Refugees and violenceExplosive violence and victim rights

The Refugee Explosion – Interviews

This article is part of AOAV’s report, The Refugee Explosion. The whole report can be found here. Whilst the report introduction and methodology can be seen here. The key findings can be viewed here. The report overview of explosive violence and refugees can be read here, as well as on refugee destinations, here, asylum law in Europe, here, and political and economic developments, here.  AOAV’s country findings for Germany, the UK, and Greece can be found here, here, and here, respectively. For the report’s overall findings please click here, or for AOAV’s resulting recommendations here.

Name: Yazan
Country of origin: Idlib, Syria
Current residence: London, UK

Yazan fled to Turkey, from Syria because of the rising violence and as he was a vocal critic of the regime. Whilst his home town in Idlib was under regime control it had been too dangerous for Yazan to go, as he had spoken out against the regime. However, as soon as Idlib came under rebel control he travelled back to visit his family.

The family home had been under constant bombardment for the previous ten days, so when he arrived they all immediately went down into the basement. When they went up to the apartment and assessed the damage the rooms were covered in debris –  they decided to sleep in the basement. The bombing continued overnight, and they just hoped the bombs would not hit their building – Yazan explained the guilt he felt though at knowing if was not their home being hit by the bombs then it was highly likely to be hitting the home of someone else.

In the morning it was quieter, so Yazan went to search for assistance to help get his family out of danger. His mother went with him as she did not want him on his own. When they heard heavy bombing begin again in the distance they decided to return home. They saw many others packing to leave.  Whilst Yazan and his family were unharmed physi- cally, the events still took a psychological toll due to the danger, fear and destruction. Yazan was balancing normal concerns, such as his scholarship and marriage arrangements, alongside those caused by the conflict, such as moving his family out.

Yazan started to experience nightmares, which continued with him for at least the first two months he spent in the UK, they gradually improved but even now he infrequently experiences them. The nightmares would show the destruction of his home, being hunted by the regime, the deaths of friends and relatives, his own death. Yazan learnt to suppress his emotions about Syria, so he was able to continue with daily tasks in the UK.

Yazan has never been offered psychological support. He also explained that due to his treatment during the asylum process he would be unlikely to have taken any offered during the process. He witnessed a severe lack of empathy and compassion throughout the process in the treatment shown to him and others.

At one point, he tells AOAV, he was forced to sign a paper he says he was not allowed to read. Yazan said the process was dehumanising, and he was treated like a subject to be interrogated – his friends that have gone through the process feel the same.


Name: Ahmad
Country of origin: Tikrit, Iraq
Current residence: London, UK

Ahmad had witnessed many forms of explosive violence in Iraq and his two brothers had been killed in the violence. The main threat to Ahmad was from the militias. He explained that there were many militia groups in Iraq and some of the most violent are state-sponsored. He thinks that, perhaps, they feel more entitled to kill and can get away with it. In some respects, Ahmad explained, these groups are worse than ISIS, as there are no areas you can go to escape them.

As the violence increased Ahmad decided to leave Iraq, like many others. He travelled across Iraq, Syria, Turkey and into Europe. From Greece, he travelled across Europe with the hope of joining his uncle in the UK. When he was in Calais he managed to come across the channel in the back of a truck. The journey was very dangerous, but in the UK, he would be safe and with family.

Ahmad arrived in the UK in mid-2016. His asylum application was rejected, because the UK believed he could relocate to another area in Iraq. He is now waiting to make his appeal. Ahmad explains that there is danger everywhere he could go in Iraq – from ISIS, from militia groups.

Some of the violence is experienced both in Syria and Iraq, Ahmad explains, and the violence in Iraq has been occurring for over a decade. Ahmad believes that the violence in Iraq has become so normalised that sometimes 10 might be killed in a car bomb and it may not make the news. The violence has also been getting deadlier; with IEDs becoming increasingly lethal.

Ahmad believes the huge disparity in treatment and acceptance rates between the Syrians and Iraqis is unfair and appears to be dependent on politics rather than the dangers faced – else the treatment would be similar.  Ahmad explains that Iraq is his home and when it is safe he would want to return.


Name: Edrees
Country of origin: Tajik, Afghanistan
Current residence: Hamburg, Germany

Edrees is a 27-year-old refugee from Afghanistan. He arrived in Germany in 2014 and was finally granted entitlement to asylum in 2016. AOAV met him in Hamburg on 26th January 2017.

