I am proud to call myself a refugee. Being a refugee means that I will not allow oppression to bow me. Iran’s government punishes those who shout for freedom. I was one of those people shouting, and I was forced to leave. This article starts in Iran, where I worked hard to have a normal life. But sometimes people need to pass through the wilderness, and when they arrive to their destination they will be so happy. My story, my amazing experience, is now a part of Europe which people say is free.
After many difficult situations, I realized that the gap between the things that people or media say about culture, government policies towards migrants, language, and people’s behavior, and the reality, is large. After all, I realized that my experience as a migrant and what I thought it would be are totally different. In this article, I try to show the difficulty of a young refugee who was forced to leave his own country and find a new life in a different country. People have told me that I made a mistake migrating. The only mistake was the difference between my thought of what the experience would be and the reality. Nevertheless, it was a good mistake, and a mistake I am proud of.
My journey began when I was forced to leave home at only seventeen. I remember hugging my family before I left. My mother and sister embraced me tightly and I began to shake with fear. My father, with a smile on his face, shook my hand - he wanted me to be strong. I had to become a man if I was going to make from Iran to Europe by myself. This image of my family remains in my mind. It is the last time I saw them, now over two years ago.
After travelling for one night, I reached the border of Iran and Turkey. At this first border, fear and anxiety welled inside me. I didn’t know what would happen. I could be picked up by the police and brought to prison. And even if I successfully crossed the border to Turkey, what then? I had no idea if things would work out. At the same time, I felt relief at leaving Iran. I was finally going to get away from the violence and oppression that plagues the country, and from my own troubles there. In Iran, I was a political and social activist, which made me a government target. I frequently faced police threats and intimidation. I was even imprisoned because of my activism. After being released from the detention center, I knew that I had to leave, because I would always be a target.
After crossing into Turkey, I went straight to Istanbul and waited for my guide - the person who knows how everything works for migrants. The guide told me to wait for another migrant who would arrive that night. I was afraid that being young and alone would make me a target. I couldn’t trust anybody. But in life sometimes you have to make dangerous decisions.
When the time came, myself and five others packed our backpacks with items that would prepare us for any unforeseeable event. We bought big plastic ponchos in case of rain, a few changes of clothes, and a jacket that I hoped would keep me warm enough during my journey. Some fellow travelers from Iraq and Syria in their mid- to late twenties and I decided to buy a big bottle of vodka to keep the cold from entering our bones during the journey overnight. Before we could even open it to warm ourselves, our guide saw the bottle and made us throw it away. The journey would be too dangerous, he said, and we needed to be alert.
By the time we were to begin our journey, our group had grown to at least twelve people including a father and his three children. At one point, I carried one of the sons on my back so the child wouldn’t get too tired. We didn’t realize how long the walk would be - it was about 5 kilometers through rivers and forest to reach the border of Greece. After walking for hours, the cold was in my bones. My jacket and several layers of clothing were not enough to protect me from the unfathomable cold.
We could see torches of the patrolling Greek police lighting the border between Turkey and Greece. Occasionally, the police headed in our direction and we had to lay on the ground to avoid being seen. I was so scared of the police and of snakes or other dangerous creatures.
We tried to rest while waiting for the car that would transport us to our next destination, but it hadn’t arrived yet. We found an abandoned shanty and used it as shelter. It was still so cold, and we were so tired that we tried to sleep even while standing on our feet. Our guide didn’t let us smoke or use a lighter for fear the police would see it. My friend from Iran tried to keep me awake because I was tired and scared and only wanted to sleep. We were so hungry, and the father of the children gave us some biscuits which gave me a little energy. I don’t know why we didn’t bring even a little food…
The car we were expecting didn’t arrive so we had to continue on foot. After some time, we arrived at a narrow freezing river which we had to cross in a boat. One of our group fell in and was submerged under the rushing water. Luckily, we were able to grab him and pull him back on the boat before the river took him. The boat crossed several times to carry everyone, and we could only relax once all the group made it to the other side.
The last obstacle was to get to the car that would take us to Thessaloniki while avoiding the police monitoring the border. We hid until we had a chance to run to the car. Twelve people were crammed into one car which took us to Thessaloniki. From there we took a bus to Athens.
In Athens, the situation was very dire for asylum seekers. You must wait for months and months to get papers, and even to get any type of accommodation. At first, I tried to leave right away to Western Europe. I had a contact through the guide who helped me with accommodation and travel plans. The journey was unsuccessful and I had a fight with the man who sold me the passports - they were very expensive and they did not work. Eventually he threatened to kill me so I had to leave the safe house. I slept on the street, but it was very hard to live that way. I was always afraid of violence and theft, and was unable to shower or to get a good night’s sleep. Living on the street I saw many terrible things: I saw my friend sell his body just for a little money, people getting robbed, and drug use.
I tried to ask for asylum. I was hopeful since I had the support of close friends from France, Canada, and Spain who accompanied me to KATEHAK, as asylum seekers call the Ministry of Citizen Protection, named after the nearest subway line. This office provides information on applying for asylum and getting accommodation. We were shocked when the office staff said I didn’t have any option allowing me to apply for asylum. I was at least able to get work permission. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a job. None of the places I applied to knew what to do with my work documents, and they didn’t want to take a chance hiring me. I eventually found a program run by the Greek government and United Nations that pays 90 Euros a month to individual asylum seekers, but it is hard to get enrolled, and this amount of money is nowhere nearly enough to live on.
