Zarmeena straightened her back, the light from the phone screen sparking her eyes. The WhatsApp ringtone droned on, trying to catch the weak signal. An early winter shower had ushered a swarm of flies into the house, the only interruption to the stillness in the room.
Gro’s face finally appeared on the screen, pixelated but with an unmistakable grin of delight lining her face. She was in her favourite spot in her living room, flanked by photographs of her biological and adopted families.
“Salaam alaikum Mama Javed.” She mouthed the words with care.
Javed was 15 years old and had already seen his brother murdered...[he himself was] riddled with multiple gun-shot wounds
Her greeting was met with a happiness that I would not see in Zarmeena’s face for the rest of our short time together. Few emotions could compete with the two mothers’ shared love.
The women greeted each other with warmth, quickly shifting to the details of the young man who had brought them together. As the exchange unfolded, I was in two places at once. I was in Gro’s living room, where I had sat a number of times that year, and I was next to Zarmeena in a rural front yard in the heart of Afghanistan.
I first met Gro and Javed in a courtroom at the Oslo Municipal Court in the thick of a sleepy summer in 2019. I was the only audience member at the trial, reporting on what I thought would be a story about ‘new beginnings’.
Gro, a 55-year-old retired school teacher, sat tight-lipped as the public prosecutor made the case for 19-year-old Javed's “safe return” to Afghanistan, her anger betrayed by brimming tears.
She tried to decipher the placid demeanour of the judge who would decide the future of the young man who had called her “mama” for the past five years. Her gaze oscillated between Javed and the judge.
On an umpteenth such court visit, and fasting for Ramadan, Javed was drained. He appeared unmoved as the prosecutor read a section of the Taliban ‘code of conduct’, which forbids armed groups from entering civilian households. Gro was certain that the teenager’s ambivalent expression would be used against him. “It is not apathy, it is trauma,” she had previously pointed out to me when I tried to interview him.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Gro explained during a break that the prosecution was arguing that Javed was safe to return to Afghanistan, because he would not be attacked inside his home. That the Norwegian state was treating an insurgent group’s claims of orderly conduct as credible would baffle anyone living in Javed’s home province.
Nevertheless, Javed’s asylum claim was rejected. In August 2019, he fled to Spain to avoid deportation.
Fact box: Norway's immigration system
Norway has a reputation for having a relatively open and generous system of refugee protection, but since the refugee crisis of 2015, it – like many of its European neighbours – has sought to clamp down on numbers. In recent years the country has introduced more stringent border checks, and tougher conditions for asylum, including offering migrants financial incentives to leave the country. Last year, 1,386 people applied for asylum in Norway, which has a total population of 5.3 million.
A policy of deporting refused asylum seekers to Afghanistan has attracted widespread criticism, given the ongoing conflict: in 2019, Amnesty International said that Norway “appears to deport more Afghans than almost any other European country – not just in proportion to its population, but in sheer total numbers”.
Norway is not a member of the European Union, but it participates in the EU's common agreement on asylum, known as the Dublin Regulation. This is a treaty that, among other things, determines which state should take the responsibility for dealing with a person's asylum claim. In most cases, that will be the European country where an asylum seeker first arrives. If an asylum seeker is registered in one country, then makes their way to another, they can be returned to the country in which they were first registered.
Over the course of Javed’s trial, Norwegian experts living in Afghanistan provided phone testimonials about the increased violence and displacement across the country. Javed’s lawyer presented evidence of his gunshot and shrapnel wounds, with confirmation from Norwegian surgeons that they could not be self-inflicted. Counsellors testified that Javed had endured deep trauma, but had made significant progress since arriving in Norway.
Javed could enter Spain because his Norwegian residency was still valid. Unlike a majority of European countries, Spain does not adhere to the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that asylum seekers should be returned to the participating state where they first set foot. Based on Spain’s exception, Javed applied once again for asylum as soon as he arrived in Madrid.
Had Javed not fled to another European country he would have returned to an Afghanistan still ravaged by four decades of war.
While COVID-19 shut down entire continents, violence in Afghanistan continued unabated, making it the deadliest country for children for a fifth consecutive year. By the time I travelled there to find Javed’s family in November 2020, at least 6,000 civilians had been killed during the first half of the year.
The intra-Afghan peace talks, brokered by the US as part of its withdrawal from the country, had not led to a reduction in fighting.
According to Save the Children, at least five children have been killed or maimed every day in Afghanistan for the past 14 years. Javed is part of this staggering statistic. Returning to his community would result in certain death for Javed, according to his brother, who is not allowed to have a phone. The Taliban in his village would suspect that he is in touch with Javed and punish him for it.
