Nansen Award winner turns her lens on the Flowers of Afghanistan

Telling the Human Story, 30 January 2012

© Alixandra Fazzina/NOOR
A young Afghan works hard in tough conditions in a small factory in Istanbul

ISTANBUL, Turkey, January 27 (UNHCR) Alixandra Fazzina, winner of the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in 2011, has spent much of her career as a photographer recording the humanitarian consequences of war, including the plight of refugees. Using some of the cash prize that came with the Nansen Medal, she has been following unaccompanied children who make their way towards Europe from Afghanistan. She believes their's is a story that needs to be highlighted. Mostly boys, they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by criminal networks. Fazzina has recorded some of their stories in a special website, "Flowers of Afghanistan." The following is an edited and abridged version of one of the stories, which follows Danesh, a 15-year-old from volatile Kapisa province in Afghanistan. She met and photographed him in a freezing cold basement in Istanbul, where he and other young men toil away for 15 hours a day cutting up animal furs to make waistcoats. They must also sleep in the dingy room. Danesh, who never went to school, had left Afghanistan four years earlier. He received his education on the road. His goal, like many of the young Afghans in Istanbul, is to reach Western Europe.

Danesh's Story:

"My whole family is dead. I have no one. In my mind, I can remember only bits of what happened because I was small. My father and brothers and sisters died when a rocket fell on our house and exploded; only my mother survived because she was in another place. After that, she remarried but my stepfather was killed in the fighting. Then one day [when Danesh was 12] I was walking along the roadside going to the bazaar with my mother and I had gone down to the river to drink some water when a lorry came from the other side. She fell under the truck [and was killed].

"I was taken by a relative to his house and spent some time living with him . . . I was just working in the streets selling small things, like sweets and socks, when a stranger came up to me. I think he was a Taliban . . . and although he looked dangerous, he treated me very kindly.

"He gave me a weapon like an AK47 [assault rifle], grenades and a big bundle of banknotes. The first time I fired the gun I fell over, but the man just told me to be stronger. I was young and didn't really want to cooperate.

"I had heard before about kidnappings of children, and many were even taken from around my house. My uncle once warned me that they take the organs of children, their stomachs and their hearts, while many teenagers are taken to be trained for the fight against the government.

"My relative got angry and told me to throw away the weapons and everything. After that he forbade me from leaving the yard, and so I just sat there for two months like a prisoner. During that time the war was quiet for a bit and when the attacks decreased for a few days, I was ordered to leave with a family that was headed to Iran.

"One night, a car came to the village and I was sent off with the husband, his wife and their three children. We drove to Kabul and from there we took buses to Kandahar and Nimroz [in south-west Afghanistan] . . . In Nimroz, we slept at a mosafer khana [guesthouse], but when I woke up the next morning the family were gone. I stayed there for two more nights, helping the owner to wash dishes, but then when he demanded money, he slapped me two times and told me to go away. I was sitting crying in the street when someone asked me why I was so upset and so I told him my story. The man was called Nik and he said that I could come to Iran with him.

"We crossed the border with a large group of travellers and spent one week walking across the mountains. Sometimes villagers gave us food on the way and sometimes Nik had to carry me. When we reached Zaidan, a kind Afghan family gave us shelter and they showed us a guide who could help us to continue our journey.

"It was seven or eight days before we reached Bandar Abbas [on the Persian Gulf] . . . After three months Nik suddenly told me that we would leave to Tehran, but when we went to take the bus the police caught us . . . In the gaol, we were separated and I was put in a place for the under eighteens. But Nik said that I was his brother and I kept saying that he was my brother, so after two weeks we were released.

"At first in Tehran I couldn't work because of my age, but I started helping to make brick walls on a building site. Then Nik decided to go back to Afghanistan and I was left alone again. I started working in a bazaar for a shop that sold fruit, where I earned US$100 a month. I had applied for a refugee card, but before I could get it I was caught once again by the police [and beaten].

"During those two long years I was just growing up, watching other Afghans come and go and earning money. I saw lots of people arriving like ants and leaving for Europe . . . Then one day in the market I met a boy called Abdul and he had a plan to go to France. I trusted him and since I'd managed to collect around US$700, I was convinced that we would go to Turkey together. The agents were asking for US$1,100 so we agreed that someone in Tehran would keep hold of my savings and when I reached Turkey he would hand over the money and I would pay the rest as soon as I found a job. I was betrayed.

