TIMID smiles momentarily disguised his anxiety, fear and constant agony. He sat on his chair staring at the floor, rubbed his hands together, looked up and smiled, returned to his world, said a word or two in English with a Pakistani accent, then fell silent again.
We had met in an NGO office. A psychologist friend had contacted me about the possibility of a young Afghan attending classes at the university where I was teaching. I promised to help. Our meeting was brief. The Afghan shuttled between smiles and fear, and silently listened to us. “Are you scared?” my friend asked. “Yes,” he replied, looking at the floor. I gave him my phone number, shook his hands and disappeared. This was 23 January 2003.
The prospective student returned home. Then on 21 March 2003, he swallowed a handful of pills, and hoped to die, after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ankara rejected his application for asylum. An Iranian woman sheltering him saved his life.
His name is Shahroukh Khan, born in Kabul 18 or 19 years ago, and he is an Afghan refugee in Istanbul. He is timid and gentle, boyish and well-mannered. His suicide attempt was not his first. His father was murdered in October 2001. American bombs destroyed his family home and killed his mother and two younger brothers and sisters soon after. The foreigners came to liberate Afghans from the Taliban, but the gifts they brought were rubble, dust, bodies and blood. The world Shahroukh knew ended and he took poison to die too, but was saved by a neighbour.
He shares his life story with many young men and women from Central Asia to Africa, with its chapter headings of civil war, bombing, ethnic cleansing, wars of domination. He is a lonely soul searching for a new home: his hope of that home, in the very United States that destroyed his home and family, was shattered when the UNHCR rejected his case.
I told him about my own journey, which is writing a book about the stories of migrants. “Will you write my story?” he asked. He was eager to tell his story to the world. Here it is.
Shahroukh is small. He looks no older than 16, but talks about his travels like an old man. He has crossed five countries and four borders, on his own and with no contacts; found his way from town to town, province to province, and border to border, with only maps as guides. A Bulgarian soldier hit him on the head with the map he had found in Shahroukh’s bag. Seeing an Afghan teenager crossing the border solo and sans smuggler, shocked the soldier. Shahroukh laughed telling me the story.
Shahroukh planned a route well to reach his final destination in the West. He drew me a map, carefully positioned his transit countries, wrote the names of the cities he would pass through, and gave me a lesson about the geography of borders one cold afternoon in a cafe on Istiklal Street in Istanbul. He calmly explained how he had studied the map of Europe and chosen his route, then he had crossed borders, climbed hills and trekked the roughest terrains. He had hoped to reach England, passing through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Belgium, but he was stopped in Bulgaria.
When we met for the first time in January, he lived in a pension near Aksaray in Istanbul, sharing a room with a Russian and two Turkish men, sleeping, sitting, visiting his favourite house of worship and sometimes studying Turkish. His best friend was a 14-year-old Iraqi refugee who also had no family because they had been killed by foreign bombs of liberation in the last Gulf war. The friend had left Iraq for Iran, lived there for two years, and entered Turkey illegally in search of asylum. I asked Shahroukh how often he saw his Iraqi friend. He said they met just the once on a trip to UNHCR in Ankara for their asylum interviews. They had spent a day together, heard each other’s stories, felt close to each other, and became friends. They never met in person again but they had had occasional phone conversations. Shahroukh had found someone to talk to, with experiences like his own. Those conversations ended soon after.
Shahroukh longed for friendship and wanted to be accepted by others who would not betray him, and would provide sanctuary from his loneliness. He became attached to anyone who treated him with kindness and listened to his story. Salim, who had been his classmate for six years, called him during one of our meetings in Aksaray. Shahroukh was in heaven, laughed for a long time, and told me stories about Pakistan. “Salim is my best friend. He called from Peshawar, Pakistan,” he kept repeating.
Yusuf, 20, a Turkish manual labourer from Adana, was Shahroukh’s other friend. They met the first day Shahroukh arrived in Istanbul, frightened and distrustful. Yusuf, a stranger, offered him Turkish hospitality, helped him find a room, showed him the city, and gave him the love he had not experienced since he left Afghanistan. Before Yusuf left to get married in his hometown, he gave Shahroukh a cell phone, which Shahroukh kept in a bag for nearly a month. He showed it to me one day. “Imagine! Me with a phone!” he said smiling. This was a way to normality and the world of others. For the first time, he had a phone of his own, a number to give to his very few friends: an identity.
