“Sometimes I wish I were a dog, because in Europe, dogs have a better life than foreigners like us” (AWTWNS 9 June 2014)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 9 June 2014 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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“Sometimes I wish I were a dog, because in Europe, dogs have a better life than foreigners like us”

9 June 2014. A World to Win News Service. On the eve of the elections for the European Parliament, the French government sent the CRS riot police and bulldozers to tear down an improvised complex of immigrant camps outside the northern city of Calais and scattered its inhabitants. Many hundreds of people, mostly refugees from countries racked by wars spurred on by the U.S. and Europe, had gathered to help each other stay alive as they waited for the chance to hop on a lorry and make it across the English channel in search of work.

The government’s official pretext for the attack was that the immigrants posed a public health hazard. Some allegedly suffered from scabies, a skin disease easily prevented by clean water and sanitation facilities – which the government itself had deprived them of when it razed the Red Cross refugee centre there several years ago.

The police brutalized local people and others who came to the migrant’s aid. A few days later, after the plurality won by the anti-immigrant FN in the French EU parliament elections, “We are all children of immigrants” was the main slogan of street protests by secondary school students in half a dozen French cities. Later several hundred people travelled to Calais in a show of support for the refugees.

A previous gathering place for migrants was Villemin Square in Paris, where Afghan migrants took shelter in 2009, before they were scattered by police, and some of them, with no other place to go, moved on to Calais. The French photographer Mathieu Pernot spent time with them then.

His photos show young men wrapped up in sleeping bags or sheets of plastic, their heads covered to shield their eyes from the early morning light: “Invisible, silent and anonymous, reduced to their simple forms, they sleep and hide themselves from the public gaze, withdrawing from a world which no longer wants to see them. Both present and absent, they remind us of the bodies found on a battlefields of a war we no longer see.”

Pernot’s work is marked by a determination to connect with his subjects over time so as to create an interplay between how they look, his artistic depiction of their exclusion and oppression, and their own interiority and outlook. In 2012, an Afghan migrant called Jawad filled up some notebooks Pernot had given him with this account of how he ended up in Paris. In today’s world few countries have produced more refugees and migrants than Afghanistan, from the days of the Soviet occupation to the hell its people now endure in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.

My Journey

My name is Jawad. I’m from Afghanistan and I’m 26 years old. I was born in 1986 in a working class district of Kabul. In 1989, my father, Moudjahidin, received threats from the Afghan government and we had to leave Kabul for Iran. I couldn’t go to school, as my parents didn’t have residence permits. They used someone else’s identity papers to get me into evening classes with some older people. Thanks to that, I know how to read and write. Once I’d finished these classes, I wanted to enrol in an Islamic university, but once again I wasn’t allowed to because of my Afghan nationality, even though it’s possible for people from anywhere else in the world to enrol. The Iranian government is very unfair; it doesn’t want Afghan refugees in the country and so we didn’t receive any help from anyone. I’d been living in Iran for seventeen years when I was arrested by the police and sent back to Afghanistan. It was then that I took the decision to leave for Europe. I and some other Afghans asked a people smuggler to get us into Turkey.

Once he had got us across the Iranian border, the smuggler picked us up in a car in the town of Van. For twenty-four hours we travelled like sheep with some Pakistani migrants in a vehicle, with nothing to eat or drink. We arrived totally exhausted in Istanbul where we stayed for three days. The smuggler took us to Izmir on a bus and left us in a house. One evening, he took us to a forest that it took three hours to cross before finally arriving in the dead of night at the coast. He left, alone, in a motorboat and just left us there. We spent the night there. The next day, he brought us some bread and water and a dinghy, which he inflated and hid in the thicket. A little while later, some police came by and discovered our boat. We got frightened and went to hide in the mountains. We didn’t have any food or water left. We were hungry and thirsty. We didn’t know what was going on and called the smuggler. During the night, we came down from the mountain and headed back to the coast. With no food or water, we were losing all hope. I dreamt of eating bread. We didn’t know what to do and prayed to God to help us. Suddenly, the smuggler arrived with some bottles of water! He became our guardian angel! He decided to take us back into town but got us lost in the forest. We wandered about in the countryside for several hours. A dozen of my friends decided to set off on their own in another direction. They asked if I wanted to go with them but I preferred to stay in the smuggler’s group. There were just twenty of us left in the group now, rather than the thirty we had started out with. We walked and eventually found a barn that we spent the night in.

The next day we set off again and went past a village, crawling on our hands and knees for fear of being seen by the inhabitants. We came to a tunnel that runs under the motorway and spent a whole day there. That evening, someone else picked us up in a car and dropped us off in a town we didn’t know. When we got out of the car, a man came over to speak to us but we didn’t know what he was saying. He started shouting, ‘Police! Police!’ Everyone quickly scattered, running off in all directions. Eventually, we found our smuggler who took us down to a beach. He inflated the dinghy and made us all get inside. He pointed to a light on the other side of the sea and told us it was Greece. Our little boat sailed across a very big sea.

