The Journey Untold
A true story behind a refugee’s struggle to America
written by Molly Liu | story of Amir
Twenty-six-year old Amir stands behind the coffee counter, his curly dark hair pulled back to keep from sticking to the tiny droplets of sweat glistening on his forehead. Despite the long hours concocting cappuccinos, he always carries a charming smile that shapes his eyes into mini crescents, uplifting any customer that walks through the door. For Amir, every cup requires the utmost concentration – every measured weight of ground espresso beans should be 14 grams, meticulously compressed and strained for exactly 22.5 seconds. Such skill takes months to master, but he conquered the details in two weeks time, well aware that starting a fresh life in a new country requires perfection and diligence.
Amir is just one of three million refugees who arrived in the United States over the past few decades. Strife in the Middle East has left millions of families stranded without clean water or food, let alone job opportunities. The smuggling business overseas has been bustling with hundreds of new faces everyday, hungry for a livable environment. Some make it to their destination, but many remain trapped within the borders of a hazardous regime or the cells of deportation centers.
The lucky and wealthy few with overseas connections or ties to the U.S. government are able to expedite their application process, whereas the vast majority - working class people like Amir, a former construction worker - have no one to advocate their case. They deem their present situation so precarious as to put their life in the hands of a complete stranger just for the possibility of escape.
This story I share is just one of the millions of stories around us. Through over 25 hours of recorded interviews and four years of friendship, I had a glimpse into the life of an Iranian-born Afghan refugee, who journeyed across five countries and two oceans over five years to get to where he is now. The details of the journey are entirely factual, even though some pieces may seem surreal.
I hope his story will shed light onto the refugees who walk amongst us, and perhaps in our next encounter, we will at the very least ask about and listen to their complex journeys.
— Molly Liu, writer
1 — Life in Iran.
I was born in 1992 in Golshahr, a small working class suburb located on the outskirts of Mashhad in northwestern Iran. With Afghanistan only 400 kilometers away, Afghan refugees flocked to the Iranian town during the Soviet-Afghan war, fleeing the wretched destruction wrought by mines, rape and chemical warfare. Nanay and Baba were among the lucky few who succeeded in the perilous escape. In Golshahr, they settled on the second floor of a mirthless apartment building overlooking a network of narrow streets that weaved the blueprint of the city’s center. And that was where I grew up — in the midst of dusty roads and small family-owned shops that emanated the succulent sweet and buttery aroma of fresh koloche and bamier.
Iran in the 90s, Nanay told me, was safer than the war-ridden Afghanistan, but for refugees like myself and my family, the future appeared equally grim. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the once powerful, western-backed Pahlavi was exiled to Egypt and replaced with Ayatollah Khomeini, who declared the Islamic Republic of Iran. A slew of enactments then followed which made it difficult for Afghan migrants to attain higher education and citizenship. New government policies required residency documents and fees for school admissions, but my family was amongst the two million undocumented Afghans in Iran.
I was well aware of my future prospects. For years I had watched Baba struggle as he carried hundred-pound loads to the newest construction site. At night, I snuggled next to Nanay, helping her crack pistachios one by one to send to the vendor down the street. Twenty hours a day, seven days a week - what more could we possibly do? After our daily dose of bread, butter, and tea (eggs were reserved for special occasions), fees for education, work permits, and identity papers, there was no change left to spare. To help with the bills, I worked as a welder by day and construction worker by night, occasionally selling cigarettes on street corners for extra tips. However, the few extra cash I earned barely made any difference, and circumstances toughened when a family issue and toughened border controls isolated my father in Afghanistan for five years. Within six months, I was forced to transfer to an illegal, immigrant-established Afghan high school that handed out diplomas only valid in Afghanistan, making it impossible for me to pursue a higher education in Iran. The only way around it was to go back to Afghanistan, get admitted for colleges in Iran, and re-enter via a student visa. I did not want to take the risk at that time.
After two and a half years of painting walls, I almost became delirious. My hands no longer felt like my own— they became somewhat mechanical, like a winded toy, sweeping up and down as my mind wandered into the land of “what ifs:” What if I left Iran? What if I went back to school? Even after Baba came back and was able to help with the family expenses, I felt my ability to do more was severely limited.
Gradually, I watched able-bodied immigrants leave the country, seeking new opportunities, some back to Afghanistan and others to Turkey, in hopes of reaching Europe. Despair crept through each mundane hour of work, expanding by the second until I was no longer able to tolerate the inaction of my wretched reality. So I decided on Afghanistan, knowing that, at the very least, I would be able to further my education, and with an education, I can help my family even more.
Breaking the news to Nanay and Baba was not easy —to be fair, I was the second-oldest child and supported them, along with my three sisters and two brothers who I love dearly. But more importantly for Nanay, my Hazara identity compromised my safety. “Movazeb kho bash bachem, be safe my son,” Nanay would say before I left each morning for school, as if someone were waiting outside to kidnap me. From a young age, we were lectured about our identity. Hazaras are an ethnic Shia minority, native to the Hazarajat region in central Afghanistan, with highly distinguishable Mongolian and Asian facial features. Known for their active participation in anti-Taliban resistance groups, Hazaras were occasionally targeted by Sunni Islamic fundamentalist groups that dominated parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hence, departing for Afghanistan was more than just crossing a border — it also meant actively placing my life on the line.
I pondered this for a day or two, but ultimately my ethnic identity did little to deter my decision, and within the next month, I handed in my immigration papers to two uniformed officers (a requirement for refugees leaving Iran), forever relinquishing my ability to step foot in Iran. I packed a small backpack and around $300 USD (converting from Toman) that I earned from my job. Nanay and Baba sent me off at the bus station, and I embraced them both with all the love I could exert, unabashedly letting the tears flow down my cheeks. I had never cried in front of my mother before, but this day, I reluctantly admitted, may be the last time I will ever see her again. I took a seat by the window as the bus drove off, their familiar faces growing smaller and smaller until they were unrecognizable through the cloud of dust. For a split second, loneliness overwhelmed me.
2 — A home that fell apart.
Loneliness meant leaving my family, my friends, and everything I loved behind. It meant not hearing their voices, not seeing their faces, and not feeling understood. There was a void inside of me that ate away my energy.
It was 2011 in Kabul. Acres of barren desert carpeted the view from my seat window, but the streets of Kabul were vibrant, lined with honking diesel cars and street vendors waving sizzling kebabs. A thunderstorm had passed through the previous night, turning the dusty and neglected dirt lanes into pools of mud. As I stepped off the bus, Afghan police warmly greeted us: “khosh amadid be Vatan, welcome home!” Traditional houses made of mud, timber, and clay lined up unevenly along the foothills of the mountain. Bearded men with miniature hats roamed the asphalt streets with long, traditional tops and trousers that rolled up to their knees; women covered with the Bogra (or as I call it — a blue curtain) walked next to them, cradled under their husbands’ arms.
