Young Afghan refugee rediscovers family warmth in Slovenia

Thursday 14, March 2013 MARIBOR, 14 March 2013 (UNHCR) – Life turned upside down for Mirwais Tokhi in 2009 when he left his family behind in Afghanistan. The young man, now 23, never thought he would again find family warmth and care in a new country. At least, that was […]

Thursday 14, March 2013

MARIBOR, 14 March 2013 (UNHCR) – Life turned upside down for Mirwais Tokhi in 2009 when he left his family behind in Afghanistan. The young man, now 23, never thought he would again find family warmth and care in a new country.

At least, that was until he met Zlatka Kunst at a meditation retreat in Slovenia a year and a half ago while he was waiting for a decision on his asylum claim. The Slovene grandmother’s care is helping Mirwais put the pieces of his broken life slowly back together and to turn his host city of Maribor, in north eastern Slovenia, into a real home.

Mirwais fled his family home in Baghlan, northern Afghanistan, after one of his brothers who supplied food to NATO was killed and his family threatened. “I was unwilling to go but my father who is a government official wanted me to be safe and live happily,” said Mirwais who was a police academy student at the time.

After a harrowing nine-month journey passing through seven countries, sneaking across borders at the mercy of smugglers and spending three months in detention before being deported from Hungary, Mirwais eventually asked for asylum in Slovenia in November 2010, while detained in the Postojna detention centre. He tried to keep his thoughts busy, while waiting for a decision on his claim at the Ljubljana Asylum Home. He borrowed books, did sports, helped out with translations from Pastu and Dari to English and studied Slovene. An enthusiast of languages, he also signed up for an Arabic course.

It was a classmate from the Arabic course who suggested Mirwais – still coping with the memories of detention and the ‘sounds of bombs’ in his ears – visit Zicka Kartozija, an old monastery in eastern Slovenia enclosed by green hills and fresh herb gardens, where Slovenes have gone for decades to find peace and tranquillity.

The week at Zicka Kartozija turned out to change Mirwais’s life again: it gave him back some of his strength and introduced him to his second family. The 56-year-old Zlatka Kunst had gone to the monastery to meditate and quickly became a second mother to Mirwais who was her neighbour on the same floor. “At the farewell, we told each other ‘I will never forget you,’” recalled the young refugee who stayed in close touch with his new friend the following year while waiting for a decision on his asylum claim.

When he finally got refugee status in June 2012, Zlatka helped Mirwais find a small one-room flat in downtown Maribor and organised the paperwork and deposit. “She gave me the biggest help I could receive at the start,” Mirwais said of Zlatka who recognised the state-run integration facility on the outskirts of town was not an ideal place for a refugee to launch a new life in the country.

But what matters most to Mirwais was the time the pair has spent together and the care and warmth he receives. “We are really like a family, and this is everything to me. I enjoy myself when I am with them and when I am sad, I have someone to talk to,” the young Afghan tells UNHCR with tears in his eyes.

Zlatka and Mirwais talk almost daily on the phone, meet up for lunch and get together on weekends cooking Slovene or Afghan food, or just discussing the week with a cup of tea. Mirwais now calls Zlatka’s daughter and son-in-law his brother and sister.

For her part, Zlatka says being a second mother to Mirwais is a ‘blessing from God.’ “He just walked with both feet into my heart: with one foot as a lonely and helpless refugee and with the other as a son to whom I never gave birth,” she told UNHCR.

The 56-year-old mother works on European Social Fund projects to make companies more child-friendly. Mirwais was the first refugee Zlatka had met and the charity-minded person, who regularly donates clothes, toys and food to the needy, really values the completely new experience.

“People should forget themselves and their problems and recognize the innocent people who have suffered so much and had no possibility to stay in their own country with no free options, security, pride and self-confidence,” she said.

Mirwais reports his own mother is relieved to learn he is safe and surrounded by Zlatka’s caring family, although she was initially worried about her youngest son’s life in Slovenia. Mirwais tries to keep in touch with his Afghan family who do not have internet or a computer, and the long distance calls are expensive.

In the future, Mirwais wants to work as a translator to help refugees navigate the asylum procedure. He speaks Pastu, Dari and Persian fluently and English, Slovene, Arabic and Urdu at advanced level. He says learning languages has never been difficult for him: “if you are interested in something, it is easy, you just do it.”

“I want to find my own feet as soon as I can,” says Mirwais who doesn’t like to accept the 260 euro per month in social aid that the government provides to recognised refugees in the first three years.

“I believe in myself and try my best,” he said with striking resoluteness. “When I have a difficulty, I see how others do it, learn from them and do it the same way.”

By Éva Hegedűs in Maribor, Slovenia