A is for Afghanistan

I have never considered myself brave.  Naïve, over-trusting, and myopic are instead words I would use to describe myself.  I have been privileged enough, at a very young age, to have met some incredibly brave people.  I consider them the giants society is built on, but we will never acknowledge them as such.  Their bravery, intelligence, achievement and optimism will never be appreciated outside of those who know them personally.

Yesterday I met a giant, and he is 17.  One of the attorneys at our office was kind enough to arrange for us to go to a foster home for unaccompanied minors about two hours from Bratislava.  The home has a capacity for about 20 children, and currently holds 11.  The staff speak only Slovak and Russian, and the majority of books are only in Russian.  Over half of the children at the facility speak English, and others speak Arabic or Persian.  So, they are not able to communicate, and few understand why they are kept behind a fence with security and a guard dog (walking into this place is very much like walking into a scene from a film set in a Nazi P.O.W. camp, as a man dressed in black unlocks the gate and the dog barks madly and paces around his cage).

One young man was nice enough to agree to do an interview with me for my report on age assessment.  For obvious reasons, I will not share his name, we will simply call him A from Afghanistan.

A came to Slovakia one year ago, when he was 16.  It is unclear whether Slovakia was his intended destination, although I highly doubt it was.  A is a Christian, and has suffered for this in Afghanistan.  Having lost an older brother to the war (he was assisting the U.S. army and lost his life for his), and seeing both his mother and uncle persecuted for their beliefs, A left.  He was caught in Slovakia, and presented authorities with his authentic identity documents, which evidence that he was 16.

When I walked into the room to meet A, it was pretty apparent to me that he was under 18.  Despite his experiences, he has retained the face of a child.  In my opinion, the Slovak authorities had no grounds to question his age, especially considering they had documentation proving otherwise.  However, this seems to be a common practice in Slovakia.

When the police question someone’s age, it often entails an “age assessment.”  This means that someone will perform some kind of (often medical) procedure to determine a person’s biological age (meaning how old their body is, not their actual age).  Few scientists and other experts deny this is extremely problematic, biological age varies tremendously depending on ethnicity, nutrition, socio-economic background, and even whether an individual suffered certain illnesses when he or she was younger.  There is simply no way to accurately estimate an individual’s age; as such, all international documents on the issue stipulate that the individual always be given the benefit of the doubt.  The Slovak government, however, has decided this doesn’t apply to them.

They told A they were going to check his documents.  Then, they took him to a doctor, where they took a radiograph of his wrist.  Within five minutes, he was taken back to the police station, where they told him the doctor had assessed him as over 18.  They shackled his wrist and legs to a chain around his waist (I had the impression this treatment was reserved for highly dangerous individuals, as did A).  He had no food or water for over 12 hours (in fact, when he asked for some, he was told to, “Shut up!”), and no one could explain why he was in chains.  A was left to assume that they thought he was a terrorist, or worse, that he killed someone.

I will give you a bit of the interview as I have transcribed it thusfar, I have not made any grammatical corrections, so you are getting A’s view in his own words.  For a 17 year old, he is profoundly intelligent and self-aware:

“First, when I was in police station, they didn’t tell me that we want to send you to the prison, just we investigate your age, and you are over 18.  We want to send you to the camp.  I had a good feeling, I was thinking I came to a safe place, and this is European country, and they have safe law for the human rights, like other, every European country telling about the human rights and about the every countries.  And I was happy about this!  When I was entered to the prison [actually a “detention” facility, but it is not surprising that a 16 year old views this as prison], I was shocked.  After a few days I couldn’t talk well, and I didn’t have really good sleeping until 3 o’clock.  All my body have, I don’t know how can I say in English.  Really, I didn’t have good feeling, I had stress.  And I was telling to them, “No, why I am here, what I have done? I am terrorist, I have killed somebody?”

When I was in the police station, they captured me in a bad situation, like I had killed 10 person.  They make belt, and all the, like this, and the police was not, didn’t have good habit.  From one day, from 8 am to 8 pm at night they didn’t give me food, water, nothing.  And when I was inside the car I told them I need water.  But they said, ‘Shut up.’

After that I thought, the police have more power in this country, more than human rights, more than the law.  What they want to do they can do here.  After that I didn’t say nothing, just I was alone, just I was thinking about myself alone.

And when I was free, after 3 months, 10 days [spent in Medvedev] I went to other camp, I had contact with internet.  I send email, but nobody is thinking to see what is going on here.  They are indifferent!  If they see one hundred persons dieing, after that they will think about the human rights: ‘Yes, we are seeing this is not human rights like we have here.’