The unfamiliar environment was startling at first, but I quickly adjusted to the dust-filled air and conservative culture. I settled into a miniature flat near the city center that was reasonably priced and walking distance from Kabul Pohanaton University, where I hoped to attend. Passing the Kankor (placement test) would allow me to attend free of charge but, rusty from being out of school for over 2 years, I failed the exam. Jobs at the time were scarce, mostly attributed to the many years of internal and external conflict. I figured that to make money during a time of rebuilding, I needed to think creatively.
My childhood in Mashhad, where I frequented game shops to watch other boys play, inspired a business idea. Kabul only had two game shops, both poorly built and inefficiently run. After consolidating the last of my savings and borrowing another 125,000 Afghani (~$3,000USD) from my flatmate, I opened a scrappy gaming shop at a strategic intersection between the Hazara and Tajik communities in Kabul. Gradually, the interior was transformed - walls were painted and polished, basic furniture was assembled, seven second hand computers were purchased and installed with games such as Counter Strike, FIFA, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft. On the outside, I hoisted up a large sign: “Black Game Net.” Exposure to electronics was limited in Kabul, so my shop became a source of fascination among young boys. Priced at 40 Afghani ($1) per hour, it only took three months to break even.
My first entrepreneurial endeavor— Kabul’s third ever game shop— earned me enough money to enroll in economics classes at Ibn-e-Sina University in the evening as I maintained the shop during the day. For the first time, I set high expectations for myself, even imagining working at the Department of Commerce someday.
Just as my hope grew, suicide bombers found their way into Kabul and attacks became commonplace, sending my dreams into the abyss. The war between Taliban-backed insurgencies and the Western-backed government had been going on for many years, but these recent attacks reached a new level of intensity.
Friends who once told me to come to Afghanistan hastily collected their belongings and left. By the following month, shops vacated and Black Game Net lost most of its customers. Grief haunted the streets as bodies piled to be buried and burned, babies wailed and mothers mourned. I panicked. Then, a couple blocks from where I stood, a bomb exploded, sending a tremor equivalent to that of a small earthquake through the ground. I fell to my stomach, burying my head against the dirt, trembling from the fear that had traveled down my spine and fired across my body. The air reeked of a putrid stench of bodies, dust, and smoke.
The life I built for myself in Kabul was falling apart. The city became uninhabitable, and alternatives were bleak. As the world around me shook, the effects only amplified by my trembling self, I knew leaving was my best option.
3 — The smuggling process, broken down.
Growing up, I could not have imagined doing anything illegal, not even stealing. If I were to tell my 10 year old self that I would be hiring someone illegally to cross country borders, I would be shocked and disgusted. But right now, what choice do I have?
Since I could no longer legally return to Iran and had no visas to other countries, I was obliged to hire a smuggler to facilitate the process. Luckily, in Afghanistan, they were everywhere. High demand and exorbitant prices made the business especially lucrative, and information about acclaimed smugglers and strategies around the safest, most successful routes traveled frequently through word of mouth. To meet the demand of the desperate population, corner stores and travel agencies transformed into hubs for obtaining fake visas and contacting smugglers. The city police, well aware of their existence, rarely enforced regulatory rules.
With a general sense of which route I preferred, I slid into the nearest corner shop to inquire about price, routes, success rates, and timeframe. An expressionless, stoic man clad in a white shalwar guided me inside without a word, and within the next hour, I learned all the details of the smuggling process to make a relatively informed decision.
I jotted in my notebook: prices for smugglers ranged based on quality, route, and tenure. Trips were normally broken into two parts: first one to another Middle Eastern country as a “connector,” and the second one to Europe, America, or Australia. Some of the more expensive smugglers charged upwards of 430,000 Afghani (~ $10K USD) for the first leg while the less experienced proposed 200,000 Afghani ($4K - $5K USD). Once the refugee completes the first part of the journey, he must find a second smuggler to guide him to his final destination. Sometimes, the actual mastermind would never show his face. Instead, he would delegate his apprentices or workers to physically lead the journey. Depending on destination, it could cost another $7K - $10K USD, bringing the total fees for smuggling out of the country to $15K - $20K USD, excluding food, water and supplies.
The average annual income of an individual in Afghanistan was less than $500 USD, which meant that only those who could afford the cost of the journey had the option to leave. I was very fortunate to have collected ~$4,000 USD from selling my game shop.
Refugees venturing to Europe usually crossed through Turkey and Greece, and those to Australia traveled through Indonesia from Turkey. I asked my overseas friends, who I had been in close contact with via Facebook and WhatsApp. They had all managed to successfully complete their journey and were all eager to share advice. Because some of them were already in Australia and lauded its copious opportunities and generosity towards refugees, I decided to set it as my final destination.
Step 1: Secure an accredited smuggler
The routes to Australia, though tedious, were plentiful. One option required flying from Afghanistan to Dubai, then to Thailand and/or Malaysia before taking a boat to Australia. Another option entailed entering Iran through Afghanistan, then traveling to Turkey before flying to Indonesia and crossing the ocean to Australia. The amount of information and number of decisions I had to make were overwhelming. I gathered the few friends who were still left in Afghanistan and asked for their input. We talked through different options and the viability of each, and finally I settled for traveling to Australia through Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia.
The smuggler I chose quoted a total price of 200,000 Afghani (~$5,000 USD), which to me felt reasonable. I sold my gaming shop, after conversion, for a little over $4,000 USD and then borrowed $1,000 USD from Nanay, who dug into her savings and sold some personal jewelry for me. To send and receive the money, we used an intermediary money changing shop called a Sarrafi. Nanay would provide the money to a Sarrafi in Iran, and I would pick up the funds from the Sarrafi in Afghanistan.
Despite the success stories, my mind was flooded with doubt and anxiety. My smuggler reassured me: “It’s easy, no problem - go to Iran first, and we will start the process there.”
Without a passport, I had to use my father’s Afghan ID to obtain my own ID card in Afghanistan. With the help of my smuggler, I would use my ID card to acquire my Afghan passport with the Iranian visa. To pay the smuggler, I would lock the 200,000 Afghani (~$5,000 USD) in a transfer bank, and once I succeed in the route, I would unlock the money for him.
Step 2: Cross into Iran
Never had I ever expected to be back in Iran, let alone this soon. I flew into Tehran with some pocket money and a small backpack, my new passport and visa in hand. Following the smuggler’s instructions, I was to await a driver who would take me to Tabriz, a heavily populated historical city 600 kilometers Northwest of Tehran. I was not to tell anyone I was there - not even my family - and no phone calls were permitted. As I stepped off my flight, a surge of emotions immediately enveloped me, but I suppressed the urge to alert Nanay that I was back. Time was limited, and I could not afford to make any mistakes at this point.
As agreed, I stood outside the airport like a befuddled foreigner, glancing nervously left and right, hoping someone would approach, since the smuggler refused to provide his phone number. It was a busy day - travelers rushed to hail taxis, lovers reunited and embraced each other, and even the birds in the sky appeared locked with some purpose, their unwavering V-shape formation pointing North. I awkwardly shifted my weight to the fast rhythm of the airport.
