by GILL FICKLING
When I first met Akhtar in 2009, he was dirty, hungry, disillusioned and scared. He was then living in a squalid camp of flimsy cardboard boxes in Greece's western port city, Patras, along with 1600 other Afghan boys and men who, like him, had come with hope of finding a new life in Europe.
Destitute without food or the right to earn a living, hounded by the authorities and unable to either leave the country, or to legally stay, Akhtar, like those around him, had reached a dead end. He told me "This is like living like animals … I think I've come to the wrong place".
I was in Greece with cameraman, Sebastian Rich, to shoot a story for "21st Century" on Europe's migration issue, and, in this case, Greece's inability to cope with the influx of asylum hopefuls. Akhtar's was the human face of this "problem". The film, called "Dead End", was distributed in our series in 2009. It would be four years before I would meet him again, when I shot a follow-up film with him, a long way from where we first met.
Amidst the sea of desperation in Greece, Akhtar stood out because of his gentleness, humility and intelligence. Fluent in 5 languages, including English which he learnt while growing up in a UN Refugee Agency camp in Pakistan, Akhtar had been threatened by the Taliban on his return to Afghanistan, which led him to believe his life was in danger. Using family savings, he fled, paying traffickers to bring him on a hazardous, 2-month journey across Iran and Turkey, to Europe – where he hoped to find safety. He also hoped to be allowed to study, to get a good job and to support his widowed mother in Afghanistan and his younger siblings' education.
Akhtar was then just 18 – the same age as my daughter – and I was deeply touched by his courage and determination, and the burden of responsibility he carried at such a young age.
But he never dreamed that his welcome to Europe would be such a cold one. Desperate to get out of the impossible situation in Greece, each day, he would head down to the port where, with dozens of other boys, he tried to smuggle himself underneath trucks waiting to board the ferry to Italy. Most boys were apprehended and turned back – but some died trying, crushed in their hiding places when rear wheels were lifted.
This was the start of what would turn out to be a long journey for Akhtar.
When I left Greece, we kept in touch by email and the occasional phone call as he made his way from one European country to another, trying to find one that would accept him. But he always tried to evade the authorities which, by European law, would be obliged to send him back to Greece, his first country of entry into Europe. Apprehended and detained in locked Detention Centers in Hungary and in Austria, he miraculously managed to escape both times once it became clear that he would be sent back to Greece. Finally, after two years on the road fleeing from one country to the next, he arrived in Luxembourg in northern Europe where, he had heard, young asylum-seekers had a chance of being granted asylum. It was his last hope. At first, he believed he had a chance – the Luxembourg authorities provided him with housing and the chance to go back to school. He waited anxiously as his asylum application was reviewed. But to both his and his lawyer's dismay, all his applications were rejected on the grounds that his life was not believed to be in danger in Afghanistan. He was at this stage when I arranged to meet him again, in 2012, to film the follow-up on his story with UNTV cameraman Bernard Vansiliette. The previous years had taken their toll – he was cleaner than when I first met him, but his spirit and hope were diminished. He could not understand why he wasn't being given a chance – he felt he had so much to offer, and just wanted to live like a decent citizen in Europe. Even the Luxembourg Minister for Immigration, who we interviewed, agreed that the immigration system needed to be addressed to avoid situation's like Akhtar's.
But in December 2013, I received some good news from Akhtar. It seemed the Luxembourg authorities had awarded him temporary leave of stay in the country in order to finish his studies. He was thrilled, filled with plans of studying for a Bachelor's degree at university after he has graduated from high-school. During the four years I've known Akhtar, the only thing he has ever asked from me is books for his studies; I hope that through that small gesture, and by highlighting his story in the international media, we may have in some way contributed to this happy ending.