This interview was conducted by the Advisor of Act for Displaced, Ms. Sallie Latch as part of her series of interviews with refugees in Greece.
Naim approaches with a hurried, jaunty step, his long shiny black hair bobbing up and down on his shoulders. He is wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt with shocking pink and yellow flowers and men riding the waves on water boards. He is coming from a hectic morning at the hospital where he works. Naim keeps a very busy schedule so it’s a lucky day that I get to have this meeting with him. We say, “kalimera,” the Greek “hello”, and exchange a European style quick almost-kiss on both cheeks. I take a seat opposite him in a cool, quiet basement restaurant. I want to hear about his escape from violence and his search for a meaningful life that he started years ago when he became a refugee fleeing Afghanistan. It didn’t take long before I knew his smile is a miracle and testament to his determination to survive.
He begins his story.
Naim: I was born in Afghanistan. I’m away from my country and my family for about 15 years. Now I am on Samos island as a refugee. I come here and I work with the Doctors Without Borders, and I know how the refugees come. I know their pain and exactly their experience. So, because of this, I can give them some help.
Sallie: What do you do with Doctors Without Borders?
Naim: I work as a translator. Now is a very difficult time for the refugees. Nobody knows exactly what will happen. The Refugees can’t pass out of Greece and the situation around all the Greek islands is so bad. There are a lot of people, a lot of refugees. We are all waiting to see what will happen. In the next two months, the refugees will start coming again from Turkey. We are standing by.
Sallie: Are you seeing that your experience as a refugee is the same as the refugees are having now?
Naim: I know exactly who they are. How they passed dangerous way and how they arrive these islands because I’m one of them.
Sallie: What was your experience doing that?
Naim: I was born in the part of Afghanistan, it’s called Ghazni and Jaghori and when the Taliban arrive in Afghanistan, they close the schools for the girls and after also, they take out the men from school, the important books and that time I was 16 years old and there was no reason to stay there anymore. So I left Afghanistan.
I went to Pakistan. I was there for four days and then I talked with the mafia. I pay them and after three days they took me to Iran. I spent three years in Iran working there. There were a lot of Afghani people in Iran and the situation for us is so bad. I kept trying to go to Europe because I wanted freedom and forever to do what I want. There is no freedom in Iran. So I decided to leave. I walked only at night for 45 days from Iran to Turkey. I arrived in Istanbul.
Sallie: What was it like walking 45 days in Turkey?
Naim: Of course there was danger. We were walking the night time because we were scared of the Turkish soldiers. We didn’t have papers. If they catch us they could shoot us. I was walking the mountains for four days, which is so dangerous way. A lot of people die that way.
Sallie: Why was it dangerous? Were there animals there? Were there steep places? Was it rocky?
Sallie: Did the Turkish police threaten you?
Naim: It is dangerous because you’re walking the night time and you cannot see where you are. Maybe it is rocky and you fall down or you are in the forest with animals. A lot of people fall down and die. Or they die because the Turkish soldiers shoot them. The situation is like this. You can’t walk in the daytime because if you walk in the daytime, the police will see you and deport you back to Afghanistan.
Naim: Yeah, because the first time we start walking, come from the border in Maku in Turkey and it was two days walking and after that, police catch us. We were four weeks in jail and after they deported us back to Iran. I was without water, without food, like two days and after we say, we can’t do anything here. Let’s leave. We were actually searching for food and water. We decided we would try again to go to Turkey.
Sallie: Tell me about the situation in Turkey.
Naim: The prison is so bad in Turkey. They did not give us food, Maybe only one time per day. After they deported us back to Iran and to a village. But we decided to walk back to Turkey again and again it took 45 days. I arrived in Istanbul and stayed there for four months. I did not have anybody in Istanbul. It was hard. Also, there was a lot of mafia searching for the refugees.
They charge for the people 2,000 euros to bring them to Greece. So I was there. I was working in Istanbul with a friend of mine. I found four friends. We decided to get our own boat and go to Izmir and then to Greece. We bought a plastic boat and after we take the bus from Istanbul to Izmir and when we arrive in Izmir it was night and we stayed in the bus station until be dark, to hike in the mountain. The time is coming. It’s getting dark and we started climbing the mountain and finally, we come down to the beach. And after we fix the boat and we put it in the sea and we starting at 12:00 and we arrive like 5:00 in the morning. It was so close, the Greek Islands. But it took us 5 hours.
