Mohsen lives illegally in a factory with dozens of other male teens. All the boys have fled Afghanistan. They are on their own, trying to illegally cross through Europe to get to Germany, Sweden or France, countries where they believe they’ll find a better life.
There is no electricity in this hollowed-out factory. No plumbing, no comfortable couch and no Xbox. In fact, there are few intact walls or rooms, let alone a kitchen or a refrigerator full of groceries. Empty takeout containers, plastic bags and other garbage litter the concrete floors. Laundry, freshly washed using water from the hose, hangs on pegs to dry.
The factory is across the street from Greece’s second-biggest port. From here, the boys can sit on the roof and watch the activity, the movement of the guards and, most important, the times the ferries load in order to cross the Gulf of Patras to Italy. Some of them dream of stowing away.
Photojournalist Giorgos Moutafis and I found the factory courtesy of some older Afghan men who live in another abandoned building in Patras. They knew we were reporting on the plight of unaccompanied child migrants fleeing conflict and poverty, so they took us to visit the boys.
It was hard to miss Mohsen taking a shower. I asked him if the water was cold. “Very cold, miss!” he yelled out.
One of the remarkable things you notice about these homeless kids is how clean they are. It was more than 100C in the late August sun, yet all of them had well-kept, short hair, all were clean shaven and none of their clothes were dirty.
Another Afghan who lives in Patras, Zahidi Mohamed, 29, comes by the factory almost daily to check on the boys. He helps them keep up appearances by cutting their hair.
Mohsen, a Hazara Afghan, told me that he left Kabul when he was just 13 at the urging of his family. The Hazara are among the most persecuted ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
He desperately misses his parents. Especially his mother, who he said was very ill. He had not spoken to her in months.
“I can’t, I don’t have any money and there is no work in Greece,” he said.
“I left to find a better life,” he said, the irony not lost on him.
He told me he missed everything about home, especially his mother’s cooking.
At the end of our talk, I gave Mohsen 20 euros and told him to call his mom from a local internet café. We also exchanged Facebook information. He promised to stay in touch as he made his way through Europe.
When I left the factory, I never expected to hear from him again. But I did. Just days later, when I was in Thessaloniki, he sent me a Facebook message that said, “Hi miss.”
Then the messages started coming over a period of days and weeks. “I’m very sick,” said one. “Can you help me?” asked another. “I need help, you know.” And then: “It is very hard to live like this,” and, “I want to come to Toronto.”
His request fell on me like a dead weight. I wanted to help him but thought the possibilities would be slim. He was in Greece and registered with Greek authorities as a migrant.
According to European Union law, the first nation in which a refugee lands is the country responsible for their paperwork and asylum. For Mohsen, that is Greece.
Unsure of what else I could do, I talked to Debra Black, one of the Star’s immigration reporters, who put me in contact with Francisco Rico-Martinez, the co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto.
The economist and lawyer was born in El Salvador, but came to Canada as a refugee in 1990 with Loly, his wife, and their two children. He now devotes his life to helping newcomers to Canada.