August 04, 2016
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One Child’s Harrowing Journey From Afghanistan to Sweden

By Nazifa Alizada

Nasima was doing a mathematics assignment when her mother informed her of the journey.

“You are leaving tonight.”

“I did not know how to react,” says the 14-year-old Afghan girl, who now lives with a legal guardian in Stockholm.

Nasima entered Sweden from the Mediterranean region in 2015—one of 35,369 unaccompanied children to do so. Similar to most other children making their way to Europe alone, Nasima had no decision-making role in the journey.

“Everything happened in the blink of an eye,” she says, with teary eyes, her voice shaking. “I had no time to say goodbye, even to my sisters and brothers.”

Nasima is a rarity in Sweden. Most Afghan families do not allow unaccompanied women—minors or adults—to undertake such a perilous journey. According to data from theSwedish Migration Agency, girls and young women constitute less than10 percent of the unaccompanied minor refugees. In 2015, only eight unaccompanied girls entered Sweden per day, compared with 90 unaccompanied boys.

Migration is a gendered process, and with each new immigrant, a set of beliefs, stereotypes and capabilities move to the new country. Lack of personal security, the fear of rape and loss of family honor are the main concerns that prevent families from sending a daughter on such a hazardous journey.

Nasima comes from a conservative background, so sending her away was not an easy decision.

“The neighbors, relatives and friends accuse me of being an irresponsible parent and disgracing the family,” says Nasima’s mother.

In Afghanistan, a vast majority of women still don’t have adequate freedom of movement. During the reign of the Taliban, women were prohibited by law from traveling without a mahram, a man they are forbidden to marry, such as a father, brother or son. Since the fall of the Taliban, women have made significant sociopolitical and economic gains, but old stereotypes and residual Talibani beliefs still affect women’s freedom. As a result, fewer Afghan refugees are female.

Moreover, in traditional Afghan society, women are considered physically weak and emotionally unstable. Such discriminatory beliefs lead traditional Afghan families to doubt whether their daughters are capable of overcoming the hardships of the journey.

Investing in sons, who are deemed physically and mentally stronger, seems like a more secure and rational option for traditional Afghan families. Teenage Afghan boys also tend to have more interest in undertaking the journey in order to prove their manhood. The ideals of masculinity are applied through peer pressure both within Afghanistan and among their social networks in the destination country.

Ishaq, a 17-year-old unaccompanied Afghan boy living in Stockholm, acknowledges that one reason he agreed to undertake the journey was that his school friends in Afghanistan challenged him, telling him to “do it if you are a man.”

While Afghanistan’s deteriorating security, dire economic conditions and uncertainty about the country’s future are common driving forces for youth migration, traditional attitudes skew toward masculinity and reinforce stereotypes.

Nasima’s mother and her four children live in a suburb of Ghazni, one of the most unstable provinces in Afghanistan. Nasima’s father has been an opium addict for almost 15 years and started injecting heroin and other substances three years ago. He was heavily indebted to his friend and promised to exchange Nasima for the debt.

“I couldn’t give away my daughter,” says Nasima’s mother. “Am I an irresponsible mother?”

Child marriage, forced marriage and paying off family debt with daughters are commonly practiced in Afghanistan.

“Girls are people’s property,” Nasima’s neighbor says. “The sooner they leave their father’s house with dignity, the better it is for the family.”

But Nasima’s mother resisted the norm. A friend of hers was leaving for Sweden with her family, and she decided to entrust Nasima to their care.

Nasima began her journey in Ghazni, then traveled through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Denmark, until she reached Sweden. Although she started out with her mother’s friend, due to the grueling and sometimes dangerous circumstances of the trip, they did not always travel together. Nasima was essentially on her own.

The journey took two months, during September and October, when the migration crisis was at its peak. As she traveled through Afghanistan, Nasima lived in fear of the Taliban. While the Afghan unity government has influence over the bigger cities, the Taliban still exerts power in the suburbs and controls the highways. “They would kill me if they see a girl traveling alone,” she explains.

The war between the Taliban and the unity government was still underway while Nasima crossed Afghanistan.

“They were throwing rockets and firing at each other, and we were stuck in between,” she says.

From the Afghan province of Nimroz, Nasima traveled to Pakistan in a truck, with 35 to 45 other men and women. Because the border between Iran and Pakistan was closed, Nasima and the rest of the travelers had to wait in Pakistan for eight or nine days.

For Nasima, crossing the border between Iran and Turkey was her worst experience, one that made her feel like giving up the rest of the journey. For six continuous nights, the smuggler asked her group to walk from sunset till sunrise.

“We had to climb a very steep mountain,” she says. “The smuggler used to beat us up if we walked slowly or were tired.”

As they prepared to cross the Mediterranean, Nasima slept in the jungle for six nights straight due to stormy weather and police surveillance. She thought she was going to die from the cold, rain and hunger.

“For six continuous nights, we were [burning] wood in the jungle to warm ourselves, but when the police were approaching, we had to put it off and bear the cold.”

The horrors of the journey continue to haunt her.

“On the way from Iran to Turkey, I have seen dead bodies lying around,” Nasima says. “The people who were with me wanted to help, but the smuggler did not allow it.”

Although she grew up in a war-affected area and had experienced hardships, her two-month journey to Sweden left her with distressing memories and lingering psychological effects.

Asylum-seeking is a highly stressful process, and it leaves unaccompanied children with grave concerns about their future, especially after experiencing challenging journeys.

Once they arrive at their destination, they need more than a guardian, food and shelter in order to move securely forward.

Five months after her journey, Nasima feels a lack of support.

“I cannot share these experiences with anyone,” she says.

A program to help unaccompanied Afghan children deal with the psychological toll of their journeys would help, she says, but Sweden will never be able to fill every void.

“I am happy, but it does not feel home.”

-- Originally appeared at

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