‘How old are you?’
‘Seventeen… more or less.’
Ali doesn’t know his exact age, because he doesn’t know when he was born. I met him on a train from Milan to Zurich. He was careful, a bit nervous, looking around as someone who doesn’t really know where he is going and how he will get there. Jeans, an old sweater, winter jacket, a thin layer of dust and smog. The unmissable uniform of a surviver.
When the speaker announced the train was cancelled for technical reasons, I noticed he couldn’t understand Italian nor German. But he spoke quite a good English, beside his mother tongue, Parsi.
‘What did they say?’
‘They said we have to look for another train. Come with me, we will find it together.’
While scouting the platforms for a train to Chiasso, Ali followed me with a confused gaze. I guess it had been quite a while since last time someone tried to help him.
‘Where do you come from?’
‘Yeah, but before that?’
‘Oh… many places. Big problem.’
Ali was born in Afghanistan during the last years of Taliban rule, in a village somewhere close to Kandahar, in the south, the country’s second town and a Pashtun major cultural centre. His father was killed in a clash among rival gangs when he was but a baby, and that’s all he knows about him because in his family they don’t discuss the matter. In country where so many people die without a decent reason, there is no room for talks about random killings.
Alone and hopeless, Ali’s mother took him and his older sister to Iran, in Teheran, where the father’s brother lived. There, Ali lived until about two years ago – ‘One, two… I don’t know’ – when he left to reach Europe alone.
From Iran Ali arrived in Turkey, then Greece. His souvenirs are the scars on his hands he gained for clinging under the trucks for hours, in order to cover long distances and avoid the customs. Sometimes the drivers would notice him and he had to get back and start again, some others they took from him part of the little money his mother gave him.
‘How was life in Iran?’
‘Iran… beautiful place, but not easy. Big problem.’
There was no story or anecdote which would not start and end with ‘big problem‘. In this case he was referring to the difficult integration of the Afghan community in Iranian society. Iran has become the safe shore for a huge flow of refugees and clandestine immigrants, and this obviously led to racial and social issues among the people.
In Iran Ali was able to attend school for some years, learning English and to read the Qur’an. Later he tried to help his mother and sister raising some money with any kind of available job, from construction worker to delivery boy. He also learned how to use computers in a friend’s service centre, but mostly he likes to take them apart and meddle with the components.
When his sister married an Afghan man and joined him in Germany, Ali and his mother stayed a while with the uncle. Finally, he decided to leave, he collected whatever money he had been able to raise and went towards the Turkish border. On carts, trucks, hitchhiking, walking… Ali crossed all Turkey and arrived in Greece.
‘Greece is beautiful, very very beautiful…’
‘So why didn’t you stop there?’
‘Oh, no… big problem.’
Once they found him without papers. Ali ran from the policemen and jumped in the sea. He started swimming, hoping to reach Italy. When they caught him back they sent him in a prison for clandestine immigrants even if he was still a minor.
‘How much time did you spend in prison?’
‘One year… maybe.’
Then he got out with an expulsion order. He turned back to his favourite mean of transportation: clinging under the trucks. In about one week he managed to arrive in Milan.
‘I was tired, didn’t know anyone, had no money and nothing to eat since days. My legs and arms hurt, it was cold…’
In Milan, Ali used to sleep in the street. It was winter. When he somehow managed to get in touch with his sister she sent him 200 euros through an acquaintance. Ali bought a mobile phone and a ticket for Zurich, where his cousin was waiting for him. While we talked, the mobile phone often rung. It was his sister, still worried for him.
‘Look… it has a camera! I can’t believe it has a camera…’
‘Why, do mobile phones in Iran have no cameras?’
‘Of course they do. Smartphones. But I’ve never seen such an old scrap of plastic doing photos.’
While on our way to Chiasso I explained to him that the custom police may check the train, even if it was unlikely since the train was packed with passengers forsaken by the cancelled one. He kept looking around a bit nervous until Lugano, then relaxed.
‘Welcome in Switzerland.’
‘Thank you. How much do cigarettes cost in Switzerland?’
‘Too much. You better turn to roll-ups.’
While he was rolling a cigarette with my tobacco, I wrote him down a few words in Italian and German. He helped me to rehearsal some Arabic, but was almost worse than me at it. Finally I asked him what was his opinion about the Talibans.
Ali is muslim, he doesn’t eat pork, but he drinks wine and beer.
‘To drink is not bad, to drink a lot is bad.’
I smiled at him and said religions are like a very widespread language, like Arabic or English. People talk together and think they understand each other, but in the end everyone has his own rules.
When we got in Zug I had to go. He was asleep, I woke him up to say goodbye and wish him good luck. I hope he found his cousin since then. I hope he is not alone.