Sallie: You didn’t want to pay the mafia to go across so you got your own boat.
Naim: Yeah because we didn’t have enough money for the mafia, to pay them 2,000 or 3,000 euros. That’s why we buy the maps and boat. We come by ourselves.
Sallie: Was it easy to row the boat on the sea? Did you have any problems?
Naim: I will explain you. Yeah, we have the problem. We were rowing for four hours and finally, we were only five kilometers from the Greek island. But then the water cops see us. They came close to our boat and they pick up us and take us back to Turkey.
Sallie: The Turkish Coast Guard?
Naim: Not the Turkish Coast Guard. Greek Coast Guard. They use a lot of ropes and they came close with our boat and after they took us in Turkish water. And there were a lot of waves. Then our boat got a hole and water came inside the boat. We couldn’t do anything because we were so thirsty, so hungry. We didn’t have food or water. We were drinking water from the sea and it was four people. Two of my friends were crying all the time. They say their life is finish. Yeah, we say all of us, the four of us, we say the life is finished. We didn’t have any more life. Life is gone here.
Sallie: Did you think this because the water was so rough? It was so difficult on the sea?
Naim: Yeah. It’s a lot of waves and also, our boat has a hole and the water comes in and after we just stand inside the water. We didn’t do anything because we were so tired. There were a lot of waves. The sea was very rough. The tide is bringing us to Turkish island. When we arrive on the Turkish island, we fix the boat again. One friend says we can’t go. It’s dangerous. But I say we should go because we spend a lot of dangerous time and I do not want to be sent back to jail in Turkey or in Iran. So we said, “Let’s go. Maybe we survive. Maybe we die.” Okay. We tried again. We fix the boat. We went about six kilometers and arrive on Kos island. The water cops come again to stop us but when they come close to us, I take out my knife. I destroy the boat and we jump in the water. After they pick us up one by one and they bring us to the island.
Sallie: Why did you destroy the boat?
Naim: I destroyed the boat because if we didn’t destroy the boat, they deport us again in Turkish water. When we destroyed the boat, they can’t do anything. If you do not have a boat and are in the water they have to rescue you.
Sallie: So this time the Greek Coast Guard rescued you?
Naim: Yeah. It was the Greeks.
Sallie: Where did they take you?
Naim: To Kos. We had nothing because we destroyed all our things the first night in the water because the boat got the hole. It was so dangerous. After they pick us up, it was when the camps were closed. When we arrive there, it was around 800 peoples there. And we were three months and after three months they gave us papers and said you can go away from Greece in one month.
Sallie: They told you that you have to leave Greece in one month?
Naim: Yeah, exactly. They tell us, “In one month, you should leave Greece.” And after you know, when we got the papers, we went to the town of Marmari. We were hanging around for three months but after we go buy tickets for the ferry to go to Athens. There were many Afghan refugees there and they go to stay in Victoria Park.
Sallie: When was this?
Naim: That is 2003. Thirteen years ago. Yeah, exactly. So I was hanging around the park. We were sleeping there. Some people help us from the church, bring us food. After that, we know about the situation. How the people are going to Italy from Athens.
Sallie: But what did you do for food and a place to sleep?
Naim: When we were in Athens, we were sleeping in the park. We make by ourselves, from the cartons, small houses to sleep in.
Sallie: It must have been very cold. Did you sleep on the ground? What time of year was that?
Naim: Yeah. It was so cold and the situation is so bad, There were a lot of people. But there is no other way and we must endure when we do not know any people and when we do not speak the language. It’s so difficult to find your way. So we picked up the cartons from a rubbish bin and we would make small houses and we spend the time like one week in Athens and then we go Patras, a Greek island. But there it was the same. In Patras, there were 2,000 people waiting to go to Italy. The people were sleeping in the forest, on the beach, in old houses. Whatever they can find. I had to make a house again. I fix one in the forest from the cartons. And after I didn’t have the money again to pay the mafia, to go to Italy, so I arranged to jump on a truck to get a ride. But when we arrived at the boat, the commander was checking and he found us. They beat us a lot.
Sallie: Who did that?
Naim: The Commander at Patras.
Sallie: The police?
