Afghan refugees sit on a truck as they wait for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees registration centre in Mommand Dara distirict in Jalalabad province, November 20, 2012.
Parwiz / Reuters

One winter afternoon in 2010, a smiling, gaunt young man, about five feet nine, with short hair and a wispy beard, walked into the hujra (male guest room) of a red brick house in Birmingham, England. He wore jeans, a windbreaker, and two T-shirts. He was barefoot because he had left his shoes at the front door. He sat on a sofa and our host, a social worker that I will call Ahmed (he wishes to remain nameless to protect his work with Afghan refugees), brought in a pot of green tea.

The boy’s name is Bhahar Gul, which means “spring flower” in Pashto, language of the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and western Pakistan. According to the most recent census, there are also 78,000 Pashtuns living in Birmingham. Many of them are descendants of men who worked for the British Army in the North-West Frontier Province of India, which today constitutes the frontier areas of Pakistan. Around 2005, however, the Afghan boys, refugees from war, started to arrive.

Like Bhahar, they have come on the Tora Larah, the Black Way, which is one of the longest and most dangerous migrations in the world. “I am from Saokayi, a village in Kunar Province,” Bhahar began. His house, made of baked mud and stone, was near the Kunar River, which runs along the northern Afghan-Pakistani border. On one shore, farmers use wood plows and harvest the wheat that grows in the deep valleys with a scythe. On the other are rocky lowlands and a thin line of stark, jagged mountains. Beyond them lies Pakistan.

Growing up, Bhahar said, “war was everywhere.” He knew a boy who blew himself up, along with a U.S. Army vehicle, on the road near their house. “People say that the ISI [Pakistani military intelligence] kidnaps boys and trains them to be suicide bombers. Boys from my village disappeared. So many people have been killed. People say that the Taliban, al Qaeda, the government, the Americans -- all are killing.”

It must not have been a suprise when, in 2008, Bhahar told his parents that he wanted to leave. His mother told her brother, a schoolteacher in Jalalabad, a large city in eastern Afghanistan, who owned a taxi and some land. He knew, Bhahar said with a laugh, of the Tora Larah. “Every Afghan knows about it.”

An elderly Afghan refugee woman is helped by family members to board a truck as they prepare to go back to Afghanistan. Afghan immigrants have been ordered out of Pakistan in what officials say is a bid to root out militants, Peshawar February 18, 2015.
An elderly Afghan refugee woman is helped by family members to board a truck as they prepare to go back to Afghanistan. Afghan immigrants have been ordered out of Pakistan in what officials say is a bid to root out militants, Peshawar February 18, 2015. 
Fayaz Aziz / Reuters
The Tora Larah, an underground railroad of immigrants through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Greece, “is one of the largest illegal migrations in the world,” Michael Parazyszek, a spokesman for Frontex, an organization that coordinates border control in Europe, told me. But no one really even knows just how large. As Jean-Philippe Chouzy of the Organization of International Migration put it, “Do we know of one out of two, or is it one out of ten? Some use drugs as currency to pay their way; some are forced to provide sexual favors to continue their journey.” What is known is that one of every four refugees in the world is from Afghanistan, according to the UNHCR. That means about 2.7 million people. Around 1.6 million of them have settled in Pakistan, nearly 900,000 in Iran, and thousands more in 77 other countries. In January 2012, the Afghan Foreign Ministry even announced that it would open an embassy in Athens to help deal with the estimated 50,000 Afghans who enter Greece illegally every year.

One month after Bhahar announced his intention to leave home, his uncle gave $8,000 to an agent to arrange his passage. The agent took the money across the border to Peshawar, to a broker in the old bazaar. He promised half to the broker when Bhahar reached Istanbul and the rest when he reached Greece. The broker would use hawala, a traditional Islamic money transfer system, which operates on trust, not on the actual movement of money. For that reason, the system is untraceable.

