Hazel with a dash of green. They were focused, calm and quiet. They were beautiful. He maintained his gaze, which was kind and welcoming. They were the eyes of an Afghan man that had fled his country, in hope to provide for his sheltering family he had left behind. His story left me in thought of just how fortunate I am to travel. How fortunate I was to have met him.
“I’ll run and grab it from our bags,” I left Jasmin sitting on the carpet, as an Iranian lady offered me a plate of dried figs. “No, I’m fine, I’ll have some when I’m back,” the old lady wiggled the plate in insistence. She tucked a loose hair back under her hijab, her eyes unblinking, her stare intense but warm. “When I am back I will have one,” she screwed up her face and quickly moved her attention to Jasi. The home had been well loved, it was clear generations of families had lived here. At the doorway I quickly slipped on a pair of the families flip flops far too small for my feet and braced myself for the chill of the night air. “Oh, thank you,” I heard Jasi from behind, politely accepting the ambush of hospitality.
I closed the door behind me and began jogging for the far end of the shed. The enormous storage shed was silhouetted by just enough moonlight to navigate. I turned the corner of the shed and passed the storage entrance, skidding to a halt as my toes pressed over the end of my flip flops. I turned to the entrance of the shed. Hessian bags stood against the wall, spilling with figs and pomegranates. The sweet dank scent of stored fruit filled me as I caught my breath. Before the hessian bags were buckets of walnuts lining the entrance. Many hands had worked hard since we parked our bicycles inside the shed only hours ago. I noticed a small door to the left was alit. I walked to the door, the air fresh and cold in my lungs. I reached for the handle, peering through the window.
Three men sat cross-legged on a teal and cream Persian carpet. In front of them was a silver tray, pressed with a simple pattern. On it was a bowl full of sugar cubes and a flask of tea. Behind them stood a glowing electric heater. The room was simple, no chairs or tables, only cushions and rolled mattresses stacked against the cream walls. The men were dressed in dark shades of greens and browns. Their clothing was clean but showed obvious signs that it had been well worn.
Bringing the tea to his lips, the youngest of the men’s stare snapped to me. He froze, the two other men twisted with their teas in hand looking confused, their jaws ajar. I was stuck, just still, embarrassed to have disturbed them, but curiosity held me there. My pause brought action to the youngest of the men. He gestured with his hand, still holding his tea, for me to come sit. With the night air biting, I turned the crisp metal door handle and let the cold air in. I felt the welcomed rush of warm air over my feet. I stepped to the carpet, wary of my dirty toes.
The carpet was thick and soft under my heals. I sat down and tried to bring myself into a comfortable seating position, the men noticed and began to swap creeping grins. Without a word exchanged, the eldest of the men poured a fresh glass of light black tea and the youngest of the men, effortlessly folded forward at the hip and handed me the glass. “thankyou”.
There, I met his hazel green eyes. He could not have been more than a few years older than me. He had fine facial features particularly in contrast to the two men beside him. His hair was jet black and pressed to his face as if it was wet. I nodded my head ever so slightly, thanking him for the tea. They returned smiles and boyish grins to each other but remained silent.
“My name is Matt” placing a hand on my chest. The man with the hazel eyes was mid sip of his tea and began giggling, battling to contain the tea in his mouth. “unrecognized language,” the men spoke to each other, in whispers and giggles. My tea was beginning to cool, and I gulped the last sip. I placed my glass back down on the carpet, the eldest of the men quickly leaned forward, took the flask from the tray, and refilled my glass. He then placed the sugar bowl in front of me, with a kind smile and a slight dip of the head.
The men’s attention then moved to the smartphone in the hands of the youngest man. It was being turned over, curiously inspected. The two elder men watched on with uncertainty. A small white box and instructions lay on the carpet beside the silver tray. The eldest hesitantly unwrapped the charging cable and handed it to the younger man.
Hearing the sharp squeak of the door handle, I turned to see our Iranian host pacing towards us. He raised his eyebrows to me and softly breathed “Here you are.”
He sat down beside us, folding his legs underneath him like a child. He instantly received a tea alike myself.
“I see you’ve met our friends, our helpers here at the farm.”
“unfamiliar language,” he addressed the men. “Ah, they don’t speak English,” turning to me. “This is Karim, Sayed and Ahmad”. “They are from Afghanistan”, he was looking on with a proud smile as he watched the three men continue to inspect the smartphone.
“They can now call their families and friends back home,” his cheeks round and full.
“And, where is home exactly?” I asked.
“Herat, a city near the border,” “but they spend most of the year here,” his gaze left the men and returned to me, he looked me up and down. I could see a burning sentence was in his mouth.
“They have families in Herat?” My question eased our host from whatever he was holding onto.
“Yes, ah, yes, Karim has 2 sons and a daughter,” he pressed his hands into his thighs, staring aimlessly at the flask of tea. He began to chew his lip and then rubbed his face rather forcedly.
“Their working here illegally,” he said with a large exhale and breaking his stare to look at me. Opening his palms to the sky, shrugging his shoulders and tilting his head to the side.
His gaze returned to the men still fussing with the smartphone.
“They earn money here, to send home to their families,” his mind busy, he took a deep inhale and placed a hand on Karims shoulder
“Karim only visits his wife and children once per year,” the gentle chink of tea cups and the whispers of the three Afghani men returned.
