Photo essay on the refugee crisis on Lesbos

Part I: The Family from Afghanistan
November 2015

During 2015, over a million people tried to flee to Europe by sea, and over three thousand died trying. Rana Azad is three years old when she and her family arrive on the shores of Lesbos.

The picture of the girl was taken in the chaos that ensued when several reached the shores of the small village of Skala Sykamineas on Lesbos Island, Greece. I was captivated by her eyes and took a picture, and instantly lost her in the masses of volunteers and refugees. I later learned that it was Vigdis Austrheim, a Norwegian volunteer, who carried her while her family were climbing out of the small rubber raft that barely managed to get them and 60 other people safely from Turkey to the shores of Greece. Her name is Rana Azad, and she will soon turn 3 years old.

Her intensive gaze has captivated. What is her story, I wonder, when I look at the picture later in our car.

In November, I travelled to Lesbos together with reporter Ann-Sofi Berger and a human aid team from Finland called Nada Nord. I and reporter Ann-Sofi from Österbottens Tidning in Jakobstad, Finland, were assigned to follow Nada Nord report extensively on their work. One of our main goals was to give more insight into the situation on Lesbos. We knew that we wanted to publish a story with people's names - giving them the status of "real" people" - and their backstories, and not only a story with anonymous faces passing by. This is what we experienced.

Many boats came in at Skala Sykamnieas, on the eastern side of the northern shores of Lesbos. The work of receiving them is much easier, though demanding, during the day when it's warm, easy to see and their clothes can dry fast. The people in the boats are generally in a good mood on a day like this, and it's easier for the volunteers to organize. The white building in the background is the village church. The Azad family arrived in a boat like this one.

It frustrates me that I couldn't find her among the masses afterwards to talk with the girl's family. I really wanted to publish the image, and accompany it with a more personal story so it wouldn't be yet another anonymous face. It's not often we get to know the story behind the faces of powerful images of refugees.

I had been on the northern beaches of Lesbos for three days with the team from Nada Nord, the human aid organization from Finland I travel with, when I took the picture. The next day we decided to drive to the registration camp by the town of Moria to see what we could do to help. We get up early on a sunny and warm morning - but it's hard to enjoy the beauty of Lesbos when you know what's occurring all around you. We pack our car with clothes, food and shoes for the people who will need them and start driving south. It takes us about an hour to drive from our hotel, which is close to the Northwest beaches by the town.

An Autumn day, sunny and hot, and I am still thinking about the small girl as we park our car filled with the provisions for the refugees outside the Moria Refugee Camp. The camp is very calm, since only a few boats landed at the northern shores the night before. Suddenly, I see a refugee family looking around helplessly as they wander around the entrance to what the volunteers call the "Afghan Hill",. It is in that moment that I lay my eyes on the small girl I had photographed the day before. Her father walks towards us and asks in English if we know where he can find nightly shelter for his children.

The girl's name is Rana Azad, and she is soon to turn 3 years old. Her father's name is Abdul Hadi, and his wife's name is Spozima - they are Pashtuns, the ethnic group of people from Afghanistan. Ann-Sofi Berger, the reporter I travel with, and I walk along with them while we are trying to find some official to ask about their situation. We decide that we want to do an interview with this family.

Abdul Hadi and Spozima used to live in Kandahar, and have a family of seven children. Rana is the youngest, and her eldest sister's name is Farah Naz, while the others are called Robina, Tamana and Hilla. They are all very curious, with smiles on their faces, as they ask questions in English about me and the rest of our group.

"I am Hilla. What is your name?" Hilla asks me with a shy but happy smile. "Kasper," I respond calmly, while we walk towards some officials of the camp. "That is a beautiful name," she answers. I keep talking with them for a few minutes, trying to learn more about them.

They have two brothers. Zubir and Rayad. The 16-year-old Zubir is straight forward and speaks English well, a language he has studied for several years. He has taken on a big responsibility for the family and helps his father to tell their story. They want to share it, even if it is hard for them to tell us everything..

Abdul Hadi tells us that it doesn't matter if it takes a year or two before they get asylum - staying in Afghanistan is not an alternative for the family.

They tell us about how they had had to leave Afghanistan, where Abdul Hadi had a good job as a video editor for the TV-channels in the country. Zubir had just finished school and was working for his father. They had a life very similar to what we are used to in the west: a house, a car and a good secure life. After the Talibans took control of Kandahar they wanted to control everything. They have killed several of the family's relatives, among them the children's uncle who was brutally executed. Abdul Hadi was threatened because of his work at the TV-studio.

I asked Zubir what he likes to do in his spare time, and he answers that most of all he wants to play football with his friends. His father had deemed it too dangerous being outside in Kandahar, which resulted in regular quarrels between the two. The daughters in the family were often stopped and harassed by the Taliban (?) on the way to school.

In the end, it got too dangerous for them to stay, so they left with the money they had saved. They tried to travel through Iran to Turkey, but on the first attempt they were caught and imprisoned at the Iranian-Turkish border. They don't talk much about it, and it is easy to understand that the experience was horrific, but Zubir tells us that the family sat in jail for ten days in Iran. He expresses his anger towards the guards and doesn’t hold back on the aggravation he feels at the way they were treated.

"We had to sleep like this!" Zubir says angrily, and demonstrates by crawling into a sitting position with his arms around his legs.

