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

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Fridtjof Nansen was a scientist, polar explorer, diplomat, statesman and humanist, with a deep compassion for his fellow human beings. In 1921 Nansen was appointed the League of Nations' first High Commissioner for Refugees and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year in recognition of his work for refugees. UNHCR established the Nansen Refugee Award in his honour in 1954.

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UNHCR's annual Nansen Refugee Award was posthumously awarded to Senator Edward Kennedy at a ceremony in Washington DC on October 29 for his life-long commitment to refugee rights. Kennedy's wife, Victoria, accepted the award on behalf of her late husband. In presenting the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, praised the "vision and commitment" of Senator Kennedy in his support for the displaced.

The prize money of US$100,000 will be donated to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where it will be used to train the next generation of leaders dedicated to the cause of refugee advocacy. The Nansen Award is given to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and the first global High Commissioner for Refugees.

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The Nansen Refugee Award was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, the legendary Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat and politician who in the 1920s became the first international High Commissioner for Refugees. It is given annually to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees and consists of a commemorative medal and a US$100,000 prize donated by the governments of Switzerland and Norway.

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