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The lives we left behind


'Our dreams for the future, heavy with the weight of responsibility. Making the difficult decision to leave our homes and village and travel to Europe.' © Hannah Kirmes-Daly

‘Leaving home is the most difficult thing… As soon as you leave, it hits you how much you miss everyone. You know that they are worrying about you every step of the way, and the journey is so dangerous. Those who make this journey are playing with their lives.’

These are the words of Ali, a young man who made the journey to Lesvos with his four friends from the same small village in Pakistan. They spent 10 days in Moria registration camp, where the numerous Pakistanis, Afghans, and other ‘non-Syrians’ wait for days in deplorable conditions for the necessary papers to continue their journeys. There is much attention, both in the media and on the ground, given to the many difficulties faced by Syrian refugees. While there is an increase in coverage of those fleeing Afghanistan, Pakistanis until now have been completely left out of the picture. As an Urdu speaker, I have been lucky enough to gain a unique insight into the lives these men have left behind, the struggles they have experienced, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

During our conversations they would often describe parts of their long, treacherous journey to arrive here in Greece – crossing countries on foot, sleeping out in the mountains without food or water and paying extortionate amounts to smugglers. I asked them if they had known how difficult this journey would be.

‘No’, Jamal’s response was instant and firm. His eyes filled with tears as I held his unwavering gaze. ‘The smugglers told us it is very easy, you go from here to here, here to here, you will arrive in Europe easily. Here, now, my heart is heavy and I am worried. People from home phone me and ask if I’m alright, and I lie and tell them everything is fine.’

His sincere, heartfelt words struck me, and I wanted to explore the story of these five friends in depth. One evening, I asked them to tell me, from start to finish, how they had travelled from Pakistan to Lesvos, and explained that Hannah would illustrate this as they spoke. They excitedly sat us down on the gravel floor, the barbed-wire fence behind us illuminated by the strong white floodlights.

Copyright: Hannah Kirmes-Daly

I asked them about their lives in Pakistan. What was it like? What did they imagine for their future in Europe? Kailash leant forward earnestly and began talking.

‘In Pakistan we were always so worried about money. We could never save enough to cover the months when our businesses failed. Our families are so big and only one or two people are able to earn money, so overall the family does not have a lot of money.’

‘Those that can earn decide to go to other countries, where they can earn more,’ Vafa explained, quietly and seriously. ‘No Pakistani people are making this journey for themselves. At home everyone is depending on us. Our families will only eat when we are earning money.’

We asked them to describe their village. What did it look like? Their eyes lit up as they described the small mud houses next to a river, and fields where people grow rice and wheat. They became more and more animated, speaking faster and louder as I pushed them for more details.

‘I remember when I was in India, sometimes children would go onto the roof and fly kites, and there was a festival one day…’ I began.

Copyright: Hannah Kirmes-Daly

They interrupted me excitedly. ‘Exactly! In our Pakistan this also happens, there is a festival when everybody flies kites from their roof, oh, it is so much fun, so much joy!’

Hannah’s pen sketched the outlines and they gazed, enraptured, as the image began taking shape in front of them, nudging each other and pointing out details that they had mentioned. We moved the story forwards and asked them about the moment when they decided to leave their homes and undertake the long, perilous journey to Europe.

They looked at each other intently as they cast their minds back to this moment. ‘We were all sat together, by the river… We were feeling so much pressure, we had to do something! So we decided to leave, to go to Europe. A week later, we left.’

Copyright: Hannah Kirmes-Daly

Ali took a deep breath and told us how the first part of the journey, from Pakistan to Tehran, had been easy, as they had a visa for Iran.

‘Then when we arrived in Tehran we phoned one of the smugglers, who came to meet us. He took us to a deserted spot outside the city and put us into the back of a small container lorry. There were 22 of us inside. It was so cramped we couldn’t move.’ They all moved closely together to show us how they were crammed in. ‘The only oxygen came in through a tiny hole at the top.’ Ali demonstrated how they would stand up, put their face to the small hole for a brief moment, then sit back down.

Copyright: Hannah Kirmes-Daly

‘We stayed in this vehicle for 14 hours, until we arrived at a small village, next to the border, where there were many big mountains. We got out, and there was a small house where the mafia man shut us all inside. It was a mud house.’

‘Like the kind made for animals,’ said Jamal, his kind features contorted in an expression of disgust, ’and there was nothing inside, no mattresses, nothing. We stayed inside for the whole night.’

