‘I was alone, I had nothing’: from child refugee to student nurse in Athens

By Helena Smith

At some point in his journey to a freer place, Ahtisham Khan came to a fork in the road. Fifty days of travel from his native Pakistan to the plains of northern Greece had been unexpectedly frightening and exhausting.

“We had a lot of dreams,” he says, recalling why he and his brother, Zeeshan, left their village close to the city of Haripur in Pakistan. “We were teenagers … we didn’t know what we were embarking on. We did what we had to do to survive.”

The road divided for the brothers when Khan, then 16, ended up in police detention outside the Greek border town of Orestiada after his fifth attempt to enter the EU from Turkey.

“I was alone, my brother had got across earlier and I had no papers, nothing,” says Khan in the fluent Greek he has learned.

“Then, suddenly, my asylum request was granted and soon I was in a camp, and then a shelter. I was so happy. I said to myself ‘from now on you’ll do nothing illegal. There is a white road and a black road and you’ll take the white road.’”

Now a trainee nurse, Khan says four years on he has watched other lone children who made similar journeys to Europe from Asia, Africa and the Middle East founderalong the way. “They took the road that seemed easier, and ended up living on the streets,” he says. “They get by smuggling drugs, that sort of thing, but it’s a very hard life.”

Greece, long the gateway to Europe for the vast majority of asylum seekers, has an estimated 3,800 child refugees, according to the National Centre for Social Solidarity (EKKA). Of that number, more than 900 live in “insecure housing conditions” – shorthand for sleeping rough under bridges, in parks, on roadsides and public squares, or in squats and other shelters with people they barely know.

Six years after Europe’s migrant crisis erupted, with more than a million people fleeing Syria’s civil war, Athens is finally taking action.

Earlier this month, it unveiled a countrywide “tracing and protection mechanism” with a multilingual hotline to identify homeless children and move them to safe accommodation.

“It’s a very good step and long overdue,” says Sofia Kouvelaki, head of the HOME project, which has housed more than 600 children in 14 shelters across Athens over the last five years.

“Since 2015, there have been so many children who have gone missing because they’ve slipped under the radar and been left unprotected outside any official care system. It’s inexcusable.”

For years, Greece has been criticised by human rights groups for its treatment of unaccompanied minors. The country’s policy of holding youngsters in “protective custody”, often in deplorable and depraved conditions, has been singled out for severe criticism, with damning judgments from the European court of human rights. The controversial practice, condemned for putting children at risk of severe abuse, including sexual assault, was only abolished in December 2020.

The centre-right government of prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which has been much tougher in its handling of migrant and asylum issues than its leftist predecessor, has also faced accusations of discrimination against asylum seekers. Allegations of pushbacks of boatloads of refugees attempting to reach Greece’s Aegean island shores have been widespread.

But Kouvelaki says there has been a marked shift for the better in official policy for lone refugee children. A special secretariat for the protection of unaccompanied minors has been created, with Greece working with other EU states to relocate or reunite children with families.

The first children flew to Luxembourg last year. Efforts to transfer minors from notoriously overcrowded island camps have intensified after devastating fires gutted Moria, Europe’s largest holding centre on Lesbos. About 2,000 unaccompanied children have since been moved to the mainland from Aegean islands.

Irini Agapidaki, the psychologist who heads the secretariat, says the hotline was the latest step in eradicating homelessness. “It’s our key priority,” she told the Guardian. She added that about 1,000 emergency shelters were expected to be up and running by the end of May.

“Now that we have abolished the shameful practice of protective custody, which in reality was an interim measure because we didn’t have enough care facilities, the national mechanism will provide an operational alternative.”

Agapidaki, who assumed the position in February 2020, insisted the secretariat would help prevent other minors from going missing. “The biggest pool of children who end up homeless is in northern Greece because, unlike the islands, there’s no reception centre around the Evros [land] border,” she adds.

Maher Assaf, who fled the conflict in Syria aged 15 with his nine-year-old brother, in Athens.
Maher Assaf, who fled the conflict in Syria aged 15 with his nine-year-old brother, in Athens. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

Teams of social workers and psychologists spent close to a year conducting street work that included interviewing undocumented minors. Many youngsters said they wanted to move into shelters but didn’t know how.

“The hotline works in six languages, as well as in English and Greek, and since its launch there have been lots of calls, including from children,” says Theodora Tsovili, head of the UNHCR child protection unit, who helped conceive the initiative.

“The mechanism is not only a tracing line. It also brings together NGOs working in the field, day centres, emergency accommodation, the asylum service, the public prosecutors for minors and the Greek police. We’ve taken a very holistic approach.”

Khan knows he is lucky to have found shelter in the mostly privately funded HOME project. Like Maher Assaf, who left Syria with his younger brother, Muhammad, at the age of 15, he missed out on years of schooling. “My biggest goal is to get a job as a nurse and become a Greek citizen,” he says.

Assaf, now 20, who has spent almost all his time in Athens housed in a HOME shelter, is still in school, in a class with 16-year-olds.

“We tried 12 times to get into Greece from Turkey, and once spent three days trapped inside a truck after its tyres exploded,” he says in the English he has honed after winning a scholarship for a private college in Athens. “There were 15 people inside and, thank God, there were holes [air vents]. We had to use bottles, you know, to go to the toilet. In the end we called the Turkish police for help.”

The Syrian siblings, who fled as conflict began to engulf the country, thought they would stay in Turkey. For three years they lived in Istanbul, initially in a two-room apartment where 35 people slept on bunk beds in exchange for working odd jobs. Now, Assaf works as a caregiver with HOME in his free time.

In the NGO’s airy offices, amid the banter and laughter, it is easy to forget that the children who have ended up as its wards were propelled by dark forces to embark on high risk journeys.

Khan admits that, while he and his brother also had to leave “because of a dangerous family dispute”, he wonders with hindsight how they survived. “We travelled on foot, and by bus and car, and never knew what the new day would bring. In Iran, the smugglers left us in a village where there wasn’t enough water or food. If I was offered anything,” he says, throwing up his arms, “anything in the world to do it again, I wouldn’t.”

At 19, Dorcas Muke is among the few unaccompanied minors to arrive with a toddler in tow. “For a long time it was so difficult to see why I was living,” she says, explaining that her father helped her flee the Republic of Congo in 2018 by paying for a flight to Turkey. From there she was smuggled with her two-year-old son, Kevin, in a rickety boat across the Aegean.

“The police caught us, the first time, in Izmir [trying to get to the island of Chios] and we spent 15 days in prison. When I arrived here, I was always sad, always stressed. Everyone and everything made me angry. Now, I see it as the past. Part of my past life. I think too much about my future because I want to be another person.”

Today, Muke works in the HOME shelters, and has dreams of becoming a beautician.

Kouvelaki says the biggest challenge for Greece and the EU is “recognising the need” to forge ahead with wholesale integration policies. “In the five years of our operation we’ve only seen children wanting to give back,” she says. “Many of our kids go on to work in our shelters, which has proved to be a great tool for their integration when they come of age. At some point all these children are going to turn 18, and integrating them has to be a priority.”