One slept in the streets of Paris, the other in a huge makeshift migrant camp in northern France.
Nassrullah Youssoufi and Abdul Wali were among more than a million refugees and migrants who reached Europe in 2015. The two Afghans do not know each other, but they share a terrifying past: escaping their homeland on foot , by bus, train or ferry. and land in a new country where they had no rights, not even the right to stay.
Years later, the men are living legally in France, one working as an interpreter in the asylum court in the capital and the other in a restaurant in the northeast of the country. They are rich with hard-earned experience that offers a roadmap for arriving Afghans, like the thousands evacuated to the United States, Europe and elsewhere after the Taliban regained control of Kabul last month. latest.
Youssoufi and Wali’s advice: Accept the differences, love your new life and learn the local language.
For the 124,000 people flown out of Afghanistan last month in the US-led evacuation, the hardest part of their trip may well have been going through checkpoints, gunfire. and the crowds desperate to reach Kabul airport.
But a much larger number of Afghans found their own way out before the Taliban took power, and more are expected to flee in the months to come. People from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia who knocked on Europe’s door six years ago have been sneaking around for months and sometimes years, often paying smugglers to get them through borders.
Youssoufi, 32, and Wali, 31, seem to tap into the inner resources that have helped them survive.
There were no welcome mats 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 disgusting, sometimes violent, conditions. Asylum seekers who gathered there had hoped for a new life in Britain, across the Channel.
When the French government decided to close the camp, Wali helped authorities load thousands of other migrants onto buses to assigned homes across France. He pulled the last bus out of “The Jungle” on October 27, 2016 after departing migrants set fire to the remaining structures. His government bus takes him to Strasbourg, a town with half-timbered houses on the German border and seat of the European Parliament.
He only had with him his clothes on his back, his official papers and the yellow vest he wore to help evacuate. He then took the vest of his asylum application – precious proof of his work on behalf of the French government.
Wali remembers crying on the long bus ride to a new stranger. But obtaining refugee status in Strasbourg changed her life, allowing her to find a job in a small restaurant and put a roof on her head.
“Now I’m so happy to be here,” he said. “You are not afraid at night” as in the Calais migrant camp. “You have your job. You have your job, you go home. You pay your rent. You are a normal person.
Youssoufi began life in France on the streets after a grueling one-and-a-half-year journey from Afghanistan that included three months of detention in Hungary for illegal entry.
Then, “I was lucky,” he recalls. A French teacher who asked him why he was late in the morning greeted him when he explained that he was homeless. She became his source of information for navigating the complex asylum process and then the university system.
“I consider her to be my mother,” he said.
There are few services for the tens of thousands of migrants who crowd the streets of European cities. In France, the number of homeless camps has exploded since 2015. European governments are stealing for a new wave of asylum seekers after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
Wali was bitterly aware of his status as an undesirable while living in the Calais camp in 2016. “This is their country. Right now, everyone hates us, ”he said at the time.
However, although President Emmanuel Macron called last month for a European initiative to “anticipate and protect us against a significant migratory flow”, neither Wali nor Youssoufi complain of discrimination on the part of the French.
“Everyone is nice to me,” Wali said. When he goes to a bar to watch a football match and cheer on his favorite French team, Lille, “I order my drink … I pay them, sometimes I tip”, and all is well, says -he.
“If I had been discriminated against, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Youssoufi said.
When he is not at his job as an asylum court interpreter or studying law, Youssoufi himself court at the Afghan Market, a grocery store in northern Paris, where he helps Afghans. in exile to seek advice or translations of official documents.
In a nearby restaurant, he recently met representatives of Afghan associations that are trying to help women activists seeking an outing in France.
“Ever since Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban, I said: ‘I have to do something for my compatriots,’ said Youssoufi, who has acquired French nationality.
In Afghanistan, his Hazara ethnic group has long been the target of other Afghans, including the Taliban. He was 5 years old when his father, an Afghan army general, was killed.
“I went through it. I’m living it again, ”Youssoufi said.
Meanwhile, Wali is heartbroken as he tries to get permission to bring his wife to his home in Strasbourg. He has not seen her since their marriage last year in Pakistan, not far from Laghman, their province of eastern origin in Afghanistan.
With the Taliban now in command of Afghanistan, Wali’s need to have his wife by his side has become more urgent: the daughter of a former Afghan government official, she is in hiding.
But immigration officials continue to tell Wali to wait, and he says the French crisis center dedicated to evacuating Afghans has not responded to his request. He hired a lawyer to try to get officials to hear his cry for help.
Wali feels like he’s betraying his wife.
“She’s scared,” he said. “She cries all the time.”
IT’S A NEW WORLD
Wali and Youssoufi agree that learning French is essential for newly arrived Afghans who are looking for a home here.
“When you find yourself in another country and you don’t know the language or the culture, obviously you are a bit lost,” Youssoufi said.
Youssoufi also insists on the importance of adhering to the values of secular France. He says he is baffled when some Afghans tell him that “for us, the first thing is religion” or when they do not want their wives to learn French, a way of keeping them confined at home.
“For me, the only religion is humanity,” Youssoufi said. He tells the Afghans that he is helping with the administrative procedures: “We are in France. You have to 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 help others,” he said, adding that Afghans without a language turn to him to help them sort out problems.
But his first piece of advice is about maintaining a healthy attitude despite the difficulties of being a stranger: “Always be kind, always stay positive, never think of the negative,” he recommends.
It is with this positive attitude that Wali sees the day when his wife will finally join him in Strasbourg.
“I’ll take him the next day to learn French,” he said. He will also not hesitate if she wants to learn to drive, which Afghan women do not normally do at home.
“The women here are free,” Wali said.