‘In the morning we got into another lorry, just like the one from the day before, which took us high into the mountains until the road ended. From here we had to go onwards by foot. There were smugglers there who showed us the way. With our bags on our backs we started scrambling up the steep, rocky mountain face.’ They held their arms at a right angle to show us the sharp incline.

Copyright: Hannah Kirmes-Daly

‘Often people would fall here, and below we could see so many dead bodies of young men who had fallen…’ Vafa held my gaze intently as he described this moment where his courage had almost failed him. ‘In this place, if you fall, you die. My heart was saying “turn around and go back”, but when I thought about my family at home my courage would come back to me and I carried on.’

Ali asked me to roll him a cigarette, and inhaled deeply before continuing.

‘There was nothing to eat and our water had all finished. Our whole bodies were aching so much, all over. My strength left me completely and I collapsed into my brother’s arms.’ He mimed falling into the arms of Kailash. ‘After climbing all day and into the night we came to a fence with barbed wire, the Turkish border. There were smugglers who cut the barbed wire. They told us to run, quickly, and they beat us with wooden sticks if we weren’t fast enough.

‘Across the border there was another small house, where the smugglers shut us inside for two days. It was so dirty and smelly and there were 200 of us inside. The smugglers came and took money from us, they emptied our pockets and took everything. By now we had each paid around $3,000.’

Ali described how they crossed Turkey by foot until they reached the sea. ‘A Turkish smuggler told us to come with him, and we followed him back up into the mountains to the place where they keep the rubber boats, deflated, inside big cotton sheets. He told us to pick it up and carry it down to the shore. We pumped up the boat and put it in the water.’ I was fascinated to hear these insights into the interactions between them and the smugglers throughout the course of their journey. ‘The wind and the waves were strong, and when we got into the boat water started coming in straight away…’

Copyright: Hannah Kirmes-Daly

‘I was emptying it,’ interjected Jamal, miming scooping water out of a boat.

I asked them if they’d had lifejackets. ‘No!’ they all exclaimed, shaking their heads emphatically. ‘The smuggler wouldn’t give them to us – we asked for them, and he said “give me 30 euros and I will give you a jacket”, but nobody had any money.’

‘During the whole journey we were praying and taking the names of our mothers and fathers,’ said Abdul quietly at my side.

Vafa piped up, smiling, ‘I was eating biscuits! Before dying, you must eat something!’ All of them laughed, and told us that the man driving the boat kept letting go of the steering stick to eat biscuits. They shouted at him: “Stop that and drive the boat!”’ The mood had lightened, and we all laughed.

‘So, what happened when you arrived?’ I asked.

Copyright: Hannah Kirmes-Daly

Jamal replied, ‘The first thing I did was to give thanks to god. Our clothes were soaking wet; we threw them away! We were so happy. At this time we really needed some love and care, and some really nice people were there, they gave us water and juice. There were also media people who took everybody’s photos, they were filming and asking people who spoke English, “How did you get here, did you have problems?” We didn’t like these people, we told them we didn’t speak any English.’

They all watched as Hannah sketched the most powerful scenes from the story, and they exclaimed enthusiastically, ‘yes, yes it was exactly like this! Just like this. But most importantly, you must include a picture of us together, to show our friendship.’ They told us that the time we had spent together was their first positive experience since leaving Pakistan, the first time that they had been able to truly engage with the new cultures they are hoping to be part of.

Unfortunately for these five men, the journey is far from finished. As they head through Europe, towards the winter, they are constantly aware that their journey could come to an abrupt end. During our previous conversations they had pressed me for information about which countries they could safely enter without the threat of deportation. Information that I, sadly, did not and do not possess. As nation after nation in Europe closes their borders, the information of last week is no longer applicable, and for non-Syrians the chances of deportation are higher than ever, something these men know all too well.

‘They should give this information to people who are setting off on this journey. You won’t get anything, only Syrian people will. The people who arrive here have had such a difficult journey. People sell everything they have to get the money for this journey, and then they get deported and they return to nothing, zero, to start their lives again from scratch.’

Harriet Paintin is a freelance writer and musician, and Hannah Kirmes-Daly is a freelance reportage illustrator. They work together on documenting individual stories through art and music, focusing on refugee stories. Follow them at brushandbow.com and on Twitter @brushandbow2.


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