Που να μας ξαναπρηξετε τα αρχιδια μας οτι πκιερωνουνται αδρα τζαι έχουν για καθαρίστριες Κυπριοπουλλες με 2 μάδκια λέιζερ, σκεφτείτε τον συμμαθητή μου τον Μοχάματ που έσιει by far to πιο genuine χαμόγελο έβααα
Ξέρω το εν μεγάλη η ιστορία αλλά αξίζει να την δκιαβάσετε…για να δείτε ότι τούντα πράμτα εν συμβαίνουν μόνο σε βιβλία με φανταστικό περιεχόμενο τζαι προπαντώς ότι υπάρχει ζωή πάντα πάντα πάντα πάντα μετά που άθλια γεγονότα (αν δεν επέθανες δατ ις).
Afghanistan exists like a parallel universe – even if we have no connection with the country, no family member fighting there, it is part of our collective consciousness, uncomfortably ubiquitous, its destiny caught up with our own. The most recent headline about the relationship between the two countries is especially troubling because it appears to mark a change in the UK’s attitude towards the most vulnerable Afghanis: unaccompanied child asylum seekers. There are 4,200 unaccompanied child asylum seekers in Britain and of these, the majority are from Afghanistan. Many of these children are in the care of our social services. That this is a burden on the UK is a point that hardly needs labouring. But is the UK Border Agency’s proposed solution – a £4m “reintegration” centre in Kabul – a benign intervention? Or is this a self-interested move, a return-to-sender calculation that will treat children like unwanted livestock? Statistics dominate the story: it is reported that the UK is now likely to deport “over 100 Afghani minors” every year. But there is no safety in numbers. The statistics shield us from the people they represent. It becomes hard to picture individual children or to imagine the journey each unaccompanied child from Afghanistan will have had to make before asking for asylum in the UK.
Ten years ago, 5,500 Afghani refugees applied for political asylum here. Mohammad Razai was one of them. His story is not symbolic. It is not intended to flesh out an argument. It is unique. Nor is it, in any ordinary sense, a cautionary tale – except in this single way: it is a reminder that we should never prejudge or suppose we know who we are talking about when we generalise about Afghani refugees.
Mohammad arrived in Dover, aged 15, accompanied by his younger cousin. He had no documents – just a bundle of clothes, in a cheap bag, purchased in Pakistan. He spoke almost no English. I imagine he must have looked then much as he does now: fine-featured, with black eyes that shine with intelligence and delicate hands. But I meet him – he is 24 – at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, on a nonchalant spring morning, and Mohammad, who is studying here, is about to graduate in pre-clinical medicine. His journey has been extraordinary.
He shows me into a quiet room, overlooking the college gardens. And he starts to tell me a story that cannot be tidied into a paragraph or even completely poured out in the hours that follow. As he talks, the room is still and peaceful and, by the end, I feel wrung out merely from listening, trying to travel vicariously with him, to imagine his life as it was. Mohammad grew up in Kabul, city of snowcapped mountains and kites (as Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner, has made common knowledge). The family house was grand and his father’s study filled with Persian poetry: Rumi, Hafiz, Ferdowsi. Mohammad remembers the poetry and the kites too – each one homemade, customised – as personal as a signature: “From the courtyard, I could see a sea of kites – giant and brilliantly coloured against a blue sky. I was surrounded by this beauty… but I was not allowed to fly a kite myself…” Why not, I ask.
And at this point, as if he needs to pull his own story back – like grounding a kite to relaunch it – he explains that he is a Hazara (like Hassan, hero of Hosseini’s novel) from the country’s third largest – persecuted – ethnic group. “Hazara was like a swear word,” he says. And there was more to it. In a cold winter month, in 1986, when Mohammad was a baby, his father was arrested as a “feudal bourgeois” in opposition to the Marxist government. Swiftly afterwards, Mohammad and his mother were also imprisoned (to put extra pressure on Mohammad’s father). Naturally, Mohammad – who was only a few months old – has no memory of this time but his mother has told him all about it. She has described the cold and the sounds: “The screams of torture and the coughs of my father because he was close – we were on the same corridor – and he wanted to reassure her of his presence.”
