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Baryali, from Afghanistan to Rome: “There’s Nowhere Else I’d Rather Live”

He arrived 8 years ago travelling 5,000 km on foot, on dilapidated boats, or holding onto the bottom of a tractor-trailer.

Baryali Waiz.

In Baryali’s eyes, you can see the reflection of the Himalayan highlands, and the boundless grassland plains of his country. But what he remembers of his Kabul is the sound of the bombs and the destruction. Today, he is a cultural-linguistic mediator; he speaks with a bit of a Roman inflection, he studies at John Cabot University in Rome, and dreams of one day working at the UN. For all his friends who didn’t make it.

We met four years ago, Baryali and I, in Rome, in the small dinette of an old apartment located on the East side of the city, where he was living at the time. From that moment, I became for him – just like for many “Romans from Rome” that I crossed paths with – just “Giu”. I was a young student enrolled at a journalism school located in the Capital, getting my degree in Literature, with many dreams and still many other hopes. He was my age, or perhaps a bit older, and came from Afghanistan, from a life that had already inflicted so many wounds, and who already too many times had stared death in the face. But he also knew how to react, to fight, and to struggle to radically change his path – something I would have never had the strength to do, I used to often find myself thinking.

Baryali.

For me, Baryali Waiz has always been, from the first words we ever exchanged, a model, an example. The example of a young guy on whose shoulders the weight of so much experience is carried upon, more so than that which is normally accumulated in the twenty years of a life. An experience that you can read stamped upon his face, in a profound stare that is never completely carefree, and with a few wrinkles too many with respect to his actual age. But Baryali’s story is one that has a happy ending. A story that needs to be told out loud, in an Italy where, with elections approaching, fearmongers and scapegoats are on the agenda, on the corner of each street, ready to tell us yes, our problem are the immigrants, actually, the “illegal” immigrants, the jus soli (a law of civility which was left to become entrenched in the Senate after several attempts to pass it), Islam, and whatever else.

Baryali arrived in Italy as an “illegal”. He arrived eight years ago from a country nestled in central Asia, twice the size of Norway. A territory composed up of mountains and highlands, which in the middle make up a part of the Himalayan system, but also of grassland plains that extend to the north, in the Steppe region, for more than 100 thousand square kilometers. But when I ask him what he remembers about his past in Afghanistan, Baryali’s memory quickly returns with an auditory notion: “the sound of the bombs”, those that he would hear exploding as a child, a few feet away from him, and that would leave “streets and cities completely destroyed”. The Afghanistan that lives in the mind of this young man is a “country without a president, without electricity, without Internet, without laws and rules, nor universities”. A country that, nevertheless, remained “very beautiful” because “I felt at home […] I was in my country”.

For Baryali, his wasn’t an “escape”: “I wouldn’t say that I ran away”, he corrects me, when I ask if he remembers the exact moment in which he made that difficult decision. Only a few days ago, in Afghanistan, two suicide bombers in Kabul left behind 40 people dead in a massacre then claimed by ISIS. “This, down there, has become the normality”, he ascertains. And it is in this very concept that is never completely conceivable for those of us born and raised in a “sheltered life” – the extreme abnormality of war and of violence that becomes everyday life – within which the deep reason for which Baryali decided to leave is nestled. But it wasn’t only for that reason; there was also the dominating mentality, closed, never open to discussion, rigidly reinforced by the totalitarian teaching of the Taliban. And then of course the urgency of escaping death: “I have many friends that are dead, and not only because of the war; I therefore preferred to come to Europe to begin a new life, exactly that life that I am now building, here”.   

Baryali in Rome.

Baryali traveled 5,000 kilometers, almost all on foot, crossing the boundaries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, then into Greece, where the young man was illegally detained because he was without papers.

Then, the arrival in Italy, in Bari, hidden under a tractor-trailer. A journey that he defines as “very difficult and dangerous”, where he lost many friends, and where he took a huge risk: “I endured brutalities by a trafficker and for this reason, for a period of time, I was blind in one eye and couldn’t move half of my face”. This is why he cannot help but feel empathy for today’s migrants; rather, he speaks more precisely about “respect”. That respect that is often lacking on the side of the media, which turns them into numbers and an “emergency”, on the side of the politicians who exploit this tragedy for a fistful of votes, and on the side of whom generally seems them first as a “problem” than as human beings.

And yet, before departing, Baryali did not remotely imagine how difficult his journey would be. “Often, you don’t know what you’re dealing with, because the traffickers initially are very reassuring and they promise that everything will occur in complete safety, in a car, on a bus, and so on.  Instead, once you’re out of Afghanistan, the traveling becomes very dangerous”, he assures. And when I ask him if looking back he’d recommend to a young person to embark upon such a journey to seek freedom, he responds without hesitation: “No, I wouldn’t recommend this to any human being on the face of the Earth”.

