Once a child refugee, young Afghan becomes confident "Hungarian" man
BUDAPEST, Hungary, December 31 (UNHCR) - Sipping coffee in a Budapest café, wearing a stylish black jacket, Dariush Rezai looks very much like other confident 20-year-olds in the room.
Like many of them, he speaks in fluent Hungarian about playing X-Box and the guitar, and looking forward to enrolling in university. But a closer look at his Asiatic features is the first clue that he's not Hungarian. And listen a bit longer and you'll learn that Dariush's life has almost nothing in common with that of most young Budapest residents, or indeed most young Europeans.
"Now I will tell you my story, but after that, I don't want to look back anymore," he says. "I want to focus on my future."
Dariush's desire to forget the past is understandable. Born in Afghanistan, he was only 15 years old when he arrived alone in Hungary. He delves into his story seriously, choosing his words carefully as he tries to shed light on the anguish of child refugees.
In 2013, half the world's displaced were under the age of 18. Internationally, 25,300 unaccompanied and separated children applied for asylum, and in recent years have accounted for 4 per cent of all asylum claims.
Up to 200 unaccompanied children seek asylum in Hungary each year. They travel alone, often from war zones. Some escape on their own; others are sent abroad by families.
Dariush's long journey was typical. A native of Afghanistan's Ghazni area, Dariush was 12 years old when armed men murdered his father, an ethnic Hazara. To escape his father's fate, Dariush and his mother fled to Iran with the help of smugglers. They found a home in Tehran, but limited opportunities.
Dariush soon realized if he stayed, his only prospect for the future would be to work alongside his mother, 16 hours a day, in a shoe factory. They realized that Dariush's only hope would be to seek a life elsewhere.
After saving money once again to pay a smuggling ring, Dariush set off. His destination was "any place in Europe," and every terrifying step along the way he harboured second thoughts. "You regret departing every day," he said. "Your fate is completely in the hands of smugglers. They can do anything to you."
This six-month odyssey ended when policemen discovered Dariush as he attempted to cross into Hungary. He was sent to the Bicske refugee centre, where his real journey began.
After the Hungarian government granted him legal protection akin to refugee status, Dariush took up residence in an institution in Fót, one of two specialized centres in Hungary that house and educate unaccompanied children.
Here Dariush battled loneliness, learned Hungarian, and graduated from high school. His transition to an independent life has been helped by state financial support, which he is entitled to receive until he turns 24.
But this support is not given to all refugees between the ages of 18 and 24 years. Those young people who did not receive refugee status as children are not entitled to this help, which is a major shortcoming in Hungary's reception system, says UNHCR Protection Associate Katinka Huszar.
According to Huszár, the 18-year threshold is a "magical divide" in the treatment of asylum-seekers that ignores the fact many young people are still vulnerable, despite being legal adults.
Another problem in Hungary is that the reception system relies on the civil sector for its most crucial services. "Several core functions such as psychiatric, legal and educational support are covered by small-budgeted local NGOs and foundations," said Huszár. "These gaps make the present state of the system unsustainable."
Dariush has already taken steps towards a career he hopes to build in tourism by helping fellow refugees and asylum-seekers as an interpreter for them and guide around Budapest. He also participates in educational seminars about refugees and - with his beloved guitar - often entertains the children at the Fót centre, his alma mater. These days he's waiting to learn whether he will be allowed to remain in Hungary as a refugee.
After all he's been through, he refuses to despair. "I have never given up," he says. "I try my best. I have always tried my best."
By Veronika Fajth in Budapest, Hungary