Bhahar left home in the fall. He told me how his mother cried, his voice softening. “It was hard. You leave your family, all you know, to go to a strange land. I was 16 or 17.” (Few Afghans knows their exact age.) He said that his older brother wasn’t strong enough to leave the family. “I was the one who left.”

Bhahar took a bus to Jalalabad and stayed with his uncle. The uncle turned him over to an agent, and the agent took him to a safe house in another part of the city, where three boys were waiting. From there, the agent drove them east to Torkum, the main border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan and then on a winding two-lane paved road through the mountains of the tribal areas of Pakistan. They arrived in another safe house in Peshawar, where still more boys were waiting. Three nights later, a man carted them all south through the tribal areas to Baluchistan, where they changed vans and headed across the high desert toward the Iranian border. Just before it, they stopped to sleep in a grove of trees. The boys huddled, hungry in the cold night.

The next day, the traffickers showed the boys where to cross into Iran. But the route was not as safe as promised. Border guards on both sides saw and shot at them. Two died and more were captured. But the rest made it two miles across the scrubland, where about five cars were waiting. For the next two months, they crossed deserts and mountains. They rode in the baggage holds of busses and in car trunks. They travelled what was once the Silk Road, passing from the hands of one group of smugglers to another. At one point, Kurds on horseback took them down through the snowy passes from Iran into Turkey, where they saw, in an isolated mountain village, young men from Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, and across the Middle East, all heading west.

Packed like cattle into a truck, Bhahar and over a hundred others finally arrived in Istanbul. Agents there called his broker in Peshawar to release half of the $8,000, but the broker was using the money elsewhere. So, Bhahar spent seven months in a basement waiting for the broker to provide the code number that the agent in Istanbul could take to the hawala man to retrieve his share. Bhahar and the rest of the boys stuck in limbo fought over blankets. For food, Bhahar had to call his uncle to send $200 by hawala to pay the woman who owned the house. Finally, when Bhahar’s $4,000 was released, men took him and a several others to the Aegean Sea. They rowed rubber rafts toward Greece. One raft capsized and nine drowned. The rest reached a Greek island and were promptly thrown in jail.

Bhahar reached Calais, where he lived for a month in "the jungle," a makeshift camp. Desperate to leave, he phoned his uncle to ask for $600, which went to a Kurdish trafficker who, after many unsuccessful attempts, hid him in a truck that took him through the Chunnel and on to London.
After a month, the authorities let Bhahar go. He was notified that he had to leave Greece within a month but was given passage on a boat to Athens. Eight months later, after wandering the streets of Athens looking for food, and then working on a farm harvesting vegetables, he called his uncle and asked for $3,000 more, via hawala, to pay a smuggler to get him out of Greece. After four attempts and two more months in prison, the smuggler loaded him on a truck with other boys, headed toward Italy. The group wound its way north. The refugees snuck onto trains, slept in cemeteries and subway stations, and stood in line with others at Catholic churches for food.

Weeks later, Bhahar reached Calais, where he lived for a month in "the jungle," a makeshift camp. Desperate for funds once more, he phoned his uncle to ask for $600, which went to a Kurdish trafficker who, after many unsuccessful attempts, hid him in a truck that took him through the Chunnel and on to London. There, too, the police picked him wandering the streets. This time, though, he was sent to a shelter rather than to jail. One day on the street, he met a Pakistani who told him to go to Birmingham -- there was a large community of Afghans and Pakistanis there -- and he bought Bhahar a train ticket. There, after 19 months, 4,700 miles, and over $13,000 some Afghans took him in.

