Safe in Indonesia, a young Afghan honours his mother's sacrifice

A UNHCR-funded shelter for teenage refugee boys on their own allows them to recover, build their own community in Indonesia.

Unaccompanied teenage refugees rely on each other to form a family at a UNHCR-funded shelter in Jakarta, where they enjoy music and food, and get an education.  © UNHCR/A.Restu

JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 5 (UNHCR) - Eternally smiling, 16-year-old Ghulam Reza* exudes confidence as he dashes from his early-morning job at a bakery to deliver the fresh bread and then pay a friendly call on an elderly man he's adopted as his surrogate grandfather.

But inquire about his mother, and the Afghan refugee boy's smile vanishes instantly. Tears spring to his eyes as he begs in a faltering voice: "Please don't ask me about my mother."

It was only her enormous sacrifice - giving up nearly all the money she had in the world and sending him off alone, knowing she might never see him again - that allowed Reza to make a harrowing journey to Indonesia to find safety as a refugee.

After Reza's father, a driver, was killed by militants three years ago, his mother sold the family land and they all headed for the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, bound for Pakistan. But while still on the road, Reza, his mother and three younger brothers were captured, along with their 11 travelling companions, and kept prisoner in an decrepit three-storey house.

"The militants said they would not leave a single young man in good health," Reza recalls. "They said they would only release the young men after beating and harming us."

After three days in captivity, Reza and another boy saw an opportunity for a dramatic escape. The women in the group tied their headscarves together into a rope for the teenagers to shimmy down from the third floor. As a desperate parting gift, his mother thrust into his hands the equivalent of US$7,000 - nearly all the money she had received for selling her land - to pay for his safe passage to Pakistan.

He travelled to Kabul, where he waited for six or seven months, hoping in vain for news of his family. Finally he decided to move on and used his mother's money to buy passage on a smuggler's boat to Australia.

Reza got as far as Indonesia, where he was abandoned by the smugglers nine months ago. He ended up sleeping in a park in Jakarta until he made his way to the UNHCR office and was recognized as a refugee.

These days he's created his own family among the eight other teenage refugee boys at a temporary shelter outside Jakarta, which is funded by UNHCR and run by Church World Service, an international cooperative Christian ministry. He tries to keep his days full to avoid thinking about his traumatic past.

By 6 a.m. he's up and working in a hotel bakery near the shelter. Then he delivers the bread to his customers, earning the equivalent of US$2 a day. "Enough to buy two proper meals a day," Reza says proudly.

He and the other refugee boys - also here without any family - get an education at the Jakarta International School under a special arrangement worked out by UNHCR and partner CWS.

"It's really important for these teenage refugees who are here on their own not only to have a chance to learn, but also to have a chance to rebuild their lives and spirits after all they have gone through," said Manuel Jordao, UNHCR's representative in Indonesia. "We're very grateful to both the Jakarta International School and CWS for giving them that opportunity."

In addition to his studies, work and a bit of badminton, Reza makes time to take some of his bread to a 65-year-old fellow refugee named Ali - just an excuse for a chat. A Farsi-speaker, Ali doesn't find many people in Jakarta he can converse with.

"I like to make Ali happy because he is only sitting in his chair, looking around and smiling," Reza says. "He looks like my grandpa."

For a young boy whose mother sacrificed everything to save his life, right now that's his only link with home and family.

*Name changed for protection reasons

By Anita Restu
In Jakarta, Indonesia