11-year-old Emran should be at school. Should be with his mum and dad and younger siblings enjoying a peace apparently secured in his native Afghanistan by Allied forces. Instead this boy with an ever-present smile and unquenchable spirit is on the road, navigating his own way across southern and mainland Europe because, as he puts it very matter-of-factly, “The Taliban started killing children as they walked to school, so my father sent me to Europe.”
Imagine that. Aged just 11 and “sent” by his parents on a journey that would take him from Iran to Turkey, across the sea to Greece and then through a continent pockmarked with danger from kidnappers and smugglers and populated with people weary and wary of those like him – refugees.
Filmmaker Jamie Roberts (The Jihadis Next Door) first met Emran at a camp in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border early last year. He wanted to tell the story of child refugees, but the crossing had just been closed and the boy’s search for sanctuary in Germany appeared to be thwarted.
“He’d already been through an awful time, but he was a ray of light,” says Roberts. “He just stood out. He had perfect English – much of which he’d picked up on the road – and this huge smile. I had to keep reminding myself that he’s only 11.”
But desire breeds resourcefulness and money from home, wired to a Western Union bureau that had sprung up in the camp to feed a need for euros, meant that Emran and the small group he was travelling with could buy the services of smugglers.
Roberts says: “The most valuable thing to the refugees is their phone. It not only enables them to stay in touch with their families but also, more importantly, with the smugglers, who help them along what has become a well-trodden route. The whole route is lined with people exploiting the refugees. Everyone is making money from them.”
Roberts was also following two other children – 12-year-olds Hussein, also from Afghanistan, and Rawan, travelling from Aleppo in Syria with her mother, father and four siblings. The moment when the GPS on Rawan’s phone reveals that they have crossed from Austria into Germany will melt the coldest of hearts.
Six months after leaving his parents in Afghanistan, Emran, too, made it to Germany, where he was reunited with his older brother who made the same journey two years earlier. He is now in high school and thriving.
“It’s kind of a miracle that any of them made it. But Emran always seemed like the one who had that ingenuity and wit to do it. He adores Afghanistan and misses it and one day he wants to go back and work as a doctor. But he loves Germany as well. He already speaks brilliant German and brilliant English [he narrates Roberts’s film]. He just soaks it up. I am in complete awe of him.”
Emran and fellow refugee Hussain
Roberts crisscrossed mainland Europe to document the three separate journeys of his refugee subjects. Did any of them – or any others he encountered along the way – speak of a desire to come to the UK? “They would love to come here, because they know the language and respect the culture. But they also know how difficult and dangerous it is to get here. Also, they have no interest in sitting in a camp for months on end. They want to get integrated as quickly as possible and start their future. Germany has offered them that hope.”
Roberts also has a hope: that his film will make a difference to how we view child refugees. “Go to Germany and if you’re British you will be questioned about why we are so horrible to refugees. Emran is one of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children seeking refuge in Europe. He’s a number, a statistic. And all we want to do is provide a face and a story to that statistic.”
For Emran, that story is just beginning. “I speak with my parents every day. Dad has told me to work hard and make him proud.”