This is the fourth installment in a series of “Athenian Stories” from Gazmend Kapllani as a complement to our Greek issue this month. In these short dispatches, Kapllani documents the experience of immigrants living in Athens, one of the most diverse cities in southern Europe. Links are available at the bottom of the page to Kapllani’s other Athenian stories featured this month. —Editors
My name is Abas. I was born in Kabul in 1975, or 1359 according to the Afghan calendar. During my childhood Kabul was a beautiful city. But then it was razed by the Soviets, the mujahideen, the Taliban, the Americans… How many shells and rockets fell on it in those twenty or twenty-five years, thousands, millions? I have no idea. I was a kid when one day I opened the door and saw a tank with a Russian soldier on it, wearing a bright red helmet and petting an enormous dog that was sitting next to him. I was terrified. For as long as I can remember, the people around me have always been afraid: of the Soviets, of the Taliban, of the Americans, even of their own shadows.
My father was a driver, but he lost his job because he spoke out against communism. In order to avoid his being arrested, our whole family left and hid in a village. There was no school there, so I went to classes at the mosque. But my father was afraid in the village, too, so we went to Iran. They took us in because in their view our country was being occupied by unbelievers, but life was still very difficult. I went to school in the morning and after school I worked: in construction, as a waiter, whatever I could find. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had enough to get by. We stayed in Iran until the Russians left. Then my father and I went back to Kabul to see what the situation was like. As we were getting ready to go and get my mother and sister, civil war broke out. It was hell. So we left and went back to Iran.
The civil war ended and my father and I again went back to Kabul. But then the Taliban came and life was hell again. So we returned to Iran. Then a marriage was arranged between my sister and an Afghan man who had emigrated to Austria. I started to think about leaving, too. In Afghanistan there were the Taliban, I hadn’t had any luck in Iran… How could I live under a regime that had turned Allah into a monster in order to oppress women, to stifle dissidents and to stultify the population? Those things have nothing to do with Islam. I told myself: “Abas, in this place you’re going to end up either an idiot or in prison.” By then I had started to read Western literature: Dickens, London, Steinbeck. Something clicked in my mind. I wanted to live in a society where people are free to disagree. Unlike in our society, where people live in fear and hunt down anyone who’s of a different opinion… I told my parents I was gong to leave, and my father got very angry. “Do you want to become an American?” he asked. I said yes. You know, in our part of the world, “American” is a dirty word. But he had no choice, he had to accept.
I decided to go and join my sister in Austria. It was the summer of 2001. We arranged things with a smuggler: $4,000, everything our family had saved all those years, plus some money my sister sent from Austria. There were six of us traveling, all Afghan. We each had a different destination: Norway, Sweden, England… It took us two days to cross over into Turkey. We walked for a long time, through the mountains. We reached a Turkish city, Van. We stayed in a house there for three days, twenty-two people in a single room. The smugglers had locked up the other sixteen because they couldn’t pay. But for the ones who could, a truck came and got us and took us to Istanbul. An amazing city. The third day, at dawn, they told us, “Get ready, we’re going to Greece.” All day we traveled and at night we saw the sea. We joined another sixty or seventy illegal immigrants from various countries. They put us all in a little tourist boat. We were all piled on top of one another and didn’t even have any water. I don’t know how many hours we traveled, it could’ve been two days. At some point I heard, “Quick, get out.” We got out in water that was up to our chests and ran for shore. I saw a mountain and two trucks waiting for us. A Pakistani man was driving one of them. We got into that one. We were very scared. We arrived at something like a garage that was brimming with illegal immigrants. The conditions were horrible. We stayed there for a few days, and then they gave us 1,500 drachma and showed us the stop where busses left for Athens.
We arrived in Athens that evening. There was an Afghan guy waiting for us. He put us in a hotel near Omonia Square and told us that in a few days everything would be fine. The other five all left and arrived at their destinations. I was supposed to fly out the evening of September 11th. That day I went out to Omonia, and suddenly saw the police rounding up all the foreigners. I went back to the hotel, terrified. The receptionist, insane with joy, was shouting at me, “Bush down, Bush down!” I lost it. Later I learned about the Twin Towers and Bin Laden. One of the smugglers came and said the plan was off because the airports were closed. I was very upset. I waited for weeks, until one day they told me to get ready. I got to the airport, passed through all the checks and when I was about to board the plane, the girl who was doing the final check of the tickets stopped me. She took my passport and told me to wait. She came back with two police officers. Instead of Austria, I found myself in jail. Then in court. I was sentenced to five months in prison and a fine of 1,500 euro. Since I couldn’t pay, the five months turned into eleven.
While I was in prison, I remembered Dickens. In prison, there aren’t people with souls but dead men walking, who fight and treat one another with hatred. I was released after eleven months. Afghanistan was still a mess, so they couldn’t send me back. I was free, but the way a stray dog is free. Where could I go, what could I eat, where would I rest my head? I knew very little Greek. The only Greek I had learned in prison was “Please give me a ticket.” And “I love this country,” which I liked a lot and used to say all the time. I ended up in Victoria Square where I found an Afghan street peddler and asked him for help. He brought me to a house where eleven Afghan men were living. They welcomed me as if I were their brother. I wanted to find work but how could I, without speaking Greek and without any papers? By chance, I discovered an NGO, Arsis. They helped me a lot there. I learned to read and write Greek, I tried to get papers, and most importantly, I found a job.
Now I work in a warehouse, preparing goods. But the papers are still a problem. If they don’t renew my papers I’ll lose my job and my place to live, I’ll be left with nothing again. I don’t want to go back. So where can I go? I don’t belong anywhere anymore. I’ve started to feel like I belong here, but I don’t know if they’ll let me stay. No one who hasn’t experienced this situation can ever know what that word, “papers,” means for us. You can’t sleep because you don’t have papers. You can’t plan your future because you don’t have papers. You can’t find work because you don’t have papers. You can’t rent an apartment and live like a human being because you don’t have papers. You think about those papers day and night, it turns you into a psychopath. I’m not asking the state for anything, I don’t want money or a job, just papers. I love this country and my only crime is that I wanted to live humanely and freely.
How do you say ‘I hope’ in Afghan? Omidvaram.
The accounts in this series were originally featured, in Greek, in Ta Nea and the Athens Voice and on Gazmend Kapllani’s blog at http://gazikapllani.blogspot.com/
Links to other posts in this series: