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We asked a young Afghan seeking a new life in Europe to take pictures of his family’s journey from Turkey to Switzerland. The photos tell his story

Photography by Mikahil Akbary

Standing on the beach with his relatives, Mikahil Akbary couldn’t see a thing. But he could hear the screams.

It was the early hours of Sept. 2. Mikahil and his family were waiting for a smuggler to tell them when to launch their rubber dinghy from the beach at Bodrum, Turkey, into the pitch-black waters toward Greece, somewhere in the darkness.

This story is part of a special Globe series. Visit the Crossings series page here.

That night, two other dinghies overturned in the eastern Aegean Sea. Twelve asylum seekers drowned. Within hours, the world would know the name Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who was photographed lying dead on the beach.

“We could hear ‘Help! Help!’ but there were no police to help them. It went on for two hours like this. I could hear [the cries] from two directions, but I couldn’t see anyone or anything,” Mikahil remembered later.

Scared off by the screams, Mikahil’s sister, Sweeta, declared she would not take her one-year-old daughter Aysuda into a boat that night. The family left the beach and returned to their temporary encampment across from the main bus station. It was just one of the gusts of fate that would buffet the Akbarys on their long journey from war-torn Afghanistan.

I met the group at the bus station the next day, squatting on pieces of cardboard and using umbrellas to deflect the harsh late-summer sun. They knew all about the Kurdi tragedy, but were vowing to press on – not to Canada, where they have relatives, but to Germany and the better lives they were sure awaited them there.

The Akbary family’s tale is just one among hundreds of thousands of similar stories this year. Europe’s borders have been swamped by the arrival of more than three-quarters of a million asylum seekers since January, and the European Union says it is expecting as many as three million more by the end of 2016.

I was simultaneously impressed and worried by the determination of the Afghans. At my request, the group posed for a photo. Mikahil is second from the right, with his arm around his brother-in-law Murowat. Mohammed Khan, a family friend from the province of Takhar, is second from the left, holding little Aysuda.

Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail

As we continued speaking, Turkish police descended on us, anxious to keep the foreign journalists and the would-be refugees apart, and to quell stories that might damage the country’s vital tourist industry. Before we were separated, I gave Mikahil my business card. I told him I hoped we would meet again. ” Insha’Allah,” he replied calmly. “God willing.” It was the only answer Mikahil could give: Let’s just see what happens next.

I also asked him if he could send some photographs of his journey.

Mikahil did just that, documenting his nine-country odyssey with his iPhone 6 over a September spent crossing borders and countries by boat, bus, rail and foot, and an October and November spent trying to make sense of where he ended up. Here is his story.

TRAVELLING COMPANIONS ON A CHAOTIC PUSH TO FREEDOM

Mikahil Akbary is a 21-year-old law-school grad from Taloqan in northern Afghanistan. The group’s best English-speaker, he is their happy-go-lucky frontman. He fled Afghanistan after being threatened at gunpoint by the Taliban because he worked for a “foreign” organization – the Afghan Red Crescent. Mikahil now works as a (volunteer) translator helping the Swiss government communicate with the 173 asylum seekers currently living in a converted school outside Zurich. He has a degree in Islamic law, but dreams of a career in information technology.

Murowat Mir Ahmad photo

Sweeta Akbary is Mikahil’s 25-year-old sister. A trained teacher, that’s her in the loose headscarf in many of the pics, often clutching daughter Aysuda.

Mikahil and Sweeta have family in Canada: an aunt in Calgary and an uncle in Kitchener, Ont. But their relatives, intimately familiar with the tightening of asylum rules under Stephen Harper’s government after a six-year (eventually successful) struggle to bring another branch of the family to Calgary, told Mikahil’s mother earlier this year that it was “impossible” to sponsor Mikahil and Sweeta as refugees to Canada.

In the aftermath of the federal election, their aunt, Humairo Hassan, said it was too soon to know whether the Liberal victory would have any effect on her efforts to reunite the family in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised Canada will take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. But despite Canada’s long role in Afghanistan – Canadian troops helped to topple the Taliban in 2001, clearing the way for girls like Sweeta, who was 11 at the time, to attend school – there’s no mention of speeding up the acceptance of Afghans.

Murowat Mir Ahmad is Sweeta’s husband. Eighteen months ago, the two moved from Taloqan to Turkey, where Murowat got a job working in a factory. But the salary wasn’t enough to make ends meet, so he convinced Sweeta that they should join the tide to Europe that they were seeing on TV.

