We saw the mob move towards us in the dimly lit night: twenty agitated men clutching sticks and stones. I grabbed Afsana’s hand and pulled her forwards, running down the railway track towards the police hut. We found the police watching TV. I pleaded for protection, willing them to accompany us to the tent where her children lay sleeping. But they refused. The camp in Idomeni had descended into chaos.
I might have left Afsana to fend for herself, but I couldn’t. Following the light of my torch we hurried along a lesser-known path through the camp, climbing through the fence to reach her ‘home’. Pulling herself up onto the old station platform, Afsana shuffled from tent-to-tent calling out the names of her children. Hassan, her 13 year-old son, was still not there.
I signaled to Afsana that I was going to leave. She fixed me with her sad eyes, opened her arms wide and pulled me into a warm embrace. Although our circumstances were miles apart – I would sleep in a hotel room while she had just a tent – that moment created a bond between us.
Early next morning I returned to find Afsana. Hassan was back unscathed, having been sheltered from the violence by a Syrian family. While I was visibly shaken, the family appeared nonplussed by yet another brush with danger.
Afsana is mother and father to six children – two girls and four boys aged 7 to 17. Her eldest son Abdul explained why they left Afghanistan five months earlier: ‘My father was head of the Afghan police in our town’ Abdul began, beaming with pride. ‘Things became very bad in Kunduz, and my father was warned that the Taliban was coming for him. He knew we were in danger so he sent us to hide with friends in a nearby village. We stayed there until we heard he had been killed, and then we fled Afghanistan.’
Afsana and I met one year ago, almost exactly to the day. We have never exchanged a word in a language that the other understands, but this doesn’t affect the depth of our friendship. Our paths crossed in Idomeni, a quiet hamlet through which refugees passed on their way north from Greece to Macedonia. Except when I arrived they closed the border, creating a bottleneck where 14,000 people braved torrential rain and minimal food and shelter, waiting for European governments to decide their fate. In such uncertain circumstances exasperation reigned and violence broke out all to often, exacerbating the desperation of the majority to move on.
Today, Afsana and her children are still in Greece and I visit them when possible. The kids have almost given up hope that the authorities will allow them to start school. They tell me they want only to continue their journey and that smugglers present the only way out. Afsana has said many tearful goodbyes as her young boys attempt ferry crossings to Italy hidden under trucks.
Afsana is one of many mothers faced with impossible choices, all of which present risks to their children. Do you let the months pass by while your son goes without the schooling he needs to turn his life around? Or do you entrust his safety to unscrupulous people smugglers? Do you try to travel on alone, knowing it might be years before you see your children again? Or should you keep your family united but living in limbo?
The decisions are endless, but what choice does she have?
The names of all individuals in this piece have been changed.