Fear. Solitude. Hunger. Blistered and torn feet. Determination.
Hope. Possibilities. Dreams of a better life. Safety, at last.
Such is the path for Arya, a young Afghan man who fled Afghanistan and spent the past two years trekking through 11 countries before arriving in France, where he is currently seeking asylum. Sitting outside the gymnasium which is serving as a temporary winter shelter for approximately 150 migrants in western Paris, Arya recounts his harrowing ordeal and what led him to make the life-changing decision to flee his home in search of a better, safer life.
In Kabul, Arya was studying to become an electrician. Proficient in 5 languages, in his spare time he practiced bodybuilding and mixed martial arts. Raised by his parents alongside his brother and sister, Arya’s childhood was, by his own account, a happy one — even though he was born into war.
As he grew older, however, his country descended further into chaos and violence with the rise of the Taliban and terrorist organizations such as Daesh. Explosions caused by suicide bombers constantly rocked the capital and inevitably ripped several of Arya’s neighbors, friends and family members from his life.
“Bombs focused on areas with lots of young people, like universities, working places, some coffee shops. The Taliban focused on young people. Many, many young guys died during these suicide attacks,” said Arya.
One day as he was leaving his job, an explosion occurred within a short distance from him. “About 20 meters in front of me, [there was an] explosion. I saw more than 80 people die there, all of the yard was [covered in] blood. When I saw that, I decided I can’t be there anymore,” Arya said. He added, “It was very difficult. I can’t see my people, my friends, my own people dying like this.”
Realizing that he had narrowly escaped death, Arya knew it was time for him to make a choice. Faced with the difficult decision between staying — and likely dying — in Afghanistan and leaving behind his family to flee to Europe, Arya did what he felt he had to do. At only 26 years old, he chose life.
“When we go to the police, they send us to fight with Daesh — they kill us. When we go to our job, we don’t know if we can come back home alive or not, we don’t know. When we go with the Taliban, the government, police kill us. When we go to Daesh, the international police kill us. What should we do?”
He continued, “We are very tired from this situation. Everyone loves their country, their families, everything. But this is why we leave there.”
And thus began his ordeal traveling across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and France, mostly on foot, and occasionally by vehicle and train. Assisted by smugglers, for two years Arya and a small group of other refugees crossed from border to border through searing heat and plunging temperatures across forest, desert, mountains, plains and all types of terrain in-between.
When asked what he remembered most about this journey, the answer came quickly. Hunger. Forced to carefully ration food between check-in points, Arya was lucky if he ate one meal per day. Sometimes he did not eat for up to two and a half days at a time. “Many times, I slept without eating anything, only water. I will never forget that, it was very, very difficult,” Arya explained.
The other memory seared into his mind is the sensation of walking on bruised and battered feet. Throughout his trek across countries, carrying all his remaining possessions inside a small backpack, Arya walked so much that the skin on the bottom of his feet broke apart and bled. “We have to walk like that,” he said. “We don’t have another choice.”
Eventually, after two years of persistence and thanks to financial support from family, a network of smugglers, a little luck — and most importantly, sheer will power — Arya made it to France. Initially arriving in Nice, he traveled further on to Paris where he hoped to be registered and received in an orderly fashion like the stories coming from Germany. Instead, he was met with the dismal reality of the camps at Porte de la Chapelle.
Located underneath an overpass in the northernmost area of Paris, the camps at Porte de la Chapelle were spontaneously formed by refugees who arrived in the capital and found no other option but to seek shelter outside. There, just a few metro stops away from some of the most beautiful sights in Paris, hundreds of people hoping to receive asylum sleep in battered tents, which are often raided and dismantled by the police without providing any alternate solution. Arya described the challenges he encountered while living at Porte de la Chapelle: “We were in small tents. Sometimes we found food, sometimes we didn’t… It was very cold.” In the two weeks that he spent there, it snowed twice.
At the end of January, the city of Paris requisitioned a gymnasium to temporarily house 150 migrants at risk of freezing to death. Arya was among those selected to be transported to the gym, where he will stay until further notice. “After [Porte de la Chapelle] we came here, it’s about 2 or 3 weeks that we are in here. Here the situation is a little better. They said we will be transferred to another place, I don’t know where.”
Despite the long, painful journey he has already endured and the uncertainty of his current situation, Arya remains optimistic for his future. The thought that has kept him motivated throughout this ordeal is simple — he remains convinced that someday, he will be like “normal” people his age and no longer live in fear:
“If this country supports me, I want to study, and finish my studies and start working… I want to make a life here. If luck is with me, I can do that.”
Arya also hopes to obtain legal status so that he can go back and visit his family, whom he misses very much.
Besides his family, reflecting upon what he misses most about his life in Afghanistan, Arya replied, “I miss when I was small, because I didn’t think about anything, I didn’t know anything… I miss my childhood.”
In the midst of the many hardships he has experienced and continues to face in Paris, Arya has one bright memory that no one can take from him. After his long trek across many foreign lands, he finally entered France, his long-awaited destination, and directly went to the beach. It was a beautiful, sunny evening. Opening his arms to the sunset and ocean in front of him, he let out a cry — he made it. He was here. He was alive.
His friend, Hamayoun, whom he met during the journey at the Turkish border was there to share in the moment, which he captured in a photo. This photo represents two years’ worth of persistence, pain, strength and ultimately, hope — this is Arya’s journey.
However, Arya’s story is far from over. Alone in a country where he has no contacts, no income, does not speak the local language and lacks a legal status granting him the opportunity to work, he pleads for help from anyone who will listen. “I need someone to show me how to start. I want to have work, I have to pay my debt,” he said. He continued:
“I want to believe in myself, but just for starting I need help.”
Arya is more than a migrant. He is a young man who dreams of a brighter future, one that will allow him to return to school and work so that he can live independently, and eventually repay those who helped him to reach his destination. He may not know what tomorrow will bring, but one thing is for sure — he has already proven that he can overcome unimaginable struggle. And until his path becomes clearer, Arya continues to walk forward with a resilient, courageous heart.