Then my eyes met the gaze of a furtive-looking boy. He was watching me the entire time, and slowly he walked towards me, careful to keep his distance until he was certain of my identity. I scanned him - normal boy, quite slim, maybe early twenties. A good minute passed before he relaxed his gaze, walked over, and clasped my hand, hastily escorting me into a small, discolored clunker, where another young man was waiting.
“If they shoot at you, just put your head down and it will be fine,” he smirked in Farsi as he handed me a SIM card. “Don’t worry, we are very skilled at avoiding the police.”
I gritted my teeth and looked at the other man in the car. He looked just as confused as I was. Then the engine started; I tightly gripped the sides of the car as we illegally sped through three checkpoints without any hesitation. We deviated slightly from the plan and ended up settling in Maku, a small village closer to the Iran-Turkish border than Tabriz.
“It’s a better place,” said the boy. I did not dare complain even though I was anxious beyond what I could imagine. I knew I had no power in this.
A host family paid by the smuggler warmly greeted me upon arrival, but it was clear they did not desire much interaction. As I entered the flat, I was surprised to encounter a diverse group of refugees huddled on the carpet — some Iranian others Pakistani, all waiting to cross into Turkey. We mainly kept to ourselves and sat in silence.
A few days passed with nothing from my smuggler who had promised to be in touch. Anxiety encroached the camp as we waited and listened to circulated stories about refugees being shot or kidnapped for ransom at this very border. I hid in the house for another six days, passing time by pacing around the four corners of the room or analyzing the perplexed and worried expressions of the fellow travelers.
On the seventh night, as I was fast asleep, I felt a nudge on my right arm. A sheepish boy, no more than seventeen years old, whispered, “It’s time.”
Step 3: Sneak into Turkey
It was 2AM and dreadfully chilly, my eyes watering from the cold. My tears rapidly crystallized, and I did not even bother lifting my hand out of my pockets. The three of us - our young guide, another refugee, and myself - walked quietly, shivering. We approached the walls of a securely shuttered house about 100 meters from the border. Our guide told us to follow normal protocol. The daunting view of armed security guards churned my stomach, and I felt a wave of adrenaline as he explained the instructions:
“There will be trucks crossing the border to ship goods. You need to pay close attention. Pick one, run up the left side next to the wheels, and run across as it crosses over the border. Once you are over, run as fast as you can. If they shout, you run. If they shoot, you run. Is that clear?” I nodded.
Just as I got in position to sprint, a forceful hand grabbed me from behind. My jaw dropped. I stopped breathing for a minute or two as my distraught mind aimlessly and hopelessly sought comfort and reassurance. I turned around. A burly security guard towered over me, twisting my elbow and shackling my hands together. I winced at the sudden realization that it was all over. Our guide, wide-eyed from shock, writhed under his tight grip, tearfully claiming his innocence and dissociation with us. His pleas were shunned, and all three of us rode in silence again, this time in the backseat of a police car, until we reached the local security station.
The station towered ominously over us like an execution center. My fear had turned into anger. I swore to myself beneath my breath, my mind still occupied with nonsensical thoughts. We were held in a questioning room manned by five uniformed men. They called us in one at a time. It was now my turn.
“Where are you from and who brought you here,” asked the officer.
I’m not sure whether my voice was quivering from the cold, fear, or anger, but I recited everything to the best of my knowledge. The men jotted down some notes on paper and locked us inside for the night. The next day, they took us to court and sentenced myself and the other refugee to be deported to Afghanistan. The boy, however, was let go, out of respect for his mother who pleaded that he was a student and didn’t know any better.
Fatigued, ashamed, and irritated by all that just happened, the other refugee and I listened as the judge pronounced us criminals and directed us to the local prison.
Step 4: Hold onto hope
The prison was a large concrete building, fenced off on all four sides with barbed wire and the bare trunks of lifeless trees. Prisoners, mostly Afghan, scattered in the front yard as the police car drove us through the gate. Per routine, they collected my remaining belongings - a backpack, my cell phone, and some money, before leading me into a dark, windowless cell, where I was greeted by the claps of eight unusually cheerful cellmates. It was no surprise that they were also captured in their attempt to cross the Iranian-Turkish border.
The cell was too small for the number of people crammed inside. I could walk the length of my cell in a few paces. The width was a little over my height — maybe about 6 feet. We took turns sitting, squatting, standing, and sleeping. My first impression of prison was a feeling of revulsion and fear, albeit it was ameliorated by the enthusiasm of my fellow inmates.
All activities were strictly regulated - when to eat, use toilets, go outside. For ten days I followed the same daily protocol. Meals were standard: morning - two boiled eggs. Lunch - two boiled potatoes and some bread. No dinner. A few inmates snuck money inside to bribe officials for a tastier menu. Toilets were only allowed twice a day. Green mold lined the floors and the stalls reeked of dried and fresh feces. Adjacent to them, the few showers that actually functioned sputtered cold and stale water. Yuck, I thought to myself. A few more days passed before it was time for our final deportation. Six guards rounded the inmates into a single line outside in the yard.
What followed was a surprise to us all. The police adeptly tied all the deportees in pairs by their hands and ankles with plastic bands. I gasped as they stretched my band.
“Too tight,” I managed to utter, catching air between words.
Another officer strolled over and gripped my wrist, letting out a chuckle as he yanked it even tighter. I pursed my lips, cursing myself for my cowardice and biting down on my tongue to prevent the heightened urge to cry out from the pain of my already darkening wrist.
Where did this come from? The sudden switch from tame prison treatment to aggressive torture was entirely unanticipated. I looked them dead in the eye. Then without warning, a series of dehumanizing and brutally racist insults shuddered my eardrums. Once the guards had their share of laughs, they rounded us onto the bus like a pack of diminished wild animals, except we were forced to pay for the ride.
At least they gave me back my passport, phone, and money, I thought to myself. After converting to dollars, I only had $150 left. By this time, I had lost all sensation in my right hand, which resembled a lifeless blob.
Why is the world so unfair? Why am I born an Afghan and a Hazara? I lamented the past I was never able to choose.
The engine roared, and the bus inched toward the next stop, a ‘camp’ in Faraiman from where the connection would be made to our final destination.
Over two thousand refugees patiently awaited departure from inside the deportation camp. The camp consisted of twelve cement warehouses built by the refugees it housed, who were forced into two months of labor before they were deported. That was the usual requirement but, since it was my first time being caught, I only had to wait two weeks. My patience eroded as the fresh smell of palaw entered my cell (probably from a visitor bringing food to a loved one in the camp), and I felt the rapid kick of hunger. Oh, how I longed for a warm, home-cooked meal! My thinning figure was the result of weeks of nutritional neglect. I barely recognized myself.
At the end of my two weeks, I finally boarded the bus to Herat, Afghanistan. The image from the window sent a wave of nostalgia through me, and I was reminded of the last time I departed Iran two years ago. The differences were striking: that journey was by choice rather than force, with a glistening hope rather than utter hopelessness. Deja-vu, I thought. The scenes remained the same, but I had changed.
