Laila Keeling & Anjali Zyla
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I was born in Afghanistan but left the country once the Taliban first took over. My family and I escaped to Pakistan, where I continued school. I returned to Afghanistan in 2003 after the United States entered the country and my family was able to return. I then attended university in Kabul, where I studied Russian literature. At first, I didn’t want to study Russian literature, but I took an exam before entering university that matched me with the literature field. I wanted to get a field more like journalism or computer science, but it just happened that I studied literature. I had a choice in which language I wanted to learn, so I chose Russian because I didn’t know it already. I speak somewhere between 7-8 languages now. I can speak Arabic, English, Pashto, Farsi, Urdu, and Russian, but I can also understand Hindi and Ukrainian because they’re so similar to the languages I already speak. It’s been helpful to speak so many languages, especially after I left Kabul.

I left Afghanistan in 2015 when I was around 25 years old. I had just finished university and decided to leave because of the security issues at the time. My family is very prominent in Afghanistan, with all of my siblings involved in politics or the media. My sister is a well-known politician in Afghanistan, so her life has been in danger since the Taliban came, especially in the past six months. She has traveled a lot in the past to countries like the United States or Germany for political events, and she ended up fleeing to Canada because they offered her a visa. My brother worked as an interpreter for NATO for ten years, so he was able to go to the United States in 2014 and now lives in North Carolina. When we were all in Afghanistan, we lived in the heart of Kabul in a very political area with all of the foreigners and government buildings. We would see fighting in our neighborhood every day. When the German embassy was bombed, the glass windows on our house were broken from the blast. So, I had to leave because of all of these security threats.

I traveled to Russia by myself and planned to just pass through the country on the way to Norway, which is where I originally wanted to end up. Unfortunately, I became very sick in Russia and was in the hospital for several months, including two months in a coma. I had many operations during this time and even lost my life at one point. I consider this to be my second life now.

I thought I was going to die many times in Russia. One night, I was in such intense pain that someone called the ambulance for me. The ambulance came, but they told me that without documents they wouldn’t be able to take me to the hospital. They just gave me some painkillers. Then, in the middle of the night, I felt more pain. The ambulance came back, but it did not take me again. The pain kept getting worse, and finally, a third ambulance came that took me to the hospital. I entered the hospital under a different person’s name, someone who was my same age and also from Afghanistan. It was like God himself had given me this person who was so similar to me. I ended up having some kind of pancreatic damage which caused me to fall into a coma, but after several operations, I felt better and was able to leave the hospital.

I was not very successful in traveling through Russia. I needed some additional document that I didn’t have, so they told me I would have to deport myself within one month and not return for five years. If I didn’t leave within the month, I would be sent to jail. A lot of people I knew were sent to jail if they weren’t able to leave. So, I had to leave the hospital right after my operations to be able to leave Russia in time. I found some people who were helping refugees to cross the country because Russia is so big, so they took me to the western border. I decided to try to cross into Finland rather than Norway because Norway closed the border to refugees while I was in Russia, and I heard Finland would be a good opportunity to make it into Europe.

But Finland also partially closed their border during this time. I was there with a lot of other refugees, and we were left outside in the freezing cold. It was -40 degrees Celsius at the time, and many people from places such as India or Africa were not used to those temperatures. I was lucky because I had some good warm clothes from my time in Russia. We tried to find different places to stay, but many places would not allow refugees inside at all. We were able to find some private places to stay, but it was very difficult to find anywhere that would permit us. We went to several hotels, but all of them refused to let us stay, even though it was often late at night and freezing weather. Three refugees who were there with me died from the cold one night after sleeping in a car.

My health situation was still not good at the time. I still had an open wound from my operations, and the bandages that wrapped my stomach were filled with blood. Some Finnish journalists saw me and did an interview with me because I looked so bad and I spoke Russian and English. The journalists were doing a story on all of the refugees stuck there after the border closed, so I helped translate for them for people from different countries that spoke any of the languages that I spoke. The journalists took pity on me, I think, and helped me cross the border without standing in the line. They talked with the police and then took me through in their car. Only 50-60 people were allowed to enter Finland every day from Russia, and even then they were only allowed to cross the border by car. It was really good that they helped me cross the border because if I stayed even a week longer they would have thrown me in jail. One family I knew was stuck in the Russian jail for one year with their small children and then deported back to Afghanistan. They don’t have any mercy for people from these countries, from Nepal or Bangladesh or Syria or wherever.

Once I got to Finland, they took me to a police station because I was full of blood. I was in a really bad situation at the time. I had two bolts in my stomach and pus coming out from several places. The police searched me all over but didn’t help me at all. I told them I needed a nurse or some kind of hospital to clean my wound, and they just told me to go to the showers to wash my wound. I even explained to them all of the reasons I had to leave Afghanistan and showed them papers to prove the security threat, but they had no sympathy for my situation. At the time, all of the focus was on Syrian refugees, so they were ignoring people from different countries. I was never able to get the next operation that I needed while I was in Finland, but my wound got better over time.

