Stories and photos are from International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Ayasha H.* believes that her father is dead. He has been missing since the middle of 2013, when they lost each other during a chaotic night on the Iranian-Turkish border. Now, the 16-year-old is sitting with her mother in Birgit Koch’s office at the GRC Tracing Service in Nuremburg. One unfamiliar face after the other appears on the computer screen. Ayasha’s mother stares at the images, holding her daughter’s hand tight.
Early in September 2015, Ayasha and her mother Saida* travelled from Afghanistan to Germany with her four siblings: one brother and three sisters. Exactly two months and 24 days after fleeing – Ayasha counted – they finally reached Germany and claimed asylum.
Today, just a few months later, their sparkling eyes and smiles hint at none of the difficulties they faced on their journey. Her head scarf is folded gently over her hair and she is wearing trousers and a beige woolly jumper.
This was her second attempt to flee Afghanistan. In 2013, the entire family left the P. province in Afghanistan: her mother and father and their eight children aged three to fifteen – four boys and four girls. For a long time, Ayasha’s father Zahid* had worked for the Afghan army, which cooperated closely with international troops stationed in the country. Over time, he was increasingly threatened and put under pressure to stop cooperating with the ‘non-believers’. One of his sons was even maltreated.
In spring 2013, the entire family therefore decided to journey into the unknown – “to Germany or Sweden”. They reached the Iranian-Turkish border by bus and car, where they initially hid with other refugees awaiting a convenient moment to cross the border.
As the large group finally attempted to cross the border by foot, one person stepped on a mine. The explosion alerted the Iranian border guards and the refugees were discovered. The family were separated as they fled; the father, Zahid, managed to make it over the border to Turkey with three of his sons, but Ayasha, her mother, three sisters and youngest brother were arrested on the Iranian side. They had to spend six months in an Iranian prison before they were expelled. Back to Afghanistan. Back to square one.
Zahid and his three older sons only later learned that his wife and children – their mother and siblings – had not made it over the border.
“The smuggler that brought us from Iran to Turkey said that my wife and children were already on their way to Istanbul. He said we’d meet them there. Naturally, we followed him to Istanbul, but they weren’t there.
The father and sons spent several months in Istanbul searching for their loved ones. But it was all in vain.
“The smuggler brought us to a flat. I had to leave my sons there during the day, because our helpers didn’t want to risk that I’d disappear without paying them”, says Zahid.
After a month in Istanbul, someone new appeared – “a policeman”, as Zahid H. often calls public officials. “He said to me and my sons that we should either claim asylum in Turkey or leave if we wanted to go to Europe. That’s when we continued our journey to Germany”.
Zahid and his three sons arrived in Bavaria and claimed asylum. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees told them that they could search for their missing relatives through the Red Cross. So Zahid H. turned to the GRC Tracing Service with help from his initial reception facility. His photo was published on the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Trace the Face website in February 2014 – and just like all the other pictures, it was accompanied by one simple sentence: “I’m looking for my family”.
From that moment, his photo was made publicly visible on the internet. Theoretically, his family could have discovered it when they were back Afghanistan. If they had had internet access. And a computer. And if the mother or her daughters had been able to read. Before they came to Germany, none of the family could read.
Saida H., the mother who returned to Afghanistan with her daughters, remembers:
“After we returned from Iran, we lived with relatives in Kabul, not in our home town. My husband had disappeared and I had lost all hope of ever seeing him again. During this time I was put under a great deal of pressure. We belong to the Hazara ethnic group and that means that my daughters are expected to marry real Afghanis, Pashtuns. But that’s not what I wanted. I didn’t want to give my daughters away”.
After nearly two years in Kabul, she sets out for Germany again with her children. This time, their flight is successful; after two months and 24 days, they reach a reception centre in Bavaria. An employee who works there gives her the tip that she could search for missing relatives through the Red Cross. Perhaps her husband and sons were alive – and even here in Germany, he said. Together with her daughter Ayasha, who had since turned 16, Saida H. arranges an appointment with the GRC Tracing Service in Nuremburg.
It is now September 2015. Birgit Koch is sitting with Saida and Ayasha in her office at the Nuremburg Tracing Service support centre, slowly clicking through the many photos on the Trace the Face website. Suddenly, Ayasha spots her father’s face. Her mother also recognises him and jumps for joy, clasping her hands over her mouth and barely able to contain her disbelief. That’s him!
Just after Christmas in a small town in Bavaria, the entire family is sitting together in a refugee shelter on beds, on the floor and in armchairs. Looking back, Ayasha isn’t able to describe that moment in detail. She smiles bravely and begins to gesture to her father as though she wants to say something, only to shake her head in silence and shut her eyes. She stands up and leaves the room to hide her tears. What can she say? When she looked through photos of missing people on the Trace the Face website in September, she was afraid her father was dead. And suddenly there he was in Bavaria, just a stone’s throw away from her, as Birgit Koch soon discovered in her research.
Just a short time later, the H. Family is finally whole again. In 2013, ten people left Afghanistan – and two years later, they’ve been reunited and are happy living in Germany. Four of the children have since started school and are the first in the family to learn to read and write – in German. Zahid dreams of working as a mechanic and 16-year-old Ayasha already has career aspirations of her own: “I want to be a police officer”, she says with a confident smile. “Police offers help people and that’s why I want to be one”.
*Name changed by the editors