We drove out of the clean and tidy confines of Iran and into the dusty, unpaved roads of Afghanistan where desperate children immediately approached me with open palms. One by one, the deportees stepped out, some dropping to all fours to kiss the familiar ground. But, like most people on the bus, I was already planning the steps of my second attempt.
4 — The second attempt.
Refugees sometimes attempt the smuggling process multiple times and, even still, many never succeed or are still in deportation camps. My journey was plagued with emotional and physical fatigue, trusting strangers and praying that luck was on my side.
My second attempt to leave Afghanistan consisted of a greater conviction that overrode my previous fear and cowardice. Because I was caught in Iran trying to cross into Turkey, I would not be allowed to enter Iran again. This complicated my situation, since crossing Iran was an unavoidable step in the transit process, serving as a pathway to Turkey, from where refugees could then cross to Greece by land or to other destinations by air. Hence, the only viable option was to sneak across Afghanistan’s border.
Along with several others who I met in Herat, we called a smuggler that my friend who made it to Indonesia recommended to us. Because my last journey was unsuccessful, I still had 200,000 Afghani (~$5,000 USD) to pay the smuggler, who also quoted that amount for the route from Tehran to Indonesia. He told us to do whatever we could to get to Tehran, and he would have people waiting for us there.
We packed traditional clothing and warm shoes in preparation for the crossing through southwestern Afghanistan to Iran. We hired a driver to take us to Zaranj, so we can cross the Afghanistan-Iran border to Zabol. As we were driving through Taliban-occupied land, a group of armed men (Taliban maybe?) stopped our car. I panicked as they circled us, knowing that, if caught as a Hazara, my life may not be spared. Luckily at that moment, an American army truck drove by, and the armed men were forced to flee the scene. I sighed with relief and prayed for my own safety.
Shortly past dawn, we arrived at Zaranj in southern Afghanistan. I had found a smuggler to take me from Tehran to Indonesia, but I still needed help to get to Iran. That shouldn’t be difficult. As anticipated, smugglers lined the street corners and the front of motels, ready to pounce on the next desperate customer who was willing to sign away their life savings. I singled out a decently decorated motel nearby and walked towards it. A middle-aged man clad in traditional clothing greeted me at the door. From his smirk, I knew he was aware of my intentions.
“It’s no longer safe to cross from Zaranj to Iran,” he warned. “I recommend going through Pakistan.”
The border was apparently closed, and security in the area tightened due to the number of people attempting to flee into Iran from Afghanistan. But Pakistan? I had never heard of that route before. After being caught the first time, I became increasingly cautious when it came to making large decisions such as transit routes.
The man drew out the route: from Zaranj in Afghanistan to Taftan in Pakistan, then through the border, where intermediary smugglers will be waiting to take us to Zabol in Iran. The cost, though, would be 43,000 Afghani (~$1,000 USD).
I had been giving Nanay weekly updates on my location and progress so as to not worry her. This time, I had to call to ask for more money, and I felt ashamed even though I had no choice. Nanay was consistently patient with me, and she happily helped me obtain the finances I needed. I knew she had to borrow the money from others, and I swore to myself I would pay her back as soon as I was able to. At this point, I was willing to spend however much it took to get out, and Nanay understood that.
I went to a Sarrafi to retrieve the $1,000 USD from Nanay and hired the smuggler to take me to Pakistan. They promptly ushered me onto the bus with sixty or so others. There were maybe around five or six busses.
I must have slept for a long time on the bus since, by the time I woke up, the sky was pitch black. We had reached a small river at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was the farthest the bus could go. The crossing to Taftan, a small, underdeveloped town in the northern Pakistani province of Balochistan, was to be completed by boat. I, along with hundreds of other Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Hazaras who had gotten off the other buses, hastily squeezed ourselves and our belongings onto wooden vessels that were surely over capacity. The current was on our side and facilitated our journey downstream for the next half hour. I was on full alert, attentive to the quietest sounds and movements. The chilly breeze woke up even the most exhausted travelers, wide-eyed and searching. The group lead signaled for docking, and we quietly stepped out of the boats and scuttled into a delivery truck that drove us for another hour through the barren desert. Everyone tacitly obeyed the rules. It was obvious to us that our guide was experienced at the route, probably having done it hundreds of times.
I watched the ebony sky transform to a pastel blue at the crack of dawn. There were still signs of civilization. The sand dunes during the daytime resembled a magical painting, but traversing it proved to be an excruciating deed. The truck driver informed us that the rest of the journey to Taftan required us to go by foot, and that it would be an easy journey. Little did I suspect the mountainous trek would entail nine hours marching through the deadly afternoon heat followed by the torturous cold of night. To further complicate the situation, new smugglers each leading around forty refugees, joined in, rapidly expanding the group.
I could tell by the contorted expressions of my fellow travelers that they were also slightly agitated by the region’s remoteness. “Yellow [sand] is everywhere,” one exclaimed, “how much longer is this?”
Worn by fatigue, dehydration and hunger, we pushed on. I paused for a moment and put down my backpack to catch my breath. Panting from hours and hours of nonstop travel, I gave myself a few more minutes to regain my strength, but as I reached for my backpack, it was no longer there. At once, anger and sadness hit me, and I grew immensely distressed. I withheld the urge to cry out and instead marched onwards with the crowd. But without food and water, I felt the weight of each step intensify as if my feet were anchored deeper and deeper into the ground. My surroundings shifted and, soon enough, flashes of white consumed my vision. Before I registered what happened, my body gave in, and I sank into the ground, shutting out the chaos around me.
As I lay motionless, I found the sounds of muted footsteps in the background to be surprisingly peaceful. My only desire at that moment was to rest, to catch up on the many sleepless nights that marked the past few weeks — but then a deep voice echoed in my ear.
“Boy, it's no time to sleep right now,” a man in his mid-50s remarked, “Come, I help you up.”
He helped pull me off the ground and placed a few leftover bread crumbs and an almost empty water bottle in my lifeless hands.
It astonished me how a simple gesture of kindness in my state of lethargy could restore my energy so rapidly. A few drops of water immediately shifted my mentality, pushing me onwards. I felt alleviated to know that, despite the hapless situation we were all in, the majority of travelers still looked out for one another, acknowledging that success is magnified through mutual support. But there was still a limit to what one can do. Later that day, I watched a young man selflessly carry an elderly man for six hours before the old man urged him to stop. He recognized from the young man’s heavy breathing that neither of them would succeed in the crossing if they continued. Whether or not the elderly man made it to his final destination, I would never know.
We were now in the middle leg of our multi-segment journey, strategically broken down to decrease the risk of being caught. The mountain crossing led us across the border, where many intermediary smugglers were waiting with cars. When they saw us, they shouted out names to gather the groups together. My group spotted our smuggler, and we all quickly jumped inside the car and took off towards Zabol.
When we arrived in Zabol, a regional polluted capital in Iran close to Afghanistan, we snuck onto a bus headed towards Tehran. Some hid in the luggage bunk and others slid inside the overhead storage compartments, while the seats were occupied by locals to deter the police. Halfway to Tehran, a few patrols went around to check passports. Thankfully, I still had my Afghan passport with an unexpired Iranian visa inside. If the police stopped me, they would simply check for the existence of the visa; most likely, a further investigation would not be required.
