Special thanks to Indira Limakeshi, MSF cultural mediator, for the interpretation.
The life of a refugee begins with the impossible choice: To brave a dangerous journey toward an uncertain future in an effort to escape a violent and grim present day.
Ali, a 24-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, knows this all too well.
“The Taliban threatened that I either had to pay them or join them,” he recalled. “I had no money, and of course I did not want to join them or leave my family.”
I met Ali, his wife and two young children, in Presevo, Serbia, where they were taking a welcome rest in a heated temporary shelter before departing on a train for the Croatian border.
They are four of the over 51,000 Afghan, Syrian, and Iraqi refugees who took the perilous journey over the Mediterranean Sea in the month of January 2016, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Every one of those 51,000 people has a story. While traveling through the Balkans in January to learn more about Mercy Corps' work with refugees going through Europe, I listened to Ali and his wife, Farashta, share their story.
'Our babies were screaming'
From Kunduz, Afghanistan, the family walked a tough mountain path toward Pakistan. Ali and Farashta had to carry their children through knee-high snow.
Ali, Farashta, 23, their daughter, Setaesh, 4, and their son, Sajdad, 2, are fleeing Afghanistan for Germany. The Taliban’s threat prompted them to run.
“We left because of the hostile environment. We didn’t feel safe,” Ali said.
From Kunduz, Afghanistan, the family walked a tough mountain path toward Pakistan. The young parents had to carry their children through knee-high snow.
While they started their trip with their belongings packed in luggage, they quickly realized that they needed to leave their bags behind. Carrying them through the snow on a narrow mountain path was too dangerous.
“The route was really, really hard,” Ali said. “If you stepped on a stone you could slip and fall off of the mountain. We would try to sleep on the mountain stone, but it was freezing. You can’t imagine. That’s no rest.”
They ran out of food and water at this point.
“Our babies were screaming and crying for water and food for days,” Ali said.
The Afghani–Iranian border is tightly controlled, so instead of being turned back or potentially shot at that border, they chose to take an indirect, yet more secure route south through Pakistan, paying smugglers to guide them to the Pakistani-Iranian border.
Steep price for a boat ride
"I was really afraid for my children," said Farashta. She and her husband, Ali, are Afghan refugees hoping to reach Germany.
They continued making their way across Iran and the entire length of Turkey.
In Turkey, they paid $2,000 for each of them to travel across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece in an overcrowded raft, with more than 65 people.
Farashta was afraid of the boat ride, having read about the many refugees and migrants who had died while trying cross the sea in rafts.
“I was really afraid for my children,” she said.
She was so scared Ali was afraid she was going to faint.
Luckily, the boat ride was less terrifying than they expected. Farashta described, “It was easy, people helped us, they shared their food, calmed my children. People were very nice.”
But hiking through the wind and snow, sleeping on the cold ground, and having no access to medical care, caused Farashta to become sick for one month of the journey. She was still coughing by the time they got to Serbia.
Fortunately, she had the opportunity to see a doctor in Presevo the day I met the family, and she was looking forward to getting better soon.
Hope, and rest, awaits in Europe
"We want a good future for our children, a prosperous future, where they do not see the troubles we have seen," Farashta said.
“We look forward to rest and sleep, to have no troubles; we have lived through a lot of pain and problems. We hope to leave that behind us,” Ali said.
While Ali and Farashta are literate, they explained that in Afghanistan it is common for boys and girls to be unable to attend school and to lack basic reading and writing skills.
With Germany on the horizon, Farashta told me she was hopeful about her children’s future.“I hope for calm and peace for my children. We want a good future for our children, a prosperous future, where they do not see the troubles we have seen. We want them to have an education.”
Leaving was the only option for them, the couple said, but it also meant leaving behind their parents and siblings, a sad predicament for people from a culture that embraces daily contact with immediate and extended family members.
They have been on a harrowing, dangerous journey to escape persecution and conflict. I hope that their travels will be smooth and starting life in Germany will go well for them; that they will find peace.
Our team is on the ground providing information, shelter and transportation to help refugees like Ali and Farashta traveling through Europe. Learn more about our work.
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