Mohammed Khan, a friend and neighbour from back in Afghanistan, frequently co-stars in Mikahil’s selfies.

THE JOURNEY’S FIRST LEG: 45 HEART-STOPPING MINUTES, AND SCREAMS OF ‘LET’S GO BACK!’

Note: Routes between cities are approximate, based on interviews with the refugees.

When the international media descend after Alan Kurdi’s death, the Turkish police begin chasing refugees away from Bodrum, worried about the damage being done to the reputation of one of the country’s top tourist resorts.

Mikahil and his group decide to head to Istanbul where, even though Murowat blamed the Kurdi tragedy on smugglers who piloted the boats, they connect with an Afghan smuggler who promises to get them to the Greek island of Lesbos. The smuggler’s price: $1,000 (U.S.) per adult, with Aysuda allowed to ride for free on her mother’s lap.

On the night of Sept. 11, Mikahil, Sweeta, Murowat and Aysuda join a group of refugees – nearly all of them Afghans – who assemble in a forested area near the coast at Canakkale, another Turkish port city. That’s Mohammed Khan beside Mikahil in the selfies.



They finally leave Turkey on Sept. 12, 48 people packed into an eight-metre-long black dinghy bound for Lesbos. At the smuggler’s request, women and children are positioned in the middle of the boat, with the men in a ring around the outside.









Mikahil’s attempt to chronicle the crossing to Lesbos is thwarted when one of the smugglers spots his phone and shouts at him to stop taking photos. Mikahil says the smuggler threatened to turn the boat around if he saw the phone again. That’s the smuggler with his arm raised (top right) in the photo below.

The journey begins smoothly, but becomes choppy as Canakkale begins to recede. Soon the boat is bouncing, and water begins accumulating in the centre of the craft. Aysuda starts to wail. Sweeta readily identifies it as the worst moment in their long trip to Europe. “I was so scared that I began yelling, ‘Let’s go back!’ ” she later recalled.

After 45 terrifying minutes, the dinghy reaches Lesbos, where Mikahil and the others discard their life jackets on a pile started by those who’d made the journey before them.


Almost everything in Mikahil’s military-camouflage backpack has become soaked through during the boat trip. Anxious not to carry any extra weight, he discards most of his belongings into the water, keeping only a single change of clothes.


As Mikahil photographs their arrival, he notices his Turkish SIM card is still working. He calls home and tells their parents that he, Sweeta, Murowat and Aysuda have made it safely to Greece. His parents sob with relief.

But landfall will prove to be anything but a respite. As they stand on the pebbly shore, Mikahil opens the map on his phone and discovers that they are several hours from Mytilene, the main city on Lesbos, where they need to obtain a permit to board a ferry to Athens, en route to central Europe.

The long column of Afghans marches for four hours before collapsing to sleep outside a gas station along the way, the elation of surviving the boat journey fading in the scorching sun.

Morning comes, and the bedraggled group walks for another two hours before being discovered by a Red Cross car making a regular check for new arrivals. A bus is sent to bring them to Mytilene.


When the group finally arrives, they get their first real look at the staggering impact the refugee crisis is having on some of Greece’s islands. Hundreds of people are sleeping in the streets, holding their places in long lines outside the city’s main police station, where the travel permits are handed out.






Children wail. Small incidents, like someone caught pushing ahead in line, develop into large-scale brawls, often along ethnic and national lines. Iraqis fight Syrians, Afghans fight Pakistanis.

It is also an exception in the trip: Would-be refugees – aware of an EU rule that requires they seek asylum in the country where their arrival is first registered, even if it’s not where they want to end up – otherwise go to great lengths to avoid officialdom during their journeys. But they have no choice: They need those police permits if they are to carry on to Athens.

Finally, Mikahil and his group obtain the necessary permits. On Sept. 15, they board the Blue Star 1, the massive ferry to Athens and five decks of misery and hope. In normal times, the Blue Star 1 runs between Lesbos, Kos and other islands, shuttling tourists between the laid-back resort islands and the vibrant Greek capital.

These days, the Blue Star boats look more like hospital ships than anything associated with a vacation. Exhausted refugees lie on the floors, hugging their belongings for warmth. Children gather around the tables, snacking on the last scraps of food their parents have with them.

Although the ferry companies have a contract from the Greek government to transport the refugees, they still charge as much as 60 euros (about $85) a ticket for the trip to the mainland.

