dealer for a trafficker in Aksaray. He brought him clients in return for commission; the trafficker charged them US$800, of which Apoo received US$100.
Apoo would track down travelers searching for a trafficker. He would take them to temporary lodgings before sending them on to the Greek islands.
“After a while, I felt like I had lots of clients but all the profit was going to the traffickers, so I decided to do it myself. I became an explorer, like Robinson Crusoe.”
After visiting the different islands and working out the best route, Apoo took five refugees from Samos to Athens. When he returned, he discovered his reputation had spread.
“Everyone was talking about how I took passengers to Athens in less than 48 hours. I was charging each traveler US$1,100 at that time.”
The traffickers were not happy with Apoo’s work, but he quickly built a network for himself.
“I knew many Turks who were in this business. I knew a police officer and a hotel owner who both worked with me. I bribed the cop and he told me where and when to plan my trips. For each trip, I had to pay him US$1000.
“At the start, we only had inflatable boats, but I bought the good ones, the US military grade ones that could not be torn apart even with a knife.
“We would tie three boats together and put six passengers in each. I used to paddle with them as well. Later, I bought engines and bigger boats. My biggest boats were US$10,000 each.”
One day they got lost and found themselves at a military base, where they were shot at. Apoo raised his shirt and showed me a scar on his chest.
“I got hit by a bullet that day.”
Drown or Confess
Apoo worked as a human trafficker for five years.
“Before starting the journey each time, I made sure the clients knew that I owned them during the trip. If any of them made a wrong move, they would suffer the consequences.
“There were always women and children with us, and people needed to behave. They were completely under my control for two or three days.
“Unexpected things happened all the time, which I had to deal with, so I needed to be there for the whole journey.”
Among his clients, Apoo even had a clergyman and an intelligence agent. The clergyman was reading holy books the whole way and the agent did not want to pay his dues.
“The agent was my client a few times. He used to smuggle drugs. I had to get violent to make him pay up, and I held him until I got paid.”
The agent later sued him for kidnapping, he said.
“The Iranian embassy in Turkey reviewed the case and rejected it. However, since the money was wired to my brother and dad’s accounts, they were both detained and harassed for a while.”
Eventually, Apoo got caught. He was moving 70 people when all of them got stopped and placed in a refugee camp in Greece.
Police often intimidate detainees to expose the traffickers, and one of them incriminated Apoo. He was waiting for his lawyer when a police officer approached him with handcuffs.
“There were six or seven of them beating me up, looking for a confession. They took me out to sea a few times and threatened to throw me in and drown me if I didn’t confess.
“I had a broken leg and my foot was infected, so I could not even walk. Finally, I told them that another trafficker had told me that if I took these passengers, my own trip would be free.”
Apoo hired a lawyer with the help of his brother and spent almost US$12,000 to secure his freedom.
“They told me to leave Greece or I’d be jailed for five years for each traveler I brought. That’s why I decided to leave Greece.”
Swimming for Freedom
Apoo couldn’t return to Iran due to the criminal case against him, so he decided to continue on to Europe.
He patched a few sleeping bags together and made room for nine people to hide in them. They placed the bags in a trailer truck that was heading to Italy by ship.
After exiting the ship, the truck travelled to Venice. There, the refugees notified the driver of their presence and got out.
“I saw that no-one was staying in Italy, so I also decided to continue on to France or England.”
With the help of Iranian dealers and traffickers, Apoo made it to Calais in 2003. There, he met many other Iranians living in the Jungle and on the streets.
“I explored the area for two weeks until I worked out a way to get to England, and then I sent 30 travelers. There were no more working opportunities and I wanted to help them leave.”
His idea involved swimming for 100 meters to board ships and containers heading for the UK. He made safety vests out of water bottles for the passengers and sent them on their way, but soon the police realized what was happening.
All his efforts to get to England failed.
“I was so frustrated. I even entertained the idea of going back to Iran. I felt like it wasn’t my destiny to leave Calais. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Also, he added, he had just met his future wife and leaving wasn’t such a priority anymore.
Neither Heaven nor Hell
It was in 2004 that Apoo met the French nurse who would become his wife. She was helping refugees, and she offered him and his friends a warm bath at her home the first time they met.
After Apoo had bathed, she told him he could stay longer if he wished. He has now been living there for 14 years and is grateful not to be a traveler anymore.
“It was a very hard life,” he said. “Everyone suffered. I have so many bad memories.”
One Iranian woman gave birth to her child in the woods, he recalled, and the father called him at 11pm desperate for baby food.
Another woman jumped in front of his car one day and told him she had been held prisoner by an Afghan man for two months and had just managed to escape.
“Young single women experienced the most difficulty,” Apoo said. “They often needed men to help them on their journey, but many traffickers just held on to them and abused them.
“Many of them were forced to sleep with the traffickers since they didn’t have money.”
In the Calais Jungle, there were frequent brawls between refugees, Apoo said. But it wasn’t all bad, he stressed.
“I’m not saying the Jungle is heaven, but it is not hell as you might think either. Because it’s not permanent. It’s just a bridge you have to cross.”
Of course, not everyone managed to cross the bridge safely.
“So many people lost their lives. They drowned in the sea or were suffocated in the trucks. It isn’t a journey anyone would make by choice.”
“I Won’t Die on This Soil”
Apoo now lives in France with his wife, two children, and two other asylum seekers. He helps Iranian asylum seekers build their cases to apply for refugee status and has been able to get approval for many of them.
According to his experience, most of the refugees are in Calais because of financial difficulties at home, and most hope to reach the UK.
“The UK is by far the best country in Europe in terms of its economy and employment opportunities,” he said. “That’s why many refugees head for northern France.
“In England, if you know a few people you can get a job very quickly doing construction work or cooking fish and chips.
“You can make some fast money there, while other European countries are in crisis.”
Apoo made me kebobs while he told me his story. His wife was ill, but I met her briefly during my visit. She was short and blonde, with a slim face and beautiful green eyes.
I asked her about her life with Apoo, but she didn’t reply and tears came to her eyes. When I left, she hugged me goodbye, gave me a wristband as a gift, and said, “Be my friend.”
Apoo told me that he had paid a huge emotional cost for his journey. He had lost his father and his homeland. He wished to return to Iran and live the rest of his life in peace by the Caspian Sea.
“I won’t die on this soil,” he said. “I’ll go back to where I belong.”
He lamented the negative perception of Middle Eastern asylum seekers. These people pay a high cost for their hope of a better future, he said, and deserved respect and understanding.
Not all his memories of life as an asylum seeker are bad, however. As I said my goodbyes, he leaned on the door and smiled.
“I had my first kiss on the asylum-seeking journey,” he said. “I will always remember that.”