"When I reached Van [in south-east Turkey], the smugglers kept me locked up for 10 days and told me that I had to pay all the money plus the costs of my stay with them. I was imprisoned in a basement without windows . . . After that they increased the pressure on me and I was put in another underground room that was really cold and wet and there they started to beat me.

"I was lucky because Abdul managed to talk to the kidnappers and he convinced them that I am a reliable person and I would pay as soon as I started earning money. The agents took me to Ankara and put me to work for a month until I had paid them as much as I could, but still I have debts to them. After they set me free I headed to Istanbul and one month ago I found a job at this kargah [factory], where I cut fur for around US$200 a month.

"Many people are advising me now that my future will be better in Europe and so many others have gone. I'm thinking about first paying back the money I owe to the smugglers and then I will begin saving for the next stage of my journey . . . One day soon I would like to stop and have a safe and calm life without any adventures. By seventeen, I'd definitely like to be growing up somewhere in Europe."

By Alixandra Fazzina

Visit the Flowers of Afghanistan website




UNHCR country pages

The Nansen Refugee Award

The Nansen Refugee Award

Given to individuals or organizations for outstanding service in the cause of refugees.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency's Nansen Awards Committee has named Dr. Katrine Camilleri, a 37-year-old lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Malta, as the winner of the 2007 Nansen Refugee Award. The Committee was impressed by the political and civic courage she has shown in dealing with the refugee situation in Malta.

Dr. Camilleri first became aware of the plight of refugees as a 16-year-old girl when a priest visited her school to talk about his work. After graduating from the University of Malta in 1994, she began working in a small law firm where she came into contact with refugees. As Dr. Camilleri's interest grew in this humanitarian field, she started to work with the JRS office in Malta in 1997.

Over the last year, JRS and Dr. Camilleri have faced a series of attacks. Nine vehicles belonging to the Jesuits were burned in two separate attacks. And this April, arsonists set fire to both Dr. Camilleri's car and her front door, terrifying her family. The perpetrators were never caught but the attacks shocked Maltese society and drew condemnation from the Government of Malta. Dr. Camilleri continues to lead the JRS Malta legal team as Assistant Director.

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Burundian humanitarian worker Maggy Barankitse received the 2005 Nansen Refugee Award for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease. The Nansen medal was presented at a grand ceremony in Brussels by H.R.H. Princess Mathilde of Belgium and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin.

Accepting the award, Barankitse said her work was inspired by one single goal: peace. "Accept your fellow man, sit down together, make this world a world of brothers and sisters," she said. "Nothing resists love, that's the message that I want to spread."

Sponsored by UNHCR corporate partner Microsoft, the ceremony and reception at Concert Noble was also attended by Belgium's Minister for Development Co-operation Armand De Decker, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, renowned Burundian singer Khadja Nin, Congolese refugee and comedian Pie Tshibanda, and French singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Julien Clerc. Among others.

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Syrian Refugees: Turkey Border Town WelcomePlay video

Syrian Refugees: Turkey Border Town Welcome

More than 10,000 Syrian Refugees have flowed into the town Akcakale in Southern Turkey. Akcakale is a town of 30,000 that now sits next door to a refugee camp with 30,000 more Syrian refugees seeking safety.
Syrian Refugees: Rebuilding Lives in TurkeyPlay video

Syrian Refugees: Rebuilding Lives in Turkey

Adiyaman camp in Turkey hosts 10,000 Syrian refugees. Once there, the refugees start to try and rebuild their lives in a positive direction. The camp management, with help from the local municipality, has set up workshops that are giving daily meaning to the lives of the refugees.
Syrian Refugees: An Urban Refugee in Turkey Play video

Syrian Refugees: An Urban Refugee in Turkey

There are more than 650,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Some 200,000 are housed in refugee camps along the border, but more than 460,000 live more precarious lives as urban refugees. One of them, Abdul Rahman, lives in the southern city of Urfa. It's been tough but the young man keeps his dreams alive.