From the first time when I came in here, I told them I am Christian.  I have lost older, my brother in Afghanistan, and my mother and my uncle persecuted because of our beliefs.  My mother is in danger, and I have very stress about this that I can do nothing about my mother.  And I am here.  Why a human who trusts to Christianity and he cannot live in his own country.  I told them I want to go back to Afghanistan, I want to help my mother.  I want to improve the Christianity situation in Afghanistan, it have to be freedom of religion in Afghanistan, why it’s not?  Why can we not live in our country?”

I have trouble explaining what it means to A to “have stress.”  I can tell you he cuts himself, and, at least for a while, was allowed to continue to while in the foster home.  He has horrendously deep cuts up and down both his arms, and no one in the foster home has made any effort, to date, to help him.  It will take the intervention of one of his attorneys to help him.

No legal progress will be made on A’s case until his legally appointed guardian returns from vacation (at least two weeks before any action can be taken).  A has spent over a year moving between Slovak detention facilities (he even escaped to Switzerland for a while, but was returned) and foster homes.  I can say with confidence he will spend the rest of his childhood in that foster home, if he doesn’t escape.

A is a hopeful and intelligent individual who truly wants to better his country.  He came to Europe looking for opportunity.  Instead he is locked in a foster home a la Dickensian orphanage, without access to education and unable to contact his family.  Moreover, he can’t communicate with his caretakers.

Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day.  People deserve better than the lot A has been given.  Children, especially, deserve better.  It may be easy to think, “Oh, it’s not my government,” but the world is too small for such an excuse.  We are members of an international community, and we should all be ashamed.  Heaven forbid it ever be one of our children on the receiving end of such treatment.

What I am listening to: “Stubborn Love,” by the Lumineers.  The song is about hope, and I think narrates this post perfectly:



Despite Murphy’s best efforts (I may or may not have had a little trouble with the train on the way there…), I made it to Budapest last weekend.  One of the lovely ladies at work made me a fantastic annotated map, so I’m convinced I ate at the best places in the city.

I stayed in a cozy little hostel near the Jewish quarter (called Bubble– I highly recommend it if any of you find yourselves backpacking in Budapest).  The first evening I wandered around myself, and was amazed at the amount of trash.  There were mattresses, piles of clothes, broken glass, and various other articles of garbage all over the place.  At certain points you couldn’t use the sidewalk and had to navigate through the street.  People were picking through piles of trash, and I’m pretty sure I saw someone breaking into a car (I didn’t stick around to find out).  I, wish a group of hostel-mates, stayed out till the wee hours of the morning, and there was no indication that anyone was going to do anything about this trash.

When I began my morning walk (a la 7:45 am), however, the streets were pristine.  Apparently each district has a “trash day” like this once a year, and we just happened to come on the day the Jewish quarter was filling the streets with its junk.  I wish I had taken a before and after picture, but unfortunately I have a mental block and use my camera only for conventional beauty.  Next time, I promise.

Budapest is a beautiful city, although parts of it were very touristy.  I walked almost everywhere (took the underground only once– it’s the oldest underground in Europe, however, and worth a stop just for that reason).  I had hoped to make it to the zoo (apparently they let you pet sloths, and only a select few people get to enjoy consequential sloth bites!), but I found myself too occupied with the city’s other sites, as you can probably tell from my trigger-happy camera use, as displayed below.

The highlight of the trip definitely had to be the Hungarian baths.  While there are a number of public baths in Budapest, we went to the largest.  It’s an impressive and extremely beautiful complex, and I strongly suggest taking a dip in every temperature they have to offer.  It might also be the best place to people watch in all of Europe.

I’m off to spend the weekend with a friend in the countryside to enjoy a folk festival.  The weather here has finally brightened up, and I have every intention of taking in as much culture as possible!  Until then, enjoy the pictures!

What I’m listening to: “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers (thanks to Laurel and Bing for this one):






Thank an Academic

I did go to Budapest this weekend, so I promise to write about that and post some pictures later today or tomorrow.  But, at the moment, I need to sing some praises to the academic world.

Currently, I am working on a report on international age assessment procedures.  Age assessment is something that is done when a migrant claims he is under 18 and cannot prove it (migrants often lose documents, or never had them in the first place).  Being an adult is a finicky issue, especially with various cultural backgrounds.  For developed nations such as the U.S., it means reaching that age of majority (18).  For other cultures, it means having your first period, or perhaps going through a particular ritual.  It is important to note that time is not always measured the same, either.  For example, Afghanistan uses a different calendar.  Other countries measure years by seasons, and may not even be able to say what month their child was born in.  Instead, a child may simply be born in the wet or dry season, or shortly before or after harvest.

So, in summary: knowing your birthdate is a privilege that we, as members of developed countries, don’t always appreciate.  It means that we are afforded with the protection of being a minor while we are under 18, and given responsibilities when we reach majority.  Deciding a person, a migrant especially, is over 18 can saddle them with responsibilities they may not be ready for, especially considering the hardship many migrants have already faced.