In Tehran, I unlocked the 43,000 Afghani (~$1,000K USD) to the smuggler who helped me cross through Pakistan into Iran. After that, I unrolled a piece of scrap paper that had the phone number of my Tehran-Indonesia smuggler. He had told me to make it to Tehran, where he will tell me what to do next.
The phone rang a few times before the smuggler picked up. “You will see a driver who will take you to Tabriz and then Maku,” he instructed.
I still had never met this man in person and, as I listened to his deep, nonchalant voice, I wondered what his story was, whether he had family. Nevertheless, I followed his instructions precisely. In a normal sized car, seventeen of us squeezed in - three in the front, five in the trunk, and five in the back row, with four sitting on their laps.
The driver drove us around the outskirts of Tabriz to Maku, gradually releasing the details of the next leg of our journey. “After Maku, you will trek over the mountains into Turkey and then to Van,” he informed. We groaned at the “mountain” part. Only a few hours had passed since the last mountain crossing, barely enough time for us to recover. I knew this one would be worse, since Iran is further north than Pakistan, with taller mountains. Not only were we at risk of suffering frostbite from traversing snow-capped mountains at freezing temperatures, but we also had to worry about being shot or captured by the much more attentive local police or being kidnapped by terrorists for ransom. Since I was the only Farsi speaker, the smuggler assigned me as the group’s guide. He would not join us, he said.
I did the best I could to direct us through the shadows of security towers, but other problems soon arose. Halfway through, the light snowfall turned into a hefty blizzard and sent morale to its nadir. Our faces glistened with a thin layer of frost, and we dared not look down at our hands and feet, which we knew even without removing our boots, would be black from frostbite, toenails flicking off like dead leaves. Two Pakistanis told the others to go on without them. I was pained to leave them behind, but I had no other choice. I assumed responsibility for the group and we had to continue.
Hours flew by, and all of us, consciously present, were too cold to think about anything other than marching forward. The land flattened the further downhill we went, and I spotted two streaks of light shooting up towards the sky, signaling that we had entered Turkey and that our intermediary smugglers were waiting. After miles of deserted white surroundings, the group cheered at the sight of people and horses, which were brought to support the physically disabled. However, nothing was free - we had to pool together 2,000 Afghani (~$50) for the horses’ service. The ones who couldn’t walk were hoisted onto the saddles, and the other weary travelers grabbed onto the tails, letting the horses drag them forward. Another five or six treacherous hours went by. Wet and cold from crossing a half frozen stream and fatigued from many restless nights, I persisted, aware that each step inched us towards Van.
The humble city of Van appeared calm from the outside, with structured modern buildings protruding from the foothills of the mountains, its burgundy roofs livening the monotonous desert backdrop. We remained on the outskirts, which were mostly occupied by poorer families who lived in single-story shanty buildings made from sheets of metal and wood. Before meeting my host family, I popped into a local shop to purchase thicker boots and a warmer jacket with the little change I had left to prepare for winter. After blocking the 200,000 Afghani (~$5,000 USD) for the smuggler, I had around 15,000 Afghani (~$350 USD) left.
Like many others in the neighborhood, my assigned Turkish family was paid to accommodate and feed us as we awaited our fake Iranian passports from a man by the name of “Omid.” When I was handed mine, I opened it to find a Turkish visa and entry stamps from Bosnia, Serbia and other Eastern European countries. I flipped through the passport and saw my picture plastered on the bottom left with a stamp that was meticulously and strategically placed over the photo. These were real passports that were reportedly bought from the poor or taken from the homeless and drug-addicted, with our photos replacing theirs. I didn’t mind the origin as long as it got me safely through the country.
After giving us the passports, “Omid”, whom I still have not met, told me and a few others that once we arrived in Indonesia, he can get us a large ship to Australia for 100M Toman (~$1,000 USD) each. Because I had successfully obtained a new passport from him, I trusted he was a man of his word. A ship is significantly safer than the fishing boats that were normally used to transport refugees to Australia. I borrowed the money from Nanay and paid “Omid” immediately to secure my spot.
By this stage of our journey, we were separated into even smaller groups to avoid being too conspicuous. Depending on our final destination, we were first paired with another refugee and then assigned to a smuggler who would guide us over a three day bus journey to Istanbul, the hub for all migration. Some would take a boat to Greece, and then travel to Italy or Spain; others, like myself, would fly to Indonesia and cross the Indian Ocean to Australia. My friends there told me to arrive in Christmas Island, the remote Pacific Island next to the continent, which was the easiest to get to from Indonesia.
Now regrouped, we embarked on the bus ride. On the way, I noticed how drastically the nourishing views of citrus trees and luscious gardens contrasted from the sand dunes and nomadic lifestyle of Afghanistan. The blur of green hills from the seat window danced like waves to Persian tunes playing from my phone. I laid my head back and dozed off to the melodious notes, for the first time in a long while getting a full night’s rest, and woke up as we reached Istanbul.
I could not believe I made it to Turkey. This had been the farthest I’ve been from home, and the journey itself had been exhilarating yet exhausting. After around 30 hours or so, the bus pulled over next to Taksim Square in Istanbul. I was shocked by the novel scene of women without hijabs and tourists of all skin colors casually and confidently strolling through the bustling streets of the open-air markets. In Afghanistan, people all dressed similarly and there were few tourists in the country. I squeezed past the paradise of nuts, spices, kofte, and Turkish delights to get to the center of the square. The previous smugglers strategically chose this location to meet the next intermediary smuggler, since the crowded setting provided an excellent shield for escape, if necessary.
The intermediary had been waiting for us behind the corner cafe. He approached, immediately recognizing from our reserved demeanor and unkempt clothing that we were not locals. He nodded at our current smuggler who guided us, and assumed authority over the group.
“I will take you to your hotel,” he said. “Wait there until I give you the signal.”
We tacitly followed and soon found ourselves in front of an unnecessarily luxurious and gaudy boutique. I winced at the price of the room, but I lacked the negotiating power to resist. I knew he took a cut of the profits so it was of his interest to choose this particular hotel.
“Stay and wait for my signal,” he said. “I will send one person each day through airport security.” He put two of us in a room.
After he left, I locked the door and let myself soak in my first luxury experience. The room was beautiful - geometric art lined the walls, enclosing a deluxe bed decorated with soft white blankets and fluffed pillows. I quickly got over the price as I relaxed in the bathtub, setting aside my worries for the night. Weeks of weary travel had left scars and scabs all across my body, and they burned in the heat of the water. After an hour-long spa session, I collapsed onto the bed and turned on the TV, which I’d only watched a handful of times. Music filled the room as people danced across the screen. My first reflex was to look away, embarrassed to have viewed such scenes which were the crux of criticism in Afghanistan. But then I smiled. The room started to fill up with a kind of energy and beauty I had never before experienced. I let the music play; I watched the women dance. My roommate joined in, and both of us basked in the lively tunes until we fell asleep. We muttered a few words to each other, of which I don’t recall the details. The diversity and openness of the culture I witnessed in Turkey became one of the fondest memories I have of my journey.
