Follow our Advent Calendar, where we will introduce 24 stories from people in the refugee camps where we work and from people we have met over the years in Greece. Every day we present a new story and let you have an insight into who the people on the run are.
By Diana Valdecantos Photos by Nickie Mariager-Lam
You could easily mistake B.K.D.* for a western tourist on the Greek island of Chios. He speaks in a perfect American accent, always wears glasses and a cap and is constantly smiling while he drives his bike around the Souda Refugee Camp. Every time you meet him he has a joke or a compliment on the tip of his tongue, and nothing immediately indicates that he has been through hell at the tender age of 17.
Arrested by ISIS
Two years ago, for example, when B.K.D. was just 15 years old, he was certain that his head was going be chopped off in an interrogation room in Syria. He was arrested at an ISIS checkpoint and four men sat him on a chair, surrounded him and started asking questions like: “Do you know how to pray? How many times you pray per day? Do you pray in the morning? Are you PKK? You must be PKK!” (The left wing Kurdistan Workers Party).
B.K.D. is Kurdish and not really religious. He likes, and liked back then, western clothes, hairstyle and to shape his eyebrows. So when ISIS detained him and after being unable to find the correct answers to their questions, he was sure he was going be executed on the spot.
They told me to wait and sit next to a red tank, that they would be back with the tools they needed to finish me up. I was in shock. Crying, shaking, totally sure I was living my last minutes, he explains with his head down and avoiding eye contact.
Fortunately, his mother begged and begged for his freedom and told the ISIS captors that her son had learned his lesson. That he was only a kid and that he would change his ways and lifestyle. After a while, for some unexplained reason, they let him go with a death threat. “This is the last time. If we get you again, we will kill you”, they said.
B.K.D got out, but he was not only afraid of dying. ISIS kidnaps Kurdish people and they can either sell them in the market or use them in a future hostages exchange. So he knew his life was in deep danger, but this is something that this young Kurdish man has experienced constantly ever since he turned 10, living in Kurdish Kobane, a Syrian city near Aleppo.
From a normal life to humans on the run
He never knew his father. He died when B.K.D. was only seven months old and B.K.D.’s mother was forced to work very hard in a grocery shop to provide for her six sons and six daughters. One of his brothers passed away as a result of a dangerous fever and another one was, apparently, murdered when he was 16. Leaving the, at the time, 11 year old B.K.D behind.
– Before death became the norm, this teenager’s life was simple and ordinary, as he explains.
-I went to school, I played football, hide and seek, and had long conversations with a very good friend, who were unfortunately later killed in an airstrike. He stops for a second, thinks for a couple of seconds, and continues: -I had a good life, a normal life. We are normal people, he insists.
Things started to change
Until things started to change. Slowly, at first – then savagely quickly. Suddenly lots of armed people appeared in the city. If there was a demonstration going on, they showed up and shot at the crowd without any hesitation. They attacked the buses, there were bombings, and bomb traps in the roads, and in the city. -You were sleeping and the airstrikes woke you up. Our house would shake. I was so afraid of dying everyday, he remembers.
One day, one of his brothers was in the street talking with a friend, when some shrapnel hit him. He was bleeding so badly, he didn’t respond. B.K.D. ran to him and tried to evacuate him. “I asked everyone around to help. I thought he was going to die. I needed to take him to the hospital. I didn’t know what to do, but luckily, he survived the attack”. B.K.D. was 12 years old at the time.
So the family had to move. Not only as a result of fear, but literally, forced to abandon their home when ISIS took control of the city.
Moving to Lebanon – working all day
The whole family went to Lebanon and B.K.D had to start working twelve hours a day in a curtain shop to put food on the table. They stayed for a bit over two years, until -there was no table to put food on, he explains. The rent of their house was very expensive and not even with all their hard work were they able to survive in Lebanon. -They were also very racist. Police officers would point a gun at you and force you on your knees, just to ask for some ID while insulting you and laughing about it, he says.
Going back to Syria
So in September 2015, the family decided to move back to their Syrian home and see what happened. By then, Kobane was completely in ISIS’ hands. Their own house was occupied by the group, and they had to stay in a neighbours’ warehouse for a week. Everything had changed, everyone suspected everyone, and ISIS’ ways scared them.
-They are really violent. They chop off heads, burn people to death, cut their hands… It was extremely dangerous, he remembers. It was at this time when B.K.D. was intercepted by ISIS soldiers and thought his life was over.
The long journey to Iraq
After that, the family decided to flee at 4 am one night and started a long route to the Kurdish territory in Iraq. Even though he has experienced quite a lot of difficult and dangerous situations, B.K.D. thinks this was the worst part of his short life.
-For seven hours we had to walk up and down the mountains. I was carrying four bags, all our belongings. We couldn’t stop for a rest. The smuggler kept forcing us to continue in order to avoid police officers. I’ve never been so exhausted in my whole life. It was so tough, so hard, so cold, awful, he explains.
Finished the journey without his mother
His mother wasn’t able to keep up and they finished the journey without her. -When I finally got there, there was this old pick up waiting for us, I passed out. I slept and slept the whole seven hour drive until we reached our destination, he says. The head of the family arrived two weeks later and joined them in Dahok.
It seemed way much better than Kobane, at least at the beginning. But again, ISIS was gaining territory and life started to become hard and dangerous, and B.K.D and his family continued all the way to Turkey.
-The weird thing is that we never thought we could come to Europe, we didn’t have enough money to pay the smuggler, we just wanted a safe place to live. That’s all, he remembers. But then one day, they could afford their tickets and set sail to Greece, where they arrived on the 8th of September this year.
So now B.K.D. can take advantage of all those hours he spent watching American movies, series and documentaries back in Lebanon and practicing his accent in the mirror. He wants to be a rapper and to use music to tell the world what’s going on in his country. He just started reading “To kill a mockingbird”, goes to school everyday, raps and helps the rest of the refugees who don’t speak English, and he always, always does it with a smile.
* This story was written in 2016 so B.K.D has now turned 19.