From Afghanistan to Turkey, a refugee’s extraordinary journey from an ‘ordinary war’
Mehmet İren—ISTANBUL“I started my life as a fugitive,” Shafai says. Twenty-five years ago, Shafai’s family fled Afghanistan for Iran. His mother was pregnant at the time, and Shafai was born in the first village his family reached after crossing the Iranian border.
The Iranian regime, however, does not provide any rights for immigrants; Afghans cannot obtain citizenship. Shafai’s mother died when he was three or four, and as an illegal immigrant he led a life of secrecy with his father and brothers for 20 years. His father worked as a gardener in a house where the family also hid. One day, Shafai relates, his father and brother went to the market while Shafai awaited their return. But they never came back.
After going out to search for the pair, the home-owner returned to Shafai with bad news: “They were caught and got deported,” he said. Shafai considered his future with the home-owner, who advised him on his options.
“How long can you live when all you do is gardening without even getting out of the house?” he asked. But returning to Afghanistan was no better option. “You can fall into the hands of Taliban there. The best choice for you is going to Europe through Turkey,” the home-owner concluded.
So Shafai came to Turkey with the intention of applying to a U.N. office for help. “I came to see that there was no such thing,” he says. It was 2010. From here, Shafai’s journey would grow increasingly complicated.
When he applied, Shafai was first sent to an educational dorm in Kadıköy, Istanbul, where he learned Turkish. (“If I am to live here, I had to learn it,” he says.) Metropolises are not shelter cities for refugees, however, so Shafai could not legally remain in Istanbul. He was transferred to the temporary shelter city of Nevşehir, where he still lives. Shafai must report to the town’s immigration offices twice a week, and although he has been in the country for four years, he still has not been able to obtain a work permit.
“Immigrants work illegally,” he explains. “You may get paid. And if you don’t get paid, who would you complain to? ‘None of our business,’ they say.” One of Shafai’s friends, he explains, filed a complaint after not receiving a salary. “The police department responded: ‘Did we invite you here? You came by your own, then take care of yourselves.’ That’s how being an immigrant is,” Shafai says. “No one cares about you.”
Although cities like Nevşehir can legally shelter refugees, Shafai describes widespread tensions between newcomers and locals. “The immigrants are not liked by locals in shelter cities,” he says, explaining that most that fled Iran were members of the LGBT community or Bahai faith. “They are often taunted, and LGBT [individuals] are beaten.”
One of Shafai’s Iranian friends was stabbed by assailants who called him a “girl,” and Shafai himself was beaten when he was thought to be Iranian. After he reported the attack to police, the attackers—two boys and their father—asked him to retract his complaint. “We thought you were a terrorist,” they told him.
Shafai received good news when he won the Faculty of Sociology at Pamukkale University, after he took the central higher education exam a second time. He has been trying to enter university for two years, he says. “This university has become a strain of hope to me,” Shafai explains. “I’m 25, and I do not have anything. No profession, no citizenship, no family. It is a starting point.”
Even with this success, however, he now faces two more problems: He needs both a permit to travel to Denizli, where Pamukkale University is based, and tuition money in a country where he cannot legally work. Shafai knows that university is the key to his future: “My only chance here is to study,” he says. While he requested a scholarship from the U.N., they responded that they did not have the budget.
“I can live forever without an identity, but education is important for me,” Shafai says. “That’s my objective now. I feel sad whenever I talk to another immigrant. We are hopeless, as 30,000 Afghan immigrants in Turkey.”
For now, however, the dossiers of these Afghan immigrants and their extradition process have been put on hold indefinitely. In June Shafai and others protested in front of the U.N. office to request the revision of their dossiers; he was taken into custody and found himself in Konya. The group “reached nowhere,” Shafai says: “We left there without any solution.”
Shafai remembers a U.N. official’s explanation: “We won’t do anything even if you wait here for 500 years. Because if we do everything you want, everyone will come protest here.”
“The answer I got was: ‘The war in Syria is new. All eyes are on it. Afghans are fighting for more than 40 years. Your war has become something ordinary,’” he explains.
“Our war was not attractive,” Shafai says. “Iraq, Syria and Egypt are.”
Shafai and many others face few options and little space for action, and he stresses that the advice he has received from the U.N. is not helpful. “The U.N. claims that we all have the freedom to travel,” he says. “I don’t have. Right to education? I don’t have. Right to citizenship? I don’t have. The only thing I have is my right to live, which I can barely preserve.
Shafai says he has even been advised to enter Europe illegally, as the official who suggested this action hung a poster reading, “Don’t trust illegal immigration.”
But many of those who choose to immigrate are not successful. “[The] ones who listen to them drown at sea,” he says. “And that takes a lot of money, too”—money that is not readily available for those who view illegal immigration as the safest option.
“How could you get 5,000 dollars without working?” Shafai asks. “Even if you could, there is no guarantee that you are not going to drown in a container on your way to Greece.”
Still, Shafai remains hopeful and determined, and friends of his have started an online campaign to raise funds for his tuition. Shafai hopes to work on behalf of other refugees—“people like me”—after finding the means to enter and graduate from university.
Leaving for a third country after university would be meaningless, he explains.
Yet after four years in Turkey as a registered Afghan, Shafai continues to call back to Iran. Each time, he asks whether someone there has shown up to ask where he was.
To contribute to or read about Farzad Shafai’s education fund, you can click here.