Even as my wound healed, my mental health worsened. I struggled with really bad depression and anxiety and lots of things. I would sleep for 18 hours straight sometimes as if I was a drug user. I was consistently denied treatment and asylum in Finland, so it was really hard to stay hopeful there. I was there for almost two years and switched camps three times. I stayed mostly in the north part of Finland because I entered from an area near Kovdor at the Russian border. The camps there were very crowded because the borders were open to Syrian refugees for a long time, so they would house 15-16 people in a single room. In the second camp where I lived for six months, there were about 300 men total in one camp.

I tried to help as many people as I could while I was in the camp there. I am a very social person, so I would try to talk to everyone in their own language. Most of the refugees were not educated or literate, so it was often hard for them to do things such as paperwork. So, I worked with the social workers to help translate for people there. I also love to cook for other people, so I spent a lot of time in the camp cooking.

I had to leave Finland because I was close to deportation. I had received three negative answers from the immigration office, even after I had an interview with the high court where I explained everything to them. But they didn’t listen, so I just had to keep waiting. Everyone was saying that I should get a residency permit quickly because of my situation. When I got a negative response from the immigration office, even the social workers and the security guards were crying for me. I really struggled a lot during this time with depression because of the constant stress of potential deportation.

I saw a lot of people get deported in Finland. In the middle of the night, police would come and yell at people to get out, sometimes even kicking them. One of my friends in the camp passed away in the middle of the night from health problems, and the police came in the morning and deported the people he was traveling with. I don’t know if they were family members, but they were all from the same city in Nepal, so I would help translate for them. I tried to fight for them, because we all thought, What are you doing? At least let the tears dry before you deport the others.

I left the refugee home in Finland to avoid getting deported. I used Google maps to find my way to Germany, traveling through Stockholm and Copenhagen by bus and train. In Sweden, I had to stay an extra two weeks because I was there at the same time that a person drove a truck into a crowd in 2017. People were scared of refugees and brown skin and so they closed the border to search for anyone without documents. One of my Finnish friends told me that I should stay in Stockholm for a little while to avoid being beaten or put in jail, so I stayed there for two weeks.

I arrived in Germany in mid-2017. It wasn’t too hard to get here, and I didn’t have any problems with the police. The only problem was that they sent me to Eisenhüttenstadt, a camp near the Polish border, even though I told them that I wanted to be in Berlin because I speak English and I needed medical treatment. But it was okay because I was in Eisenhüttenstadt for only one or two months, so it was a relatively short time. I tried to help the other people while I was there, translating or doing their shopping, whatever I could. The social workers told me to slow down, that I needed time to myself so that I had enough energy. But I can’t refuse someone who’s knocking on my door at 10 pm with no family or relatives and asking for help. If I did not open the door, could I count myself as human? The social workers eventually started paying me 80 cents per hour for the work I did, but it was just some extra money for me and not the reason that I did it.

During my time at Eisenhüttenstadt, I was going through the asylum application procedure. I had several people write character recommendations for me and submitted those along with proof of my situation to the immigration office, but they told me that I needed to go back to Afghanistan. So, I kept fighting, trying to find any organization, church, or lawyer that would help. I would carry all of my documents, maybe 20 or 30 kilos worth of documents, around Berlin. Finally, I found an organization called Xenion in Berlin. I had been helping translate for a woman from Chechnya, and she told me about them. I visited them and had a short interview with a nice lady there. She listened to my story and then gave me advice on how to stay in Germany and get help. From there, we just worked step by step. I got a residence title for one year, but I’m not certain that I will be able to get it again next year. They may send me back to my country again.

After Eisenhüttenstadt, I was sent to a second camp, where I stayed for around eight months. Then I came here to Luckenwalde at the beginning of 2018. This home has not been too bad so far. It is much nicer than in Finland because there are only three men per room. If you are lucky, you get a good roommate. Otherwise, it can get annoying if they’re being disrespectful when you want to sleep.

I have seen a few problems here. I’ve had to call the police several times because of some complaints that I had, like people stealing money or smoking inside the room. This kind of stuff is natural. There are people everywhere who do these activities. But the police would never respond to our reports, so I had to defend myself. I would say, I am going to the High Court directly. If there is no one else caring for you, you must do it yourself.

I also had to try really hard to get a single room here because of my health problems. In 2018, I finally had the operation on my stomach that I needed in Berlin. They put some kind of mesh and clamps inside my stomach to keep it together afterwards, so my entire body was affected by this operation. Several times, I mailed evidence of my medical situation to the office so that I could live alone, but no one responded. Just after the operation, I got moved to a different room across the hall. I did it, of course, because they were giving my old room to an African family. But no one was listening, no one was thinking, Oh this person is sick, he should stay. I was finally able to get a single room last year, but they keep trying to move more people into my room. This is the experience of my life, or maybe I could say most of refugee life.

I also struggled a lot in the first few years here with learning the language. The stress from my sickness and subsequent treatment made it hard to concentrate on anything. Sometimes I would try to study on my own, but it was difficult because of the pain. I would like to learn German, and I should be able to. I learn different languages all the time; I even learned my own language again when I moved back to Afghanistan as a kid. Still, it’s hard to learn on your own.

