The first thing you notice is that he’s always smiling, with gentle, kind eyes. Ahmad Shah (15) is a concise person, frugal with words, lover of nature, and Indian Bollywood. He currently lives in Antwerp, Belgium.
A lot of things make Ahmad happy. Being in Antwerp is the first. Sports and school are the
second. At this moment, his life is centered around football and school. He enjoys football the most. Football helped him lose some weight, which made him feel better about himself.
A long way to a new life
Ahmad had a long tumultuous journey to take to Belgium. He got beaten and bitten, lost his guide and group, and even his clothes were taken. He was all alone on his road to Europe.
“On my way here our guide left us alone for a few hours but had left his phone behind. We
were stopped by the police and they found his phone. The police asked us to unlock the
guide’s phone but none of us were able to unlock it. Because I was the smallest guy in our
group the police picked me up and gave me a beating so that I would unlock the phone. They also had a dog who bit me on my left knee.”
This was a very painful episode for Ahmad. At that moment, Ahmad feared that he was at the end of his road.
“I thought, this is the end, I will die here. But after a few minutes of that they let me go back to the group. But before they let us go they took our shoes, pants and other clothes and left us behind in our underwear.”
He had difficulties with the authorities, but also with the weather. His group left him, and he found himself all alone.
“This happened during the winter last year, so it was raining and very cold. I don’t know what happened to the rest of the group after we were sent back to Istanbul but I tried to get into Europe through Greece a couple more times but that was very difficult.”
Belgium was the obvious choice for Ahmad. Belgium had a good reputation among minors
that left Afghanistan. He chose to take the long road, not being sure whether the country
would be what had been promised to him.
“People said Belgium was a good place for a minor to go to, and after being here for a while Ihave to agree.“
Antwerp, the safe space
His first thought upon arriving in Belgium was getting to school. And so he did. Life in Belgium is attractive for Ahmad. The culture of Belgium and the feeling of safety it provides are his favourite.
“I like the way people live here. I feel safe here.“
OKAN school centre teaches minors of different nationalities that are coming to Antwerp
basic Dutch so that they can transfer to regular education schools. They have one year to
learn basic Dutch.
The inside of the school classroom is covered with colourful panels and drawings with Dutch words on them. A big electronic blackboard sits at the front. Tables on the left and on the right. Dutch language tests are spread through the room. The rooms are filled with light coming, laterally, from the outside. At OKAN, Ahmad is learning Dutch and gets to play his favourite sport, football.
Next to the endless rows of identical white buildings is an open-air sports centre with a small football square, and different metallic sports equipment spread out. There, Ahmad goes and enjoys some physical exercises among his friends and colleagues. Whilst he’s playing some football, others are swinging on the swings, talking to each other, or looking at their phones.
In this space he gets to explore his favourite type of music and film – Bollywood. For Ahmad,
leaving Afghanistan also meant he could finally enjoy more movies.
“I didn’t have a phone in Afghanistan. So I couldn’t watch a lot of things. But in Turkey I finally got a phone, so I could watch movies and listen to music again.”
The long road ahead
There are few things certain about the future, for Ahmad. What’s sure, however, is the fact that he sees himself living in Belgium in the future, working as a plumber. London is also in sight. He wishes to see friends and visit the city there.
Ahmad’s plans for the future include work, travelling and finding a different source of pride
besides being from Afghanistan. Who he is, at this moment, lies in being called Ahmad, being Afghan, and being in Antwerp.
Ahmad is aware of the utmost importance of school in one’s life. That’s why he’s urging other Afghans in Belgium to spend their time prudently, studying.
“Go to school and become a useful part of society. So when you are at the end of your life you can look back and say that you have done something to be proud of.”
A special thanks to OKAN school centre and translator Javid Noor.