By the end of our second meeting I had become a friend, a stranger he could trust. My life in Istanbul made him feel secure. I took him for a tour of the university. He was relaxed, happy and talkative. He walked through the university campus, admired the beauty of the environment, and told me stories about his past and his dreams for the future. We walked by the Bosphorus. The weather was warm, the air clean, the view majestic. The seagulls, men fishing, and the sun reflecting on the water widened the smile on his face. This was a world different from his past, and his lonely present in Istanbul. The day was a brief introduction to the world of the fortunate others. “It was one of the best days of my life,” he told my psychologist friend.
I noticed Shahroukh’s worn out shoes, inadequate for winter in Istanbul. He said: “They have travelled a very long distance from Afghanistan to here.” In them he traversed Pakistan and Iran, trekked the mountains between Iran and Turkey, moved to Van and Istanbul, walked through the border to Bulgaria, and returned to Istanbul after being arrested. The shoes knew the story of his journey. He joked about the shoes, he drowned in sadness, then he rebounded. “I will always keep these shoes,” he said the day he got a pair of boots for the winter.
I introduced him to my students, and tried to create a network of people he could trust. I took him to my home. He smiled more often, at times made jokes, felt more normal. He once told me he wished to be a pilot. An hour later he said he was interested in math. “Maybe being a pilot was not a good idea,” he said. Being a teacher intrigued him. Teachers were respected. Whatever, he wanted to continue his education and learn seven or eight languages. His Iraqi friend spoke four languages, Shahroukh said with admiration.
From childhood, Shahroukh’s life had been shaped by kinship, violence, revenge, war and displacement. His great-grandfather had kidnapped and married a girl from another clan. Her brothers took her back by force after she gave birth to Shahroukh’s grandfather. The great grandfather killed one of the brothers. The family vowed revenge. Growing up in Kandahar, Shahroukh heard the story from his father. The father lived in fear, always alert to a debt of blood contracted before he had been born. To protect Shahroukh, his oldest son, from violence, he sent him to study in Pakistan. “He wanted me to be unlike the others in Afghanistan,” Shahroukh said. While Afghanistan was devastated by the civil war, Shahroukh enjoyed relative peace in Pakistan. He lived as a refugee, attended high school, learned English, and developed a keen interest in sciences. This all ended in October and November 2001.
Shahroukh’s father saved his son from tribal revenge, but in October 2001 was murdered himself in the course of the feud. Shahroukh heard this on the phone in Pakistan, and was devastated. He mourned his father, watched international developments and stayed in Pakistan studying for exams. Then, in November, bombs hit his home in Kandahar and his family members were all killed: as they say now, “collateral damage”. A phone call to Pakistan informed him he was an orphan.
Shahroukh rushed home, buried his loved ones, said farewell to the last remnants of his family and intended to die himself. “Unfortunately they saved me, unfortunately for me,” he said.
He decided to leave Afghanistan behind with all his painful memories. He sold the family’s residential land for one thousand dollars cash to fund the journey: he had a few personal documents in his bag, and his loyal pair of shoes. He negotiated with smugglers and local people, dealt with the police, and patiently crossed one border after another. After three months on the road, he left Afghanistan for Pakistan, left Pakistan and entered Zahedan in Western Iran, took buses to Tehran and later to Isfahan, moved to Urumieh in western Iran, and navigated himself to the border with Turkey.
Shahroukh met a villager on that border and told him that he was Afghan, looking for someone to help him cross the border. The villager promised to help for $100, a lot less than the going rate. “He was just a villager, not a smuggler,” Shahroukh said. The man took him across the border and directly to Van. There he snatched 300 euros from Shahroukh and returned to his village. Shahroukh proceeded to Istanbul, bought a map of Europe, made his plans and boarded a bus to Edirne, near the border with Bulgaria.
