On a warm
Saturday afternoon, my son and I swam in a hotel pool in Batam, Indonesia. The
resort overlooked the sea; the skyscrapers of Singapore, about 10 miles away,
lined the sky blue horizon.
At the end
of the pool, a young man with black hair noticed my son's solitary tooth. He
shook his hand and smiled. "Where are you from?" he asked.
from England," I replied. "And you?"
he said. "I'm a refugee."
the sun dipped and the sky turned orange, the refugee told me his story. It
involved death threats, a Taliban hijacking, a mystery saviour and years of
refugees have similar stories - or far worse. But this is his. And it's here
because of a chance meeting in an Indonesian pool.
Hussaini (also known as Erfan) is 21 and grew up in Sang-e-Masha, a highland
town overlooked by the Hindu Kush mountains.
He has two
younger brothers and a younger sister, and comes from an ordinary, poor family.
His father made shoes and farmed the small plot of land by their mud-and-stone
too young to remember life before the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001,
but he knows what it was like. The school was closed, he says. People did not
have access to education.
Shams is a
Hazara, the third-biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Hazaras are Shia
Muslims, look different to other Afghans, and have suffered decades of
persecution, not least from the Taliban.
2001, things improved. They could barely get worse.
people are supporters of education," says Shams. "They are supporters
of knowledge and light. People started going to school, people started going to
English at Shams' school, but only one hour a week. So, aged 12 and encouraged
by his uncle and other relatives, he went to a private centre. When he finished
the advanced class, aged 15, the director offered him a job.
involved teaching basic classes and travelling to the capital, Kabul, to pick
up materials - books, paper and so on. The money wasn't great but Shams needed
to earn. His parents had died, leaving him, a teenager, as head of the family.
I looked at my younger brothers and sister, I thought I must do something to
change their lives," he says. "I had to do everything in my ability
to bring a little positive change."
December 2014, Shams left his house and took a bus to Kabul to pick up
materials for his English centre. He hasn't seen his family since.
may have been ousted in 2001, but they never went away. In Sang-e-Masha, they
targeted the English school's staff and students.
them, English is the language of infidels," says Shams.
would receive threatening letters, both from the Taliban and local mullahs.
Some mullahs would come from the nearby masjid (mosque) to argue.
is not an English learning centre," they would say. "This is a place
for misleading the people."
mullahs, the sin of teaching English was compounded by teaching boys and girls
under the same roof. They bullied Shams - and his family - but he was undeterred.
felt scared, but the hunger to help people who lived in illiteracy for decades
was higher than the intimidation," he says.
And so, on
that cold Wednesday in December, he boarded the bus to Kabul.
It was the
third time Shams had gone to Kabul since taking the job and every time, he was
is about 275km (170 miles) from Shams' home and passes through Qarabagh, a
place Shams calls the Slaughterhouse.
Taliban have killed and kidnapped hundreds and thousands of Hazaras on that
highway," he says.
hours, the bus reached Qarabagh, and Shams' worst fears were realised. Two
Taliban, armed with guns, stopped the bus. They ordered Shams off.
outside, the Taliban slapped Shams and yelled in his face. Shams didn't speak
their language, Pashto, but the bus driver was able to translate, fearfully and
is the English teacher?" the Taliban demanded, hands on their guns, eyes
boring into him. "Are you the English teacher?"
Shams denied it, he got slapped. He shook with fear. Tears rolled down his
cheeks. Eventually, he became speechless. He was convinced he was about to die.
fear conquered all parts of my body," he says.
woman left her seat, walked off the bus, and saved his life.
she said, herself crying. "He's not the person you're searching for. He is
not know the woman, but he did not say anything. The Taliban looked at Shams.
He was 15, small, and seemed an unlikely teacher. Eventually, they let him - and
the bus - on their way.
survived. But there was no celebration or near-miss euphoria. "I felt
shattered on the inside," he says.
So, when he
reached Kabul, he made a decision. He was not going back to the Slaughterhouse,
and he was not going back to Sang-e-Masha.
In a Kabul
motel, Shams spoke to a driver who often took people from Shams' district to
the capital. Shams' story was common, the driver said: many people reached
Kabul and never went back.
he wanted to escape, so the driver found a smuggler who could help. The
smuggler said he could send Shams to Indonesia, via India and Malaysia.
Jakarta, the smuggler said, Shams could register with the UNHCR, the UN's
Refugee Agency. Shams did not know Indonesia - he had never left Afghanistan -
but anything was better than home.
his uncle (a small-scale farmer), who agreed to pay the smuggler $5,000 in
instalments, and waited a week. Then, with his new passport in hand, he flew to
Delhi then Kuala Lumpur. From there, he went to the coast to sail overnight to
some Afghan refugees, it was a quick escape. Those who flee to Europe, for
example, often go overland, crossing thousands of miles in the backs of
lorries. But Shams' journey - though quicker - was not easy or safe.
reached the Malaysian coast, he expected a ferry. Instead he boarded a wooden
boat, overcrowded with families, young couples and teenage boys. The sea was
rough, the sky was dark, and, after an hour, it started to rain.
over the side of the boat. For the second time in a month, Shams thought he was
going to die, this time in the Strait of Malacca.
was not supposed to be the place to die," he says. "I survived war in
Afghanistan, the Taliban, and now I'm going to sink in the water?
thoughts were coming into my head. What would happen to my family? What would
happen to my dreams? And these thoughts were coming into the heads of other
looked at their faces - it was obvious. They were all in a terrible state of
they stayed afloat. They reached Medan, Indonesia, and drove to Jakarta,
1,900km (1,200 miles) away. There were six passengers in the car, and they were
only allowed out at night - even if they needed the toilet.
days without food, and barely any water, they reached the capital. Shams found
the UNHCR office and walked in. This, he thought, was the start of a new life.
