Determined young Afghan eyes academic success in Italy
BOLZANO, Italy – Afghan refugee Alidad Shiri was just a boy of 10 when he set off alone on a four-year odyssey to Europe. Now aged 25, he is about to graduate with a degree in philosophy from the University of Trento.
Alidad was born in Ghazni, Afghanistan, where his childhood was cut short at the age of nine when his father was killed. The following year, his mother, grandmother and baby sister died in a bombing.
“When I was given the news, I couldn’t understand anything,” he said. “I just cried and couldn’t talk to anyone or play any more for months.”
Shortly afterwards, Alidad fled to Pakistan with his aunt’s family. However, he dreamt of finding a place where he could be safe and continue studying. He could not achieve this if he stayed in Pakistan. At the age of 10, he set off alone for Europe to fulfil his dreams.
In Iran, he found work in a factory making refrigerator parts. It employed regular workers during the day and undocumented refugee and migrant children at night. Despite the poor pay and gruelling work, Alidad was happy to be able to support himself and would have stayed in Iran if he had had the chance to enrol in school. At the time, however, refugee children were unable to obtain an education in Iran.
Over the next three years, he turned to smugglers to help him cross into Turkey and Greece, suffering abuse and risking his life countless times.
While crossing on foot between Turkey and Greece, Alidad and other refugees were abandoned by the smugglers. They walked for days until they ran out of food and water.
“Water was splashing on my face. The truck was speeding and I was crying and shouting, but no one could hear me.”
He recalled how three Somali women were unable to keep up with the group. They begged for water, but he knew he would not have survived if he had given them his last supplies.
“In the end, we had to leave them behind,” he said. “They stayed in the mountains alone. I’m sorry I left them there without water. They probably died. I still think about them all the time.”
When Alidad arrived in the Greek city of Patras, he had just turned 14. He found a job picking tomatoes, working 12 hours a day for €2.50 an hour. He lived in an apartment with 25 refugees who, like him, were waiting for the chance to board a ferry for Italy.
One night, he succeeded in climbing over the barbed wire of Patras harbour. He found a truck and climbed onto the axle, tying himself to it using his trousers and belt. Alidad had planned to leave the truck as soon as the ferry docked, but the driver kept going for four hours.
“When the truck got off the ferry in Venice it was dark and it was raining,” he said. “Water was splashing on my face. The truck was speeding and I was crying and shouting, but no one could hear me.”
At last, the truck stopped at a petrol station and Alidad, who had not eaten for two days, was so exhausted he could barely walk. He found his way to a highway where he was picked up by the police. That night, he was placed in a reception facility for unaccompanied minors in South Tyrol, in northern Italy.
Four years and six months after leaving Afghanistan, he was finally safe. Life in the reception facility was very different from what he had experienced on the road. Soon he was enrolled in school and learning Italian. When he reached 18, however, he had to leave the facility but he was not yet ready to live on his own.
“Our children have grown with Alidad. They’ve learned a way of life, of thinking, of speaking.”
Gerhard Duregger, 47, the facility’s director, and his wife, Sabine Gamper, decided to give him a home with them. “Taking in Alidad in our home was a way for me to react to something that was happening in the world,” Gerhard said. “My family and I are not out to save the world, but we wanted to show that it is possible to do something, to open up and live together.”
Sabine, also 47, recalled the difficulties of having a teenage boy who was struggling to fit into a new community. His determination sometimes wavered and he wanted to drop out of education, but Sabine and Gerhard, with the help of Alidad’s teachers, persuaded him not to give up.
“Sometimes I am amazed,” Sabine said. “There is such lightness in him, vision and strength, which is sometimes missing in our people here. We are very proud of him.”
With the help of his Italian teacher, Gina Abbate, Alidad started writing about his experiences in Afghanistan and during his journey. His writings were later turned into a book entitled “Via dalla Pazza Guerra” (“Away from the crazy war”), which he has presented in hundreds of schools to teach Italian students what it means to be forced to flee.
Alidad still lives with Sabine, Gerhard and their three children. “When you open up, new life comes in and yours becomes richer, wider, bigger,” Gerhard said. “This experience has made us grow. Our children have grown with Alidad. They’ve learned a way of life, of thinking, of speaking that is different from ours.”
Now aged 25, Alidad has been studying philosophy at the University of Trento and is about to graduate. He has been writing for two local newspapers and plans a career in journalism.
“If you read my book, it looks like I am brave person,” he said. “That’s not true. I am a normal person like everybody else. I took this journey because I had no other choice.”