Eight years ago, on a cold November day, I huddled in the back of a banana truck from the French port of Calais, trying to make my way to Britain and a new life.
One year earlier, when I was just 12, my 13 year old brother and I were sent away from home and everything we had ever known. I come from southern Afghanistan. My uncle was a senior Taliban commander and my family Taliban supporters. My father and grandfather were killed by US forces and as a result the Taliban wanted my brother and me to join them. In turn the US military wanted us to become informants. We were just kids, pawns caught up in a game of war. As the threats against us intensified my mother paid human traffickers to get us to safety. Despite promising her we would stay together, a day after leaving home the traffickers separated us.
The next year was a perilous journey across half the world. I was imprisoned three times, jumped from a speeding train almost breaking both my legs and nearly drowned in a boat off the coast of Greece. Before climbing aboard that banana truck I spent a month in the so-called jungle of Calais, the most dehumanising, depressing experience of all. I couldn’t go on living another day there, so I climbed onto that banana truck in the full knowledge that if the driver turned on the freezer I would die. Luckily for me, I made it to the UK and the second stage of my struggle – proving to the Home Office I was only 13 and I had a genuine asylum case – began.
Since then my life journey has been nothing short of a miracle, so much so that I still have to pinch myself. Today I am a student at Manchester University, a community campaigner and the author of a soon-to-be published book.
My book depicts the refugee struggle, but for me the journey has also been of another kind. That of leaving one culture – religious, deeply conservative, Islamic, tribal – and then to be thrust into another – alien, secular, modern.
As I sat opposite my co-writer Nadene, during the long sweat-filled days of writing, I was struck at how far I’ve come. Once I couldn’t have sat alone in a room with a woman who wasn’t my relative. I had very strong views on a woman’s position and place at home. In my conservative Pashtun culture a woman seen outside the house is considered a great shame. As a child I used to take it upon myself to ban my aunts from going outside, even when we needed water or firewood. I would rather carry the wood myself than risk someone seeing them and causing dishonour to our family. For a long time I was horrified to see women walking down the street with their heads uncovered.
My grandmother told me that women were the kindest creation of God. I believed this. Conservatism does not mean disrespect. But in the Western world openness and equality is seen as respect. Understanding that was a slow process. Understanding that I could accept change but still live within the limits and boundaries of my religion and culture took me even longer.
On my year-long journey to safety I was met with so much kindness and love from women in the countries I travelled through – from a doctor in Athens to children’s home staff in Italy to the tireless soup kitchen volunteers in Calais.
Perhaps meeting these women made it possible for me to share my innermost secrets with Nadene, someone who was a complete stranger a year ago. And it’s not just her. I’ve worked with a largely all-female editorial team at Atlantic publishing. Writing a book and laying bare my most painful memories has been one of the hardest things I have ever done (at times even harder than the journey itself) but this element hasn’t fazed me – something which surprised even me.
I still have my strong views and I am still a conservative Muslim, yet I respect and appreciate equity between men and women. Today some of my best friends are women – inspiring, impressive and admirable people. I also have friends from all different religions and none.
I judge no one and accept everyone for who they are. This was once unthinkable for a boy from a rural village in one of the most conservative countries on earth.
Life truly is a journey – not only through the physical distances and years we travel, but through those we meet and who change us along the way. I hope that everyone who reads my book will in turn be a little bit changed.