From the island of Lesvos in Greece, journalist Stefan Schmid speaks to one man from Afghanistan who, now separated from his family, feels he has been let down by the West
"For 13 years, thousands of Afghans have worked alongside our troops and our diplomats, often at great personal risk and many have even lost their lives. I came into the State Department determined to keep our promises to these brave men and women." (John Kerry, US secretary of state, 2014)
"We have a responsibility to fulfill our obligation to the thousands of civilians who risked their lives and that of their families to help our country during a time of war." (Senator Jeanne Shaheen, 2014)
"THAT'S my son," says Amir, looking at his smartphone with tears in his eyes. "I miss my children more every day. I look at their pictures each night before sleeping."
Amir is not his real name, but the 30-something man from Southern Afghanistan does have three children, two boys and a girl, aged between four and 11. He also has a wife, all living back in his home country.
After a month on the road, Amir had found himself at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, after taking a boat from the Turkish shore in search of Europe.
"If I didn’t run we would all be in danger. I didn’t want my kids to come home one day and find me dead in the house, I had to go. It was a suicide mission but I had to do it." Amir
"If I didn’t run we would all be in danger. I didn’t want my kids to come home one day and find me dead in the house, I had to go. It was a suicide mission but I had to do it."
Amir’s story begins with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Witnessing first hand the activities of the Taliban across the country, the youngster decided to help the coalition as an interpreter. Joining up with predominantly US and UK forces, Amir put himself firmly in the line of fire.
All that he now has left of his time in the army are the videos and photos on his smartphone. Beaming with pride as he shows the clips of him aboard a British chopper and joking around with his US counterparts at a military base, it is clear Amir felt he had done the right thing back in 2002.
While the majority of those deployed soldiers travelled home to the safety of their home country, Amir was forced to stay in the central Asian nation after his seven years of service. As the US gradually withdrew its military personnel, Amir began to feel more and more exposed.
"These people would not leave us alive because we were the eyes of the Americans. I have two friends who I’m sure are dead, we don’t know, but they just disappeared from the city." Amir
"My face was recognised everywhere as an interpreter, I was threatened many times. We tried to go to Iran or Pakistan but it was too dangerous, I know at least one person who was killed in Iran for helping the Americans, Pakistan is the same too.
"These people would not leave us alive because we were the eyes of the Americans. I have two friends who I’m sure are dead, we don’t know, but they just disappeared from the city."
Amir’s next thought was not to jump on a dinghy to Europe, he naturally turned to the government he had put his faith in all those years ago, that of the United States of America, but it soon became clear that it would not uphold its promise to protect him from danger.
In the aftermath of the Afghan and Iraq wars the US stepped up resettlement programmes, namely the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) programme, for Afghans who had worked with US forces. Translators, soldiers and informants in danger were said to be priority for the SIV scheme set up to reward and protect those who had become allies.
Initial responses said it would take at least two years to process his application. Amir was not happy about this, and began chasing them down with increasing urgency.
“They were warning me that when they caught me they would kill me. I didn’t know when that would be. Days later I got shot above my arm. I needed 30 stitches. There was no way I could live like this." Amir
"Last year I got a letter addressed from the Taliban. I still don’t know who sent it but we had a call on our phone telling us there was a letter at the door for me. It had my name and my father’s name and it said that they knew we worked with Americans, the infidels, and that they know where we go.
"It said they were warning me that when they caught me they would kill me. I didn’t know when that would be. Days later I got shot above my arm. I needed 30 stitches. There was no way I could live like this."
After being admitted to hospital and returned to a stable condition, he contacted the US embassy once again. A photo of the bullet wound alongside a photocopy of the Taliban letter were sent to the programme coordinators pleading for help, but an all too familiar stock response advising him his application was still being processed returned to his email account.
"I started this programme in 2014, and now it is 2016 and all they are still doing is asking nonsense questions. There is a lot of stuff they ask for, this certificate, this recommendation, passports, blah, blah, blah … but I sent all the documents they asked for.
“There were over 50 of us on this tiny boat. It was much scarier than war. I was completely helpless." Amir
"I could see this would not work. I sent an email and I wrote that when I get killed then you’ll say I can come. They didn’t care, they were happy to let me die like a sheep. I helped them and risked my life and this was how they repaid me, certain death," Amir said.
"I had to go. I burned all my documents and made my way through Iran. I couldn’t take any risks, the only pieces of my past are on this phone."
And so, as he passed through Iran to Turkey and across to the shores of the Aegean sea, Amir became one of the faceless millions who have fled to Europe over the past 18 months.
"I still say it was a suicide mission. There were over 50 of us on this tiny boat. It was much scarier than war. I was completely helpless," Amir says. "The journey only took three hours but every time a wave crashed against the side of the boat I felt like that would be the end, it felt like a lifetime. I’m so grateful to still be alive."
As he waited in the Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesvos, there was a massive uncertainty as to what would follow.
"I know my kids will be safe now I’m gone but I want to see them as soon as I can. If I can’t bring them here I don’t know what I’ll do. I know I can never go back.” Amir
The Afghan had one month to file asylum, and although he dreams of Holland, the increasing number of countries closing their borders means that could be very unlikely.
Amir does not seem to be too worried, though. Standing in the floodlit camp as midnight beckons, the towering man with eyes aged beyond his years is just happy to be safe.
"I don’t care where I go. I would like Holland or maybe Belgium but I don’t care, I am still confused, but right now I am happy here. It is cold and uncomfortable but I am safe. These people are running, too.
"I know my kids will be safe now I’m gone but I want to see them as soon as I can. If I can’t bring them here I don’t know what I’ll do. I know I can never go back. I dream of us being together. That is what I pray for every day."
Picture courtesy of Stefan Schmid