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Afghan lost boys provide a bridge in Crete between nations

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Ali-Sher Kashimi, 22, is an interpreter and works with the Heraklion Development Agency (HAD). He helps newly arrived refugees navigate language challenges. © UNHCR/Markel Redondo

Ali Sher Kashimi arrived in Greece as a young boy. Now, he helps other asylum seekers by interpreting for them.

By Leo Dobbs in Heraklion, Greece

The Karimis are moving into their new home, lugging a mountain of luggage from a minivan into the ground floor apartment in the seaside town of Heraklion, capital of the Greek island of Crete.

On hand to meet the family of seven is a tall, young man with striking features. The 22-year-old, Ali Sher Kashimi is an ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan, just like the asylum seekers he is helping. His role is vital: he is the interpreter who can help them navigate language challenges and make their daily life easier.

The Karimis are delighted to find a kinsman with fluent Greek and they pepper him with questions. Without the help of an interpreter like Ali, a refugee who has spent the last decade in Crete, they would find it hard to get by. It’s the same for most of the refugees and migrants who arrive by sea as well as for the people who help them, including staff from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

“All the people of concern need interpreters,” explains Ali, who is fluent in Urdu, Farsi, Dari and of course Greek. “You’re the bridge connecting two nations,” adds fellow interpreter and Hazara ethnic, Habibala.

The two friends interpret for about 80 of the more than 600 people who have been provided with apartment places and support in Crete under UNHCR’s ESTIA accommodation and cash assistance programme, which has helped tens of thousands of people.

The EU-funded accommodation scheme did not exist when Ali and Habibala arrived in Greece in 2008. As youngsters, they were taken to Anogia, the first shelter for unaccompanied children in Crete which opened in 2001. Now, they are involved in every step of the process to welcome asylum seekers, starting with arrival.

“It’s very important for the refugees to communicate,” Ali notes, as the Karimis explore their apartment with staff from the Heraklion Development Agency (HAD), which is implementing the scheme in Heraklion, Sitia and Chania.

HAD employs 11 interpreters, including Ali and Habibala, working in Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Sorani and Urdu. Interpreters with other languages have to be found when necessary. UNHCR also uses interpreters in the rest of the country, working through partners like METAdrasi.

In Heraklion, Ali explains how the washing machine works and he tells them where to shop and how to use public transport. They will pay using their cash cards, once Ali has helped them register their address. Social orientation is important and how to function in a new community and adapt to their hosts’ culture and lifestyle.

Many of those arriving have health problems and disabilities, so they need help in explaining to the medics what ails them. Then there is school enrolment, which Ali puts extra value on.

The young man, who joined HAD last year and receives a salary, is proud of his work. “I feel that I am doing something important. I’m helping people to rebuild their lives and that gives me great satisfaction.”

And he empathizes with them and knows their needs, which is not surprising given the ordeal that he underwent as a child, starting with his family’s flight from Jaghori, in the highland Afghan region of Hazarajat, to Quetta in Pakistan to escape escalating fighting with the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Life was good for a year or so, but then ethnic tensions and attacks mounted. “One day a bomb exploded in a mosque that I had left only five minutes before. About 200 people were killed,” Ali recalls. After he was badly beaten up and robbed of his school books by thugs, Ali decided at just 12 years old to flee.

He knew where he would go. “When I was young, my father used to talk about Greece and he read stories about ancient Greece. It sounded like a nice place, with nice scenery and people,” he says. He did not tell anyone of his plan to leave.

Accompanied by his uncle, also 12, Ali headed to Iran, calling his tearful and anxious mother from the border town of Zahedan. The journey to the Greek islands was much tougher. They climbed mountains, spent time in detention, begged for food and worked to pay off smugglers. They saw others die en route.

With some luck and money wired from home, they joined four adults to buy a dinghy and crossed the straits separating Turkey and Samos Island. Scared of being sent back, they destroyed the boat on the shoreline and headed into town. When they tried to board a ferry without a ticket, the boys were arrested and detained.

When the two boys launched a hunger strike, officials accepted an offer by the Anogia home to take them in. They stayed there until coming of age six years later. They learnt Greek, how to cook and socialize and much more. “The most important thing that I learned was how to become a good man, how to talk to people and communicate,” Ali explains. Now, a funding problem threatens to close Anogia and other shelters despite the growing concern of UNHCR and others.

Since leaving Anogia, which he regards as his home village, Ali has found work, made many friends and lives in an apartment with his Romanian girlfriend. “He’s very popular, especially in our programme,” says an HDA colleague Dimitra Kampeli. He is also taking photography classes and works part-time in a restaurant.

Ali has integrated into Heraklion society and he is seen as a local. “I regard the whole of Crete as my home,” he says. But among all the good that has come his way since his epic journey in 2008, there is one thing missing. “I am a refugee, but I want to apply for citizenship,” he stresses.