As we approached the Greek shore, we watched the sun rise over the sea. I had the thought that we were leaving darkness and misfortune behind us and heading into the light and a better world. But a little while later the Greek police spotted us and approached us in their boat. The man who was steering our boat decided to puncture it so that we’d be classed as drowning and the Greeks wouldn’t be able to send us back to Turkey. We jumped into the water and swam to the shore. There was a pregnant woman in the boat and she didn’t know how to swim, so she clung on to the side of the rapidly deflating dinghy and waited for the police to come and get her. When we got to the bank we climbed up it, hoping to find a town. At the top, we found a road that led to Samos. From there we hoped to reach Athens but unfortunately the police arrested us and took us to a refugee camp that was just like a prison.

It was in this camp that I met an Afghan who asked me if I wanted to go to Norway with him because he’d heard that it was a country that welcomed people in our situation. To get there, we’d have to cross Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. I got through Macedonia and arrived in Serbia. Along with my friends, I got arrested in the Serbian town of Nis. We were brought before a judge who fined us all 70 euros and sentenced us to ten days in prison. Arriving in the detention centre, we were told to get undressed in front of everyone and then had to undergo a body search, which I found really difficult to bear. I spent ten days in prison, locked up with murderers and drug mules. There was a head count three times a day. Those ten days felt like a hundred years to me.

When we got out of prison, we weren’t given any documents that would allow us to circulate freely in Serbia. The police in Nis simply told us that if we were arrested again in Serbia, we should just tell the other police to get in touch with them. The next morning, we took the train to Subotica, on the Hungarian border, and were arrested again that evening and taken to court the following morning. We told the judge that we had been in prison in Nis but it didn’t help. The magistrate said that either we paid up or we’d go back to jail. The prison in Subotica was worse than the one in Nis. We were only allowed out of our cells for an hour a day to walk around the yard. We were only permitted to get washed once a week and could only spend two minutes in the bathroom.

After we got out of prison, we managed to get across the border into Hungary but just after we arrived there, we were arrested again and taken to a refugee camp in Bekescsaba. In the camp, we had to queue just to get a banana, apple or pear. You had to sign two or three documents just to be able to eat a piece of fruit. We were under constant observation by CCTV cameras and brutal guards, who would beat anyone who tried to escape. We didn’t have the right to answer them back or to ask any questions. We couldn’t understand whether we were refugees or prisoners. Despite the presence of the guards, I managed to go under the barbed-wire fences and escape from the camp.

I went from there to Budapest and then to Vienna, where I took the train to Hamburg without buying a ticket. I hid in a storage cupboard under one of the bunks in the sleeping carriage. In the middle of the night, the old woman who was sleeping in the bunk above me realised I was there and called the ticket inspector so he could call the police. I begged him not to do it! In the end, I got to Hamburg without being arrested. I was alone and I walked. I looked for a train that would take me to Denmark. Once again, I got stopped by the police. I could have escaped, but I was so hungry and tired that I gave myself up to them. They took me to a police station and presented me with a document written in Dari that said I was a criminal. I asked them why they considered me a criminal when I hadn’t done anything wrong. They told me that entering Germany without the right papers is a crime. As I didn’t have any choice, I signed the document. My situation was getting worse and worse every day. In Hungary, I had to sign a paper to eat an apple and in Germany I signed a paper to acknowledge that I was a criminal. After the administrative formalities were over, the police sent me to a really tough prison. I felt very sad and prayed to God to give me my freedom back. He must have listened to me because the next day I got out of prison. They gave me the address of a refugee camp where I could apply for asylum.

In this camp, there was a lovely building that I stayed in for a few days. Having spent several weeks not eating very well, at last I had some decent food. It was really nice for me. But when I got to thinking about how the German police might arrest me and deport me back to Hungary, I told myself that maybe the food had been poisoned! After two or three days, the governor of the camp gave me a document with a train ticket to go to another camp in Neumunster. I stayed in that camp, which was comfortable, for nearly three months. There was a gym that I trained in. I enjoyed going for a run in the city streets. Very early one morning, a policeman knocked on our bedroom door and asked to see our papers. I showed him my papers and he told me I had to go back to Hungary. He told me to pack my bags and I told him I had none. He checked in my wardrobe, saw I didn’t have anything and then told me to follow him. He took me to an immigration removal centre at the airport and I waited there until 10 am. They made me get on a plane to Budapest. During the two-hour flight, I told myself that I’d lost all my friends and my whole life in Germany.

