It was Sofia’s* first time on a plane. Before she boarded the flight from Afghanistan, her father told her, “At first you will be scared because it’s a sudden movement. But once you’re in the air, it’ll feel like you’re just in a room.”
Sofia, a 25-year-old who had just completed her law degree in Kabul, was one of the lucky ones. In search of a better future, she could afford a flight directly from Afghanistan to Turkey on a visa, rather than crossing the dangerous route through neighboring Iran.
One year earlier, she and her husband had reached a breaking point. The couple decided to leave Afghanistan and seek asylum. After decades of conflict, Afghanistan is one of the most insecure countries in the world. In the months leading up to their decision, her husband feared for his life every time he drove to his job as a software engineer. “We were not able to work or go out,” she recalled. “We just stayed at home.”
The couple tried to restart their life in Turkey. However, Sofia said that her husband “couldn’t find a job” and he was detained and mistreated multiple times by the Turkish police. For Afghans in Turkey, access to asylum and jobs has always proven a major challenge, and in recent years, the government has started cracking down on Afghan asylum seekers. Seeing that a safe life was not possible in Turkey either, they decided to seek refuge in Greece.
Sofia and her husband tried to cross the border to Greece several times. Due to a 2016 deal signed between the European Union and Turkey, the land and sea between Greece and Turkey is heavily patrolled to prevent asylum seekers like Sofia from crossing the border. As a result, Sofia and her husband had no choice but to turn to smugglers.
On their first attempted crossing, Sofia described how “the boat broke, [and] everyone thought we were going to drown, and we were screaming.” Eventually they swam back to Turkey’s shore, and quickly hid in the forest in fear of the police. “For three days, we didn’t [have] food and water. Our phones were dying, so we came out of the [forest] and went to the road, and the police detained us there.”
Traumatized but undeterred, Sofia and her husband ventured to cross the border for the fifth time and finally arrived in Greece.
Even after making it to Greece, Sofia was shocked by the last hurdle to her asylum claim: her asylum officer and translator’s lack of proficiency in English.
After arriving in Moria, a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, Sofia waited two days to register for an ID card. The registration interview itself took another two days. By Sofia’s account, “Sometimes [the translator] didn’t know the meaning of some words, so she had to ask questions. … The translator wasn’t able to describe [my story] and couldn’t describe it as I wanted to in my own language.”
Recalling her dismay, Sofia said she expected better. “I was thinking they would be proficient in their work, but they weren’t.” Unfortunately, this language barrier between asylum seekers and officials is a widespread problem in Greece.
Sofia still had to wait another three months until her official asylum interview, so she decided to act on her frustration and help other asylum seekers: she became a cultural mediator and translator in the camps. Between school and Bollywood movies, Sofia had become fluent in six different languages, including Pashtu (her native language), English, Arabic, Dari, Urdu, and Farsi. Sofia now interprets and translates for an NGO in the camps. “As I work with lawyers even in quarantine, we were working…and we were talking to the most vulnerable people in the camp, sick people and old people,” said Sofia.
Sofia is proud to translate for other asylum seekers in the refugee camps; however, her work puts her at risk.
“It’s very dangerous for me, several times the husband came and was screaming at me … because we were handling dangerous cases of domestic violence,” she recalled.
Sofia often translates for women or LGBTQ asylum seekers who are subject to domestic violence. With little security in the camps, the threat of sexual and gender-based violence is rampant. Regardless, Sofia continues to translate in the camps. “You have this responsibility of people’s life, and you have to translate people’s words as they want to be translated,” she said.
Sofia recently heard that her asylum claim was denied, despite the fact that her lawyer said she had a “strong case.” Sofia said she had “lots of proof and lots of documents and pictures that were proving my story,” but with the pandemic, she has to wait for the courts to reopen to make an appeal. If her appeal is rejected, Sofia will be deported back to Turkey and she will have to start the perilous journey for asylum all over again.
While waiting, Sofia and her husband received exciting news that she is pregnant. Sofia says she is optimistic for her future. “I hope one day I [will] work in an asylum office, and help people get asylum.”
Sofia also has hope for those she helps in the camps: “The woman should stop talking themselves down and start embracing their ‘flaws’ and be positive about the future. Everything will change.”
Moving forward, Sofia says she imagines a world where “people develop humanity and live their life by it.”
We all stand to learn from Sofia’s determination and hope for a better future.
*Sofia is a pseudonym to protect the asylum seeker’s identity.
Illustration by Arden Bentley