Outgoing and confident, 16 year-old Serdar* has managed to teach himself fluent English. “It’s necessary,” he says, He has achieved that just from the internet, from talking to people he has met on his journey from Afghanistan to Greece, and his months in different refugee sites.
“I wanted to improve my English - I knew a little at home - and so I did. My father says that if someone wants to get something, they can, if they try hard enough. He wanted to go to school himself, but he never could because of the critical situation in Afghanistan. So he focused on me.”
Surviving the journey to Europe
It’s this positive attitude that helped Serdar survive the hardships of the long road to safety in Europe. Now, he is staying in downtown Athens, at a shelter for unaccompanied boys run by UNICEF’s partner SOS Children’s Villages, with the financial support of the European Union. The shelter provides more than a roof over his head. There, he can get a range of services including psychosocial support, assistance with his legal needs, access to education and recreational activities. More importantly at the shelter, he is building relationships of trust with the staff and the other children.
Serdar is one of the lucky ones. Some 2 000 unaccompanied children are estimated to be in Greece, and about 890 are still waiting for safe accommodation due the shortage of available beds. Frustrated by the delays in processing their asylum, relocation or family reunification applications, many unaccompanied children show signs of understandable stress and anxiety, which may result in aggressive behaviours or depression. Those who lose patience with waiting for legal channels of movement may resort to using smugglers in their quest to find security which exposes them to even greater risks.
Every night, every second I am thinking of my family. It is not easy to survive without your family
When in difficulty, Serdar finds comfort in speaking to his father through the support of the shelter which provides children with access to phone or internet to help promote maintenance of family links. “I manage to speak to him every week or two. He works as a security guard near where we live, about 30 minutes outside Kabul. He says - ‘Don’t let a bad day become a bad life’.”
Serdar has experienced many hardships in his young life. “I left my family one year ago,” the boy explains. “There is a big problem at home with the religion – over whether you are Sunni or Shia. I am a Shia Hazara , and my older brother was killed by the Taliban. My father was really worried about me. He loves me so much, but he couldn’t lose another son. He raised money for me to leave, with no plan on where to go except to safety.”
He left Afghanistan with the support of smugglers – traveling clandestinely in a car together with 21 other people. The car seemed like a “moving grave” to him, transferring him to the flimsy boat which took him across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Serdar faced homelessness and many other risks prior to being identified by the child protection authorities and placed in the shelter run by SOS Children’s Villages, with UNICEF’s support.
“The wellbeing and safety of unaccompanied children is among the utmost priorities in our response in Greece,” says Galit Wolfensohn, UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection in the country. “To achieve that, we are working with the authorities and civil society actors to strengthen the national referral mechanism for unaccompanied children, provide them with urgently needed shelter and protection services, and investing in strengthening the quality of care, which will have a long-term impact for the system as a whole.”
With funding from the European Commission, UNICEF supports three shelters for unaccompanied children in Lesvos and in Athens. At the one where Serdar is staying, the manager is Mohammed Vahedi.
“Creating an environment where he can feel safe was our first priority when we met Serdar,” explains Mohammed. “Like all children placed with us, we started by putting him in touch with a social worker, a psychologist and a lawyer. When you establish a framework that supports children, it brings out the best in them. Serdar in particular did not need much assistance: he is kind, sociable and self-motivated. He takes life in his own hands.”
Have a big heart, and bring peace to others
With his excellent English skills, Serdar is busy helping other Afghan refugees negotiate administrative hurdles and daily life in Greece. He teaches English both at the shelter and at a volunteer-run daily centre for refugees. “We should all help and try to give more. Bringing help and happiness to those with lots of problems, shows that we are all human beings.”
He dreams of moving to France or London, and of studying medicine at Oxford University. Now he helps at a little clinic in Exarchia Square, translating for a Spanish doctor who is treating refugees. “Have a big heart, and bring peace to others,” Serdar advises.
At the shelter, he feels supported, like a second family. But life away from his biological family is sometimes takes it toll. “Every night, every second I am thinking of my family. It is not easy to survive without your family,” he says.
*Names changed for protection reasons.