In the plane, I made the decision to go to France as soon as I was able. A friend in the camp I’d just left had told me it was a welcoming country. The plane landed in Budapest at 12 pm and I waited at the airport till 1am. It was still night and I had to get into a bus full of unfortunate people who, like me, had fled Hungary and now found themselves back there. At 8 am the bus took us to the Bekescsaba camp. I spent a night there and tried to escape again the following morning. But I cut my hand on the barbed wire and it bled a lot. As I was injured, I let the guards take me without kicking up any fuss. They took me straight back to the camp without treating my hand. When I went to see the governor to show him the cut, he decided finally to send me to the hospital. I spent about a dozen days in the camp. The authorities gave me a card that would allow me to get into the camp in Debrecen. It’s for people who are seeking asylum. I stayed there for twenty-five days. Life there was really hard. Our rights weren’t respected. It was more like a prison, with the only difference being that you could go out. Sometimes, the police would come with six or seven dogs to search the rooms for banned objects. When we asked them why they came with dogs, they said they weren’t dogs, but work colleagues! I didn’t like living in Hungary so my friends and I took the decision to leave for France.

We decided to go in a taxi. First we went to Austria, then to Italy where we go out at Milan. From there we took the train to Ventimiglia and crossed the Italian-French border on foot. We had to go through a narrow train tunnel. If a train had come while we were in that tunnel, I wouldn’t be writing this story.

When we arrived in France we discovered Monaco, a very pretty, old town. There were lots of beautiful orange trees in the streets, but we were more interested in eating the oranges than in looking at them. We ate some and put some in our bags. As we went on our way, we met an Arab. We asked him how to get to Paris. He told us to get on the number 100 bus for Nice and to get a train from there to the capital. But in Nice, when we asked how to get a train for Paris, no one understood. We were amazed to learn that people in Nice didn’t know Paris, a city that’s so well known across the world! We finally came upon someone who understood us. He also took the opportunity to tell us how to pronounce Paris… It was evening, we were still in Nice, and it was really cold and raining. Our clothes were soaked. We were hungry and didn’t have enough money to get to Paris. We decided to go and take shelter in a church but the priest wouldn’t let us in. We begged him but he asked us to leave. It was as though God’s door had been closed on us. We left for the station thinking that “God’s enemy”, the police, might arrest us, which would at least give us a roof for the night. We got arrested at the station. The policeman asked us for the papers we didn’t have. I had the thought at that moment that we were stateless refugees. The police handcuffed us, hands behind our backs, made us get in a police car and put on the blues and twos.

In town, the passers-by must have thought that the police had arrested some dangerous people, but we’re just refugees! They took us to the police station, locked us in a cell and handcuffed one of our hands to a bar fixed quite high up on the wall. When we asked them to take the handcuffs off because they were hurting (and anyway, we couldn’t escape), they just laughed at us. Then they took us to another cell where we spent the night. There was absolutely nothing in it and we were soaking wet. We asked for a blanket. The policeman just mocked us by way of an answer. We slept on the cell floor in our wet clothes. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about my Afghan friend who had told me that France was a very welcoming country.

The next day, the policeman came back with an interpreter who spoke Dari. They asked us several times whether we wanted to stay in France or go to England and I told them each time that I wanted to stay in France. He gave us a piece of paper and let us out of the police station. We sent back to the station where we met a fellow Afghan who was having some problems. He explained that he had bought a train ticket but a policeman had confiscated it and taken him to prison the night before. By the next day, his ticket had expired. As we didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket, we tried to jump on the train but the ticket inspector stopped us. So we spent another night sleeping rough in Nice. The next day, we got on a train but got caught by the ticket inspector, who I begged to allow us to go to Paris. I offered to give him my jacket, my shoes and my turquoise ring, which was a present from my father. I even offered to work in the train (cleaning the toilets, for example), but he refused and we had to get off the train at Cannes. At the station in Cannes, we managed to take a bus we thought was going to Paris, but we’d made a mistake and we found ourselves instead on a bus for tourists. We arrived in a really beautiful city but didn’t know where it was. We explained to the drive that we wanted to get to Paris. He was really surprised and explained that we had to go back to Saint-Raphael, where we could catch a train for Paris. At Saint-Raphael, we tried to sneak on the train without a ticket but the inspectors were watching us. We were really unlucky that day! It was still raining. We looked for a place and slept on a cafe terrace. The next day, we went back to the station and, thanks be to God, managed to get the train to Paris. In this city we asked for asylum and we slept rough on cardboard boxes. Our situation is very bad. Sometimes I wish I were a dog because in Europe, dogs have a better life than foreigners like us.

Translated text taken from the book Les Migrants, Guingamp, GwinZegal, 2012. For Pernot’s work, see www.mathieupernot.com. Also see “Should immigrants be criminalized or supported?” in AWTWNS140310.

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