Some staff on the ferries are outright hostile to the refugees. “On the boat, a cup of tea cost five euros. Bottles of water cost five euros,” Mikahil says. “The list said these things cost one euro, but when we asked for one, they said, ‘Five euros.’ ”


THE SECOND LEG: A SCRAMBLE THROUGH THE BALKANS, AND A BAFFLING SEPARATION

Note: Routes between cities are approximate, based on interviews with the refugees.

Within hours of arriving, the refugees – Mikahil counts 52 of them – are loaded on a bus bound for the border with Macedonia. After that, they’re walking again, following the rusted train tracks north into Serbia, bypassing the official border crossings. The entire country is a blur.

Murowat carries Aysuda in his arms while the little girl tries to make sense of the column of people before and behind her. Mikahil lugs the bulk of the family’s remaining belongings in his backpack. He has most of little Aysuda’s clothes, as well as her snacks and other essentials. It’s an arrangement that’s meant to make things easier for his sister and brother-in-law, but one that will cause heartache later on.

The group reaches Belgrade early on Sept. 16 – the same day, barely 200 kilometres to the north, Hungarian riot police use tear gas and batons to repel a group of refugees trying to breach its newly constructed fence along the country’s border with Serbia.

Word quickly spreads through the refugees camped in Belgrade’s Bristol Park, just across from the city’s main bus station, and plans change on the fly. Like thousands of other refugees, the Afghan group is suddenly headed west. The Serbian government arranges a bus from Belgrade to the city of Sid, on the country’s border with Croatia.

From there, they again walk – through fields of head-high stalks of corn, around the formal border crossing between Serbia and Croatia, where they may have to present passports.

It’s only later they learn that parts of the Serbia-Croatia border still haven’t been completely demined since the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

After several hours, they arrive in another place Mikahil and his family have never heard of before: Tovarnik. By morning, Croatian police – as anxious as the Greeks, Macedonians and Serbs to keep the refugees flowing north – are herding them onto a train to the capital city of Zagreb.

By now, the Afghans are physically and emotionally exhausted. Only little Aysuda is still in good spirits.

Suddenly at the vortex of the refugee crisis, the Croatian government – with the help of aid organizations – has set up a refugee processing centre at a converted fairground on the outskirts of Zagreb.

Buses stream in from Tovarnik, each disgorging more people. Before long, the centre is overwhelmed, as the first group of refugees, which includes Mikahil, Sweeta, Murowat and Aysuda, is joined by thousands of new arrivals every day.

On Sept. 17, after two weeks of almost nonstop travel, Mikahil Akbary sleeps in. There is no need to wake up early and press onward, no rush to be in the first group to reach the next border crossing before it closes or the rules about crossing it change again. The family is under the control of Croatian authorities, who will tell them when it is time to board a bus to either Hungary or Slovenia.

Despite sleeping on hard pavement, with only the backpack stuffed with his niece’s clothing as a pillow, Mikahil doesn’t wake until after 11 a.m., feeling refreshed for the first time since leaving Turkey.

And then he notices Sweeta and her family are gone.

At first, he isn’t worried. As a family with children, Sweeta, Murowat and Aysuda had been given sleeping space indoors while Mikahil slept outside. But as the hours go by and he can’t find them anywhere, he becomes increasingly frantic.

Finally, Mikahil finds a Croatian police officer who agrees to help him find out what has happened. After a flurry of calls, he presents Mikahil with some bewildering news: Sweeta, Murowat and Aysuda left the camp during the night, on a bus bound for Hungary. The officer suggests they may now be in Austria.

None of this makes sense to Mikahil. In his backpack he still has nearly all of little Aysuda’s clothing, as well as her ear drops and a bottle of children’s acetaminophen. In the previous night’s conversation, the family hadn’t decided whether they would stick with their original plan to try to apply for asylum in Germany or push on to Switzerland.

Confused and anxious – and with his friend Mohammed Khan, the neighbour from Taloqan, as his last remaining travel companion – Mikahil gets on the next bus bound for the Hungarian border.

THE THIRD LEG: THROUGH AUSTRIA INTO GERMANY – AND A FINAL PUSH ONWARD

Note: Routes between cities are approximate, based on interviews with the refugees.

They are in Hungary for less than an hour before they are put on another bus, this time without even being told where it is headed.

Most of the refugees dread Hungary. They know from news reports that it is the country in which they are most likely to be arrested and perhaps even deported back home. Fear mounts that the bus they are on will take them to some kind of camp inside Hungary.