Edrees explained that he saw explosive violence throughout all his life. He witnessed bomb attacks during the civil war in the 90s, several NATO air campaigns and grew up with the constant fear of hidden mines or explosive remnants of war (ERW). Additionally, he worked with a group in Afghanistan which challenges the Pashto-dominance in the country and accuses the Afghan government of corruption and collaboration with the Taliban. He told AOAV, that as a consequence, his family’s house was attacked one day.

He and his family had 60 seconds to hide in their basement – before a rocket destroyed their house.  The family survived but decided to relocate to Kabul, however had to flee again after several months. While his family stayed in Afghanistan, Edrees began the long journey to Europe in 2014.

After his arrival, he lived for six months in a mass shelter. In the mass shelter, his nightmares and anxieties started and he had troubles sleeping and eating. Without giving a reason, his first application was rejected, however a lawyer recommended he appeal.  He used the time between the applications to learn German and in his second interview, he presented his case by himself.

He was granted asylum, which, in the German law, means that the persecution he faces due to membership in a political organisation determined his application, not the decades-long experience of war and violence.

Until this day, he has never spoken to a therapist. He is currently training to become a translator, as most Persian-German translators are Iranians, not Afghans. The difference between the two countries’ dialects was the reason why his first application was rejected.


Name: Fareshta
Country of origin: Herat, Afghanistan
Current residence: Hamburg, Germany

Fareshta is a 26-year-old woman from Afghanistan who came to Germany in 2014. She lives in Hamburg now, where she trains to become a qualified social education worker. AOAV interviewed her on 27th January 2017 in Hamburg.

She was in Afghanistan during the civil war and the American invasion and witnessed several bombing campaigns and repeated artillery shelling. Her father fought the Taliban as well and was kidnapped and killed. His head was sent to the family.

Her grandfather, she told AOAV, was killed during a suicide attack on a market in Herat. She further explained how the UN ran mine protection programmes in which they taught children never to pick up toys on the streets. One unfortunate day, Fareshta’s friend picked up a teddy-bear from the road and lost a leg. She was 13.

Fareshta was forced to flee from Afghanistan when a local Mullah accused her of spreading Shia propaganda, after she accidentally distributed books at the school where she worked that contained Shia teachings. She was sentenced to a life-long house arrest.

Both the confrontation with the Mullah and the endless explosive violence strengthened her decision to leave Afghanistan for good. Fareshta said that when she arrived in Germany, she couldn’t sleep, had nightmares continuously and worried about her future. She was lucky enough to receive therapy quickly and after several meetings, her life and sleep rhythm normalised.

At the same time, her positive asylum decision arrived and she attended German classes. 2016, she started to work in a kindergarten and studies for the official qualification as a social education worker. She stressed how important the therapy was for her future ability to become a part of society.


Name: Safi
Country of origin: Aleppo, Syria
Current residence: Athens, Greece

Safi saw ‘everything’ in Syria – airstrikes, sniper, barrel bombs. Cluster bombs he tells AOAV were hugely dangerous and part of the reason he left. Living there just became too dangerous for his family. Safi and his family tried moving to other areas but the situation was the same eventually. Safi explains that some days it would be quiet and he would think he was safe and then suddenly that area is targeted – it would only be a matter of time.

Even the villages around Aleppo were not safe, Safi says: ‘When I went to visit my family in a village about 20km north of Aleppo in 2013, there were rocket attacks. We were very fortunate that it landed on the farmland. The next day many were leaving the village as so many could easily have been killed.’

Safi was also targeted by ISIS and the Syrian regime because he was known to be part of the revolution. When he was taking tests at school there was already a fear he would be targeted – other students had been captured from their seats. Even if a student was not part of the demonstrations they would still be interrogated about others.

Safi’s friend at the university was captured and sent to prison. Students also had their permits, that exempted them from having to join the army, torn up.

Safi arrived to Greece the day before the EU-Turkey deal. In Athens, he stayed in a squat. His other option was to live in Piraeus camp but he had heard so many bad stories about the conditions his family decided the squat would be safer. Safi and his family have since been moved into an apartment until they have received their asylum decision. They were rejected from the relocation programme.

Safi is now waiting for the interview. He says that no support, other than the housing, has been offered. Many feel lost, and worry about their future. Safi explains that the refugees have no certainty or stability: ‘your future is not in your hands.’ He does not worry for himself, but for his family, who find life here difficult.

Safi tells AOAV that he thinks Syria will not be safe for very long time, and if the regime is in power it will not be safe for anyone that was part of the revolution. He would also not want to live under a regime that killed so many Syrians.