I had a lot of panic attacks during those first five months in Athens. I couldn’t handle all of the stress and uncertainty. I was not used to living rough and couldn’t comprehend the things I was witnessing. My mind was sick.
I needed accommodation. The shelters were full, the camps were full, and even the illegal squats were full. Especially as an underage male it would be hard to find accommodation. I contacted a social worker at an NGO in Athens I knew to ask her for help with accommodation. Eventually she asked her friends, also volunteers, if I could stay with them. I hoped that the good deeds I had done in the past would give me some good karma, and it worked. She called me back saying that they would take me in. She warned me that they were putting themselves in danger because it is illegal to host minors. I ensured her that I would not cause any problems.
During the four months I lived with the volunteers I tried to find a job, learn the language, get involved in different activities to occupy my mind, and get used to living in Greece. Although I was finally living in a safe place, my mind couldn’t heal itself and I had a very severe panic attack. I ended up staying in the hospital for one week to take rest and strengthen myself. When my friends left, I was alone, but they helped me rent a home and find an unpaid job working with an agency helping other asylum seekers. There, I worked as a translator and helped create programs to assist refugees to explain their situation and adjust to Greek culture.
I was happy to have work, but it was not easy to witness the struggles of the migrants who came to the organization for help. I remember seeing a mother from Afghanistan worried that her daughter was going blind due to the harsh and unsanitary conditions of the camp where they sheltered. But my boss said that there was nothing we could do. When I asked her why, my boss responded this: ‘We can’t help everyone.’
I was very lucky and happy to have met friends, but Greece wasn’t a good situation to live in. I felt there was no progress in my case, and I wasn’t even allowed to study. So, after ten months of living in Athens, I decided again to try to go to Spain.
In Barcelona, I was again alone in the streets. Trying to find a safe place to sleep in the city was impossible, so in the end, I chose to go into the mountains. I felt safer where there were fewer people. I had no money and had asked for help from social services several times but they said ‘There is no help for young people,’ gave me some food and sent me away, back into the mountains.
People weren’t the only thing I had to worry about. One night I had only one apple left. I woke up the next morning to find a wild pig eating the apple. I had no strength to fight with the pig, and cried a lot that morning. I walked all twenty kilometers to Barcelona to ask for help. When I arrived, I was given a lunch ticket and was able to get some food. I was told of a shelter so I went there but it was so full and the waiting period was more than two weeks.
I was so sick and lost twenty kilograms in one month and sometimes couldn’t even walk because I was so weak. I kept thinking, ‘Why do I deserve these problems and why doesn’t the government have any help or some options?’ I was frustrated, tired and angry. I missed my family, and just wanted a basic standard of living – not to be hungry and scared all the time. My heart fluttered and I felt dizzy – I was having another panic attack. I went to the hospital but they didn’t respond to me since my panic attack was over. I wondered why, when a young person needed help, all the doors seemed to be closed.
Back in Barcelona, I went to meetings with a new friend from Europe and I was able to find friends to host me for a while. Again, a volunteer helped me and we found a place with proud Catalonians. They hosted we me without any aim, just out of kindness. They were amazing friends then and still are.
The government called me after three months to come in for an interview. After some time, the Red Cross gave me a place to stay with people from different countries. They also put me in a program to learn Spanish and get to know the city. After that, I began to rent a room, to study, and even found a job. I just wanted to start a normal life.
The papers that the government gave me weren’t enough to live a normal life as a part of society. I was unable to even open a bank account. I wondered why the government didn’t inform the banks about these documents for asylum seekers or find a way to allow us to open bank accounts.
I am still waiting in Barcelona for the verdict of my asylum claim. Nevertheless, I feel so lucky, especially after all I have been through, and I think about the young boys still sleeping on the streets of Athens and Barcelona.
Now I no longer fear for my life, as I did in Iran, and I am finally in a place where I can start my life. I spend my days writing about my experience, volunteering with NGOs and political organisations which help immigrants and minors. The only thing that stands between me and the life that I have begun, is a decision by the state. If I am granted refugee status, I can stay and make a life for myself. But I don’t know what their decision might be. I am no longer a minor and if I am rejected I don’t know what I will do. Should I start a new journey? I’m not sure. I am scared to start from zero again. I believe in #noborders. And I would love to work towards this aim.
My name is Amin. At twelve years old, I joined different social and political movements. I was also able to travel to different countries, like Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, which opened my eyes to different realities. My broader understanding opened my mind and allowed me to publish and connect with special people, and even start an organization, learning how to create a website, and becoming part of a big political organization fighting for social justice in Iran. At seventeen, I was forced to leave my country for Europe after being detained by the government and enduring corporal punishment. At nineteen years old, I currently live in Barcelona, where I work, study, and have joined social movements to help immigrants and others in the Spanish society.
*The author prefers to publish this piece only using his first name.