But as the second bus pulls to a stop, Mikahil checks the map on his phone. The little blue dot that indicates his location is at the border with Austria. “I told the others around me This is Austria! We’re at the border of Austria!’ but no one could believe it because they were still so scared of having their fingerprints taken in Hungary. I asked one of the [Red Cross] staff and they told us ‘Yes, you’re in Austria.’ Then everyone became very happy.”

Soon afterward, Mikahil and Mohammed are among a crowd pushing and shoving for spaces on a bus bound for their dream destination: Germany, at last.


But Germany is destined to disappoint them. They have been lured there with stories of free university tuition and a booming economy. But their first encounter with the country is more down to earth: a school gymnasium in the southern city of Augsburg that has been converted into a temporary settlement packed with several hundred asylum seekers.

After two nights spent sleeping on mattresses on the gymnasium floor, Mikahil gets a call from a fellow Afghan he’d met during the journey from Turkey. The man is in Switzerland, and recommends that Mikahil come there as well; the Swiss are processing far fewer asylum seekers, and doing so in a relatively orderly fashion. Recalling his last conversation with Sweeta and Murowat – in which they’d agreed Switzerland would be their backup plan if Germany didn’t work out – he gets on a train to Zurich.

THE JOURNEY’S FOURTH LEG: AN EMOTIONAL REUNION AND A TOEHOLD IN THE WEST

Note: Routes between cities are approximate, based on interviews with the refugees.

Unbeknownst to Mikahil, who still hasn’t been able to make contact with Sweeta, his sister and her family are also en route to Switzerland.

Murowat Mir Ahmad photo

Murowat Mir Ahmad photo

Murowat Mir Ahmad photo

New migrants in Switzerland are initially taken to an arrival camp, where they must surrender their mobile phones for unspecified “security reasons,” while they await registration. Mikahil spends just a couple of days in his camp, but Sweeta and her family will go phoneless for two weeks while they wait for their spots (other than a single call she is allowed to make to her parents back in Afghanistan).

Still worrying where his sister is, Mikahil is assigned a spot at a school that has been converted into a refugee centre in the farming town of Sonnenbühl, a half-hour’s drive north of Zurich.

The centre is home to 173 asylum seekers. Most are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while a minority hails from an assortment of African countries.

Mikahil is given a bunk in a room with 25 other single men, all of them Syrian Kurds or Afghans. The days are monotonous: breakfast, then German classes for the handful who attend (the lessons are taught English-to-German, so refugees without English skills have little chance to learn the new language). Then lunch. Then afternoon classes. Then dinner, Ping-Pong and conversation until the lights go out around 11 p.m. Then morning comes and it starts all over again.

The refugees buy and cook their own food, with a stipend of 168 francs (roughly $225) that each receives every two weeks from the Swiss government.

Mikahil’s main concern remains finding out what happened to his sister and her family. Shortly after The Globe and Mail makes inquiries with the Swiss government about the family’s whereabouts, Mikahil receives a call from Murowat. They are safe and well, and living in a refugee centre run by the Swiss aid agency Caritas on the outskirts of the city of Lucerne, about an hour’s drive away.

The next day, I drive Mikahil to his reunion with Sweeta and her family. A modest feast of chocolates, dates and cookies has been laid out, and a kettle is boiling when we arrive. Mikahil produces the bag of Aysuda’s clothing, and his sister’s brown eyes widen with relief and delight. Mikahil grabs his little niece first and holds her in a long hug that grows sad as the girl pulls away from the uncle she doesn’t quite seem to recognize.

Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail

As they trade tales of all that has gone on since they saw each other last, the mystery that Mikahil has been trying to understand for weeks is finally solved: Sweeta fell ill – a headache and a fever – on the night of Sept. 16, and was taken to a hospital in Zagreb. After a quick checkup, she and her family were put on a bus to the Hungarian border. Without Croatian SIM cards, they couldn’t even call Mikahil to tell him what was happening.

Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail

Like Mikahil, Sweeta and her family have also been told that they can stay in Switzerland for two to six months, while the Swiss government makes a decision about their application for asylum.

As we drive back to Sonnenbü hl, I ask Mikahil if he thinks he’ll be allowed to stay. He shrugs, and gives me the same answer that he did the first time we met back in Bodrum. “Insha’Allah.”

Let’s see what happens next.

More from the Crossings series can be found here.

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