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Human After All

5 September 2013 | 11:57 am | Kris Swales

“This life isn’t for a human being. If things work out the way I think, I’ll go back to my own country because I’m tired of living in this condition here."

Bordered by poplars, conifers and a bubbling brook so beautiful you could imagine a 1970s feature wall bearing its likeness, the EVAM asylum seeker centre in Crissier is no remote tent city.

Nor is the centre, which on this Wednesday in October 2011 houses 337 asylum seekers in its 308 capacity apartment towers, a de facto prison. There are no fences, no guards, no barbed wire and no curfews. Until their applications for refugee status are either approved or denied, the temporary citizens of this complex just five kilometres south of the Lausanne city centre have free run of their adopted city and the iconic Lake Geneva.

Lone adults amble around the EVAM (Etablissement Vaudois D'Accueil Des Migrants, or Establishment of Receiving Migrants) grounds. The children have been taken in at nearby schools and allocated a teacher of their own, only integrating with the other children for sport. When they return at 12.30pm, the centre begins to buzz as the youngest kids ride scooters, kick soccer balls and run around the towers without a care in the world.

“If I explained to you the history of how we got to this country and all of the difficulties,” says Afghani refugee Shoja. “I would have to write a book.”

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The 33-year-old tailor had his own business in Herāt, near Afghanistan's western border, until a not-so-simple business enquiry – from a man wanting a traditional Afghan dress with an oversized internal pocket – proved the catalyst for his flight from Afghanistan.

“Suddenly I thought, 'Why does he want to have this size in a coat?',” Shoja recalls. “Probably he wants to use it as a suicide bomber. I refused. I felt if I made this the government will know who made this coat and they would come to my shop and bring me to justice.

“The guy came after and said, 'If you don't make this coat, I'll put you in trouble'. I fought with them, and now if I dream them I'm even afraid of their faces. They tried to kidnap my young son when he was playing downstairs in my shop. Up to this limit, I said to myself, 'No. I won't have a future here for me and my family so it's better to leave the country'.”

Within a week Shoja, his wife and their son had left that life behind. He paid a nameless man to help them and several other family groups escape to Iran, where they had ten days of relative safety. His group were shot at as they passed into Turkey, saw one of their fellow escapees die before their eyes, then spent six months hiding out in Istanbul before being detained and fingerprinted by Italian authorities en route to Switzerland.

After ten days in a detention camp in Italy, and with a little help, they escaped. Just a few months after arriving at EVAM, Shoja and his family's application for asylum was approved and they were relocated to new accommodation.

When presented with a sewing kit by an EVAM worker, he wept.

Man-mountain Damfa is a nine-month resident of Crissier, his stony facade not hiding his sadness. Damfa left life as a driver and salesman in the tiny westAfrican country of Guinea-Bissau for a two-month journey through Senegal, Mauritania and across the Mediterranean by boat to Naples to find safety in Switzerland. He is safe, but his frustration at leaving his old, active life behind simmers just below the surface.

“Here is very difficult,” he admits. “This life isn't for a human being. If things work out the way I think, I'll go back to my own country because I'm tired of living in this condition here.

“We never know who's waiting for us in the place we lived, but what am I to do?”

Abrahim, a 58-year-old Sudanese electrician who arrived from Libya following the February 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, invites us up to his apartment. His two youngest daughters bring in a plate of biscuits and diet cola from an adjoining room, Abrahim sharing residence at the centre across three modest apartments with his wife and five children.

“The government of Libya stopped education for the babies of alien people except by paying,” Abrahim says of the country he settled in with his wife in 1989. “For two years my children stopped school because I did not have money for them. In 2010, I took them back to school again, with money. In 2011, in February, the war is coming.”

“We were in a small city, on the Mediterranean coastline,” Lubna, his 16-year-old daughter, translates briefly. “It's near to Tunisia.”

“I work with a Libyan, he's a good man, I tell him, 'Your country is very bad now, I am going',” Abrahim continues. “He tells me, 'The sea is very dangerous, you can't take it, please don't go'. I say, 'No'. I say to him, 'Please, you give me some money' and he say, 'Okay'. I take money from him to give to the people, for a ship – after that I took the ship in April 2011 and we come here.”

Abrahim's ship – a powerless fishing boat holding over 500 people in cramped quarters across three levels – turned back once, but eventually crossed the Mediterranean after three treacherous days.

“I couldn't even help myself if the ship had broken,” he recalls of his illness on that voyage. “We would've been dead. But the captain of the ship helped me with a small room with two beds which he gave to me, to my family. We are lucky.”

Six months into his family's stay at EVAM and with no word on whether their application for asylum has been accepted, does he feel like he has a better life here?

“Of course,” he immediately replies. “When I go outside this camp I feel like it is better. I want the life for my children to not be like my life – their future not like me, their education not like me.

“I want them to find freedom.”

This is an edited version of Take The Long Way Home, which originally appeared in Three Magazine in November 2011.