Name: Ahmad
Country of origin: Kabul, Afghanistan
Current residence: Athens, Greece

Ahmad had worked in Kabul helping the US Army for three years. For this, Ahmad and his family were targeted by the Taliban. They were blackmailed and once Ahmad was kidnapped – fortunately a tracker in his phone meant he was rescued.

The bases where Ahmad worked were also regularly attacked and eventually it became too dangerous. Once, soon after Ahmad had left work to go home he heard a huge blast. A suicide car bomb had destroyed the camp where he worked – the Army just rebuilt and continued.

He tried to change area a couple of times but Ahmad says that outside of Kabul he would face more danger because the Taliban is present everywhere and Kabul, at least, has some security. Some areas also face the additional threat of ISIS, or airstrikes. A new system, Ahmad explains, now means that you must go to the government to register to change where you live.

Ahmad, worries about this new system – he explains that not only does this mean the process takes a long time but he believes that through this system the Taliban can find you as he believes that they threaten and blackmail officials to access the records.

After Ahmad undertook the journey to Greece, he was moved to Malakasa camp [40km from Athens city centre]. The conditions were very bad and there was also a lot of fighting between different groups. Ahmad told AOAV, that the security would just watch the fights.

Adults would have to take it in turns to stay up to protect the others in the tents. Some Afghans are said to have returned home. They say they would rather die in a bomb attack than live how they must here.

Fortunately, Ahmad, his fiancée and her mother have recently been moved by the UNHCR into a hotel in Athens. He is happier there, many in the camp suffer depression but there is very little help – even if you are sent to the hospital in an emergency you have no translator. He is learning Greek and he teaches English to Farsi speakers.

However, he is still waiting for his asylum interview – he has been waiting eight months. Ahmad was meant to have the interview the day before he met with AOAV but he tells us that they cancelled it, and he must wait another two months. He will have been waiting ten months. Ahmad explains that he had to lie to his family about it as he did not want them to lose hope – they are still in Afghanistan and face the same dangers Ahmad faced there. Ahmad hopes his family will be able to join him. He messages his mother every morning to check his family are OK and still alive.

He feels that the different treatment between the Afghans and the Syrians is unfair. Though the Syrians do need this support, Ahmad believes that the situation Afghans face must be respected too. Many Afghans are deported and some have been killed shortly after they returned – others have committed suicide before they are deported. Ahmad says that, he will be happy in Greece because he is safe here – it is not safe in Afghanistan.


Name: Abdullah[1]
Country of origin: Sinjar, Iraq
Current residence: Skaramagas, Greece

Abdullah was a refugee staying at the Skaramagas refugee camp, about 13km from the centre of Athens. He had recently been accepted to go to Germany through the resettlement programme and would leave for there in a couple of months. As a survivor of the Sinjar massacre, Abdullah explained, Germany accepted him without too many complications.

Abdullah told AOAV about the Sinjar massacre, where ISIS conquered in August 2014. They sent in trucks full of explosive to break enemy lines, followed by waves of inghamasi fighters [decentralised, quick units that are sent to cause havoc. Inghamasi fighters are equipped with suicide belts which they eventually blow off. Their psychological effect after a wave of truck bombings is devastating.] After this the main army charged.

ISIS pillaged and murdered thousands of Yazidis across Sinjar. Men, women and children, were executed, tortured and made sex slaves. [Abdullah showed AOAV pictures on his phone of mass graves, children hung with cables, naked, executed women and tortured bodies]. ISIS fighters came and gathered the men outside, then they started to shoot at them arbitrarily.

Abdullah, like many others, fled to the mountains where he managed to survive. He explains that there was little food or water and many that left in search of food were found and executed by ISIS. Eventually the PKK rescued those in Abdullah’s group. Abdullah fled to Turkey and then to Greece.

Abdullah hopes he will be safe in Germany – he had thought he would be in Greece but he explains that he is not safe in the camp. Abdullah was attacked by another man in the camp when a mob gathered to attack the Yazidis there. The Yazidis are called kuffar [infidels] by some of the Sunni Muslims and they must be kept separated from them in the camp. When the attacks happened many had flashbacks of the attack on Sinjar.

Abdullah explains that he never used to fear any Muslims, and though he still has Muslim friends in the camp, he is afraid because of the events in Sinjar. He often has nightmares but he has not been offered psychological treatment. He tells AOAV that he does not know if this support is provided in the camp but if it was he would not take up their time: ‘there are many in far more desperate need than me.’

[1] Not his real name