I just received a permit to work from the Job Center three months ago finally. I think they want me to go straight to work so that I can make money and pay for myself and, of course, taxes. But first I would like to improve my German. I want to reach a B2 level and then go to university to become some kind of social worker or teacher. A lot of people have advised me that while I am here, I need to do something with my life, get some kind of job so that I can have a comfortable life here. I tell them, I just need access to a German class and then I will be able to learn enough to work.

After being in this country for five years, I was finally able to start my A1 German course just yesterday. The Job Center officially allowed me to take it, but I don’t understand why it took so long. Why would they play with people like that? People’s hopes and lives rest on the language, so why would you make it so difficult? I want to go to university or some kind of higher education so that I can have a good life here, but first I need to learn the language. I heard from a friend that even the university has a limitation for refugees; past the age of 36, I won’t receive any support from the Job Center. So I need to learn German quickly to be able to attend university in Germany.

My German course is good. It’s almost full-time for the next 8 months, and hopefully I will finish B1 in that time. I am surprised by how many Ukrainians there are in my class. How do some people get so lucky that they receive access to everything in the first few weeks, while I had to fight for five years? I’m not complaining about it, but it is crazy to me. I speak with a lot of them in Ukrainian during class, and we’ve become friends. They told me that they will soon go back to their country and joked that I would have the class to myself. I said, No, I wasn’t meaning it like that! It’s just that the system is not good. Some of my friends still do not even have access to any kind of integration course. Even though we are grateful for the money we receive, it would be better to be able to go to a class as well. Why don’t they provide classes for all of the refugees? It’s not good for society if we are not learning the culture or the language.

It’s also harder for refugees to learn the German language than people from Spain or from different countries like that. We have so many problems that it’s hard to learn new things. When you have comfort and you don’t have to think about your life, you can learn things fast. In my language, we have a proverb that says, You bring the problem and sorrow from outside into your room. When you see all of the pain from outside, you bring it back to your home, so you can’t sleep or rest.

My life has been like that ever since 2015. No rest. No peace, even in my own place. Outside, I have seen a lot of racist people doing horrible things, and I bring this into my room. In Brandenburg, even doctors say racist things. One time, I went to a doctor’s office and was able to speak Russian with the receptionist there. I told her I spoke English, and she told me that I needed to come with an interpreter, even though it was just a blood test. But she thought I was nice, so she said she would ask the doctor if he would make an exception this time and accept me because he spoke English. The doctor comes out and just starts insulting me in English, saying things like, Hey motherfucker, get out of here! The same thing happens in Berlin. They tell me I need to come with an interpreter for all of my appointments, even though I speak English and a little bit of German now. Why would I need an interpreter for something like a blood test?

Otherwise, the medical care in Germany has been good so far. I was able to receive my operation and often go for check-ups. Sometimes I still experience periods of intense pain, but the ambulance will come and take me to the hospital. I have an insurance card here that I received when I first arrived, not like when I was in Finland.

I don’t know if I want to stay in Germany yet. When I first left Afghanistan, I wanted to go to a country like Norway or Finland, where the majority of people speak English. But it just happened that I ended up in Germany, which has been difficult. In Brandenburg, it’s more difficult because people do not speak as much English. If I had known about this whole application process and the Duldung status, I would not have chosen to come here. But the organization in Berlin told me to stay, and they are so friendly that they convinced me to stay for a little bit longer here.

I’m a positive person. I was living for so long in a hopeless situation, but I decided that I would stay hopeful. I don’t know what I am hopeful for, but I do know that I will never give up. I like to think that after every dark night, there’s a bright day coming. I just want to find a peaceful place where I can rest and take a deep breath. In the refugee home, it’s hard to get any sleep because of the children and noise at night.

I never wanted to be a refugee. If not for the war in Afghanistan, I would have stayed there. I was so happy. I love my country. All of my siblings and I wanted to stay and help Afghanistan. We didn’t want NATO or the United States to do these things to our country, to give everything up. I’m from the north, and I know that the Taliban is just killing people there every night. More than 90% of the population is in poverty now, because they can’t do anything. I don’t understand why they don’t help now that they’re in power. Just do something for the country, for the people! But they don’t provide any jobs, they don’t let the women go to work or even to study. I think a very bad day is waiting for Afghanistan. We have had so much pain in our country for a long time. Still, I did not want to have to leave my country. Why would I choose this life? I am in so much pain and yet I have to fight all the time. Still, I am grateful for the German people. I have come here as a kind of appreciation. If I didn’t have to leave my country, I would have visited Europe and come to Germany. We are all human, after all. God’s creation is like that. One person may be living in Africa, another in Afghanistan, another in the United States, another in Germany. Life is life.

I don’t know what will happen in a year when I have to reapply for my residence title. I can only try to do my best to rescue my own life. I have faced so many problems and difficulties since 2015, but still I try to help people. As a human, as a refugee, that’s all I can do. I must continue my life, even if it’s not easy, even if I don’t love it.


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