ATHENS: Haider Ali, a teenage boy from central Punjab, is the sole survivor of the Turbat carnage. He cheated death by a stroke luck.
Khushbakht Suhail, who has spent one year studying the problems of asylum seekers and immigrant applicants in Europe in 2016-17, believes that Haider’s other friends, who have joined the ranks of the deceased potential immigrants, would have been alive and kicking, had they all known anything about their life ahead in refugee camps in Greece; the long wait and complex process to get a refugee status, their allocation of a European destination unknown to them and the start of life in new country with a refugee status.
During the study, she came across several Pakistani youths, pushed into refugee camps in Athens and the Greek islands, living there for years, hoping to secure a refugee status to some European place.
“Every applicant or better call asylum seeker from Pakistan is a sad story,” she sighs.
“Living in harsh conditions in the camps, fed on charities and the leftover of hotels and local families, their every day is an ordeal and every night a nightmare.”
In 2016, Karachi-based Khushbakht, an Institute of Business Administration graduate, currently working in The Citizens Foundation as Area Education Manager, was selected for the WISE Learners’ Voice Programme 2016-17, an initiative of the Qatar Foundation, to work with a diverse group of young people from across the world. She was one among the 26 outstanding people, selected from 25 countries for the programme. The theme of the programme was ‘Forced Migration and Refugee Crisis’ for which Greece could not have been more perfect.
In a group of five people, Khushbakht spent two weeks in Greece to volunteer in refugee camps and the Regional Asylum Seekers’ Office in Athens to understand the issues of displaced people.
Her group consisted of members who were from the Philippines, Brazil, France and Australia when she arrived in Greece in March this year.
The group was given detailed guidance from social workers on the field, as well as, legal experts to enable them to deal with the applicants.
The crux of the briefing was:
Treat every applicant as a victim.
Avoid digging into their background and their ordeals.
Avoid mentioning their identity when reporting.
Take sessions on trauma relieving after visiting the asylum seekers.
Once they arrived in Athens, their main place of meeting applicants was the Regional Asylum Seekers Office in Athens.
Pakistani applicants were outnumbered by their counterparts from Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. The only difference was that other immigrants or refugee applicants were mostly in families with minors, while Pakistanis were all males, ages late teens to mid-30s.
She says that the Pakistanis, mostly from Punjab’s districts of Gujranwala, Mandi Bahauddin, Jhelum, Gujrat and Sialkot, would turn up at the office either to file some documents or get updates on their application.
What did they plead to secure the refugee or immigrant status?
“Well, most of them relied on decades-old enmities or political rivalries which could cost them dearly if they lived in Pakistan. Some had filed cases on the bases of their ethnicity and sect. One astounding case was of a man, who said he belonged to the Wahabi sect, and for his sect affiliation, his life was in danger in Pakistan,” she recalls.
All were armed with documents and pictures like police and court cases.
Though they were lucky enough to make it to Greece, that had not been without heavy risks.
“Since the time, I left home in Sialkot, I didn’t know if I would see the next day,” said a man in his mid-20s. Many times they were bundled into small suffocating containers; they were told to run miles and miles in rugged border areas; they saw their group members killed by border security personnel and in some cases by the traffickers when someone suffered an injury and was unable to walk or bear the harsh journey ahead.
Islamabad-based journalist Hassan Shahzad, who has a deep interest in immigrants’ phenomena, says in one case, two brothers saw their father shot at and killed by Turkish border forces and they did not stop.
Once landed in Greece, the border forces transferred them to the refugee camps.
The camps consist of columns of containers placed in the suburb of the city. Similar camps have been set up on islands of Greece.
Pakistanis are forced to live in shabby camps where running water, electricity and provision of food were not a guarantee. They would while away time on WhatsApp chatting with their families or playing ludo and cards with each other.
A few smart skilled applicants had been doing petty jobs in nearby residential and commercials districts.
One of the youth looked distraught and occasionally broke into fits of sobs.
“He just came to know that his father has died,” one of the group members said.
“He wants to leave the camp for his home. He wants to be deported. No, he, like us, has no option. That’s it. No other option,” she quotes the camp resident as saying.
“He must have known that we came here on a one-way ticket. Just like a suicide bomber.” Their families in Pakistan also urge them to stay showing resilience.
Some networks and gangs in Greece also force the applicants to stay put and never think about of going back.
An NGO working for asylum seekers had hired a Pakistani man as a translator to facilitate the applicant. The translator also offered Khushbakht to jump the return date and after which he could manage a refugee status for her. She was just speechless.
The containers where families lived, looked somewhat better; at least clean with things in order. Since their container was their home, for now, the families would place flower pots in the front and back of the containers.
During her volunteer experience, Khushbakht volunteered in the Metadrasi Children’s Container inside the asylum seeker centre.
Each drawing is a story itself, the reflection of displacement trauma, ordeals of sea routes and violence back at home.
Here are some pictures of the students’ drawings.
One drawing by an eight-year-old girl was of a shipwreck. Another picture depicts a family leaving the house and stranded at sea. A drawing of a boy shows a deadly flying projectile. That is what the footprint of war is on innocent minds.
The asylum centre would also see brief scenes of jubilation whenever some applicant was granted refugee status in some European place.
The group of Khusbbakht came across a Syrian youth, whose destination was Finland. He was expecting or desiring for Germany. In Germany, he had many relatives, friends and acquaints. About Finland, he was as blank as the eyeball of the dead.
The situation struck an idea to Khushbakht and her colleagues. They decided to launch a project – ReConnect.
“ReConnect is, in fact, Refugee Connect,” she explains. This initiative aims at social integration between refugees and host communities through tech-based peer learning. The refugee gets to learn about the culture, language and day to struggles of living in his new home. The host learns about the challenges of refugees which helps break stereotypes about them. They have piloted this project in Greece, Finland and France.
The programme taught many lessons to Khushbakht. She met a ten-year-old little girl who had been subjected to bomb shellings and their whole face was burnt but still, she was very positive and played with everybody. She was sure that she would get a plastic surgery soon that will change her life.
Khushbakht reflects, “I saw an appreciation of little blessings that we take for granted. Life is not meant to be perfect. It is meant to be a challenge.”