Taliban takeover ‘a trigger’ for child refugees in Greece

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

Zeinab*, a 14-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan who lives in Greece, was about to attend her football training when she heard the news of the Taliban taking over Kabul.

She tried to contact the members of her family who remain in Afghanistan, but was unable to reach them.

“I felt very sorry for all the women and children of Afghanistan. I know they have a difficult future ahead of them,” she said. “That day was my worst training day ever.”

Zeinab arrived in Greece in 2019 after she crossed the Mediterranean by boat from Turkey with her mother and disabled sister.

She claims they were beaten up by Turkish police along the way.

They ended up homeless, in a tent in Moria, the Greek refugee camp that was infamous for its poor conditions and has since been destroyed by a huge fire.

“As much as the women and children are now afraid in my country, I am also afraid – the only difference is that I am now safe but they are not,” Zeinab told Al Jazeera.

She fears she may never have the chance to speak or meet her family and friends in Afghanistan.

“I don’t know when I can smile again,” she said.

On August 15, the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, and declared an end to the 20-year war.

The group has pledged to respect women’s rights and says it will not seek to fight with its former adversaries. But many refugee children have followed the news of the takeover with despair.

“I am very sad that my country has fallen into the hands of terrorists. I pray for my country every day. Help us, please,” Husain, a 14-year-old unaccompanied Afghan in Greece, told Al Jazeera.

There are currently more than 2,000 unaccompanied children living in refugee shelters in Greece. Hundreds more are homeless.

Sonia Nandzik, a founder of ReFocus, an initiative that teaches media skills to young refugees on Lesbos, told Al Jazeera that she has seen how world events can trigger trauma in young people.

“The fire in Moria last year triggered traumas that people thought they had forgotten about,” Nandzik said.

“The Taliban taking over Afghanistan is also a trigger. For many refugee children, Afghanistan is a concept that has been brought to their minds and hearts by their parents. Now it is being destroyed,” she said.

Amin, 16, arrived in Greece in 2020 after crossing the border by foot from Turkey.

He became homeless in Athens with his 13-year-old brother; the siblings lost touch with their parents after an attempt to cross the border with Iran.

“My parents were deported back to Afghanistan. We are not in touch with them or anyone else in the country. We lost our closest friends and family,” he said.

Unaccompanied children like Amin worry they might never see their parents again.

Christian Schmidt, spokesman for the refugee rights group Europe Must Act, told Al Jazeera that children need a strong support system, but many are unable to access basic care and education.

In the refugee shelter where Amin now lives with other unaccompanied children, the atmosphere is tense.

“Everyone here is so sad. After everything we have been through, we simply cannot believe this,” Amin said.

Schmidt told Al Jazeera, “Greece and the EU are responsible for guaranteeing unaccompanied minors’ adequate protection through positive recognition of their asylum claims.”

But Greece has said it does not want to accommodate more Afghans.

“We are clearly saying that we will not and cannot be the gateway of Europe for the refugees and migrants who could try to come to the European Union,” Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told state television ERT on Tuesday.

Children like Amin say in the current circumstances, they can only hope that one day, people will be able to live in Afghanistan peacefully.

“We can only wait and pray.”