ATHENS — Victoria Square, in the center of the Greek capital Athens, has for months been a hub for Afghan refugees and migrants passing through Greece on their journey to northern Europe.
Many of the Afghans arrived in Victoria Square from the Greek islands, where they first entered Europe after a perilous journey across the Aegean Sea. Others sought temporary shelter in the square after being turned back at the Greek-Macedonian border, which they can no longer cross since Macedonia closed the country to Afghans this month.
On most days, groups of refugees sit on blankets spread across the square, or gather on some of the square’s wooden benches. Kids play soccer between the trees. Many spend the night, struggling to keep warm against the winter weather.
Several Afghan-owned shops are located nearby. There, refugees and migrants can cash money sent by family and friends in Afghanistan or other Western countries.
The square is near train stations and bus stations, allowing the refugees to continue their travels as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
HuffPost Greece visited the square after speaking with Arash, an Afghan who has lived in Greece for years and works with the Afghan community. (Many Afghans go by only one name.) Arash put HuffPost Greece into contact with some of his fellow countrymen who are now stranded in Victoria Square.
These are their stories:
Abdullah, 61, said he had traveled to Greece from Kunduz, an embattled city in northern Afghanistan that was occupied by the Taliban almost a month ago. He sits alone on a bench at the square.
“We have been on the road for six months,” Abdullah said. “We arrived in Athens yesterday.”
Abdullah said he traveled from Afghanistan to Iran, and from there to Turkey on foot through the mountains. He made the journey from Turkey to Greece on a boat with 70 people. He said he fell into the water just before arriving and was close to drowning, but was saved by a rescue team.
Abdullah has four children. Three of them have now reached Germany. He said they were separated during the journey, but they managed to reconnect. Now that he has found his children, he wants to get to Germany to see them.
“The borders are shut and I don’t know what to do, I honestly don’t.” Abdullah said. “We slept at a shelter yesterday, but today I don’t know where we are going to put the children to sleep. We came to Victoria Square because we are waiting for some money to be sent to us — we have spent all that we had, but we need to continue our journey. We just have to.”
Mirwai arrived in Greece two days ago.
“I am 16 and I was afraid to go to school — but I want to get an education. Terrorist groups, jihadists or ISIS militants were asking me persistently to go and fight with them. In the evening, they would come at our house and threaten us, to leave our family and our school and take off to the mountains with them,” Mirwai said.
I want to have a future – in Afghanistan, I had none.
Mirwai’s family had more than just ISIS to fear. The young Afghan said his sister was teaching illiterate women back home, but the Taliban told her to stop. “They told us, if you don’t follow us, you are not Muslims.” Mirwai said his father was imprisoned by the Taliban for years, and when he was finally released, the family decided to flee the country. They embarked on their journey a month ago.
“People need to understand that Afghanistan is at war for 30 years – it is in the same situation as Syria, but nobody wants to acknowledge this reality. We are grateful to the Greeks, who accepted us and gave us food and a place to stay for a while. We want to get to Germany, we have some friends there,” Mirwai said, adding: “ I want to have a future. In Afghanistan, I had none.”
Abdul Rahim, 43
Abdul Rahim, 43, said he fought against the Taliban and was jailed by them for four years. He feared that he may be executed, but said he was released with the intervention of the United Nations refugee agency. He went to Iran for a few years. When he returned to Afghanistan, he fought again as a member of the Northern Alliance, a military front that battled the Taliban government. The group operated from 1996 to 2001, under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud.
We will wait, day by day, until we make our next step to get to Germany. There is no way back.
Abdul Rahim, 43
“I didn’t hesitate to leave,” he said. “When you feel like your childrens’ life is in danger, you don’t care about anything else. We heard that the border closed two days ago. We will wait, day by day, until we make our next step to get to Germany. There is no way back.”
Muhammad, 36, was holding a little girl in his arms, sleeping, exhausted. He comes from the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where he was a tailor. But when the Taliban took over the city, he wasn’t allowed to work anymore.
Muhammad’s family traveled for a month. “At the Iranian border, we were beaten up pretty heavily,” he said. “The Iranian police don’t hesitate to shoot. From Turkey, we crossed to Greece on a boat which was steered by refugees. The Turkish traffickers just led us to the shore, gave us the boat and told us to cross on our own.”
Muhammad said his son has burns on his hands from a fire he made in Turkey trying to warm up, and his daughter is battling a fever. His family has been sleeping poorly for the whole journey, except one night when they stayed in a camp in Greece.
Yivaz Ali, 23
Yivaz Ali, 23, is from the Afghan capital Kabul, where he worked as a clerk. He arrived in Greece about a month ago and wants to get to Germany, where members of his family live in a camp.
“I went on the journey alone – my family stayed in Afghanistan,” he said. “Along the way, I made five good friends. We are all of the same age and we travel together.”
Ali sleeps in the square, and thinks this is what he will be doing until the border opens.
“I don’t want to stay in a camp. You feel isolated, while on the square at least you have the feeling that you get the news faster. All we want is that the borders from here to Germany open,” he said.
He said he talked to traffickers who offered to transport him to Germany inside a truck. But he didn’t have enough money.
“I am waiting for the European governments to help me, not these people,” he said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English.
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