A train connected Edirne to Bulgaria. He found the track on the map, moved to the last train stop in Turkey, and waited till dark. This was the 17th night of Ramadan. “I broke my fast when it got dark and followed the tracks toward Bulgaria.” He walked for hours, jumped over a fence, without knowing if he had reached Bulgaria. “There was fog everywhere.” Dark, cold, alone, Shahroukh saw lights at a distance. Thinking they were of a house he went on with relief, stopping only when he saw soldiers with rifles. “I knew my trip was over,” he told me with a mischievous smile.
Shahroukh was arrested and taken to a prison for two days and nights. The Bulgarians took his small suitcase and belongings, and snatched 400 euros from him. Then he was handed over to the soldiers at two in the morning. The soldiers took him to the border, circled him, kicked him and set their dogs on him. “The dogs bit me. My leg was bleeding hard. I could hardly walk.”
The soldiers showed him a mud field separating Bulgaria from Turkey, ordered him to cross it, and shot in the air to scare him. “I was not scared of their gun or dying. There was mud up to my knees. I was bleeding from the bite. I put mud on the wound to stop the bleeding.” Shahroukh reached the Turkish side of the border. Exhausted, he rested until sunrise, walked for hours until he heard the azan, the call for prayer. He was in Turkey, with only 20 euros left.
While in custody Shahroukh met an Iranian refugee, a prisoner arrested for trying to cross the border. He liked him. “The Iranian guy spoke very good English,” and told Shahroukh about the UNHCR in Istanbul. Shahroukh found his way to Edirne and took a bus to Istanbul. There, he applied for asylum with UNHCR. (He had been waiting for a decision when we first met.)
A WEEK or so after our first meeting, he said on the phone: “Can we meet today? There is something urgent I have to talk to you about.” I had missed six calls from him that day; unable to reach me, he had called again and again. So we arranged to meet by the McDonald’s on Aksaray Street, where I met all my refugee contacts. A desperate call like that from refugees was always followed by news of arrest, financial crisis or other problems they could not resolve. But when he turned up, he was jubilant, greeted me with an endless smile, and soon told me what was so urgent. Looking shy and excited, he asked: “Will you photograph me” I had told Shahroukh about taking photographs for my book. Did he want his picture included? But the picture was not for the purposes of publication. Giggling shyly, he told me about a meeting in a house of worship, an afternoon unlike any other in his life. He told me about a French girl he had met, a week or two earlier, in the Suleymaniye mosque, a place of prayer and his sanctuary. Even before the meeting the mosque had awakened the inner peace in his soul, taken him out of his unhappy life and made him feel secure. Because he was bored in the pension, with no money for cafes and restaurants, he found himself in the mosque day after day. “A very strange thing attracts me to this mosque. When I hear the azan, I rush here. I want to come for the prayers. My soul feels happiness after saying the prayer in this mosque.” In no other place did he feel so much at peace.
In the mosque courtyard one sunny afternoon, he noticed a beautiful young girl, alone, staring at the low domes surrounding the mosque and sketching on white drawing pads. An unknown feeling came upon him. Without thinking, he found himself standing beside the girl, smiling, looking at the domes. For the first time he had found an attraction besides prayers.
She was a student of architecture and asked Shahroukh about the name of the building. “I do not know. I am also a tourist,” he replied. He was taken out of his refugee life. Fearing she would not like him, and helped by his Pakistani-English accent, he introduced himself as an Indian tourist. He did not want to be Afghan. “I lied to her. I was afraid she would not talk to me. Everyone thinks of Afghans as terrorists.” He lied about his identity, and enjoyed an afternoon of being a non-Afghan. “I will have to tell her the truth.” He asked how to reveal his real identity to the girl. She had a family, was born in a respected and envied country, and travelled the world. Shahroukh lacked all of that. But for one afternoon, he was a tourist, equal to all visiting his favourite place of worship.
Later that day he returned to Aksaray, a refugee again. He cherished the memory of that day. “Unfortunately too short.” She came into his life, sweetened his day, touched his deepest feelings and left him with a memory he would cherish for years. For seven short hours they strolled in the back streets around Sultanahmet, shared stories, enjoyed the simplicity of life and said goodbye when she took the last train for Eastern Europe. Shahroukh stood at the station, watched her disappear in the darkness on a train that would cross the border where he could not go. The noise from its engine died. She went to continue studying in Hungary, but she did not forget him. She emailed him from Budapest and asked for pictures.
