Akhtar’s Story


Akhtar in Luxembourg

Akhtar in Luxembourg

When I first met Akhtar in 2009, he was dirty, hungry, disillusioned and scared.   He was then living in a squalid camp of flimsy cardboard boxes in Greece’s western port city, Patras, along with 1600 other Afghan boys and men who, like him, had come with hope of finding a new life in Europe.

Destitute without food or the right to earn a living, hounded by the authorities and unable to either leave the country, or to legally stay, Akhtar, like those around him, had reached a dead end.   He told me “This is like living like animals … I think I’ve come to the wrong place”.

I was in Greece with cameraman, Sebastian Rich, to shoot a story for “21st Century” on Europe’s migration issue, and, in this case, Greece’s inability to cope with the influx of asylum hopefuls.  Akhtar’s was the human face of this “problem”.  The film, called “Dead End”, was distributed in our series in 2009.  It would be four years before I would meet him again, when I shot a follow-up film with him, a long way from where we first met.

Amidst the sea of desperation in Greece, Akhtar stood out because of his gentleness, humility and intelligence.  Fluent in 5 languages, including English which he learnt while growing up in a UN Refugee Agency camp in Pakistan,  Akhtar had been threatened by the Taliban on his return to Afghanistan, which led him to believe his life was in danger.  Using family savings, he fled, paying traffickers to bring him on a hazardous, 2-month journey across Iran and Turkey, to Europe – where he hoped to find safety.  He also hoped to be allowed to study, to get a good job and to support his widowed mother in Afghanistan and his younger siblings’ education.

Akhtar was then just 18 – the same age as my daughter – and I was deeply touched by his courage and determination, and the burden of responsibility he carried at such a young age.

Akhtar with Producer, Gill Fickling

Akhtar with Producer, Gill Fickling

But he never dreamed that his welcome to Europe would be such a cold one.  Desperate to get out of the impossible situation in Greece, each day, he would head down to the port where, with dozens of other boys, he tried to smuggle himself underneath trucks waiting to board the ferry to Italy.   Most boys were apprehended and turned back – but some died trying, crushed in their hiding places when rear wheels were lifted.

This was the start of what would turn out to be a long journey for Akhtar.

When I left Greece, we kept in touch by email and the occasional phone call as he made his way from one European country to another, trying to find one that would accept him. But he always tried to evade the authorities which, by European law, would be obliged to send him back to Greece, his first country of entry into Europe.  Apprehended and detained in locked Detention Centers in Hungary and in Austria, he miraculously managed to escape both times once it became clear that he would be sent back to Greece.   Finally, after two years on the road fleeing from one country to the next, he arrived in Luxembourg in northern Europe where, he had heard, young asylum-seekers had a chance of being granted asylum.  It was his last hope.  At first, he believed he had a chance –  the Luxembourg authorities provided him with housing and the chance to go back to school.  He waited anxiously as his asylum application was reviewed.    But to both his and his lawyer’s dismay, all his applications were rejected on the grounds that his life was not believed to be in danger in Afghanistan.  He was at this stage when I arranged to meet him again, in 2012, to film the follow-up on his story with UNTV cameraman Bernard Vansiliette.   The previous years had taken their toll – he was cleaner than when I first met him, but his spirit and hope were diminished.  He could not understand why he wasn’t being given a chance – he felt he had so much to offer, and just wanted to live like a decent citizen in Europe.  Even the Luxembourg Minister for Immigration, who we interviewed, agreed that the immigration system needed to be addressed to avoid situation’s like Akhtar’s.

But in December 2013, I received some good news from Akhtar.   It seemed the Luxembourg authorities had awarded him temporary leave of stay in the country in order to finish his studies.  He was thrilled, filled with plans of studying for a Bachelor’s degree at university after he has graduated from high-school.   During the four years I’ve known Akhtar, the only thing he has ever asked from me is books for his studies; I hope that through that small gesture, and by highlighting his story in the international media, we may have in some way contributed to this happy ending.

See the film of his 4 year journey, called Akthar’s Story, distributed to broadcasters in 2013

The Women Shepherds of Somaliland

by Francis Mead



We won’t forget Beerato. It’s a village in central Somaliland. Dust, sheep, goats, camels – and bold women, insisting on changing their lives – and knowing how to party – dancing, singing and clapping in the Sufi style. Cameraman Antonio Tibaldi and I arrived in a UN four-by-four. We had to bring eight armed guards in two more vehicles with us – UN rules – since there’s a danger of kidnapping.



We travelled with Amina Souleiman, a Somali woman who gained political asylum in the UK during Somalia’s civil war in the 90s. She now spends half her year helping women in her homeland stand up for their rights. The UN Democracy Fund is financing her project. In my opinion it’s a remarkable initiative, though each step forward has to be patient and small, and is met by resistance. We met Sahra – an impressive, highly intelligent woman, a shepherd with no formal education and one of the leading lights in the village. Sahra is one of Amina’s protegés.
Water is a central concern year round – and Beerato, when drought isn’t severe, is a major watering hole for the surrounding villages. We watched and filmed as camel herds and flocks of sheep and goats were brought in, lining up to take their turn, almost like aircraft taxiing on a runway. The semi-nomadic families here move their flocks and herds to new pastures several times each year:



Amina Souleiman (left, standing) with a woman and children from the village.

IMG_2751Life in Beerato is precarious. By the traditional division of labour, women look after sheep and goats, while men look after the camels. If women lose their flock to drought (which happens not infrequently) they effectively lose their right to graze the tribal lands and are often forced into exile to the capital Hargeisa. Then almost the only option is to labour in the markets. In the city, life is brutally tough, money is hard to come by, and home is usually a displaced persons’ camp or a shanty town.

Amina, Sahra and the village women are determined this won’t happen to them. Holding regular women’s circles, they are asserting their rights with the male village elders, and arguing for access to school and land. Already, they have installed five women teachers in the village school for the first time. Next they plan to build a hospital (money will have to be raised internationally by Amina). The hospital will provide jobs and improved health – many mothers die in childbirth. But there’s opposition all along the way – it took weeks of persistent requests before the women finally got the keys to the school office and generator.

Antonio and I were both inspired by Amina’s enthusiasm and determination – and her ability to bridge the huge cultural gap between two white Western guys with cameras, and rural women in a small village. She had the capacity to know and communicate fluently between both worlds. Antonio, who’s a film director in his own right when he’s not working for the UN, was also very struck by Sahra:

Fatima, already widowed, was forced by drought to leave her village for the city:

The full film can be seen here on the UN’s site.

A slightly longer version of the film here.