Almost two years ago, I first saw Greek rescue boats bringing in people to the harbour of Molyvos, Lesbos. One of the 40 on board that day was 19-year old Naser Moradi. He along with 12 other young Afghan boys and men stood soaking wet in the sun on the jetty. They were cold, but euphoric to be alive; dazed, but eager to start their new lives in Europe.
Last week, I met Naser again in Sweden. But instead of rejoicing in his new life, he was in fear of being sent back into the unknown, as his asylum claim had been rejected.
Naser of Nowhere
Naser Moradi is a young man of about 21. He does not know precisely how old, as a birth certificate was never issued for him. Naser was born in Kabul but escaped the advancing Taleban with his family when he was a toddler. Along with two million from the Hazara minority that he belongs to, they fled to neighbouring Iran, where the family settled in Isfahan.
Naser’s biggest dream as a young boy was to go to school. His mum did try to send him, but many of the schools in Iran did not enrol refugees. One of Naser’s earliest memories is seeing his mother begging and crying in front of a school principal, but to no avail. All together he only managed three years of education in various makeshift classrooms, but for Naser this was enough to gain a lifelong curiosity about life, learning and the wider world.
Without proper schooling however, his only option in life was to start working, which he did when he was only seven or eight years old. He was taken in by one of the many stone carving factories on the outskirts of Isfahan, and by the time he was a teenager, he was a highly skilled craftsman and earning good money. He managed to save some – and also to take classes learning English.
In autumn 2014 Naser was asked to deliver a sculpture he had carved, to a city in north-western Iran. It had to be delivered fast, so Naser did not have the time to get hold of the permit refugees must obtain from the police to venture out of their area in Iran. He had travelled without a permit before, bribing his way through trouble, so he did not worry too much about the journey.
The delivery went according to plan, but on the way back the minibus he was travelling in was stopped by the police. Naser was arrested for travelling without papers. It was only once back at the police station he realised something was up. When he offered money to the police officers, as he had done without problem before, they beat him instead of letting him go. That was when he learned that he was in the custody of the secret police.
After three days of beatings and despair in a crowded cell, he could take no more. He asked the prison guard, if there was any way of getting out. Naser was told to wait. The following day, the guard came back with a mullah. Naser couldn’t understand why, as he had not asked for this learned man to be called. The mullah told Naser, he could get him out of there. All he had to do was to go to Syria for six months. To fight for Assad.
Syria or Afghanistan?
Naser Moradi was in shock. He knew of other young Hazaras being lured into going to Syria by the Iranian authorities, but he never thought he would find himself in a situation like this. He’d seen images on the internet of young men his age going off in military uniform – never to come back or to come back scarred for life. He did not want to fight, did not want to kill, but the alternative, he was told, was to be deported back to Afghanistan. He asked the mullah for time to think and got 24 hours to consider his future.
Naser is not the only Hazara in Iran who have had the choice between deportation or fighting for Assad. 12.000-14.000 young men have already been sent to Syria by Iran according to Human Rights Watch. Whilst some are tempted to join the fighting by promises of money and a residence permit in Iran once they return, others, like Naser are lured and forced to fight. Officially the Afghans are not allowed to join the Iranian army, but young men like Naser have their papers destroyed by the secret police and therefore go to Syria covertly as Iranians in order to fight for Assad’s military regime, which Iran supports.
When the 24 hours were up, Naser signed the paper. He would never survive being sent back to Afghanistan on his own, so he had to take the chance in Syria. At home, he was met with disbelief, tears and anger. His parents refused to send him to Syria and hence, fearing the authorities but also wanting to obey his parents, Naser went into hiding near the factory where he was working. After eight months, his hide-out was discovered by the police. Although Naser managed to get away, he also realised he could not stay in Iran, as he was not to keep his part of the deal with the mullah and leave for Syria.
On the run
From his work carving stone, Naser Moradi had earned a lot of money. He had supported himself and his family: his mum, dad, four sisters and four brothers. He was the youngest son, and the only family member on the run. Desperate to leave Iran, he paid 500 Euros to a Kurdish smuggler and with 15-16 others he set out to the mountains in the north-western corner of Iran. The idea was to cross the border to Turkey and from there try and get on one of the small boats crossing the Aegean. But before the sea lay some dangers, which would make the rest of the journey up through Europe, feel like a holiday hike, says Naser today.
- We walked and walked – but only at night. The mountains were steep and many people slipped. They died. There was lots of dead people in the mountains. But we had to walk at night, because soldiers from Iran and Turkey were shooting at us – they were shooting at us like birds in the sky.
During the day Naser and his fellow walking companions hid in small huts in the mountains. He still has pictures showing how they were crammed in there – too many young men to stretch out. Back then he remembers wondering why so many Pakistanis were there, but today he reckons they were on their way to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It’s a thought that momentarily sends a wry smile across Naser’s face today, as the absurdity of sharing a mountain cabin with people he could have fought against in Syria, is almost too bizarre to comprehend. Nevertheless they were all there – young men on the run from or towards fighting.
All Naser could think about in the mountains was Europe and his new life. He had never been so scared. Had never thought so much about death. After days of fleeing from soldiers and avoiding slipping off steep slopes he – led by the smuggler – entered Turkey and once again he dared dream of Sweden. From YouTube he had researched what country in Europe to aim for, and from what he heard about the Swedish people and the society far north, that was where he wanted to settle. First, he ‘just’ needed to cross the Aegean and travel 3.500 km north, but then he could start living his life once more.