Naim: Yeah, the police beat me a lot of times, and then I have a problem with my hands for one month because they hit me a lot.
Sallie: Did they break your bones?
Naim: No. They didn’t break my hands but they hit me. It was two people. They hold my hands behind and hit me with their police sticks.
Sallie: One policeman held your hands in the back and another policeman hit you?
Naim: Yeah. The two police. They are keeping my hands. One of them hit me with the sticks. They do that so we never try to go by truck again. The situation was bad. But it’s the only way we can go.
Sallie: You were traveling in a truck. Did you pay someone to go in the truck or did you secretly into the truck?
Naim: If you pay the mafia, you can go in the truck. They hide you somewhere. But because I didn’t have the money to pay the mafia and I was by myself, I just go on the truck. I go somewhere to hide.
Sallie: So normally, the smuggler… the mafia, makes you pay to go on the truck. But you didn’t have money to go on the truck. You were hidden secretly in the truck. Is that right?
Sallie: Did the mafia people beat you also?
Naim: No. The mafia doesn’t do that because there’s a lot of people who didn’t have money and they go by themselves. And I saw the mafia in front of my eyes putting people in the truck. The truck has a lot of watermelons and they hide people under the watermelon. I saw four people who died because they were under the watermelon. After that, I say, I never go like this. I change my way and after one month of searching, I found a different way.
Under the trucks, is someplace you can go there. There is space but you should know where you can go because it’s dangerous. If you do not know the right place you can suffocate or fall off. So one night I decided I would go by hiding under the truck. So I got on the ferry [because the truck was there] and I go under the truck and I saw the police come. They are checking everything with their flashlight. But I was lucky. They didn’t find me. The police, they always will do that but I found the place they cannot see me. Also because I wore black clothes and it was so dark there. They didn’t find me under the truck. Finally, the ferry started going to Italy. I was so happy. I was under the truck for 17 hours.
Sallie: Going from Patras to where?
Naim: I don’t remember. Maybe Bari. I didn’t know exactly the name of the place.
Sallie: But you were under the truck for 17 hours. Did you eat? Did you sleep during that time?
Naim: Not at all. And I also needed to go to the toilet. But I cannot come down from the truck because there is a lot of cameras inside the ferry. They will see you and it is dangerous. They will pick you up again and deport you back to Patras.
Sallie: So you were under the truck, which was on the ferry. You couldn’t get out to go to the toilet because the guard on the boat might see you. You had to stay hidden.
Naim: Yeah, exactly, because if I came out from under the truck they could see me. So I spent like 17 hours under the truck and after I arrived in the port of Italy, in Bari, I think. So the truck went off the ferry but stayed inside a fenced area and again, I didn’t come out because it was daylight and they could see me. I had to stay under the truck for nine more hours. So I was 26 hours hiding under the truck. And I was waiting for the darkness and to run away from the police.
So when it was a bit dark, I got out of my hiding place and started climbing the wall of the port and I jumped over it. I started running very fast and very far. I ran for about three hours. The police saw me once so I had to hide. I was running from the police and I was somewhere in some forest. I was hiding for like two hours and after I found a taxi. I pay for the taxi to go to Rome.
Sallie: Could you tell us what you did in Rome and how long you were there? And then, tell us how you got to the point where you are now? What legal Greek papers do you have now?
Naim: When I arrived in Rome, I was spending my time for like two weeks. Actually, my plan was to go to London, to study Philosophy. But I was only in Rome for 15 days and I decided to go back to Greece. But I didn’t have the money, So this time I was searching for the police. I learned from other people how to do things. They told me that when you didn’t have money, you can go to the police, and the police catch you and put you on the ferry in one room and lock you up. The next day you are back in Patras and free.
Sallie: This time you actually wanted to be caught by the police
Naim: Yeah, because that is what I wanted. I didn’t have the money to pay the ferry to come back into Patras.
Sallie: Did the police find you?
Naim: I found the police.
Sallie: Did they beat you?
Naim: No, they didn’t beat me. They just pick up me. They bring me to a port. I do not remember which port it was. And after they put me inside the ferry, in one room and they lock me inside. The next day, I was free in Patras. I made Greek friends that were studying in Patras. I talk with them and have fun and after that, I didn’t have money left at all. I was searching for work and after that, somebody, a friend of mine told me about one part of Greece which is called Argos. Argos is a very famous place. They have a lot of orange trees.