It was. But
not the way he imagined.
thought the UNHCR would listen to his story and offer him a place to stay.
Instead, they registered him and asked him to leave the office.
said many people are like you - leave your number, go outside, talk to your
friends," he remembers. "But I had no friends. I knew no-one in
nights on the street he met some Hazara boys from Afghanistan, hanging round
near the UNHCR. They told him there were detention centres near Jakarta but
they were full. Instead, they said, he should go to Manado.
was a three-hour flight from Jakarta, but the detention centre had space, the
Hazara boys said. They also knew a woman who could arrange the flight.
didn't want to be locked up - who would? - but he had no alternative. The
streets of Jakarta were bleak - no food; no water; no hope.
have enough money for the flight, but he begged the woman and she relented.
When he arrived in Manado he went to the immigration office and asked for
somewhere to stay.
UNHCR, they asked him to leave.
another night on the street, the immigration staff sent him to a house used as
a "waiting room" until a detention centre had space.
there for 16 months.
had seven bedrooms with up to 14 or 15 people sleeping in each. There was one
toilet and one shower, but not enough water for both. Instead, they washed in a
nearby river with buckets.
drinking water and food, but it was basic - rice, potatoes, occasionally a
chicken wing. "For 16 months, I don't remember any vegetables," says
than the lack of vegetables was the lack of freedom.
asylum seeker, he couldn't study, couldn't work, and couldn't travel. He was
trapped in the house; trapped in Indonesia; and trapped by his memories of
felt like somebody had injected that fear into my mind, into my whole
body," he remembers. "It was disturbing me all the time. I was
hitting my head with my hands."
2016, he had some good news, of sorts. He was being locked up.
detention centre in Pontianak - on the other side of Indonesia to the house in
Manado - was like a prison, with high fences, barbed wire and a leaking roof.
So why was it good news?
Pontianak his application for refugee status would be considered.
"Refugee" is a step-up from "asylum seeker" as it allows
relocation to third countries, even if the chances are slim.
But - while
there was hope - it was a long, endless tunnel, with only a faint, flickering
light at the end.
criminals, there is a specific period of time for their confinement," says
Shams. "But for refugees there was no such date. We had to wait and wait
to be positive. He taught English to the inmates, acted as a translator, and
completed a basic counselling course, organised by the International Organisation
for Migration (IOM).
In 2017 he
received refugee status and, on 27 July 2018, was finally released from the
detention centre, as the Indonesian government began to close them down across
does not comment on individual cases, but said that before December 2016, about
30% of the refugee population in Indonesia was in detention. Since a regulation
from Indonesia's president came into force, most have been transferred out of
home was "community housing" in Batam. It is the preferred model for
the IOM, which supports about 80 such facilities in Indonesia, home to more
than 8,200 people.
Shams noted, living conditions in Indonesian immigration detention centres are
extremely basic," the IOM told the BBC.
role is to help asylum seekers and refugees detained in these facilities by
improving living standards, including health and nutrition, while advocating
with the Indonesian authorities to move detainees - particularly families - to
community housing, Shams quickly led by example. As well as English lessons, he
attended peaceful protests, calling on third countries - especially Australia -
to accept more refugees from Indonesia.
this work, which was publicised on social media, he met an Australian woman on
Facebook who worked as a refugee advocate. When she came to Batam as part of
her work, she invited Shams to use the pool at her hotel.
And that is
why Shams Hussaini - 21-year-old Afghan refugee; English teacher; Taliban
survivor - was able to smile at Francis Amos - round cheeks; one tooth; born
eight months earlier in south London - as they passed each other on a Saturday
afternoon in Batam.
So that is
Shams' story (relayed in the pool, with more details on the phone later). But
it is also a story of the 21st Century - because he is one of millions of
displaced people surviving on its margins.
26 million refugees globally and what drove them from their home - the war in
Syria, for example - is often well-reported. What happens next can be
fewer than 1% of refugees are resettled to third countries, which means vast
numbers are left in limbo. They spend their days waiting, then hoping, then
finally just waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
options include private sponsorship from third countries - which is rare - or
returning to country of origin, which often isn't safe (Shams will not return
to Afghanistan as he thinks he will be killed).
meantime, the camps get fuller, and the waiting lists get longer.
home in Batam is better than Pontianak or Manado, and he is grateful for it.
But he still has an 8pm curfew; still survives on $99 a month from the IoM;
still can't travel. For him, this isn't living; it's surviving.
of becoming a humanitarian lawyer, and of seeing his family again. Their
situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, he says - but he can't help until he
is settled outside Indonesia.
country that will accept me, I will go - no problem," says Shams. Until
then, the waiting goes on: five long and lonely years since he boarded the bus
in Kabul, and counting.
to his spirit - and the mystery woman on the bus in Qarabagh - he is still
here. And he is still hopeful.
the woman who saved my life, thank you from the bottom of my heart," he
ends with. "I will never forget your kindness. I hope someday I could
Headline: A Taliban escapee, an English
baby - and the dramatic story that followed
Source: BBC .Com