When you think you’ve arrived you realise that there are many other borders here. Language. The aid. The system says all the time: no documents. Bureaucracy is racist
By María González Reyes¹/ctxt
I know who she is and I approach her. “I’m looking for a seed like this,” she says, showing me an oak acorn in her open hand. It is cold. Above, the winter sun.
I tell her my name. She says hers. Safura. We chat over the snow and trees while her three daughters and son play. “I don’t think they remember anything from the trip,” she says. “They’re waiting for you, Safura, we have to go in,” they warn her.
The room is big enough for us to stand in a circle. “You know, tell only what you feel like sharing, we hope not to ask you any awkward or inappropriate questions, but if you do feel like it feel free to tell us.”
Safura begins to speak.
The reason for my trip was to save my daughters and my life. Afghanistan is very hard for women. I don’t know how old I am, I don’t have any documents. In the villages it’s like that. When you ask her when I was born, she doesn’t answer with a day or a month. She says: you were born when it was snowing or you were born at the time of picking fruit. For many women there is no record of when you are born or when you die. If you are murdered, nobody knows. I was born in one of those small villages in Afghanistan.
I worked in the fields, it was hard work. We were seven sisters and four brothers. I don’t remember my place among them. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t learn to write or read. There were never no Taliban in my village, then or now. That’s why I couldn’t learn school things.
The situation was very difficult so we contacted people who could get us across the border. We had to pay a lot of money. From Afghanistan to Iran. After that, Turkey.
We walked a lot. Crossing borders is walking, walking, walking… There are many attempts. You go. You go back. You go into the forest. Many days. And we arrived in Bulgaria after a long-time walking. Of days without food and water. My eldest daughter was very sick. She was vomiting and very tired. There were times when one of the men we paid carried her on his shoulder like a sack. We couldn’t call for help, they had taken away our phones. We didn’t have the medicines she needed. I thought she was dead. We were caught by the police. I don’t know how she managed to resist. Life won out over death.
Then we went on to Serbia, Hungary and Austria. There we were caught by the police again. We only left my country to save ourselves.
A lot of complicated things happen on the journey. You have time for everything to happen because you are travelling for months until you get there. You walk, walk, walk. For a long time, we travelled in the same group of about twenty people. When we went through the forest to Bulgaria, one family couldn’t go on. We left them there, in the middle of the forest. They had children. I don’t know what happened to that family. It’s difficult to leave. It’s hard to stay with them.
Then Italy, France. Walking. Walk. Walking. Sleeping in the street. In fear. Fear of being turned back, of being sent back, of being beaten. No end in Barcelona. Then Madrid.
But when you think you’ve arrived you realise that there are many other frontiers here. The language. The aid, which lasts a few months but then runs out and you’re back on the street. With your children. You get a small place to live. And you get the eviction notice. But I can’t read the language. The street again. No contract, no chance to rent. No house, no chance of finding work. If you are from Afghanistan, they won’t rent to you or hire you.
I can’t get any help because my children don’t have any documents. They were born at home, they don’t have papers from there or here. But the system requests a family book to be able to grant benefits. My daughters and my son were born at home. My mother was the doctor who treated me. The system says all the time: the documents are missing. The bureaucracy is racist. They still won’t rent to you because you’re from where I’m from. There are many internal borders.
Everything is better now. There were a lot of people along the way who helped us, also to get a house. Here my daughters can study. There, if there are two daughters in the same family, one is forced to marry a Taliban. I couldn’t let this happen to my daughters. Many women are locked up. Their food depends on what the husband brings. No one knows how many women are born. Nobody knows how many women die before their time. There is no register when they are born. There is no register when they die. It’s as if they don’t exist.
They don’t let us come by plane. The borders are very difficult. They kill a lot of people. With gunshots. From exhaustion. Drowned. At the border with Turkey there started to be shooting, I was left alone with the baby and I lost my son and daughter. Other people helped me to find them.
What did you live on in Afghanistan? I know how to survive without buying anything. I had a forest and a vegetable garden there. Land that meant I didn’t go hungry. Here it’s more difficult in that sense, I didn’t know the language, but there are jobs for which you don’t need to know how to speak or write, like cleaning.
When did you leave? I don’t know the month, it was cold. We decided very quickly. We heard that a relative had crossed the border and we went. Nobody in the village knows you’re leaving. If you say so, you can’t leave. The Taliban say that in the dark you can’t leave the house. If you go out and they see you they will kill you.
When did you arrive? I don’t know, it was cold too.
And your daughters and son? I don’t think they remember the trip. I don’t think they remember sleeping in the street or the prisons. There were times when I thought it was better for them to be dead than to have to go through that situation.
Is there anything else you want to say? I don’t tell everything. There are things that if I start talking about them, I can’t stop crying. And I don’t want to. I couldn’t talk to The Nobodies about the hardness of the journey when I arrived and my stomach has shrunk.
What would you have needed when you arrived? First of all, a hug.
What do you need now? To do something for the women of my country. To tell what is happening.
María González Reyes is a writer, an activist with Ecologistas en Acción and a secondary school teacher.