CPT-EUROPE: “Sinking in the Sea and Walking for a Better World”


In the summer of 2013, I walked with a group of refugees and allies from Malmö in the South of Sweden to Stockholm, the Swedish capital, as part of what we called “Aylstafetten.” We wished to transform Sweden to a country where refugees would be treated as human beings. Many of the refugees walking with us had no legal status and were “without papers.” For many of them, it was the first time experiencing solidarity from so many white Europeans.

As we moved in the capital amidst its power dynamics, some of those same dynamics were reproduced among the walkers, whether we wanted it or not. Some of us were white Swedes, others non-white Swedes born in Sweden, some non-white Swedes born outside Sweden who had acquired citizenship, others refugees with residence permits, and some refugees lacking residence permits but present in the country legally. The most vulnerable were refugees without papers who could be captured at any time and deported to “their countries”.

But during the walk we were equals. Whether we were swimming in the blue lakes of Sweden, walking past the small red houses in the countryside, or handing out leaflets and shouting slogans, we were equals. We were equals when we enjoyed the tasty Afghan food our fellow comrades made, or when we were singing, reciting poetry, and giving each other massages. We were comrades. During the month we walked, conflicts broke out and were solved. Stories of love, jealousy, tears, and laughter. The solidarity between the walkers was so strong that sometimes, as I was simply walking along and smoking, my heart was so filled with joy I wanted to shed tears.

Asylstafetten had become a little bubble of equality. We were a small army of humanity, leaving all our thrones and chains behind, and walking in equality with banners and slogans full of love and struggle. We were crossing the green countryside of Sweden and telling people that the unaccompanied minors are normal teenagers, that Palestinian lesbians need freedom and dignity, that Hazara-Afghans deserve a life in dignity, same as all of us. We were sharing the walk, and our common struggle was against the structures that raised walls between us, determining the degree of our legality and our right to exist.

Ahmad joined the walk a few days after the start. He was from the countryside in Bamyan, Afghanistan. He was short and thin, his eyes black and sad. His face reminded me of a burned-out field. Sometimes he tried to make fun of people in the same way he did in the village of his birth. Most of the people did not understand what was funny about his stories.

“Once I was working in a factory in Iran and the owner had not been paying us for a while so we did not have any money to buy food. We ate rotten bread. We were sitting there, all the Afghans in the factory, and wetting the hard bread with water, in order to make it chewable,” he said and laughed.

I did not laugh. I wanted to hug him, my friend with the sad eyes, illegal everywhere, eating rotten bread and watery soups, thin like a hungry church rat. He told me that he had been imprisoned everywhere. Iranian border-guards lined him up with other Afghan immigrants and kicked them in the back one by one. He joked about his ass having been kicked by all the border guards in the countries that he had passed through. He joked about the horrible food he had been eating in the prisons and detention centers across Europe. “In Austria we were locked in a detention center where they gave us a soup which contained tap water some beans here and there.” Again, he said laughing.

When we did an action outside a detention center and talked with the refugees inside, people waiting for deportation to uncertain destinations, he suffered a panic attack. He was shouting like an animal witnessing the slaughter of his comrades and knowing that soon it would be his turn. The Swedish police could put him in there anytime.

We heard refugees who were unjustly confined because they had tried to find a stable roof over their heads and a life in dignity without asking for permission of any government. Because of the inhumane treatment they received, some had started a hunger strike. An Iraqi man called us from inside: “They do not care about the condition we are in. One of the staff came after a few days and told me that if anything happened to me it was my responsibility because it is my choice to be on hunger strike.” He spoke with a weak voice chased by hunger and tiredness. He had not being eating for ten days.

It took Ahmad some days to recover from the incident outside the detention center. After his recovery he was running to all the cozy Swedish cottages, handing out leaflets to the people. Before the incident, some of the Afghans were making fun of him because of his dialect and sensitivity. But after that everyone started to respect him, seeing the pain eating away at him from inside – like a hungry lion.

Once he told me, “I was swimming in the Aegean sea with my friends. I could not swim. Because my friends were making fun of me, I jumped into the water and I sank. Suddenly my whole life was shown to me as if in a movie. I saw all the people I had ever hurt. I wanted to heal all the wounds that the blade of my ignorance had made. I decided that if I ever made it back to the surface alive I would dedicate my life to fight for goodness, to be a warrior of light.”

At our rallies most of the refugees’ speeches were personal, about fear, insecurity, daily life injustices, and so on. Ahmad addressed universal issues. He was talking about the systematic discrimination and exploitation of the poor, he was talking about the walls we have built between us and between countries and groups of people. Sometimes he wrote poems and wanted me to translate them into Swedish for our co-walkers. After he had given me dozens of poems about all the universal problems he wanted to solve, I asked, “Why do you never talk about love? Why do you never express your anger about your own frustrations and fears?”  “There is no me,” he replied. “You are me, I am you, we are everyone. My problems are everyone’s problems and everyone’s problems are my problems. When I address the problems of others, I address my own problems and yours.”

Thus he sank in the sea. Thus he saw a vision which made him a warrior of light. Thus he walked with us for a better world and opened up to share the sharp gems of his mind indiscriminately, regardless of being walled in or walled out.

(This article is the first in a new series of reflections: “The Border is Everywhere.”)

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