On a dark night in June 2015 he squeezed himself on to a rubber dinghy. From the Turkish coast, Lesbos could not be seen, but the smuggler showed them which direction to aim for. Naser had paid 2000 Euros for the trip. On the second attempt the small dinghy left the Turkish shore, but midway to Lesbos, the engine suddenly fell silent. In the darkness, Naser’s biggest fear was that one of the large vessels ploughing through the waters in this part of the Aegean, would hit them. At daybreak however, his worries turned to the amount of seawater seeping into the dinghy instead.
Uncertainty every step of the way
A boat belonging to the Greek coastguard offloads its human cargo onto the jetty in Molyvos Harbour. 40 refugees – soaked and cold – stand huddled together in the sun. Naser Moradi is there with 12 other Afghans he’d met on the beach in Turkey. Now they have made it to Greece, and they are euphoric and eager to start their new lives. So far, none of the young men realise that over the next weeks and months, long, hot walks lay ahead of them, squalid, inhuman camps will be their homes and that the journey up through Europe will be one most of them will wish to forget. Not least Naser. Even today he finds it hard thinking about the refugee camp Moria outside Mytilini on Lesbos – the fights over food, the dirt and the smells.
More than 18 months after arriving in Sweden, he vividly remembers the arrests in Hungary, the detention camps and overfilled cells and easily recalls the fear of the smugglers and soldiers along the many crossed borders. On his mobile, he has a lot of footage and photos to document his trip. When he finds the uncertainty, he now faces in Sweden, hard to bear, he looks at the journey he survived. During it, he learned a lot about trusting strangers, a lot about survival and how far a little English can get you. Today Naser also speaks Swedish, but he is no longer allowed to attend his language classes, as he has received a rejection letter from Migrationsverket (The Immigration Authorities). They say he will not be in danger in Afghanistan and therefore they want to deport him to the country, he fled from with his family 19 years ago and to which he has no ties.
Sweden is not the only European nation deporting Afghans. In the autumn last year, the EU made a much-criticised deal with Afghanistan, where the Asian country promised to take back an unlimited number of its countrymen and help them start a new life. However, NGOs and Afghanistan experts agree, that the government does not have the resources or power to guarantee the returnees’ safety or even to offer them any realistic opportunities in Afghanistan. Especially not the easily recognisable Hazaras, the minority Naser is a part of. Looking slightly Mongolian or Chinese, they stand out in Afghanistan, and as they are Shia Muslims, they are a thorn in the eye of the Sunni majority – the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns controls Kabul and most of the south, which is also the Taleban’s stronghold.
Being Hazara was the reason Naser’s family fled, when he was two years old. They escaped from the Taleban along with two million other Hazaras and settled in Iran. Naser has tried to explain this to the Swedish immigration authorities, but he cannot get them to understand. They do not believe him, when he says that returning him to Afghanistan will be the same as a death sentence, because it is a country, he has no ties to, no knowledge of and no network in. The thought of being deported makes him lie awake for hours each night. He is scared, stressed and forgets things. Despite being wary and exhausted from the past three years living with uncertainty and fear, he has appealed against the decision of Migrationsverket. He has seen most of the Afghans he has known in Sweden being deported already, so he knows his chances being granted asylum are slim.
Only the Taleban wins
Naser is not just fighting for his right to stay in Sweden. He feels like he is fighting for his life. He knows no one in Afghanistan. He has no family there – no home, no status – so he knows he will not be safe there. From the minute he leaves the airport, he will be a target. His western clothes, Hazara looks and unfamiliarity with the surroundings will give him away, and he says the only way to stay alive – at least for a time – is to fight.
- I have two choices, if I’m sent back to Afghanistan. I can enrol in the government army. They pay their soldiers poorly and if I get wounded – and chances are high – I get no support or help. On the other hand, I can join the Taleban and fight for them – that would make me safer as a Hazara. The Taleban pays well and they support the veterans if they are injured. The choice is rather simple, but I don’t want to fight.
The irony that Naser’s family fled Kabul two decades ago to get away from the Taleban is not lost on him. But he asks – what should he do? There are no ordinary office jobs in Afghanistan if you know no one, so joining an army is the only realistic career move for a young man like himself. Again, and again he points out that he does not want to fight and sitting in tranquil Torsby, four hours by train north of Gothenburg in Sweden, it is easy to believe. Naser is not a soldier. He is a young man, who has spent his life trying to escape conflicts and wars. He loves to learn languages, has taken up playing baritone in the local church and has a passion for galaxies, white dwarfs, and black holes. Naser wants to be allowed to get sucked into his new life like matter into a black hole. He wants to choose life, not death and despite often finding Swedish culture difficult to understand and missing his family terribly, he is making headway. He has ‘adopted’ a Swedish family and is now carving sculptures in snow rather than stone. Whether Naser’s efforts will be enough to convince the Swedish immigration authorities is still not known, but he does not want to subsist in the Taleban’s shadow. Naser wants to live.
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Naser Moradi has given permission to use his photos.
Other photos by CosmoJournalism and Georgios Konstantinidis / Map by: Spiegel