I have the impression that for Baryali, this experience — that of traveling across the routes of human traffickers without any scruples — is destined to remain largely indescribable, as if it were impossible to describe with words that nocturnal caravan, sometimes accompanied by animals, those violent beatings, that desperate balancing act that is needed to keep holding onto the bottom of a tractor-trailer for hours and hours until you can’t feel your muscles anymore, that dizziness that takes hold to see the expanse of the sea in front of you, and the only thing separating you from the abyss is only a cheap inflatable raft. But after docking in a safe port, another odyssey begins: that of integration. A bit of a Darwinian odyssey, because only the toughest ones, the most determined, the most courageous – like Baryali – can make it. There are those that instead remain dominated by the overpowering weight of the past, of prejudice, of weariness. But Baryali demonstrates an extraordinarily pragmatic spirit: “I had to take many steps towards building a life, because, as I say, if you don’t use your hands, you’re not using your voice, either”. A pragmatism that has helped him over the years to understand that he had to have a certain disposition of continuous open-mindedness and learning: “Here, I am a guest, therefore I must accept the rules of another country that has accommodated me, that has welcomed me, and that has given me everything that I now have”. And it is exactly with this spirit that, as soon as he arrived, “I tried to get to know the new people that I was encountering, to understand their mentality, their culture, their religion”. I had to open my mind, put into discussion the ideas that I previously had in order to grow and to have a better life”, he explains to me, letting a bit of pride seep from his voice. 

Italian actor Fiorello with Baryali in a photo taken for a UNHCR campaign.

And it is in this manner that, arriving illegally, Baryali not only has gained refugee status, but he also graduated high school, and has worked –from when he was 19 years old — in various refugee centers as a cultural-linguistic mediator, collaborating with many important institutions, – among them, the Italian Red Cross, UNHCR, IOM. And not only: he has participated in a special episode of X-Factor (an initiative in collaboration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and, as his Facebook profile picture, he has one hugging Fiorello that was taken during the UNHCR campaign #WithRefugees. 

Currenty, he is studying and working at John Cabot University in Rome, thanks to a full scholarship. Baryali doesn’t make concessions for those who like him, arrives aboard a boat, leaving behind a sea of suffering, only to not fight to make it: “It is us immigrants that must have a plan, we are the ones that must integrate, we must accept diversity; otherwise we will be destined to remain isolated within our communities, forever foreigners”.

Certainly, it hasn’t been all easy for him, and it still isn’t today. The separation from his family is a huge burden that constantly weighs on his heart.  “I am worried for them”, he confesses to me, immediately extending his fear to all Afghans, young and old, women and men: “They are the blood of my blood”. And, he explains, when European governments practice repatriation to Afghanistan, “they are sending many young people off to die”.    

But those dark, profound eyes that have witnessed so much blood and violence, today dream big dreams: Baryali hopes one day to work at the United Nations, putting his personal baggage of pain to good use.  Sometimes, kiddingly, I tell him not to forget about me, a humble journalist that’s always a bit insecure, when he will occupy the seat now held by Antonio Guterres, and that has had celebrities of the caliber of Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan. Bary – as he likes to be affectionately called by his friends – dreams, therefore, of an international career in style, but wishes to maintain a permanent base in Italy, in the city that more than any other has given him the opportunity to live: Rome. I confess that I don’t understand all of this visceral love for a country that unites, too often, light and shadow: the light of so many rescues at sea, the shadow of an agreement “of disgrace” to block the flow of migrants in Libya; the light of its beauty, of its culture, of its history, the shadow of unemployment and of temporary work which mercilessly limits its most brilliant young people; the light of the Italian spirit of welcome and hospitality, the shadow of rising xenophobia that lately seems to be spilling into broad areas of public opinion. But then I understand: Italy is and will remain, with all of its critical issues, the country that gifted Baryali the chance to change the course of his life forever. An Italy to be proud of. “Rome introduced me to people from 72 different nations at the university that I attend; it gave me this opportunity that I will never forget”. For him, Italy is not racist: “It faces the Mediterranean, which is not a pool; it is a sea that has a history, that has been crossed for thousands of years and by so many populations with so many diverse cultures. If Italy had been racist, it could have closed its borders. Then, certainly, there are groups and political parties that use immigration to gain more votes, but that is a problem that exists everywhere, even in Afghanistan; “Over there, there are ethnic and religious conflicts, for example”, he explains to me with a disarming clarity of mind.     

For Baryali, the immigrants are the ones who must adapt to the culture of the place they are in, and must convince the people of their potential: “I believe that we immigrants have the best arm of defense in order to combat racism; we must integrate within the Italian communities, we must get to know people in their diversity, enter in contact with all types of local cultures and traditions, and show that we immigrants aren’t here to make trouble, but to build something together”. And he adds, “If I made it, any immigrant can make it. The important thing is to open your mind and accept the Italian spirit, because we are not another country, we are one country”. And the proof of how “Italian” he already is, Baryali inserts some inflections and typical Roman ways of saying; the Capital is by now his city, and after several years in Pigneto, today he lives in the very beautiful area of Trastevere, a few steps from the university that he attends. I smile thinking at how irrelevant the delays, breakdowns, the inevitable setbacks of public transportation, the traffic, the filth, and all of the inconveniences must be, and of which those who hang out around Rome complain so much about. For Bary, the Eternal City is, and remains, the most beautiful in the world. Perhaps, if you think about it, the second, right underneath his unforgettable Kabul.

Translation by Emmelina De Feo

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