A small percentage of the boys who flee Afghanistan succeed in traversing the treacherous Iran-Turkey-Balkans route to Europe. A much smaller percentage receive permission to stay in Europe – and of those, an infinitesimal percentage are granted asylum in Norway. While Norway's overall acceptance rates are high, the number of asylum requests per year is significantly lower than in Spain and France. In 2019, Norway received 2,800 requests, while Spain received 54,000 and France a little over 337,000.
Soon after Javed left for Spain, Gro went to visit him.
“I have many other boys scattered through Europe who have been deported by Norway. Some are in France, others are in Spain. I visit them from time to time,” she told me during a call.
Gro’s modesty makes her reluctant to acknowledge how many children she has helped over the past six years, but when pressed for an answer she said she had taken care of 60 asylum seekers, mostly young Afghans. She officially fostered some of them, while others came to her upon hearing the tales of the Norwegian ‘mama’ who helps refugees.
Additionally, Gro has helped more than 150 boys and girls, who contacted her on Facebook, to navigate the asylum labyrinth of Europe, particularly in Norway, which has one of the most closed systems in the region.
Q & A with Nassim Majidi, migration expert
To understand the wider context of internal displacement in Afghanistan and how that relates to migration to Europe, I spoke with Nassim Majidi, an Iranian-French migration expert and co-founder of the Kabul-based Samuel Hall think tank. Majidi has spent the past 15 years exploring the conditions that drive Afghan children and young people to cross international borders on their own, and the impact that deportation has on their chances of survival when they return.
As explained by Majidi, who spoke from Afghanistan, the daily reality of violence has created perpetual ‘flight or fight’ conditions for the children of Afghanistan. It is no surprise that they constitute the largest number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe. A vast majority are boys and the average age of an Afghan child seeking asylum is 15.
Since June 2019, I have visited Gro a number of times while trying to understand the fate of deported Afghan asylum seekers. As well as visiting the court in Oslo for Javed’s hearing, I accompanied Gro to see Javed and her other ‘rejected sons’ who were re-starting their asylum applications in Spain and France.
“I grew up in a society where you always make room for the extra person at the table,” Gro told me during a visit to her home in Stord, her voice drowned out by a dozen Afghan teenagers seated around her dining room table. One of the boys was dishing out Kabuli Pulao (flavoured rice with lamb), which Gro had mastered over time, with the help of instructions from the boys’ mothers in Afghanistan.
While Norwegian authorities have reduced asylum quotas since 2016, the space at Gro’s table continues to expand.
Gro is a staunch believer in the ability of every child and young adult to integrate into a society, when helped during the earliest stages of their relocation. What started as a volunteer job at a reception centre in 2016 has now become a way of life.
“We should look at these children as assets, who are important for our economy and add richness to our communities,” she told me.
“I am not doing them any favours. They are my community and they take care of me, too.”
Norway has an ageing population, with its rural areas experiencing a marked population decline as many young people move to urban centres. These young asylum seekers are valuable investments for local economies in need of workers.
Yet the Norwegian state has adopted a blanket approach of dissuading new asylum seekers from entering the country by deporting those already inside its territory. By the time they are deported, many of the asylum seekers speak fluent Norwegian, have high school diplomas, have found jobs and live independently. The deportation policy runs counter to the hard work that other parts of the state, as well as the young Afghans themselves, have put into making their lives in Norway a success.
Of the 30 boys Gro is closest to, only four have received asylum in Norway, with a dozen granted temporary residency. Some are finishing high school, while others are seeking higher education or pursuing new vocations. All have endured trauma before finding a home with Gro, and with it, a sense of belonging in their adopted country.
Hamid and Enayat are among those fortunate few. They are part of the group called the ‘October Children’ named after the month of their arrival, in 2015. Amjad, who arrived separately, was the first among the boys to receive asylum.
Norwegian authorities initially rejected Hamid and Enayat’s asylum claims, ruling they should be returned to Kabul and reassigned as internally displaced persons (IDPs). But the decision was reversed following a court ruling that has allowed dozens of Afghan children to remain.
During my last visit with Gro, over Christmas 2020, Hamid and Enayat had just finished their final school exams. Having received permanent residence, they dreamed of reuniting with their mothers and siblings, who have remained in Afghanistan.
With many older men killed in the war, these young boys, despite the thousands of miles separating them from their families, became the men of their households. While attending school, they worked odd jobs in order to send money home.
In February 2020, Gro called to inform me that she would be going to Paris.