I decided to go there for work, to pick oranges, which I did for only one week. My real job is as a carpenter. So after one week, I stopped picking oranges and I found a carpenter job. I worked as a carpenter for about one year. And after I spent my money touring around the Greek Islands. I saw a lot of nice places. Then I decided I would stay in Greece and if I stay in Greece, I will search for my legal papers.
So after one year away, I went back to Athens to fix the papers, which I did. But every three months I had to renew again for three months. And in Athens, I was in a camp for refugees again. It was called Love You Camp. I was there a couple of times. I spend my time. I play volleyball there for six months. But then I went to the city.
In Athens, I have very bad friends and they were kind of drug people. I didn’t know that.
So I said, “It’s not my place. I will go somewhere else.” But one day, I woke up I see one of the people who lives with me, he fall down on the floor dead. It completely blew my mind. I didn’t stay in the house and I spend my time in the center in Athens. After I was in the port in Piraeus and I was searching for the maps. I want to find where I go. So I found Crete and I decided to go to Crete Islands.
When I was in the port to buy the tickets and they ask me, “Where do you want to go in Crete?” I said I don’t know which port but I want to go to the island.” So I buy the tickets for the ferry. I go to Crete and from that time, when I arrive in Crete, I was searching again to fix my papers. But actually, I was seven years in Crete without papers because they do not know refugees. They just said you are here but you should leave the country.
Okay. Again I was in the police station. I write my opinion about myself. I say, “No, I was going to stay in Greece.” So it was nice and after that, I got my papers. I was in Crete. I have a good life and I found my way in Crete. I was doing like kind of artist. I drawing by myself, carving the wood, and I do a lot of work in Crete because slowly, I learned the language.
I made a lot of friends there and had work. Then just this year, one of my friends sent me a message saying Doctors Without Borders needs a translator. He said maybe they will call you. And one day they did. They asked me what paper do you have? I said I have a green card but I cannot travel outside Greece.
Sallie: Is that okay for you or do you want to leave?
Naim: No. It’s not okay for me. I want to travel. That’s what I want in my life. I want to travel. I think life is moving. If it’s not moving, it doesn’t mean anything. So I came to Samos and took the job with Doctors Without Borders.
Sallie: How long have you done that?
Naim: It’s almost two and a half months.
Sallie: Do you have a contract?
Naim: My contract finishes on the 12th of next month. Yeah. But they’ll tell me before if it is extended.
Sallie: Well I hope that they keep you on. Is that what you want to do? I know you want to travel but if you can’t travel, are you happy to stay as a translator in Samos?
Naim: Of course I am going to stay because it’s not like work. It’s helping people and for me, that does not work.
Sallie: That’s a wonderful attitude. Now you have some money. You have a place to stay. You have food. You have a stable kind of life.
Naim: Yeah. I have now.
Sallie: Do you have any interest to go back to Afghanistan?
Naim: I can’t go to Afghanistan because I’m a refugee. My card is a refugee’s card. I can’t.
Sallie: Would you like to go back to Afghanistan?
Naim: Of course. It’s my country. I have my family there. I didn’t see them for 15 years.
Sallie: Who is there in your family? Brothers, sisters, mother, father?
Naim: My father, my mother, my grandfather, my grandmother, and my sister. We are… actually, we are nine children. Eight brothers and one sister.
Sallie: Are they all in Afghanistan?
Naim: No. One of my brother’s in Australia. One of them is in Sweden. One of them is in Iran. One of them is in Indonesia and one of them in China and the rest in Afghanistan.
Sallie: How are things for them in Afghanistan?
Naim: They keep studying.
Sallie: Are they safe in Afghanistan? Are there any drones? Any American military there?
Naim: Actually, I think you know about this. 80 years’ war in Afghanistan. It is never a safe life. I am Hazara people. The Taliban is the enemy of the Hazara people. Actually, for me, the Hazara people are really peaceful. They don’t like to fight and they want Afghanistan to be one altogether.
Sallie: That’s a beautiful place to end your story. I hope we can talk more in the future and perhaps you could be thinking about the American political and military involvement because people in America need to know how it affects the people in Afghanistan and other places where you have been. But for now, I’m wishing you good luck and happy travels.