Back to the point, however: age assessment procedures vary considerably, especially by country.  Some countries take radiographs and compare them to an atlas of upper-class American children compiled inthe 1930’s (probably not the best assessment method considering the varying ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds of children), other countries use dental x-rays, and others still use a holistic approach.  Finding the best approach, one that provides the most accurate answer while respecting the migrant’s dignity, is not easy.  Therefore, I have been emailing LOTS of academics. And the response has been amazing.


I am not going to drop names, or even give names of institutions, but I can assure you that I have no business exchanging emails with a member of the National Academy of Sciences or the Chair of the Radiology Department at very prestigious medical university X.  Even my “internet librarian” (not actually an internet librarian, but someone who has access to better resources than I), who has lovingly done his work pro-bono (I don’t think I could afford what he charges most clients per hour), is a God-send. I knew we under-appreciated this community before, but I didn’t understand the extent.  Every single one of these people has academic work, grants, and piles and piles of other things to get through and yet they still find time to give detailed answers to all my inquiries.

I have always been grateful for academics (I walk into class at law school and constantly wonder why such accomplished individuals spend time with lowly law students), but now I am especially grateful.  Shame on those that chide academics; most all of them could have better paying jobs in the private sectors and could easily ignore emails from lowly interns at NGOs in far-off countries.  But they believe in the work they do, and they believe in bettering the community.  We are very, very lucky to have people that, despite all the nasty stuff happening in the world, are positive enough to believe in investing and sharing their knowledge and expertise with others.

My (very quick) Trip to Vienna in Pictures

One of the many beautiful sphinx statues in the gardens






Quite sure I should not have taken this picture. Oops!


I was hoping the crow would stay still for this picture, but I think this turned out better.


The Upper Belvedere
One of the many lovely fountains!




Is it weird that I’m jealous of her hair? Because I definitely am.


Positivity and Soapboxes

Dear Digital World:

We all have problems, and yes, sometimes they really get us down.  Everyone feels sorry for themselves sometimes, especially me.  As sunny as I may seem most of the time, close friends and family will probably tell you I’m one of the most negative people you’ll ever meet.  But, thanks to some wonderful role models, I’ve learned that a smile and a positive attitude illicit the best in the world around you.

But I too have moments of self-pity.  In fact, at times I wallow in it.  But this is not a way to live your life; it’s not even a way to start the day.

I have noticed, as of late, that certain members of the digital community keep using certain social networking sites to announce to the world how much their life sucks.  Consistently.  The fact that there are other people suffering in the world does not deprive you, me, or anybody else of the right to self-pity occasionally.  It does, however, deprive you of the right to live your life feeling sorry for yourself.  We in the developed world often forget how good we have it.  For that reason, allow me to give you some perspective (with the sole goal of helping you appreciate what you have, and hopefully, to at least a small extent, sharing it with others):

Iran: did you know there are 135 capital offenses in Iran?  These include Sabb al-nabbi, Idiya-e nabovat and Sihr (blasphemy, heresy and witchcraft).  (http://www.ecoi.net/file_upload/1930_1332152365_elei-irn-ccpr-responselist-of-issues-deathpenalty-apendix-i-iranccpr103.pdf).

Genital mutilation: the World Health Organization estimates between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subject to one of three types of genital mutilation.  Africa alone adds about 3 million to this list every year.  (http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/prevalence/en/index.html)

Statelessness: ever thought about what it would be like not to have a nationality?  The Bedoun in Kuwait, despite being indigenous to the region, have difficultly obtaining things like healthcare and education because the state does not recognize them as citizens.  (http://www.refintl.org/policy/field-report/kuwait-honor-nationality-rights-bidun)

Forced Sterilization: why yes, up until a few weeks ago I, too, thought this was something that died with Hitler.  Maybe, maybe it would be something practiced in some far away corner of the world before the fall of the Soviet Union.  Wrong!  Thomas Hammarberg, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, released a report on abuses of human rights in Roma populations that listed a forced sterilization as a prevelant problem (find the report here: http://www.coe.int/t/commissioner/source/prems/prems79611_GBR_CouvHumanRightsOfRoma_WEB.pdf).

I won’t apologize for this, I will say I’m miffed (maybe even a little angry).  Stop feeling sorry for yourself, your worries are few compared to a lot of the world, often only by nature of your birth.  Start the day reminding yourself you are lucky.  Instead of focusing on the bumps in the road, focus on the journey.

I can tell you from some of the stories I have heard or read for work the past few weeks that the world needs more positive people.  So, if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for me: count your blessings and smile at least once every day.

And, lastly, I encourage you to criticize this post.  Know why?  Because you can.  And because I won’t be stoned for writing it.

What I’m listening to: Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” as remixed by Joy Orbison