‘I didn’t think I might never see my parents again’ – refugee children share their stories


Gulwali Passarlay: ‘I had a beautiful life. I was a shepherd.’ Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

‘I had no future. My education was on the sewing machine’
Mohamed Hajy, from Syria

When 15-year-old Mohamed Hajy tried to reach Greece by boat earlier this month, he nearly drowned. The inflatable boat he shared with 39 other desperate Syrians began to deflate, still a mile from Greek shores, and he was saved from death only at the last minute by a charity-run rescue boat. Had the rescuers arrived a few moments later, they might all have ended up in the icy water. Most of them couldn’t swim – and were wearing fake lifejackets that wouldn’t have saved them.

This was, nevertheless, scarcely worse a fate than the one he’s fleeing from, Hajy says later. In Syria, he was caught between being conscripted into the Syrian army and the advances of Islamic State. In Turkey, where he fled to first, he was forced into child labour in order to survive.

Safely aboard the rescue boat, Hajy holds up a video of himself in a factory, hard at work on a sewing machine. “I was just doing this every day for 14 hours a day,” he says, “with a boss going, ‘Faster, faster.’” He earned just $300 a month, barely enough for rent.

All of this was in contravention of the UN’s convention on the rights of the child, giving Hajy ample legal reason to seek a better life elsewhere. Denied his rights in Turkey and Syria, travelling to Europe was therefore an easy choice – even though it meant risking death off the Greek coast, and doing so with no adult to look after him.

“In Turkey, I had no future,” Hajy says. “Life was awful. My education was on the sewing machine. And I did not want to be doing that for the rest of my life.”

Hajy is not unique. In Turkey, he was one of 400,000 school-age Syrian refugees in Turkey who had no access to school – a dynamic that rights workers say will drive still more of them to take their chances at sea.

“Failing to provide Syrian children with education puts an entire generation at risk,” Human Rights Watch said in a report on the subject last November. “With no real hope for a better future, desperate Syrian refugees may end up putting their lives on the line to return to Syria or take dangerous journeys to Europe.” Mohamed Hajy is living proof of that. Patrick Kingsley

‘When I see reports of people drowning in the sea, it reminds me of my own story. I still have nightmares’
Gulwali Passarlay, from Afghanistan

Gulwali Passarlay was 12 when he leftAfghanistan nine years ago, forced by his mother to flee after US forces killed five members of his family. “I had a beautiful life. I was a shepherd; I spent much of my time with my grandparents in the mountains. My father was a doctor. But unfortunately events happened. The Taliban wanted to recruit us. We had to flee for our lives,” he says.

He spent a year travelling, alone, through the Middle East and Europe, shunted from people trafficker to people trafficker, trying to get to the UK, where he hoped to meet up with his brother. Last year, as the European refugee crisis worsened, he found reading accounts of children making similar journeys very disturbing. “I know what it feels like to be on this risky and dangerous journey. Children die,” he says. Most troubling was “the fear of the unknown. I didn’t know what was happening, what would happen next. I saw death with my own eyes, especially when I was crossing the Mediterranean.”

He spent 49 hours with 100 other refugees in a boat designed for 50. Water started to come into the boat, and some people jumped out. He worried that if he drowned, his body would be lost, and his family would never know what had happened to him. “When I see reports of people drowning in the sea, it reminds me of my own story. I still have nightmares, it still keeps me awake.”

Read more here. (Original in Guardian)