How an Afghan refugee's path to freedom took another twist in France
When Mark MacKinnon reported on the story of Mikahil Akbary in 2015, he had found a tentative new home in Switzerland, and was holding fast to his dream of a life, one day, in Canada. Then, the winds of fate began to blow once more
When Mikahil Akbary left Afghanistan more than 18 months ago, France was about the last destination he had in mind.
But the 1.6 million refugees and migrants who arrived in Europe over the past two years are not masters of their own destinies. They chose to come to the continent, but everything since has been decided by others.
Little decisions are made by the bureaucrats who decide on individual asylum applications; big ones, by voters who have blown European politics in an increasingly anti-immigrant direction.
In Mr. Akbary's case, the gusts of fortune have taken him from his native Afghanistan to Turkey, where I met him in the resort town of Bodrum, the day after photographs of Alan Kurdi's tiny dead body captured the attention of the world. Mr. Akbary had an easy, happy-go-lucky nature, and – during our brief conversation before Turkish police intervened – Mr. Akbary agreed to send me selfies and photos from the rest of his journey.
He was headed toward Germany, along with his sister Sweeta and her family, but they later made a snap decision to go to Switzerland instead. I had last met Mr. Akbary at a refugee settlement outside Zurich, and helped him reconnect with his sister, after they had been separated during their chaotic push through the Balkans.
When I saw the family reunited in Switzerland, I thought the tale of these refugees had come to a happy ending.
But last spring, Mr. Akbary was deported nearly 1,000 kilometres back in the opposite direction – on a technicality concerning which country should handle his asylum case – to Croatia. Undeterred, he simply started walking again, this time toward Paris.
All along, the distant dream was, and remains, Canada, where he has relatives.
Now the 23-year-old has a foothold on the outskirts of the French capital, but the winds of fate have hardly stopped blowing. The country, which recently accepted Mr. Akbary's asylum application and granted him a one-year residence permit, is bracing for a presidential election that could come down to a head-to-head battle between the centrist Emmanuel Macron, who wants to see France keep its borders open, and the surging far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, who prefers the term "illegal immigrant" to "refugee" and has called for all those who arrived in 2015 and 2016 to be deported.
In other words, Mr. Akbary's stay could again be a temporary one.
France is one of the few European countries still accepting new refugee claims, in part because the French government came under pressure from other European Union members after taking in a relatively paltry number of people while countries like Germany and Sweden were overwhelmed with arrivals in late 2015.
Mr. Akbary says he's just one of a significant number of asylum seekers who arrived in France after being rebuffed by other European countries, seeing the country's partially open door as a last opportunity to legally stay on the continent.
While some seeking asylum in France have spent months or even years sleeping in makeshift camps – most famously in the recently closed "Jungle" refugee settlement in the northern port of Calais – Mr. Akbary's case was rapidly accepted as soon as French authorities verified that he was an ethnic Tajik from northern Afghanistan, a group seen at risk amid a Taliban resurgence in recent years.
"It's better here than in Switzerland, than in any of the other European countries," Mr. Akbary says of France, before adding a laughing caveat: "Maybe because there are fewer refugees."
He proudly shows off the one-year resident's permit and health card issued to him by the French government after his asylum case was approved in December, and walks me up a hill in his Suresnes neighbourhood on the western outskirts of Paris, to a tram station with a view of the Eiffel Tower. It's a tram line Mr. Akbary takes four days a week on the way to his French classes in the city centre.
" Ça va bien," he says, as we take in the view. He speaks slowly and carefully in the unfamiliar language. But his smile comes quick and easy.
Mr. Akbary's stamp of approval from the French government is just the latest twist in his long journey from his hometown of Takhar.
His flight began in the summer of 2015, after a Taliban fighter pulled Mr. Akbary out of an Afghan Red Crescent vehicle at gunpoint and told him he would be killed if he continued volunteering at the "foreign" organization.
Turkey, where his sister and her family were already living, was supposed to be his place of refuge. Mr. Akbary – who has a degree in Islamic law from Takhar University, but dreams of becoming an IT professional – says he would have stayed there and gone to university if he could have afforded the student fees.
The plan was to apply from Turkey for resettlement to Canada. But as borders seemed to disappear in the chaotic summer of 2015, Mr. Akbary and his sister decided to join the tide of people heading toward Europe, and specifically Germany, which had just abolished tuition fees for undergraduate students. (Tuition fees were reintroduced this fall for students from non-EU countries, after more than 1.1 million asylum-seekers arrived in Germany over 2015 and 2016.)
Some twists of fate proved fortuitous for Mr. Akbary and his family. They might not be alive today had the screams of drowning refugees not warned them to stay out of the choppy waters of the Aegean Sea in the dark early hours of Sept. 2, 2015. That morning, the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed ashore at Bodrum, the same place from which Mr. Akbary and his family had been due to set off in their own flimsy rubber dinghy.
After finally making the crossing to Greece from another part of Turkey, Mr. Akbary and Sweeta – along with her husband, Murowat, and their one-year-old daughter, Aysuda – trudged north via Macedonia and Serbia to Croatia, where fate intervened again.