5 — Jakarta, so close yet so far away.
There is no time to rest. When we arrive at our next stop, we immediately start thinking about the next move. Our minds never stop thinking, our feet never stop moving, and our hearts never relinquish the hope that we’ll someday make it to our destination safely.
I was now 4,500 kilometers from Kabul. Despite making it this far, I felt restless from the lingering anxiety induced by the tumultuous mountain crossing the week prior. Safety today did not guarantee safety tomorrow and, until I set foot in Australia, I needed to stay focused and alert. Of the times I called, he only picked up a few times, telling us it’s not yet time. My roommate and I, with the help of his Turkish friend, were able to move to a more affordable motel to minimize our costs. It would be seven more days before we would receive the signal from our smuggler. I watched as my friend departed first. He called me after he successfully passed security to relay to me he was on his way to Indonesia.
I was next. Shouldn’t be so hard, I thought to myself, as I staggered into the chaos of Istanbul International Airport. My hands were trembling uncontrollably as I approached the passport check.
The security guard suspiciously watched as I fumbled for my forged passport.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Jakarta, for vacation,” I choked. My throat was dry.
“Where did you buy the ticket?”
Shit. “One of the corner stores —I don’t remember the name.”
He picked up the phone and started talking in Turkish. It’s over, I thought. He continued to stare at me as he talked. Two minutes later he hung up. “You may go.”
Still shaken from fear, I bit my lip to suppress my shock and relief as I walked stiffly towards my gate. My journey was far from over.
I immediately got pulled into the immigration office by two security guards when I landed in Indonesia. Two Somalians handcuffed in the adjacent room stared at me with dejected eyes. I gulped.
“You’re going to Australia, aren't you?” the officers smirked.
I knew right away they encountered people like me frequently. To argue with them was pointless, especially given the risk of deportation. I remained silent.
“Give me your cash.” I obediently handed over my remaining money, totaling $250 USD. They took around $200 and handed me $50 back. “Some food money for you.”
By this point, I had grown accustomed to bribes. Throughout my time in Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, the greatest lesson was to not become too attached to my personal belongings - including money and relationships - and to stay focused on reaching small milestones that would ultimately lead me to Australia. Hence, despite the anger that broiled inside me, I suppressed my emotions, taking the change and exiting the immigration office, their laughter still echoing in my ears.
After spending my entire life acclimating to dusty air and arid temperatures, I immediately felt the abrasive humidity of the foreign jungle as I exited Jakarta International Airport into the city. Even though I was sweating profusely, I was falling in love with the greenery. Green shrubs surrounded all four sides with the smell of raw fish and grilled seafood permeating through the air. I had never encountered “Asians” in my life, but apparently they had encountered plenty like me. It appeared as if everyone from the taxi driver to the shopkeeper knew travelers from the Middle East were on their way to Australia.
There were a couple of fellow travelers who I stayed in touch with sporadically through my journey. Many of them who also reached Indonesia were staying at a local motel, so I decided to make my way there. I stopped by an internet cafe along the way to quickly report my safety to Nanay and unlock the 200,000 Afghani (~$5,000USD) payment for the Turkey - Indonesia leg to my last smuggler. While doing so, I remembered one thing - I took out my passport and shredded the booklet as best as I could with my hands. There should be no trace.
I arrived at the motel shortly after and was warmly welcomed by a handful of familiar faces I recognized from bits and pieces of my journey through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. It was heartwarming to be in a room with people of my kind in a foreign country. It took tremendous grit and ambition to get this close to our destinations, and we held onto the hope that we’ll also make it someday. But examining their expressions, I knew we all had similar thoughts —we were far away from our families and loved ones, and if the situation in our home countries were any more tolerable, we would have stayed in a heartbeat.
I settled into a room with three other Afghans and immediately tried to reach “Omid,” who had told me he would have a ship in Indonesia waiting to take me to Australia.
My incessant calls were met with silence.
Why isn’t he picking up? This couldn’t possibly be happening. Frustration ensued, and for a moment, all my feelings of security and satisfaction were replaced by sadness and anger.
I teared up - a $1,000 USD value was not small. I slid to the floor in despair, refusing to believe that Omid had ran away with my money. But it was true, and I knew it deep down, that I would never get my money back. I allowed the reality to sink in, and after I regained emotional stability, I started asking others in the motel about possible smugglers for Australia. Practicality over emotionality.
They had been in Jakarta for a few weeks to months by now and had gathered a list of top names. I listened intently as they caught me up on the details. Typically, the smuggler would acquire a boat to take refugees across the Indian Ocean towards Christmas Island. Since the boat needed to be entirely filled (~100 people onboard) before departing, the wait time may extend up to three months. Indonesian sailors were hired for 30M Indonesian Rupiah (~$3,000 USD) each to pilot the vessel. Once they dock in Australia, they would be arrested and locked behind bars for three months before being deported back to Indonesia. To them, it was well worth the amount they were paid upfront.
Horror stories of inexperienced smugglers responsible for the deaths of hundreds of refugees on vastly overweight and un-seaworthy fishing boats emphasized the importance of finding the best smuggler to conduct the precarious journey. Rumor had it that a smuggler known as “Ismaeel” had never failed to complete a voyage. His success was so widely regarded that other smugglers posed as him to manipulate desperate travelers searching for Ismaeel.
I fell for this and would regret it for the next few years. I found my smuggler through an acquaintance, who claimed that his brother was Ismaeel. He charged 48M Indonesian Rupiah (~$4,000 USD), which I had to phone Nanay for again. I don’t know who she borrowed from, or how much of her own savings she used, but she sent me the money. I locked the money for the smuggler and was taken to a hideout house in Bogor with a group of Afghans, Syrians, and Somalians.
Days became weeks, and then months. Each time the excuse remained the same: the time wasn’t right, or it wasn’t safe. We grew impatient and, after two months, my friends and I decided to leave the smuggler and finally located the real Ismaeel, who charged $7,000 USD (after conversion) for the whole trip. I could not afford the price (how am I supposed to ask Nanay for another $3,000 USD?), and therefore had to split from the group for a cheaper smuggler referred to as Labkhay, meaning “biting lips.” I thought it was silly. I took the $4,000 USD I set aside for the fake Ismaeel and locked it in for Labkhay.
Unlike the routes used by other smugglers, Labkhay’s strategy required relocating to a waiting house in Bali. The constant hopping from one place to another made me appreciate my light packing so much more. A few days after my arrival to the resort town, Labkhay gathered us at 3 A.M. on the beach, where a fishing boat, coated with a peeling layer of white paint, was waiting for us. Our nervous murmurs were met only by the sound of waves and chirping crickets. Steadily, around seventy-five of us shuffled onto a twenty-person wooden fishing boat. Most refugees aboard were male, but a few families were also making the attempt. From afar, it looked as if piles of bodies were piled onto a slab of wood. Lack of personal space fueled our anxiety, but Labkhay reassured us that we would be transferred to a larger, more stable boat after an hour. The two Indonesian captains barely spoke English, and we had no choice but to continue.