When they finally were released, the guards had taken everything from them, including their money and their phones. Without financial help from an uncle in the USA, it would have been close to impossible for them to travel further. On their second attempt, they managed to cross the border without incident. They walked for 24 hours over rocky mountains into Turkey.

In the video below, you can see a small part of their journey in the mountains.

– While walking over the mountains, we did not sleep. We had no food and very little water. We got ill. But my children are strong and brave - our people are strong, says Abdul Hadi proudly.

On the Turkish side of the border they travelled by car to Istanbul, where they stayed for 19 days. There they bought passage into Greece from human smugglers.

– Getting passage was easy. We paid 700 dollars per person.

The smugglers placed the family in a rubber raft with 60 other people. Ann-Sofi and I ask them why they didn't back out when they saw how dangerous it was.

– We were pushed together as animals, frightened that the boat would sink, but we could not leave the boat - then they would have shot us. It was horrible, everyone was crying, says Zubir.

I ask them how they were able to navigate across the waters. "They gave the task of steering the boat to one of the refugees, and pointed in the direction we needed to go. They told us to follow the noise of people."

The journey by boat took roughly two hours, and went well, everything considered. The video below was taken on the 19th of November, 2015 by Zubir when the family reached the shores of Lesbos.

We couldn't leave the boat - or else they would have shot us.

Abdul Hadi and his eldest son Zubir.

"The Talibans have killed several of the family's relatives, including the children's uncle who was executed brutally."

One day after landing on the shores of Lesbos, the family travels to Moria Refugee Camp that lies on the southern part of the island. The refugees are transported by buses, organized by the volunteers, from two different locations. In an old prison outside the village of Moria, the government has established one of the two registration camps on the island. All refugees have to register in order to leave the island and travel in Europe and apply for asylum. The first step is to take the ferry to Athens from Mytilini.

There they receive free queue tickets from the police who are overseeing the queuing process and keeping order. But since the family has some money left, they buy tickets from other refugees that are poorer to pass the queues. These refugees who sell the tickets have waited up to six days outside the camp, and try to earn some money by selling their tickets, and then they start queuing all over again. For the Azad family, it cost them 15 euro per person. Some of the refugees tell us they had to wait over a week to get into the registration camp - which forces them to sleep in tents outside.

They sit down in the queuing area and wait by the fence that surrounds the registration office. By the side of the gate that is opened from time to time to let in a few, stands a sign with a date. That date has to be on your ticket if you want to be let in on that specific day. While we wait, we talk some more with the family members.

The Azad family's 17-year old daughter Robina tells Ann-Sofi that it is hard to live and study in Afghanistan. Abdul Hadi tells us how he taught his children English at home and how he wants his children to get a good education. Apart from his mother tongue, he himself speaks Pashto, Persian, Russian, Urdu and English.

Zubir also wants to study, but he is constantly worried about where the family is going to travel and apply for asylum. Both Zubir and Abdul Hadi asks us about different countries, their education systems and if we know where they can get help. We try to explain how complicated the situation is in Finland and Scandinavia, especially after Sweden recently closed its borders to Denmark. In Finland only a few Afghans get asylum each year. Finland's evaluation of the situation in Afghanistan is constantly changing, and it affects the possibilities of getting asylum.

A Finnish volunteer who speaks their language walks by and asks them if they are all right or if they are having any problems. Abdul Hadi waves the comment away with a smile.

– No, no, this is not a problem. We have seen problems.

Abdul Hadi gave us videos he had shot with his phone.

Zubir keeps an watching eye on the family while his father is occupied with us.

The Azad family is quite fortunate in several ways. They have had money to pay for their journey, they know several languages, they are educated and verbal. They strive forward and are strong together. Many refugees come alone, or with a single relative or a friend. Many have been forced to leave the ones closest to them behind.

Still, this family is very vulnerable. The grown-ups have yet no ways to make money. The seven children have different needs that need to be addressed. According to Abdul Hadi, his wife has been depressed since her brother was killed by the Talibans, and he hopes that she can get the help she needs.

They barely have any rights. They don't know which country will receive them, which language they have to learn or which cultural shocks they are going to experience. It's not often that they know where they will be able to sleep during the night or what food they will be able to get their hands on.

In spite of their dire situation, the nine members of the Azad family still have the ability to laugh. Moreover, they believe in and hope for a brighter future even though they have lost everything - except each other.

Abdul Hadi Azad and his daughter Rana are waiting to be let in and be registered at the camp so that they can travel further in Europe. Moments before, Abdul Hadi bought queueing tickets from other refugees that will let them pass into the registration camp the same day they arrived. The police tell us later that they have tried to stop the black market, but that it is hard to control.

16-year old Zubir Azad seem in many way older than he is. He has taken a lot of responsibility for the family.

Even after everything they have been through, Rana is able to play and smile. This is the last picture I took of the family before we parted and they entered the registration camp. While they transferred video material to our computers and phones, we exchanged contact information. We learned a few weeks after we separated that the Azad family had reached Germany just in time before the borders closed at Macedonia. There, they had to wait in different camps to finally be able to apply for asylum.

In August 2016, they live in an apartment of their own while they wait for the decision to be made regarding their asylum. Abdul Hadi says he does not care whether it takes one year or more - they are safe, for now.