“Afghani’s are incredible workers, they are honest, hard-working and very grateful for the work here,” he gave a final pat on the Karims shoulder, his lips pressed firmly together and his chin beginning to quiver.
“So how do they cross the border?” He turned to me with his head tilted to his shoulder. He raised a finger to silence me, then turned to the men.
“Unrecognised language,” the three men’s eyes quickly darted to me. I sipped my tea to disguise my tensed shoulders.
The smartphone was set aside, their rolling language thickened. The spine of the young man straightened. He suddenly curled his fist and drove it through the air. The elder of the men placed a palm on Karim’s thigh. Relaxing his shoulders, Karim reached again for the phone, returning himself to its attention. The tick of the electric heater again dominated the room.
My Iranian host slowly turned to me. His eyes were wide, and he uncomfortably rearranged his seating position to directly face me.
Opening and closing his palms, glancing to the ceiling, he finally spoke.
“They cross the border in a speeding van,” my eyes darted to the men.
“Every 6 months they, ah,” squeezing his shoulders together, clenching his fists under his chin, lost for a word.
“Ah, they get into a van with 15 others,” clearing his mouth, staring into the carpet again.
“Then they drive across the border in the middle of the night as fast as they can. Hoping that border security does not attempt to stop them.”
My jaw was dropped, and I rubbed my face as our host had just done.
Karim’s eyes were now glistening with the light coming from the smartphone. He looked up to see my expression and gave a puff of air from his nose that moved his whole body. He quickly returned to his phone, taking small glances to monitor my reaction.
“How old is Karim?” Karim gave a reactionary glance to me upon hearing his name. His eyes now softer than before.
“He is 30 years old,” said our host, searching for the answer in the corner of his eye.
Karim was beginning to type on the smartphone, his large cracked and weathered hands cumbersome and did not match his calm boyish face. My legs paining from my seating position, I slid them to the side. As I straightened my legs, Ahmed twisted, seized a nearby pillow and insisted I take it, their cheeky grins returned.
“How is it in Afghanistan?” I asked. Karim’s head suddenly lifted.
“Well, ah, its,” seeing Karim’s attention he changed language and turned to him. He gestured to myself and Karim’s eyes followed.
Karim leaned forward and began speaking in a soft tone. His elbows pressed to his thighs and hands dangling before him. His stare now intent, and eyes concentrated. He then turned and spoke directly to me. He raised his hand and cut the air between us with a flat hand. I looked at my host, desperate for the translation. Our host nodded, and swallowed, but paused. Karim swayed back to his previous seating position and immediately took the phone from his Uncle.
Our host cleaned the front of his teeth with his tongue, his face was warming.
His tone quiet, he continued “Karim has never been to school, and he has never known anything but fighting in his country,” the words heavy and his mind again busy.
“Karim wants you to know that you should, ‘Never travel to Afghanistan.’”
Karim looked up and gave a forced smile.
“Do they know why I’m here, where I’m from, how I am travelling?” I strained my eyes to not lose contact with Karim.
Hearing the translation, Karim began to lean forward his brows together, his attention swapping between the Iranians eyes and mine.
“…Australia…” I expected another glance to me. He was still, his eyes continued searching between us, then the room and back to Ahmed and Sayed.
Karim’s stare finally returned to me, his hands crossed and loosely clasped to his ankles. His head shook before me, he stared at me, in utter disbelief.
“He can’t really believe it Matt”, my paining legs a distant memory, I felt numb.
“Australia.. me…Kangaroo” I looked to the ticking heater, sweat beginning to fall under my arms, wishing the words would return to my stupid mouth.
Karim returned a blank stare. Our host went on to clarify.
The Iranian turned back to me, his eyes glazed and reddened.
“Matt, He doesn’t know what a kangaroo is”
The realisation that Life, for some, is simply not fair was made clear to me on this night as I sat with Karim and listened to his story. I hope this brings a little awareness to Karim and his life.
The night I met Karim I wrote an entry into my diary, here is what I scribbled.
*With Thanks to Meridith Mckinnon, Author of “The Thai Wife”, who mentored and advised me in the writing of this piece.
Take a piece of paper, or a receipt from your wallet or a sheet from a newspaper. Imagine this is a World Map, but without the oceans and seas, just the land. This piece of paper is our World Map of all 195 countries pushed together. Now fold the piece of paper in half, fold it in half again and then again. So now you have a piece of paper folded 3 times. Take a look at it, It’s a lot smaller right? It’s so much smaller than our original piece of paper, the world. That folded piece of paper is the world an Afghani person sees, the percentage of countries they are free to travel. They have the most restricted passport in the world, only accepted by 30 countries visa-free.
Now let’s go a step further. In the beginning of this paper folding test, we assumed that every country was the same size. Obviously, they’re not. Unfortunately for the Afghanis, the countries that allow them to travel Visa free are quite small. Further reducing the wonders of the world, they are Visa free to visit. So I did a little math and with the help of Wikipedia, I calculated all the land on earth and the percentage of the earth that the Afghani people can visit, Visa free or a simple Visa on arrival.
Continuing with the same piece of paper we had just folded three times, now, fold it in half again. Now, This folded piece of paper represents 6.25% of the world. The Afghanis actually see less than this. They are Visa free to only 5.25% of the world, so cover a little more of that folded piece of paper with your thumb. It’s a small world after all.
- Henley and Partners passport index