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: