In 2014, refugee camps and displaced families in the Middle East drew an incredible amount of attention from the international community. The first big wave of news was the terrorist attack in Paris that was later claimed by ISIS, to the infamous picture of a young child who washed up dead on a beach shore while fleeing from his country. Social media likes and hashtags such as #prayingfortheworld became a favored way to spread hope and love during that time, but the critical thing to recognize is that “time” never ended.
Recently, I sat down with an Afghan filmmaker who happened to be a refugee, and the harsh reality of life without human rights seemed to be closer to home than what I had initially expected. Ali, a refugee who lived in Kabul, is a brilliant innovator who worked in Afghanistan. He aimed to bring light to his community which led to his inspiration in opening up the Kabul art cafe, a westernized coffee shop where men and women were allowed to interact. He held workshops for young people, who wanted to learn. People could pray, talk, play music, and most outrageously... be themselves.
Even though the cafe was not breaking any of the regulations set in place by the government, when the police caught wind of the news, the doors were busted open by police who quickly shut them down.
According to the Washington Post:
“Then, at 4 p.m. on Aug. 9, a squad of police burst into the cafe with guns drawn and started grabbing and shoving people. According to the co-owner and several witnesses, they shouted sexual insults at some of the women and hustled some of the men off to police headquarters, where their long hair was cut off — a punishment once meted out by the Taliban religious police.”
Ali mentioned during the interview that one of these men was his brother, an engineer who like Ali, believed that the cafe would bring a haven for people who had a point of view beyond the Afghan borders. This initiative was challenging in a world where expression in the press is restricted. The news made me realize that the people who were struggling overseas may be closer to my community than expected.
Suddenly, the headlines became too real to ignore. The police silenced Ali's brother, he was not given a chance to explain a word on how the cafe was a legal project in this city and his hair was cut and taken.
In Kabul, it is well recognized that if the police catch you, there is bound to be trouble in your future. However, regardless of the possible consequences, the Kabul Art Cafe was not the only project that Ali worked on. In his words, “I was a part of making Ideas, that was my hope, that was what I held.” One of his most passionate beliefs was that “young people is hope,” which led him and a friend’s father-in-law to open a mental health clinic in the center of the city, inviting university students to do workshops on depression and anxiety. This created a chain reaction; these students began to find work in their fields which raised awareness for mental health as well as finding ways to create hope and innovation in Kabul (an area driven by tradition).
So the million dollar question is if there is so much hope, why do people still want to leave? Well, like the saying goes: the brighter the light, the darker the shadows. In a country where police power looms high in the sky and women’s rights are limited to stop at their front door, the reality of life in a warring country is chilling.
"From day to day, the rules and laws change. I would wonder if I'm following the rules today, or if I could make a costly mistake. Walking in the street, I would think.. that car could explode.. that person looks like he could be a suicide bomber," said Ali.
Although Kabul was a “safe” city that was not in a state of war, the oldest person that Ali knew was only 65 years old. Whereas in Canada, age is not a number that is added on as a checkpoint that make a family wonder if the odds are against their children’s favor of living. To Ali, similar to how he held onto hope, he also held on to his family– the people he loved and who gave him the motivation to find a way out. Citizens of Afghanistan never asked to be swept into the whirlwind of power fights and military battles. Ali states, “For people it’s important, we need a job, security, rights. If u give me rights I do not care who is in charge.” Because on the one hand was the Taliban, with its laws and controlled states; while on the other hand, was the controlling nature of the Afghan government. All of a sudden being a refugee and leaving your home seemed to be a lot more appealing than staying.
Fortunately, Ali's filmmaking career gave him more opportunity to travel than most Afghans, and he was able to make connections and request refugee status in Canada. Here, it would be safe to be himself.
While describing his story, Ali also mentioned that his way of seeking refuge was surprisingly also the luckiest way regardless of how grim it may sound, since others were not so lucky. For people with enough money, fake passports became golden tickets to a new life. However, for those who could not gain access to fake passports for example, one of Ali’s friends would try to make their way to countries like Turkey, Italy, or Greece with a leap of faith. A common way of escaping is by boat. Sadly, however, the chances of survival should be described as a mere flip of a coin. Ali acknowledges the risks of leaving by boat, for his good friend and his family had passed away in their journey out, trying to find a better life. It was a Wednesday night, through a Facebook post when he found out that his friend had passed away in one of those boats, drowned out by roaring waves. So why do people even risk so much to leave?
“If I stay here, I fear for my life every day.. so sometimes they feel that every day is suicide bombing or military causes. If I try to go to Europe, I have two options, I might die, but If I can get into safe countries then I could have a better life.” -Ali
When the odds of staying are bound to lead to death, the flip of a coin seems to be the only way. “Everyday you are in danger, your family knows that you might not come back.” To never try to have something more, because even when citizens cannot get into the warzones, the Afghan people recognize that the issues are much larger than how they appear to be. Kept larger pictures out of the people’s sight, can’t be bandaged up by the UN or outreach projects, these issues remain buried deep under the very middle eastern lands that the borders protect, that people call home.
Here in Canada, we should appreciate life, appreciate a home that is safe, where students are allowed to express their opinions without the fear of being hurt. This appreciation could drive for so much good in this world, and create better futures for the people who need it. Living as a student in West Vancouver, it is easy to forget how fortunate people are since this fortune has usually been expected upon as normality. So the shock of hearing news that reminds us of the reality in less affluent communities inspires action and kindness for millions of people whose strong voices have been silenced for far too long. They will be heard, story by story, word by word, and the future of youth will create new ideas that facilitate freedom of expression internationally. In Ali’s words, "Youth is hope."
So, what will you do to keep these voices heard? To keep Ali’s voice heard?
Written by Amanda Wang