Afghan boy retreats into silence after separation from family

Eight-year-old Farzad is one of a growing number of refugee children whose health has been affected by flight.

Afghan boy Farzad that stopped talking after separation from his mother, playing in Karatepe site

Crossing a mountain border between Iran and Turkey one and a half years ago, eight-year-old Farzad was separated from his mother in the middle of a snowstorm. He has not spoken a word ever since.   © UNHCR/Roland Schönbauer

MYTILENE, Lesvos – Eight-year-old Afghan refugee Farzad withdrew into a world of silence after he was briefly separated from his family as they tried to flee across the mountainous Iran-Turkey border in the snow.

He was cut off from them for only 20 or 30 minutes, but has not spoken since. “Farzad has not said a word since he got separated from his mother in the snowstorm at the border,” said his father, Jalil*.

Farzad is among a growing number of refugee children whose health has been adversely affected by flight.

Symptoms range from development problems to self-harm, nightmares and depression. Particularly vulnerable are youngsters detained against the recommendations of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, that children should not be detained. Mental health problems are also seen among children who travel alone without the protection of their parents, or who have no access to psychiatric or health care.

Farzad, his father and 22-year-old brother Awalmir* now live in a municipality-run camp at Karatepe on the Greek island of Lesvos. His mother Uzma* and his other brother Rafiq*, 18, are in Germany.

Jalil, previously a farmer, told the story of how he and his wife, fearing for their children’s safety in their war-torn home country, tried to reach Turkey via Iran in 2015. Snow was falling as they approached the Turkish border squeezed into a smuggler’s car with three other people. “The smuggler did not have any snow chains, so he had difficulties to keep the car on track,” Jalil said.   

“Suddenly, he told us to get out of the car … because the Iranian police were following us.” He said they were at about 2,000 or 3,000 metres’ altitude at the time. They threw all the luggage out of the car,” he added. In the ensuing chaos, Uzma and Rafiq set off in a different direction."

“In the kindergarten, he only plays by himself.”

Jalil, Farzad and Awalmir followed a steep path – too steep for Jalil, who is in his fifties and suffers from a heart condition. “So I sat down in the snow until Awalmir came to drag me on,” said Jalil. “In all of this, we found out that we had lost Farzad.”

The two men went back and surrendered to the Iranian police and were relieved to find that the police had already found Farzad, alone.

“On that day, Farzad completely stopped talking,” Jalil added. “In the kindergarten, he only plays by himself.” Previously the child had had no serious problems. “He said basic words and counted up to 10, and he did play with other children.”

Once in the hands of the Iranian police, Jalil asked to make a phone call. From relatives, he discovered that Uzma and Rafiq were still with the smugglers and he decided that they should continue their journey, while he would follow with their other two sons.

Mother and one son made it to Germany and Jalil and the others made five more attempts to reach Greece via the Iran-Turkey route and a hazardous sea crossing.

Having spent the past few months living in the site, Jalil hopes that efforts by UNHCR partner Metadrasi to reunite the family will succeed.

“Farzad’s worrying condition is a stark reminder of how hard it is for families to be torn apart in flight.”

“Farzad’s worrying condition is a stark reminder of how hard it is for families to be torn apart in flight,” said Astrid Castelein, head of the UNHCR office on Lesvos. “For their psychosocial wellbeing, we reiterate our call to governments to speed up family reunifications from Greece.

She said the agency had paid for a paediatrician to treat Farzad and the three family members had been moved into a new prefabricated house close to the toilets. “He is wetting his pants a lot, and I have to wash everything all the time,” Jalil said.

This move into the prefabricated and heated house, funded with aid from the European Commission, helps Jalil deal with the challenge of getting his son to the toilet in time.

Castelein said they succeeded in enrolling Farzad in the Special Primary School in Mytilene, designed to help children with learning disabilities two months ago. Asked whether his son liked it, Jalil shrugged. “I don’t know, as he does not talk.”

Afghan boy Farzad that stopped taliking after separation from his mother, playing on drums in a UNHCR prefab in Karatepe site

Farzad, who has not spoken since he was separated from his mother, is living with his father in Lesvos.  © UNHCR/Roland Schönbauer

In the playground at Karatepe, Farzad’s face lights up when animator Gregoris Pallis approaches him and takes his hands.

Pallis works for the NGO Save the Children, which runs a UNHCR-funded child friendly space at Karatepe. He hugs Farzad, swings him round and has him smiling within two minutes. “There has been a connection with Farzad from the first day we met,” Pallis said.  

Through its partner organizations, UNHCR provides psychological and social support to families and children, including unaccompanied children.

It also coordinates procedures for organizations to identify people with mental health needs so they can be referred to the right specialists.

*names have been changed