A 16-year-old Afghan boy has spoken of his joy of being rescued from a Calais refugee camp by the British authorities during an emotional reunion with his uncle in London.
Looking forward to his first night in his new home after more than a year’s treacherous journey across Asia and Europe, Haris Ghazi said: “I still can’t believe I am here.”
In such shock he barely picked at the plates of nuts, Afghan sweets and special local tea that his aunt Janata had laid out for a second night in a row in anticipation of his arrival.
The 16-year-old fled more than a year ago after the Taliban burned down his house and the government accused him of being a spy for them and had not seen any family member since September 2015.
He is one of the first batch of children brought to the UK as part of a resettlement programme agreed by the Home Office with the French authorities under the Dublin regulation which allows unaccompanied children in Calais to be fast-tracked to the UK if they have a relative in the country.
I will be his mother, his father, his uncle and he will get all the emotional support he needs
Haris arrived in the UK on Monday morning but only had a brief glimpse of his uncle who went to the Home Office processing centre in Croydon to pick him up. He was told he could not see his uncle and spent the night in a Home Office centre 20 miles away in west London while his credentials and those of his uncle were verified.
“I am still in shock,” said his uncle, Jan Ghazi, when the call came from social services at about 4.45pm on Tuesday to say he would be able to see him “within the next 15 minutes”.
His uncle arrived in the country with the help of Unicef 16 years ago as a refugee and is now a British citizen. He runs a pizza restaurant with his wife in Mitcham, south London.
Rushing down the stairs to greet Haris, he was close to tears as they embraced each other tightly for the first time in seven years. “I want him to know he is safe here, there are no bombs, he can go to school, he has freedom of speech. This country has been good to me,” said Ghazi. “If I had stayed in Afghanistan I am sure I would be dead by now.”
Haris said he fled the country with his brother in September 2015 after he was accused by government troops of helping the Taliban. “There was fighting, there were injured people in my town and the Taliban forced us to get a doctor and to get bandages. Then the government thought we worked for them.
“The Afghan intelligence people took us away and interrogated us and then we ran away. The next day a neighbour told us the Taliban had burned down my family’s house. We knew were weren’t safe.”
His father’s brother paid for Haris to be taken across the border to Pakistan and then through people smugglers he made his way across Iran, where his brother disappeared, and on to Turkey and Greece where he finally found some sort of sanctuary and safe passage to Germany.
Sometimes he walked for up to 24 hours at a time, sleeping on the mountainside to escape detection.
But things went awry in Germany. He didn’t speak the language and he got swept up in the sea of refugees who were arriving there after Angela Merkel’s declaration that the country had room for one million migrants. “I got lost and instead of Calais, I ended up in Finland and then Sweden, but the Swedish sent me back to Germany where they said I was supposed to be processed,” he said.
Instead of doing the paperwork in Germany he decided to flee again with just $120 in his pocket to Calais. “I just bought a train ticket and went. There were no checks.” There he lived in a tent which would blow away in the bad weather and experienced the terrifying sight of regular fights between rival groups of refugees.
Shy and withdrawn, he can barely speak of the inevitable past trauma. His uncle said: “I spoke to him six months ago and he was crying and crying and I asked him to describe what had happened and he said ‘Don’t ask me because it will bring the memories back,’ so I didn’t. But he is here now and I will be his mother, his father, his uncle and he will get all the emotional support he needs. It might take him a few weeks to get used to it, but he will be okay.”
Haris was in such shock after being picked by the Home Office for resettlement 14 months after leaving home, he said he noticed little of England when he emerged from the Eurotunnel on Monday morning. “I didn’t think of the buildings or what I was seeing, all I was thinking was I was going to be with my family. That is all I could concentrate on.”