Before Mohammad’s mother was released, she was invited by a “prison lady” to see his father. She did not know it was the last chance she would ever have. Mohammad wants it to be understood that she was young – only 20 – and illiterate (nowadays, she describes her illiteracy, metaphorically, as being “blind”). She had been married to his father for just over a year. She declined. “She did not want him to see her in the state she was in.” It was a decision she has regretted ever since. “The experience of prison was devastating for her – it affected the rest of her life.” What’s more, three uncles and two maternal uncles were arrested at the same time. “She lost all the people closest to her.”
In the months that followed, she received a handful of letters, written on tissue paper, from her husband (now in Pul-e-Charkhi, a huge prison to the east of Kabul) – cherished proof of their possible future. But then, eight months after he had been imprisoned, a letter showed up on suspicious stationery. She wondered why it had such a superior look but, of course, could not read it. As with earlier letters, it had to be translated by literate male relatives. And their instinct was to protect her, no matter how false the hope they passed on. Long after others knew the worst, his mother would continue to assert: “Once this government goes away, the prison doors will open and he will come – not only my husband but everyone I have lost.”
Mohammad saw the letter – his father’s last – for the first time on a recent trip back to Afghanistan. “These were his exact words: ‘I am preparing for execution but I don’t know when this time will come. I ask the whole family to look after Deljan [my mother’s name] because I have not been able to fulfil her dream of being a family.”‘ Mohammad’s voice is unsteady as he recalls the wording and his eyes shine with unshed tears. But he is so glad of the letter’s existence because, growing up, he sometimes felt “abandoned”. Here was the longed-for evidence that his father cared. The letter even “mentioned my name”.
There seems to have been no single moment at which his mother realised his father was dead – it was more a long drawn-out realisation. His mother was “not really coping”; she fell into a “severe depression”. And there was material deprivation too. Mohammad’s father was a successful businessman but the family-owned flourmill had been confiscated by the Marxist government after his arrest and the house put under surveillance (anti-Russian material had been found within it).
Mohammad’s mother was told she was obliged to marry his uncle – for the sake of convention. She was reluctant but complied for her son’s good. “She became really protective of me… her concern was for me more than for her own life.” If she had refused to marry, Mohammad would have had to be sent out to work. “I would have had no future. And it would have been difficult for her, in a sense, to lose me as well.”
In the early 90s, after the Russian regime collapsed, the family escaped to Pakistan for nine months. When they returned, they found their home destroyed in the civil war and its contents looted. Nonetheless, in 1995, they were cautiously optimistic: the confiscated flourmill was returned. They felt everything would “settle down”. That hope was short-lived. In 1996, the Taliban took over Kabul and this was “worse than the communist period or the civil war. Things started to go badly wrong for my family”. Mohammad’s brother (from his father’s first marriage) was taken several times by the Taliban and fled the country.
Being a Hazara became more hazardous than ever. “The Taliban is made up mainly of Sunni Muslims who argue that Shia Hazaras are not Muslims and that killing them is completely OK.” It was a war “on religion, ethnicity, identity. Psychological persecution and discrimination were part of my normal life.”
There was another “terrifying” reason why Mohammad was not allowed out of the house: sexual abuse. Everyone knew stories about young boys abducted by the Taliban. “I was locked indoors, I was not allowed out.” It is hard to imagine what that captivity in his own house must have been like – the cabin fever for a teenage boy. All he did was read. He knew not to rebel. It was not merely fear holding him back, it was imagining the “shame” abduction would bring to his family. A neighbour warned: “You are a handsome young boy. Be careful… don’t stand outside your home. I hear things.” He did not tell his mother what she had said. But he understood her well enough.
It was in 2000 that the family received the terrible news that brought them to crisis point. Another of Mohammad’s uncles had been savagely beaten and murdered in prison. Mohammad’s mother summoned him and his 14-year-old cousin – Ali – and told them that, with the help of a “trusted, sympathetic, non-Hazara friend” of Mohammad’s father, an escape from the country had been arranged. Mohammad assumed Pakistan to be their destination. England was not mentioned. The truth is, his mother did not know where he was going. This was an act of faith for her and, for Mohammad, a journey into the unknown. In one sense, he was “excited”. He “couldn’t wait to get away” from a country that had become a prison. But he was parting from his mother. And although she was full of reassurances, they both knew they might never see each other again.
“It was very early in the morning and still dark when we left Kabul. My mother was crying – and I left in a state that was difficult for her to see. I had to wear a burqa. The worst thing you could do in a male-dominated, macho culture was to disguise yourself as a woman. I felt utter shame. I was sweating under this thing, it was summer and I feared discovery.” It was an abnormal, mortifying charade – and to say goodbye must have seemed the most unreal thing of all.
Mohammad and his cousin (also burqa-clad) crossed the border into Pakistan without hitch. In Karachi, they were given forged passports. “These had our pictures but were not Afghani passports. I could not read them.” Their father’s friend then introduced them to a new intermediary, calling him their “kaka” (uncle). And it was at this point that Mohammad asked the question that was to become his refrain. When not asking others, he was putting it – in panic – to himself. “Did my mother and uncle know about this? We weren’t told this would happen.”
Mohammad had never been in an aeroplane and admits that he was unprepared for flying. He and his cousin had no idea where they were going or whether the “uncle” could be trusted. They flew from Karachi to Vienna and there – for reasons Mohammad still cannot explain – the uncle took their passports and disappeared, just as they were queuing to go through immigration. Distraught, they searched the airport for him – and were stopped by the police. Because they were without documents, they were taken to a Viennese refugee camp. Then, after four days, the “uncle” mysteriously showed up again with new, freshly forged passports and they travelled on to France and, by ferry, to Dover.
“We thought: this journey is going to continue for ever. We had travelled miles and miles by aeroplane and ship. We wondered: will we ever see our family again? I mean, we had come so far and were so removed from the life we knew – we wondered what was going to happen…”
The answer to that question was not what Mohammad was fearfully anticipating. Dover came as a surprise. “The immigration officer spoke to me in a different way to that I had experienced in Vienna and Pakistan. He was considerate, careful and kind. He lifted my anxiety and my fear that we would be on the streets in England.” They were taken into the custody of a social worker, Ted, a bit of a joker but “such a good man” that he quickly won Mohammad’s cousin’s trust. Yet Mohammad, as the elder boy, remained cautious.
In what follows, Mohammad gives almost no names – although there is much anonymous celebration (it is social services policy not to champion individuals). Let us hope the people he describes are reading this. First, the foster family in Dover. “When I saw this woman [his foster mother], she made us so welcome. I wondered how a human being could be capable of welcoming a stranger like this. I was not used to it. It opened a new world for me, a culture in which a child can be respected and valued as a human being.” He sounds so incredulous that it is my turn to have tears in my eyes. “I was someone who could barely speak English, someone they had never met and they welcomed me into their own family home, where they lived and ate and slept. It transformed my world of anxiety.”
His first foster mother was a teacher. Her husband worked at home in the basement of the house. “He would leave the living room door open so he could hear us and make sure we were OK. He looked after us as if he had known us for a long time.” Mohammad remembers his bedroom in that first house. “I remember opening the window and looking into that Dover garden – it was so tranquil.”
A second foster home – further evidence of the kindness of strangers – followed in Broadstairs. A benevolent Iranian interpreter was found, who astonished Mohammad by asking him what he needed. Then came a greater marvel. The social services tracked down his brother (also, confusingly, called Mohammad), who could have been anywhere in the world – but was in London. Soon, he was on the end of the phone, ringing Broadstairs. Mohammad describes the moment when he heard his brother’s voice in one word: “fantastic”. The next step was obvious: to reunite the brothers in the same foster home in London.”
It is at this point that an “amazing” and “life-transforming” social worker enters the frame. And I am particularly sorry she has to be nameless at a time when social workers are so often in the dock. “She got me into Compton High and Sports College [in Northolt, west London]. She called people and was “really, really pushy. She would say: ‘No, this is not good enough.”‘
The school itself, by ordinary standards, was not good enough either – a failing comprehensive (it has since become the West London Academy). But Mohammad has not a word to say against it. He was tremendously helped there by his head of year, a maths teacher, Ben Samuel (one of the few characters in the narrative granted a name), who “found me a desktop computer”. Samuel arranged for him to sit an ICT GNVQ exam, against the advice of the ICT teacher. Mohammad says: “I put my heart and soul into it and, to my own shock and surprise, got a distinction.” It was his first success – and he went on to complete his GCSEs in an intensive, single year.
How on earth did he manage to learn English so fast? Was it survival instinct? He agrees that it was but it seems to have had more to do with his uncommon drive and attitude towards work. “My whole life is shaped by the thought that I have to succeed. Work is the only thing – it means life. I have been told I am unworthy because I am a Hazara – I have to prove that I am good enough.”
