Why you should care
Because chances are, at 15, you weren’t fighting for your very survival.
Hugh Biggar is a writer in California, with stops in D.C., Eastern Europe and Indonesia. The following is an edited version of his interview with Hussain Raza, an Afghan refugee.
At 15, I landed in Quetta, Pakistan, full of excitement to see my family again. Three years before, we had left Afghanistan to get medical help for my brother. He had been tortured by the Taliban because they suspected him of helping NATO forces.
In Quetta, my brother didn’t make it, and after his death, my mother faced a difficult choice. Just like in Afghanistan, she knew we faced persecution for being ethnically Hazara — people who came from Mongolia long ago, and who have distinct faces and light skin. For my safety, she sent me to a place in Iran where young boys could work in unskilled jobs. But the police found me and sent me back to Afghanistan.
I finally made my way back to Quetta, excited to see my mother and sister after three years. But my family wasn’t there, and I learned they had left for Australia. I knew I must go too. I missed my family, I had never been to school and there was no life for me at home. A former landlord and family friend helped me find a smuggler and, even better, agreed to pay the $5,000 cost.
Soon after, I found myself in a van with three other Hazara refugees heading in darkness to the airport. There, protesters armed with rocks blocked the road. Two days earlier, a multiple-bomb blast in a pool hall had killed and injured many people. People responded in protest, demanding security and justice from the government. The protesters angrily asked where we were going. The driver, thinking quickly, said we were protesting too. They cleared the road and let us pass. We made it to the airport and flew to Karachi, and then Sri Lanka.
I saw the ocean for the first time and understood the enormity of what lay ahead.
In Colombo, the hotel was crowded and smelled of other men. We ate dry biscuits and water. Sleeping was difficult because of the sounds of men praying and music thumping from a disco next door, so I headed to the beach in search of peace. There, I saw the ocean for the first time and understood the enormity of what lay ahead.
The next morning, we took a flight to Bangkok, and then an all-day bus trip to Dannok, near the Malaysian border. We were all scared of Malaysia, which we’d heard was the worst place to get caught because they beat you or sprayed you naked with water hoses before they deported you.
Then the smuggler told us to get in the trunk of a white car. We squeezed in, with one guy’s shoes at another’s mouth and elbows jammed into ribs, and stayed that way, barely able to breathe.
After about two hours, the car stopped and someone approached, footsteps scuffling on the dirt. Our hearts hammering, we held onto the trunk from the inside while someone tried to open it from above. He won, and we saw a policeman staring at us. The policeman — maybe corrupt, maybe someone in a fake uniform — let us stay in the car and drove us through the rain forest until we were transferred to a taxi.
The taxi brought us to a wooden hut. There, I saw three guys I had met in Karachi. They had arrived after midnight, injured and bloody, having nearly been caught in Thailand but escaping through a hole in a barbed-wire fence. Five others in their group hadn’t been so lucky and were caught by authorities.
After darkness fell, two cars arrived, and we traveled to the boat that would take us to Indonesia. We drove to the edge of a jungle. Crouched down and attacked by mosquitoes, we ran toward the boat in a single file. When we reached the shore, we waded in until the water was up to our chests and then climbed onto a speedboat.
The boat ran like a bullet over the water. We hunched low so passing boats would not see us. Our lips dried out from the salty water, and we hit our heads against the side of the boat with each wave. Then it started to rain. Being stuck in a car trunk had been bad, but this was worse, especially since I didn’t know how to swim.
I prayed for forgiveness for all the bad things I had done; I prayed to see my family again. Everyone else shouted out prayers too.
After two days with no food and only rainwater to drink, we suddenly saw lights in the distance. The captain steered the boat away from the lights so we wouldn’t be spotted.
We reached the shore under moonlight. I stumbled onto the sand, exhausted. A new smuggler rushed us into two waiting cars. We drove to a cabin, where we rested uncomfortably in a small room, piled head to toe again. We stayed locked in for two days. The walls were covered with handwritten names, places and dates. All day we read the walls. We tried to sleep, sang songs and peeked through a hole in the wall. We hoped for food and water, but none arrived.
On the third day, a man unlocked the door, and we were loaded onto a bus to Jakarta with just biscuits and water.
After two more days, the tall office buildings and lights of Jakarta came into view. Dropped off at 4 a.m. near the U.N.’s refugee office, we lined up to register as asylum seekers. That morning, I received my registration card, and, for the first time in years, I felt safe.
Hussain Raza waited for asylum for two years in Jakarta, home to more than 13,000 refugees. With the help of the Roshan Learning Center, he received a visa in the summer of 2015 and left for Melbourne to join his family and enroll in school for the first time.