An Afghan immigrant wipes his eyes as police evacuate him and others at an improvised camp in Calais, northern France, May 28, 2014.
An Afghan immigrant wipes his eyes as police evacuate him and others at an improvised camp in Calais, northern France, May 28, 2014.
Pascal Rossignol / Reuters
“After a month, I felt safe,” he told me. Bhahar found a job in a car wash where the owner didn’t ask for documents. He now makes $160 a week. If it rains, there is no work. But he makes up for it in the summer through tips. He phones his uncle every month or so. Sometimes his parents are there, and he talks with them, too. He also sends them money. “I must pay my uncle back,” he said softly. He is glad he made it, but feels disconnected all the same. “This is my home, the people I live with are my family, but I miss my real family. In Afghanistan, I went to the mosque five times a day. Here I go when I can, because of my job.”

Bhahar is poor, illiterate, and lonely, and he cannot speak English. Young men like him can only go two directions, Ahmed, the social worker, told me. “They either become secular or more religious,” he said. “The ISI is here. We know that Lashkar-e-Taiba is recruiting boys.” Bhahar protests that he has never been asked to join a terrorist group -- nor done anything wrong. “Agents said if I [smuggled] heroin they wouldn’t charge me. I said no. If I did something illegal I would go to prison and how would I pay my debts? I came all this difficult way. My uncle is asking for his money. If I can’t pay, he will taunt my parents. ‘You are not good Pashtuns.’”

But many boys are not so upstanding. They are alone and scared. An Afghan friend who translated for the boys told me, “Al Qaeda can offer to pay their debts if they will do something for Islam. You can tell that some boys have been radicalized.” Ahmed said the same thing. Through a contact who was a former counterintelligence agent in the FBI, I arranged to meet with two men from the British Metropolitan Police. They declined to confirm or deny that there was a problem with Afghan boys, but gave me a private number to call if I had a any suspicions about a particular person. In early 2007, as more and more boys began to trickle into the country, The Guardian reported that secret government immigration papers revealed officials’ fear that the Afghan boys were being groomed for terrorism. Then in 2010, The Guardian reported that authorities had hidden over 160 surveillance cameras, some in trees and walls, to watch Birmingham's Muslim community specifically.

One Afghan I interviewed questioned whether travelling the Tora Larah is worth it. “People die in the mountains. They think by taking this journey that they are making their life better.” Some boys have, indeed, made their lives better. In the United Kingdom, they have found homes with foster families, have gone to school, and have held down jobs. But there are thousands of others for whom the United Kingdom is a harsh, lonely world. They are from small Pashtun villages. "If I looked at a girl the wrong way her brothers would say that I had dishonored her," Bhahar said. Such an incident could lead to his death, so Bhahar had always stayed on the straight and narrow. But in the United Kingdom, and in the rest of Europe, many boys are on their own. They discover alcohol and girls, and they form gangs. These are called ABB: Afghan Bad Boys. "If I had to return to Afghanistan it would be a disaster," Bhahar said. "I suffered too much.”

On our last meeting, Bhahar’s eyes were distant. “My uncle keeps asking for the money. This can’t go on too much longer.” It seemed he was worried either that his uncle would do something -- demand payment in some form from the family -- or that he would be deported before paying his debt and would be so ashamed of his failure that he would join the Taliban, like other boys who feel they failed, rather than go back and have his family be taunted for being bad Pashtuns, for not paying their debt. Such taunting can lead to fueds.

Five years ago, there were few smuggling brokers in Afghanistan, but today, according to UNICEF, they are in every city. Some reports say that various routes to Russia and northern Europe have been closed off, but the migrations continue. They are a sign that, for many Afghans, there is no hope or security in their own country. Families send away their sons, dreaming that these boys can provide for their future. They save for years or else they borrow more than they can ever hope to repay. Yet those debts might be dooming their sons, who take desperate measures to pay them off. Even as the United States draws down troops in Afghanistan, some of the boys could bring the war in Afghanistan to the West. In April 2011, a suicide bomber tried to kill Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Wardak in Kabul. On May 3, Wardak announced that the bomber had lived for the last six years in London. He was the first known suicide bomber trained in the West. It would not be surprising if, in the future, there are more.

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