After going on to Uxbridge College to sit his A-levels, he dreamed of Cambridge but was advised that it would be “too demanding”. So he went to University College London, where he read anatomy and developmental biology. In his third year, he raised the matter again with his supervisor who said: “I will support you in every way I can. I will write references. I think you will be good for Cambridge.” When he heard he had got in, he was “ecstatic”.
With the same zeal with which he got there in the first place, Mohammad is now throwing himself into undergraduate life. “Studying a subject I absolutely love at Cambridge is still quite surreal,” he says. But he loves the place and says “the most fantastic people in my life I have met at Cambridge”. He has become an ambassador for the university, encouraging pupils from state schools to apply. He has also taken up rowing from scratch (progressing from novice crew to men’s second division). He loves reciting poetry (he has TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” off by heart). And Persian poets continue to be a solace to him. I ask him to recite a line that helped him through his life and he does – beautifully. It is by Hafiz, his father’s favourite poet, and he translates it: A message has arrived to say that the days of sorrow will not last./What happened in the past did not last for ever./And nor will what is in the present last for ever either.
What of his own days of sorrow? Does he feel as if he is looking through the wrong end of a telescope when he thinks of the life he left behind? He laughs in recognition at the thought of the telescope – his life in Kabul is at such a distance. It is his dearest wish now that his mother will be granted a visa and come to Cambridge to see him graduate later this year. When Mohammad first told his mother he had got into Cambridge, it did not mean much to her. What she wanted to know was: “Are you happy?” When he said he was, she said: “Then I am happier than happy.”
What does Mohammad make of the proposed “reintegration” centre in Kabul that will deport Mohammads of the future? He feels that we should heed the concerns of the Refugee Council and Human Rights Watch and adds: “I hope that the most cherished values of this country namely respect for human life, protecting the vulnerable and those at risk – particularly children – are not compromised.”
Mohammad, who became a British citizen two years ago, declares: “I love this country. I feel part of British society. And while I have huge admiration and respect for my own people, I cannot imagine myself owing so much to the UK and not being here in the future.” He says: “I really want to do something useful, to do some good in the world. I want to show people that asylum seekers are human beings with the same feelings, ambitions and dreams as everyone else. People don’t seek asylum unless they have to – leaving home, family and friends and embarking on a journey to the unknown under difficult and dangerous conditions is not easy. I have heard people say asylum seekers are criminal parasites and some even call them ‘a threat to our future’, but I hope people realise that asylum seekers want to be active, responsible and self-reliant members of society and that demonisation is not helpful.”
Mohammad has been accepted to stay on to do the clinical course at Cambridge. His eventual dream is to become a paediatrician. He has already signed up to work for the International Red Cross and would like to help children. Nearer to home, he tries to be encouraging to his cousin, with whom he is still close. What became of Ali? “He is well and happy and living in west London – although he dropped out of college – something he regrets a lot.”
He finds it hard to talk about what is happening in Afghanistan now. A few weeks ago, he saw a photograph of an orphaned Afghani girl. She was “looking into the distance, terrified and weak, yet clinging on to life. It reminded me of being her age, clutching my mother’s hand, burying my face in her violet pleated burqa, as the tanks roared through the streets of Kabul. I remember those shrill rockets, the rattle of bullets disturbing the quietness of the night, the cries for help and the helplessness.”
Mohammad is a peaceful, gentle person (he voted Green at the election) who does not see war as a solution. “Talibanism is a twisted belief that thrives on material and intellectual poverty. They cannot be defeated militarily – war is not a solution and never has been. I hope the decision-makers realise this soon and save the lives of Afghan civilians and British soldiers. More boots on the ground won’t help and will exacerbate an already precarious situation.” He hopes, instead, that efforts can be made to “strengthen civic society and create opportunities for young people”.
It is a sentiment with which his old teacher, Ben Samuel, would agree. It wasn’t hard to find him. He left Compton High and Sports College a year after lending Mohammad the desktop computer. He knew nothing of his former pupil’s success. When he heard, he was elated. “Mohammad conducted himself in such a polite, mature way. He was so modest and meek – the sort of person you would do anything in the world for. You wanted to go the extra mile for him. This is the best news I have ever heard.” And then – as I gathered later – he went into his next class (with its fair share of asylum seekers) and told them: “We are not going to do any maths today. Listen, I want to tell you a wonderful story….”