The invisible hand of God (The journey of a refugee to unknown)

This is the story of one of the many who, out of the desire to survive, set out on this long and hard path called The Eastern Mediterranean Route

   The Eastern Mediterranean Route has been an important pathway for refugees crossing to Europe from Middle East, Asia and Africa, arriving in Greece after passing through Turkey, with a peak in 2015 of more than 850,000 people (  

Abolfazl’s journey starts in 2011 when he was 14 years old, from Kabul, Afghanistan, without knowing his final destination, a journey “to the unknown”. That lasted 3 and a half months, crossing more than four hostile borders, without knowing any language other than his own and without having anyone by his side, besides the “invisible hand of God”, which is needed in crucial moments.

The first border he had to cross was the one between Afghanistan and Iran. Together with other people, he jumped a 4 metre-high wall to enter Iran and run to the motorcycles driven by Baluch (ethnic group from Iran) and managed to escape the Iranian border police who fired at them.

Arriving at the second border between Iran and Turkey, they met more refugees from all around (Pakistan, Sudan, etc.). He estimated there were around 2000 people who were then divided into two groups.

His group, of around 1000 people, started a 16h walk in the mountain area to cross into Turkey. At 3:00 pm the border police saw them from the other side with their lights. The lights turned off and their guide said: “you have 30 minutes to cross the hill otherwise they will shoot at you”. In that panic some people fell from the mountain.

Abolfazl managed to enter Turkey, but here the military tried to stop them also by shooting and, as he remembers a few were hit. But the first “Hand of God” appeared later, when crossing Turkey by car, on steep terrain in the mountainous region, on a narrow road. Here, trying to avoid the main roads for a good reason, and as the engine stopped and the car was on the edge of dropping 200m down the slope, he thought “This is it!”. He started to say his last prayers when, suddenly, the engine came to life and the car was moving again.

Next stop was Greece where he stayed for almost two months. But his memories of that period are not like for the vast majority of us, for him Greece was not a holiday destination. Although it was slightly better than his previous experience, he lived in a “Colony” where hunger and violence were a daily presence. In an overcrowded camp, tensions sometimes escalated, but the police were there during the day and managed the situation. At night was a different story, the police “closed their eyes”, and fascist Greek partisans were attacking freely whoever they found on the street. The aid from the NGOs was not enough for everyone, and he had to collect plastic to sustain himself. His conclusion was that the Greek government was not well organized at that time, otherwise the situation could have been better.

The next step was crossing over to Italy, a 38h trip hanging under a truck, with nothing but a few clothes, a biscuit and a bottle of water. Here, for the second time, the “Hand of God” helped him not to be caught and deported. When the truck embarked on the ferry-boat, he was still under the truck, the Greek police with dogs passed very close. But this time the dogs did not set off the alarm and the invisible hand let him continue his journey and arrive in Piacenza, Italy.

It was around Christmas time when they arrived in Italy, he was accompanied by another boy who spoke little English. From Piacenza they had to reach Milan, their next check point in the “journey to unknown”. They had to take the train. Tired, hungry and cold after a long and terrible journey, they started asking for directions. The first car which stopped for their hitchhiking signals had two carabinieri (Italian special police) as passengers. Now, for the twist of the story, after answering the question “What are you doing here?” by simply saying “We are tourists”, the carabinieri looked at each other, and speaking amongst themselves in Italian, finally decided to give them directions to the train station.

They arrived safely in Milano and from here my friend Abolfazl alone once again boarded on a truck for the last time before reaching The Netherlands.

When the truck driver told him “Here is your stop”, he did not know in which country he was. Left alone in the middle of the road, only grass fields around, he waited for a call from his “coordinator” to tell him where to go next. Ten hours later, hungry and tired, he started walking. When he eventually found a gas station, he heard two people talking in a familiar language. They were Dutch Iranians, speaking a language similar to his! What were the chances? Surely, the “Hand of God” put these two people in his path. If you check the 2011 statistics the population of The Netherland was about 16.660.000 out of which about only 35.000 were from an Iranian background. This means 0.2%, or maybe less, chances to meet people who would understand him, bearing in mind that he could not speak another language.

They brought him to Ter Apel, one of the biggest asylum seeker centers from The Netherlands. From there onwards his second journey started, which is known as the asylum seeking process.

This short story of a long journey helps us to put in context the experience of the individual in a world where we are confronted with numbers and statistics that only tell us a partial story. Talking to Abolfazl helped me understand how the nature of human attachment disrupted by war and instability sets into motion the search for a new home. The wandering for home is among our most profound needs, and this is evident by the price people are willing to pay.

As Shoshana Zuboff says in her book ‘The age of surveillance capitalism’: “We still recount the travails of Odysseus and recall what human beings will endure for the sake of reaching our own shore and entering our own gates”.

Many thanks to my friend Abolfazl for sharing his story with us in order to broaden our perception of a refugee’s journey.

By Tudor Tanase