The four were taken to a makeshift refugee-processing centre outside the Croatian capital of Zagreb. While Sweeta, Murowat and Aysuda were given space to sleep inside the converted festival hall, Mr. Akbary was made to spend the night outside with the other single men.
The family was split up that night when Sweeta fell ill and was taken to hospital. After her treatment, she and her family were put on a bus to the Hungarian border, with no way to contact Mr. Akbary to tell him what was happening. Crucially, the group had agreed beforehand that they would all head toward Switzerland if they ever got split up.
But they arrived at separate times and in different cantons of Switzerland, so Mr. Akbary's asylum application was treated by Zurich authorities as a case distinct from that of Sweeta and her family in Lucerne.
Last spring, Mr. Akbary received a letter telling him that the Swiss authorities believed he had been fingerprinted for processing in Croatia, meaning that Croatia – not Switzerland – was responsible for assessing his asylum case. He was briefly jailed, then put on a Croatia Airlines plane by two Swiss police officers, who apologetically escorted him back to Zagreb.
"I told them I never gave fingerprints [in Croatia]. When we got to Zagreb, the [Swiss] police just said, 'Sorry, it's our job,'" Mikhail says.
Getting rebuffed by Switzerland was a shock. Mr. Akbary had spent six months learning German, and though he disliked the refugee centre outside Zurich – where the asylum seekers were kept largely isolated from the local population, their comings and goings monitored – he was happy to be a couple of bus rides away from his sister and her family.
Mr. Akbary says he met with Croatian immigration officials, who claimed they were just as confused as he was about why he had been sent there. He says they told him that the Swiss government – eager to look tough amidst a surge in support for anti-immigrant far-right political parties – regularly sent "seven or eight" asylum-seekers to Croatia every day, usually on dubious grounds.
The Croatian police advised Mr. Akbary that he could either apply for long-term refugee status in the country, or try again to head north.
Determined to live closer to his sister and her family, he chose the latter option.
Last May, Mr. Akbary and three others sneaked north into tiny Slovenia, another country that has turned hostile to refugees after seeing its borders overwhelmed during the 2015 influx, eventually erecting a barbed-wire fence along most of its frontier with southern neighbour Croatia.
Mr. Akbary and his friends crossed through a densely forested part of the border where there was no fence, but – haunted by tales they'd heard of Slovenian vigilantes hunting down migrants and forcing them back across the border – they didn't dare pause.
The group spent one full day and two sleepless nights walking through Slovenia – one of their party gave up along the way, and returned to Croatia – before reaching an unmonitored part of the Italian frontier. From there, the remaining trio took a train toward the French border, which they again crossed on foot before reaching the city of Nice, where they caught a train to Paris.
Mr. Akbary just shakes his head when I ask him to calculate how far he has walked since leaving Afghanistan, and whether his feet hurt. "In Afghanistan, this is part of our culture," he says. I'm not sure whether he means the walking or the stoicism.
He spent two nights sleeping on the streets of the French capital before police took him to the three-floor centre in Suresnes, where he was given a bed in a small room with two roommates from Afghanistan. Afghans and Sudanese make up most of the building's 200-plus residents. They get three meals a day in addition to a monthly stipend of 210 euros (about $290) from the French government.
But the biggest thing the refugees are given in Paris – that they don't receive in Switzerland – is freedom. Mr. Akbary still marvels at the fact that no one seems to care what he does with his days, and that his health card entitles him to receive care at any clinic or hospital in France.
Mr. Akbary says his only problems have come from his fellow refugees. Raised in a secular family – he's clean-shaven and doesn't regularly attend mosque – he has been unnerved by other Afghan residents of his building who have tried to pressure him into showing more piety. "They come to me and say, 'Why don't you pray? You must go to mosque or you are a kaffir [infidel].'"
Mr. Akbary has avoided the issue by staying away from the refugees' dormitory during the day. He's perhaps naively confident that the new arrivals will eventually adapt to French society. "They are new here. They don't know the culture of this country," he says. "They will change after more than one or two years."
That's far from a certainty in France, a country already struggling to integrate a large population of Muslims of North African descent. Tensions are still high in and around Paris, after the city was hit by a pair of major terrorist attacks in 2015 that were led by radicalized French and Belgian Muslims.
Those atrocities, which killed upward of 140 people, have helped fuel the rise of Ms. Le Pen, who has blamed French Muslims for refusing to integrate, and says the country can simply take no more immigrants.
"In France, there is this Islamophobic dimension, entrenched for some, that has grown with the terrorist threats," says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "One of the big arguments against taking in more people is 'We don't know who they are.'"
Mr. Akbary says he pays little attention to French politics. But he has a ready plan for the moment if and when he's again told to leave the country he thought he might be able to call home.
"Maybe now that I have my [French] ID, I can apply again to go to Canada," he says.
He smiles, as though he expects that's exactly what will eventually happen. If nothing else, his journey so far has taught him not to rule anything out.
Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's senior international correspondent, based in London. Follow him on Twitter: @markmackinnon
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