6 — The high seas.
Each year, thousands of refugees struggle across large bodies of water to arrive in Europe or Australia. The fishing boats used to carry refugees across are frequently unsafe, massively overcrowded, and poorly designed. As a result, many have perished in the unforgiving waters.
Three hours passed with no large boat in sight. By this time it was clear that there was never a larger boat. By the twelfth hour, the engine suddenly gave away. It was pitch black, and we were surrounded on all sides by the ocean. A toddler broke the silence with his wails, and some began fervently praying; others went hysterical and bursted into frenzied laughter amid vulgar jokes. We were cold, hopeless, and depressed. I huddled silently in the corner, unable to think about anything nor make sense of what had happened.
The waves increased in strength, flooding the boat before finally snapping part of the end off. Cries and wails intensified as we rushed with buckets to remove water from the deck. From the distance I traced the outline of another ominous wave charging towards the boat, following it as it slammed onto the poles, throwing some refugees overboard in the process. I firmly gripped the edge of the boat, nauseous but fully alert. In the ocean, I saw scattered groups of people tightly clasped to broken wooden planks, screaming and kicking against the current.
The scene felt as if it came straight from an apocalyptic movie. This was my life, the most perplexing and panicked thirty minutes of it. Is this just my luck? - captured and thrown in an Iranian jail, almost freezing to death in the mountains in Pakistan, had around 80% of my money taken at the Indonesian security border, spent an approximate value of $10,000 USD on the wrong smugglers, just to perish on a sinking ship halfway to my final destination? I couldn’t even get myself to pray because there was nothing left to pray for.
The storm passed after what seemed like hours, and the waves calmed down after doing their damage. Exhausted from holding on for our dear lives, we fell silent. In the next six hours, we managed to pull together the broken boat and hoist everyone onboard.
Suddenly, someone whistled. “A ship!”
In the distance a large vessel indeed appeared. We cried and waved, flailing our arms like baby birds trying to fly, but the ship barely slowed. I shook my head in despair as it disappeared from sight. For the first time, I gave up and accepted the fact that I would never make it to Christmas Island. People were crying now, and morale slumped once again.
Then, a second fishing boat emerged from the horizon as dawn encroached. It hoisted an Indonesian flag identical to the one the current boat had. This time, everyone stood and called out to the other boat. I coughed from the itching dryness of my throat, realizing I hadn’t had any water for hours. Our efforts succeeded, and the boat sailed closer and closer until the captains finally were within talking distance.
“I will take all of you back for 19M Rupiah (~$2,000 USD),” they quoted.
No no no, I thought, I cannot go back to Indonesia. I have made it this far, there’s no way. Those who thought similarly to me were vastly outnumbered, as distressed refugees around me already began scurrying through their pockets and backpacks for change.
Counting the fresh bills he collected, the other captain threw down a twenty-meter rope to bridge the two fishing boats. Slowly, one by one, we jumped into the freezing water and followed the rope to the other boat. The majority of people were celebrating, but instead I crouched in the corner. We were extremely lucky to have not lost anyone during the storm. Two weeks before our trip, the fishing boat lost all 150 lives onboard.
I should feel lucky to be alive, but astonishingly, I felt even more depressed than I was when I was on a sinking boat. Another night would pass before we arrived on the shores of Bali. One of the refugees on the boat phoned Labkay to inform him about the unsuccessful journey. Labhkay met us by the water and took us to a nearby motel, promising a bigger and better boat in the next couple of days. The demoralized few called out his bullshit and left to find other routes. I longed to join them, but it was not financially possible.
What followed happened so quickly. As I was getting settled in the new room, three police cars skidded to the front of the motel, their sirens still wailing. A handful of officers pounced through the doors while I stood frozen. They circled the room. None of us dared to move. They were shouting something that I did not understand, and even if I did, my mind was too shocked to interpret it.
One officer gripped and handcuffed me. I winced. He passed me along to another officer who dragged me down the stairs and out the motel door before shoving me onto a bus packed with other captured refugees. My eyes were still intensely fixated on the motel as we turned the corner.
First Omid and now Labkhay? Is there anyone I can even trust?
I was not in touch with my own reality, unable to accept that after 15,000 kilometers, I would be going back to prison yet again. I had heard of similar betrayals by smugglers before but did not assume I would personally experience one.
7 — The detention center.
The arrest bound me to Indonesia for five years. Part of me is still irritated that Labkhay turned us in, but the other part is grateful for the friendships I had developed over time, the language abilities I was able to acquire, and the monotonous sedentary lifestyle that enabled deep reflection.
My first month was corrupted by self-blame and pity. I wondered whether God was on my side. After suffering through prison in Iran, dehydration and starvation crossing the mountains in Pakistan, frostbite in the snow-capped mountains along the path to Turkey, and the cold Indian waters, I did not expect it to end like this. Fortunately, Nanay got the $4,000 USD back since I did not make it to Australia, but I had already spent over $7,000 USD. All this just to be thrown back in prison.
How did I get so terribly unlucky? Why didn’t I get a different smuggler? Why couldn’t I have jumped out the window when the police arrived? My constant and toxic victimization only worsened over the days.
The detention center was more of a temporary deportation camp, but operated just like any other jail in Indonesia— designated outdoor hours, bathroom times, meal times, service work. Walls were thirty feet tall and enclosed by a metal fence topped with barbed wire. About ninety refugees, mainly Afghan and Iranian, dwelled inside. The officers collected our phones, clothes, and money before they divided us into groups of seventeen and separated us into forty square meter cells.
Initially, I refused to speak to my cellmates, think about family, or be hopeful about the future. I grew lethargic and dreaded waking up in the mornings, as I slid further and further down a dark abyss. One day, a few prisoners attempted to escape through the roof, but were caught jumping over the fence. The guards beat them and fixed up the fence overnight to make it impossible to break free.
The second month improved slightly as I started to better accept my situations. I got my phone back, and I called my family every Monday, since we were only allowed phone use in specific areas during designated hours. However, a clever few enjoyed greater access, hiding their cell phones, which were supposed to be confiscated, under the tiles in the bathroom and sealing it with a layer of toothpaste. Sometimes the least desirable and confined spaces generate the most unique and creative ideas, I observed. Gradually, I acclimated and rediscovered socializing, and my community of friends expanded. By accepting my current situation and making incremental progress towards my own mental freedom, I felt energized.
The following months were periods of intense reflection and self-improvement. I focused on improving my English with a good-natured teacher who flew in from Berkeley, California. She took a liking to me and recruited me as her assistant. I befriended volunteers who came via the International Organization for Migration (IOM). They also taught us music, art, and english through prison classes, which we were allowed to attend after our sixth month. I began noticing a significant improvement in my patience and self-awareness. Other workers from IOM brought us food (usually fruit, bread and jam; not great, but much better than I expected).
