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My life as a teenage refugee

Afghani teenager Karima Qias shares her story of leaving Iran to find a new life in Europe and how she found joy through creativity in a squatted hotel in Athens

In our column TEEN ANGST, a different teenager makes their views heard on Dazed each month. Karima Qias is a teenage refugee from Afghanistan, who details her and her family’s journey from Iran to Europe, and how she found joy through art in a squat situated in a hotel in Athens.

Most of my childhood memories are of spending days in the dusty yard outside our home in Iran, playing with piled up truck tyres. At night I slept between the mud walls of a house we were trying to make our own as illegal refugees from Afghanistan. I helped my mother with chores a lot and we all raised my younger brothers and sisters together. Sometimes I made dolls from mud in the yard and dressed them in scraps of fabric leftover from mum’s sewing, which were always around as she made dresses for Iranian ladies, with my big sister Shafi.

As refugees in Iran we could never get on a stable footing. We were sent back to Afghanistan twice. Once someone wrecked all our stuff just because we were outsiders. So my family decided to make a better life in Europe. The first time we crossed the border into Turkey, guards arrested us and sent us back, so the next time we trekked through the mountains all night to avoid deportation. There were so many dangerous moments. The worst was when we almost lost my mum and sister.

Reaching the Greek island of Lesvos was easier than we’d expected as we’d heard so many scary stories about the boats, but on the journey we were oblivious to the nightmare awaiting us at the refugee camp there, Moria. The conditions were disgusting. So much violence against women and food unfit for animals. So we started demonstrating, to fight for our right to be treated like humans. We made a month-long hunger strike, which was almost unbearably challenging but worked because we got our papers and were finally allowed to travel to Athens.

When we arrived we found that word had got around among the refugee community about our protests at Moria, and it got us invited to stay in the squatted Plaza Hotel, which was well known in Athens (it’s now closed and the police of the new Greek government have raided squats and cleared refugees out putting them in camps miles from anywhere L). It was cramped, with five of us sleeping in a small room designed for two, but we were glad to be safe and there we could start to dream about a future again.

The seventh floor at Plaza squat was dedicated to training courses and about a month after we’d arrived a journalist who was volunteering encouraged us to interview each another and experiment with telling our stories. We illustrated our writing, and then each made our work into a zine. All our zines were unique to each individual and we just designed them with our hands however we wanted. We put on a little presentation evening at the squat and it gave us a taste of what we could do.

So me and my sisters formed a collective with some friends and called it the Plaza Girls. It made us feel strong to be in a group. It gave us the confidence to experiment with creative projects and meant we had a bigger voice than we could ever have alone. We made a second zine that was a bit slicker because it was designed on the computer. We filled it with poems and did a little satire on Donald Trump. Loads of people came to the presentation evening, in Exarchia, which is Athens’ anarchistic neighbourhood, and we performed some of our poems live outside under the trees – we were so nervous but then it was amazing.

“Me and my sisters formed a collective with some friends. It made us feel strong to be in a group. It gave us the confidence to experiment with creative projects”

Our third project is a poetry book, which is like an art book because we hand wrote every poem in ink and pressed flowers from Acropolis hill in some of the pages, plus my youngest sister Adele is embroidering the cover. We want to install it in a gallery with video portraits and audio of our poems in the original Persian all around. Then maybe we can print copies of the book too. With all this stuff, my sisters and friends give me the support to speak what I’d previously felt was unspeakable because some things were painful. As a kid I used to imagine being a doctor or pharmacist, but those jobs seemed so far off. Now I think I want to write because with a pen I can find the strength to recount the events and scenes I’ve witnessed. 

My mum set a rule when we were very young that we must all speak our minds, which I think taught us to trust one another and really know each other. My older sisters have always encouraged me. The oldest is a nurse and the next is a tailor. My younger sisters inspire me too: Ely is a skateboarder and Adele, who’s trying to finish her education, is a brainy mathematician. For now my family is separated – some in Belgium, some in Greece and some in Iran. We are learning the European way of having more space in families but we still video call each other non-stop and share everything we have.

Before, I only ever had the impression of Europe as a place where everyone’s rights are respected – echoed by the European parliament’s slogan. But once we arrived at Moria camp it became clear to me that there is discrimination here too. I think unfortunately most Europeans can’t understand the reality of immigration because they’ve never experienced what we’ve had to go through. In Iran I could only see Europe via the lens of journalists and I’d imagine myself living this beautiful peaceful life here. Every refugee whose only perspective on Europe comes via the media is embarking on such a hopeful journey in pursuit of peace and security because we never had the opportunity to experience that safety in our homelands. I deeply wish people in all countries could live free of war. Abuse and injustice are the worst because humanity should be like an extended family that we all treasure.