Shahroukh wanted to show me where he met her. At the gate of the Suleymaniye mosque, his face and eyes glowed with joy at a new sensation, a feeling that healed his soul. He talked about seeing female beauty not disguised by the burka or strict hijab of Peshawar and Kandahar.
Although the mosque was popular with tourists and worshippers alike by day, it was nearly empty in early evening. We quietly walked between the tall columns, stared at the paintings and whispered about the magnificence of the place. “Strange silence,” Shahroukh said. It was time for evening prayer.
There was only the noise of the birds flying low in the courtyard, the music of the azan, the echo of the footsteps of worshippers. The sunset was glorious seen from there on Suleymaniye’s hilltop. It was peaceful. I watched the worshippers washing their faces and hands in the courtyard. The sound of water falling on the ground harmonised with the birds and the azan. I waited for Shahroukh.
It was night before he came out from his prayers, calm, at peace, ready to show me the very spot where he had met her. The court and its surrounding had another significance now: he worshipped God here, and here he had discovered desire. He was ecstatic, remembering her. The Suleymaniye had given him a taste of love. Shahroukh was drowned in ecstasy.
For the first time since leaving Kandahar, his life seemed almost normal. He continued to live in the pension, looked for a job, and began attending classes at a prestigious university. His dreams of being a student were realised, and he chose courses in mathematics, physics and computer sciences. He told me with excitement about new things he was learning and the pleasure of attending classes.
But the temporary respite ended when the preparations began for the war on Iraq. Governments and NGOs reformulated plans and priorities, cutting expenses, saving for the war. Shahroukh was taken off the list of priorities. The NGO supporting him ended his funding. He was penniless again. Attending classes was no longer possible. He withdrew to his pension. This was the beginning of a new cycle of events.
I left Istanbul for Athens for a writing trip. Three weeks later Shahroukh wrote: “I had a very bad experience this week. Please come back soon.” Three smugglers, a Bangladeshi and two Turkish men, had savagely beaten him at the pension. The Bangladeshi had come into his room and demanded he meet them outside. He refused. The men assaulted him. They stole his cherished cell phone. They were arrested and savagely beaten by the police. The Bangladeshi was deported to Iran. The Turks were released. “They did not return my mobile,” Shahroukh said sadly.
Shahroukh left the pension and sheltered with a kind Turk who allowed him to spend nights in his Aksaray apartment. A refugee from Iran accepted him as a son and gave him the motherly love he longed for. He spent many hours with her and her two children in the dungeon in Aksaray they called home, and waited for news from the UNHCR about his asylum application. This was the last hope. “I am very worried. There has been no news from the UN. Why is my case taking so long?” he wrote in his last email before I returned. We planned to meet at Taksim Square.
On Saturday 22 March, at noon, I went to the square with enthusiasm. He was always punctual. He was not there. I waited. He never turned up. Half an hour later I returned to my flat, phoned his Iranian mother-substitute and inquired about his whereabouts. “Will you please come here to see him?” she asked. “He took an overdose to kill himself yesterday. I do not know what to do. Please come and help.”
Horrified, I rushed to meet Shahroukh. The last time we met he had been so happy, posing for my camera and talking about his future with hope. Now he was recovering from attempted suicide in the house of a friendly stranger. The day before his asylum appeal to the UNHCR had been rejected: just the standard letter of rejection with a tick in a box and a one-line explanation for the agency’s decision. He did not qualify for refugee status under the 151 Refugee Convention. He was no longer “a person of concern” to the UNHCR, not eligible for protection. “My dreams are over. There is no home for me in this world,” he said. “I told them the truth about my life. Why did they not accept me?”
The UN denied his plea for protection. And yet many Iraqi military men who had persecuted and tortured civilians were granted asylum and helped to resettle in the US. They were “people of concern” protected by the UN and the West. A tick in a box on a photocopied form ended Shahroukh’s hopes. He joined tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, men and women who cross multiple borders, live in destitution, exist in the margins of inhospitable societies and dream of better days ahead.
Shahroukh is now living illegally in Turkey. He does not have money and is not allowed to work. His only option is crossing Fortress Europe to reach his Eden in England.