We were to remain inside the detention center until the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registered us as official refugees. To be granted official refugee status, we had to pass an interview, which was only offered every 6 months to select individuals. Once accepted by the UNHCR, the applicant’s information would be passed to the host country’s officer for review, which could lead to further interviews with the ambassador. I was not chosen for an interview with UNHCR until my one year mark. They pulled me into the office early in the morning with the case officer and interpreter. For three hours the officer questioned me about my motivation to leave Iran, my desire to settle in a different country, and how I was different from the other candidates. I told him everything - from my early life in Iran, to starting Black Game Net in Afghanistan, to traversing mountains and deserts before arriving in Indonesia.
About thirty days later, I stood in my cell with a white envelope in my hands. I opened it with caution, my anticipation building as I cradled the flimsy piece of paper. My case was approved. Officially granted refugee status, I was able to leave the confines of the detention center. Overwhelmed with excitement and relief, I celebrated with the other newly and officially designated refugees in the compound.
Soon after, we were transported to the Medan Sumatra refugee camp, where I would stay for three years. The pace slowed even more, and months went by like years, as I patiently awaited a host country to take on my case. I used that time to practice my English, read books that were available at the camp, and solidify strong friendships (one of them would become my future roommate).
Three years waiting for a country to grant me asylum tested my patience. Having the freedom to walk around made the situation more tolerable, and gradually, I became more and more settled into the environment. I continued volunteering as an English teacher’s assistant during the week, and I explored the city with others from the camp during the weekends. The bountiful time allowed for deep reflections of my journey and future. I acclimated to the slow and easy pace of life, which, I must admit, was a much needed respite after my emotionally arduous journey.
I let my worries go, using the break to tend to my own mental and physical health. I missed my family, whom I called frequently to ensure them of my safety. But each time I thought about arriving at my final destination and securing a job, I would light up from excitement. I would do everything in my power to provide more support to Nanay and my siblings.
8 — Seeking asylum.
My appreciation developed gradually, and it took many months before I felt comfortable in the enclosed space. But the rewards of grit and perseverance are tremendous: a new country, a new life, a safe environment, and renewed hope.
Sometime that year, I signed a declaration letter from Australia provided by the UNHCR. Two months after that, my wish was granted: Australia invited me for an interview. I was confident that I would be accepted. However, later that week, I found out they rejected my case due to a recent policy which limited the number of approved cases (only 5% of my batch were sanctioned). The door permanently closed on me.
But I did not give up. A few months later, the United States took on my case. There were three interviews: first one with the UNHCR, then second with the office based in Thailand but present in Medan, and finally with the case officer from the U.S. embassy. Upon hearing the news, my English teacher volunteered to accompany me to my interview. If she didn’t come with me, would the U.S. have accepted me as a refugee? I don’t know, but her presence certainly was a positive boost to my application.
After my last interview, I was told that the United States of America had officially accepted my case. I cried and shook from excitement when they handed me the I94 papers (special visa for refugees), overwhelmed by how quickly my life changed with this one document, rejoicing from the fact that, after about five long years in Indonesia, I would be free, finally free. Everything seemed to be worth it — Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia — a past that felt like a dream. I no longer victimized myself, no longer questioned why I was so unlucky to be caught. I looked down at my scars and appreciated how it represented each segment of my journey.
I picked up my backpack and walked down Sunggal street once more, imagining myself walking the streets of the United States as a man who would be accepted and respected. I could get a job, earn some money, maybe start another small business perhaps?
9 — America.
The journey never ends. Coming to America ended my last journey but began a new and different one — one that I will need to face with the same level of determination.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) lent me the funds for the plane ticket, which I paid back with monthly $35 installments. Originally I was assigned to Albuquerque, but my English teacher from Berkeley helped me change my destination to Oakland. I truly appreciated having such a kind and supportive friend who would go the extra mile for me.
The summer of 2016, I boarded my flight to America, transferring in Taiwan and Los Angeles before landing in the Oakland airport. It was a beautiful scene around me - to be surrounded by people of all sizes, skin colors, hair styles, and clothing.
Even though I did not end up in Australia, which for a period of time was my dream destination, I am beyond grateful to be one of the very few from Afghanistan who found refuge in a safe and accepting country. America took a chance on me, and I cannot thank this country enough. My journey took years of grit and perseverance - I continued trying, over and over again, refusing to accept failure and bouncing back from multiple smuggler scams and case rejections. I am acquainted with many who are still stuck in this process in their home country, in the confines of a deportation camp, or behind the barbed wire of a foreign prison.
But the obstacles do not stop here. Upon my arrival in the U.S., the challenges seemed to intensify and deepen in complexity. I underestimated the difficulty of cultural assimilation and complications arising from the new presidency. For example, tense relationships with Iran made it harder to send money back home. I turned on the news only to feel unwelcome by the administration. Nevertheless, I worked tirelessly to assimilate and rebuild my life. First, I registered with the IRC, where a case officer was assigned to help me set up the basics, such as social security and a bank account. Throughout the program, I attended cultural orientation classes where I learned how to interview for jobs, respect people’s space, and converse with others in English. I learned the commonality of low-cut tops and people running outside for exercise; I learned about “hamburgers” and “frozen pizzas” and “no smoking.” But the complexity of the healthcare system, that still baffles me.
I was rejected by Whole Foods for a dishwasher job and instead decided to attend a barista workshop hosted by The Coffee Company. I didn’t originally intend to be a barista but, due to the limited job possibilities, I settled as one, and it grew on me. I found that I enjoyed the daily interactions with different people from various backgrounds and professions. I memorized orders of my frequent customers and built strong relationships with my colleagues. As my circle of friends in Berkeley and Oakland expanded and my life felt slightly more permanent, I moved out of my host family’s home in Berkeley into a one-bedroom apartment with three other refugees. The rent ($450 per person per month, with two people in the living room and two in the bedroom) was affordable for now, with our current earnings from cafes and ride-hailing companies. The city is not cheap, but at least there’s opportunity to earn money, and it’s common to work multiple jobs a day.
I ask myself many times whether I’m happy. I’m not sure if I truly am. Despite myself being in a much better situation, I still worry about my family and my future. Without a green card, I still constantly stress over the possibility of deportation. But for now I will work as hard as I can to send money home to ameliorate the situation for Nanay and my siblings. They currently cannot make it out of Iran, and Nanay is still picking pistachios for the local vendor.
To be completely honest, I never wanted to exit Iran, nor did I want to leave Afghanistan. Launching myself into uncertainty and moving far away from my family, friends, and everything I’m familiar with for a new start to life is daunting. Australia and America are great countries with copious opportunities, but home is still home. The culture, food, and religion are all crucial to my identity, and I had to leave part of it behind. I would not have signed myself up for this journey if I saw a future for myself in my home country.
Someday, I hope to have my family here with me. With the Travel Ban, it seems practically impossible — even visiting Iran has proven difficult. Perhaps with time, society will slowly start to understand refugees like myself, but I’m aware that it will take time, maybe years or even decades.
And I’ll continue fighting to help raise that awareness. If there’s one thing my journey taught me, it is to live with perseverance, compassion, and hope.