“I want to meet the boys who stayed with Aman when he died, to honour his life together with them,” she said.
Aman, the first boy Gro took in, was rejected by Norwegian asylum authorities and went to Paris to reapply. Gro met Aman when he was a teenager. Arriving in 2015 from Kunduz province, the scene of a vicious battle that displaced over 100,000 people, Aman had a strong asylum case.
Following the rejection in Norway, Aman arrived in Paris at the end of 2017, to find thousands of other Afghan asylum-seeker youth, struggling for basic shelter. Many were camped outside train stations. Aman also slept rough, under bridges and in tents, in the thick of winter.
Despite receiving permission to stay in France, Aman could not find formal employment. Just a few weeks before Gro arrived in Paris, he died of a sudden medical condition in January 2019.
Aman had some kind of chest infection and could not go to the doctor. As he was working informally, his employer threatened to fire him if he did not turn up.
Aman called his friends for help, but died before they could reach him.
“I know in my heart that if he stayed in Norway his fate would have been different. The boys here have good services and rights when they are accepted,” Gro told me during the traditional Afghan ceremony that she had arranged in Paris. Two of her other boys, Rezagul and Izrar, arrived from Strasbourg, where they are reapplying for asylum. They had also helped send Aman’s body back to Afghanistan.
For Gro, the difficult side to forging such close ties is the pain that comes with losing contact with some of the children because of deportations or, as in the case of Aman, sudden death. But what keeps her going are the success stories of those who have restarted their lives in Norway, and elsewhere in Europe.
I grew up in a society where you always make room for the extra person at the table
Meeting Gro and her boys confirmed to me the power that individual activism has, when it is coupled with the determination of young asylum seekers to pursue fresh chances in life.
While asylum policies across the globe throw displaced people into limbo, Gro has become a lifeline for vulnerable children who arrive in Norway, traumatised and in need of care.
She has also become an interlocutor for the mothers of these children, who are unaware of the intricacies of European asylum politics.
By introducing the boys to their new countries, while also helping them maintain ties with their original homes, Gro bridges the distance between these places. The stories of the young people she has helped show the resilience that emerges when they feel connected to both worlds.
I stopped filming Javed’s story last December when I managed to reach his mother and brother. Documenting the two mothers on the phone call felt like the closing of a chapter.
But with every mission to Afghanistan,I have encountered a growing statistic: the number of Afghan women who are widowed, displaced and left to fend for their families with little support.
Those who are internally displaced within Afghanistan become socially and economically isolated, and remain largely overlooked by humanitarian systems.
Afghanistan has a little over half a million widows, although those are only the ones who appear in official statistics. The fact that the word “martyrs”, used to describe all those who’ve died in war, appears in the title of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled is a testament to the length and scale of the country’s conflict.
Around 90% of widowed women are illiterate, and a vast majority do not inherit the family property after their husbands’ deaths. Many become displaced and move to urban centres such as Kabul in search of work, taking their children with them.
These widowed women form part of an even larger statistic. There are officially four million internally displaced people in Afghanistan, although the true figure is likely to be much higher. Outside the protection of the UN Refugee Convention, many live in formal and informal IDP settlements. Others simply move into private homes, becoming even more invisible to aid agencies.
Nearly 20 years after the US invasion of Afghanistan, military troops will fully withdraw by 11 September. Very little of their mission to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a ‘terrorist base’ and ‘dismantle the military capability of the Taliban’ has materialised.
The ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have yet to bear results. If they succeed, the Taliban will play a role in ruling the country.
The Taliban remains active in over 70% of the country. At least 20 other militant groups, including the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida network, are fighting the Afghan government and each other.
During my visit to Javed's family in Afghanistan, suicide bombers killed 34 children attending school in West Kabul and gunmen stormed into Kabul university killing 32 students, while 32 soldiers died in Ghazni province during an attack against a military base. Another 14 people died in bomb attacks in Bamiyan, as I departed.
Amid the escalation of violence, more families continue to flee conflict arriving in already crowded settlements like the one at Charahi Qambar, in Kabul. The poorest families in the camp live in mud houses without running water or sanitation. Such settlements are spread throughout the country. Many are concentrated in cities such as Kabul, Jalalabad and Herat, which are reeling under the pressures created by rapid internal displacement and the ensuing rural-urban flight.
As European countries deport Afghan asylum seekers, they risk becoming internally displaced. With their homes gone, most returnees are unable to re-integrate. Many get back onto the migration trail in pursuit of safety.
Gro’s ‘sons’ are among the fortunate few, who are able to restart their lives in Norway and across Europe.
Read more about the Parallel Journeys project here.