Two Afghans who trekked to France have lessons for evacuees

Published September 19, 2021
Afghanistan's Nassrullah Youssoufi (L)  poses in Paris, France on Sept 10 while Abdul Wali (R) poses in the middle of a street in Strasbourg, eastern France on Sept 4. — AP
Afghanistan's Nassrullah Youssoufi (L) poses in Paris, France on Sept 10 while Abdul Wali (R) poses in the middle of a street in Strasbourg, eastern France on Sept 4. — AP

One slept on the streets of Paris, the other in a massive makeshift migrant camp in northern France.

Nassrullah Youssoufi and Abdul Wali were among more than one million refugees and migrants who reached Europe in 2015. The two Afghans don’t know each other, but they share a fear-driven past: escaping their homeland on foot, bus, train or ferry and landing in a new country where they had no rights, not even the right to stay.

Years later, the men live in France legally, one working as an asylum court interpreter in the capital and the other at a restaurant in the country’s northeast. They are rich in hard-won experience that offers a road map for arriving Afghans, like the thousands evacuated to the United States, Europe and elsewhere after the Taliban regained control of Kabul last month.

Youssoufi and Wali’s advice: Embrace the differences, love your new life and learn the local language.

For the 124,000 people airlifted out of Afghanistan last month during the US-led evacuation, the most harrowing part of their journey may well have been getting past checkpoints, gunfire and desperate crowds to reach Kabul airport.

But a much larger number of Afghans found their own ways out before the Taliban takeover, and more are expected to flee in the months ahead. The people from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia who knocked on Europe’s door six years ago travelled furtively for months and sometimes years, often paying smugglers to sneak them across borders.

Youssoufi, 32, and Wali, 31, appear to draw on the inner resources that helped them survive.

Afghanistan's Abdul Wali poses in his apartment in Strasbourg, eastern France on Sept 4. — AP
Afghanistan's Abdul Wali poses in his apartment in Strasbourg, eastern France on Sept 4. — AP

Becoming 'normal'

There was no welcome mat or refugee services for Youssoufi or Wali when they arrived in France in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Wali spent his first 10 months in a huge makeshift migrant camp in the northern port of Calais. The camp of thousands, nicknamed “The Jungle”, was known for its size and filthy, sometimes violent conditions. The asylum-seekers who congregated there had set their hopes on a new life in Britain, across the English Channel.

When the French government decided to close the camp, Wali helped authorities load thousands of other migrants onto buses to assigned homes around France. He took the last bus out of “The Jungle” on October 27, 2016, after departing migrants had torched the remaining structures. His government bus took him to Strasbourg, a city of half-timbered houses on the German border and seat of the European Parliament.

All he had with him were the clothes on his back, his official papers and the yellow vest he wore to help evacuate. He later took the vest to his asylum application — precious proof of his work on behalf of the French government.

Wali recalls crying on the long bus ride into a new unknown. But gaining refugee status in Strasbourg changed his life, allowing him to get a job in a small restaurant and put a roof over his head.

“Now, I’m so happy to be here,” he said. “You’re not scared at night” like in the Calais migrant camp. “You have your job. You have your work, you come back home. You pay your rent. You are a normal person.”

Getting lucky

Youssoufi started life in France on the streets after a harrowing 1.5-year journey from Afghanistan that included three months of detention in Hungary for illegal entry.

Then, “I got lucky,” he recalls. A French teacher who asked why he was late to morning class took him in when he explained that he was homeless. She became his well of information to navigate the complex asylum process, then the university system.

“I consider her like my mother,” he said.

There are few services for the tens of thousands of migrants who mass in city streets around Europe. In France, the number of homeless encampments has ballooned since 2015. European governments are stealing themselves for another wave of asylum-seekers following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

Wali was bitterly aware of his unwanted status while living in the Calais camp in 2016. “It’s their country. Right now, everybody hates us,” he said at the time.

Yet despite President Emmanuel Macron calling last month for a European initiative to “anticipate and protect us against an important migratory flux”, neither Wali nor Youssoufi complains about discrimination from the French.

“Everybody is nice to me,” Wali said. When he goes to a bar to watch a soccer match and cheer for his favourite French team, Lille, “I order my drink ... I pay them, sometimes I give a tip,” and all is well, he said.

“If I’d been discriminated against, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Youssoufi said.

Afghanistan's Nassrullah Youssoufi enjoys a cafe at a terrace in Paris. France on Sept 10. — AP
Afghanistan's Nassrullah Youssoufi enjoys a cafe at a terrace in Paris. France on Sept 10. — AP

Unending journey

When not at his day job as an asylum court interpreter or studying for a law degree, Youssoufi holds court himself at the Afghan Market, a grocery store in northern Paris, where he helps Afghans in exile seeking guidance or translations of official documents.

At a nearby restaurant, he met recently with representatives of Afghan associations that are trying to help activist women seeking an exit to France.

“Since Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban, I said, ‘I must do something for my countrymen,’” Youssoufi, who has acquired French nationality, said.

In Afghanistan, his Hazara ethnic group has long been targeted by other Afghans, including the Taliban. He was five when his father, a general in Afghanistan’s army, was killed.

“I lived this. I’m living it again,” Youssoufi said.

Meanwhile, Wali is heartsick as he tries to get permission to bring his wife to his home in Strasbourg. He hasn’t seen her since their marriage last year in Pakistan, not far from Laghman, their eastern home province in Afghanistan.

With the Taliban now in control of Afghanistan, Wali’s need to have his wife at his side has become more urgent: The daughter of a former Afghan government official, she is hiding out.

But immigration officials keep telling Wali to wait, and he says France’s crisis centre devoted to evacuating Afghans didn’t respond to his inquiry. He’s hired a lawyer to try to get officials to hear his plea for help.

Wali feels as if he is failing his wife.

“She’s scared,” he said. “She cries all the time.”

It's a new world

Both Wali and Youssoufi agree that learning French is a must for newly arrived Afghans seeking a home here.

“When you find yourself in another country and you know neither the language nor the culture, obviously you’re a bit lost,” Youssoufi said.

Youssoufi also stresses the importance of embracing the values of secular France. He says he is crestfallen when some Afghans tell him that “for us, the first thing is religion” or when they don’t want their wives to learn French, a way to keep them homebound.

“For me, the only religion is humanity,” Youssoufi said. He tells the Afghans he helps with administrative steps, “We’re in France. You must respect the values ... They are [now] our identity.”

Wali echoes Youssoufi’s belief in the importance of learning to communicate.

“When you speak French, you can help yourself and others as well,” he said, adding that Afghans without the language call on him to help sort out problems.

But his first piece of advice concerns maintaining a healthy outlook despite the hardships of being an outsider: “Always be nice, always stay positive, never think about the negative,” he recommends.

It’s with that positive attitude that Wali envisions the day his wife will finally join him in Strasbourg.

“I’ll take her the next day to learn French,” he said. He also won’t hesitate if she wants to learn to drive — something Afghan women don’t normally do back home.

“Women here are free,” Wali said.



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