refugees

'We're Not Living, We're Just Alive': Hazara Teens Struggle With Life on the Streets

Afghan asylum seekers are trapped in a never-ending purgatory as Western nations try to shut them out.

by Claire Molloy
02 August 2017, 11:59am

All photos by author

Ali Khan Khashei was finishing his last drop of tea at a small warung in Central Jakarta when the conversation took an uncomfortable turn. The owner looked at Ali and the two other Hazara boys who frequent his restaurant and asked where they were from. "Afghanistan," the boys replied. The man told them all to return to Afghanistan and fight alongside the Taliban.

If they die, he said, God will thank them all for their service.

The boys went silent during the man's lecture. They stared at their feet in that way all teenagers do, occasionally nodding their heads in awkward agreement. When he finished speaking, they got up, thanked him, and left. Outside, Ali and the boys simmered with a quiet sense of defeat.

"To me the Taliban are terrorists," Ali told me. "They will kill me if I go back. But I have to tell him, 'you are right,' even though I don't think so. So that there will be no problem for us."

Ali and the other boys know exactly how terrible the Taliban can be. They are all Hazara, one of the most-persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Ali was born in Iran to a family of Hazara refugees who fled violence in Ghazni, a mountainous region about 150 kilometers south of Kabul in central Afghanistan, decades ago.

When Ali was deported from Iran for attempting to work without a visa, his parents convinced him to flee Afghanistan as well. But instead of trying to return to Iran, Ali would flee in the opposite direction, heading toward the cities of Southeast Asia where he could apply for asylum and resettlement in the West.


Ali Khan Khashei sits outside a warung in Central Jakarta. All photos by author

He spent only 10 days in Afghanistan—a country that never got better for the Hazara people. They're Shia Muslims in a Sunni land, an ethnic group who has more in common with Mongolians than the South Asian Pashtuns who represent the largest percentage of Afghanistan's population. In Afghanistan, differences like these can be deadly.

The Taliban and ISIS have both been linked to numerous attacks specifically targeting the Hazara community. In 2015, seven Hazaras were nearly beheaded, by radical Islamist militants, their bodies dumped on the streets of Ghazni. The killings set off a wave of anger and protest, in large part because they were just the latest in a series of brutalities that show no signs of ending.

The history of the Hazara people is a tragic story of marginalization, persecution, and violence that, in the past, bordered on genocide. At one time, nearly half of Afghanistan was Hazara. Today, that figure is closer to 20 percent after more than a century of violence drove the country's Hazara people from their homes.

Here in Indonesia, Hazara asylum seekers make up a large percent of the more than 14,000 people currently registered with the UN refugee agency—UNHCR. Indonesia is not a signatory of the 1951 UN convention on refugees, meaning that the country only serves as a waypoint for asylum seekers, not a final destination. But Indonesia doesn't offer asylum seekers the right to work. And the wait for potential resettlement—always chance, not a guarantee—has stretched even longer as countries struggle to deal with a global refugee population in excess of 22 million.

Resettlement from Indonesia to a third country can take as long as 10 years. But even then, less than 1 percent for the global refugee population is resettled in a new country. And as countries like the United States continue to battle over whether to admit these refugees for resettlement, asylum seekers like Ali and his friends remain trapped in a limbo with no clear end in sight.

I found them outside the UNCHR building in Kebon Sirih, a relatively diverse, middle class neighborhood in Central Jakarta. Ali was one of the 30 or so Afghans who sleep on the streets. Most rely on the occasional handout or act of charity. But they all sleep together on foam mats and cardboard, some huddled beneath tattered mosquito nets, on the streets at night.

The stress is too much for some of the kids. There's a disturbing amount self-harm among this tight crew of teenage boys that live outside the UNHCR building. Razor blade scars, straight pink lines etched into flesh, and cigarette burns were a common sight during the three days I spent with Ali and his friends. One of the boys, who wished to remain anonymous, showed me fresh wounds crossing the hashmark of scar tissue covering most of his bicep.

"When I think about my situation, my family, how I am wasting my life, I do this," he explained. "[But] now when I do it, I don't feel anything."

He was just one of the teenage asylum seekers I met who struggled to cope with the long delays. The insurmountable wait has taken its toll, emotionally and physically, on many of the young Afghan refugees living on the streets of Kebon Sirih. With no options for work or school, endless days can feel debilitating.

Ali wondered if he should've even come to Indonesia. He fled Afghanistan aboard a flight to India, then a second to Malaysia. But once he landed in Malaysia, a people smuggler convinced him to continue on to Indonesia, where the queues were shorter—but the UNHCR office was also much smaller.

"I wanted to go back to Iran but I couldn't," Ali told me. "[He] said Indonesia is better than Malaysia. The process is shorter there."

What the smuggler did not tell him was that without a chance to work, Ali would end up homeless in a matter of years. In Malaysia, it's also illegal for asylum seekers to work without a visa, but the authorities turn a blind eye and most can find work in the construction or service industries.

Now Ali asked aloud if he should just return to Malaysia, before changing his mind. "If I go there I will have to start at zero," he said.

A common concern among the anti-refugee crowd in the West is whether or not an influx of refugees will forever change their own local culture. But, even here on the streets of a Southeast Asian megacity, the boys seemed like, well... boys. Ali and his friends spent the day sitting on a small mat listening to "Despacito" on a smartphone. They were always on their phones, either listening to music or idling playing games like Clash of Clans or 8 Pool.

The rancid smell of old fish oil wafted down the street, causing the boys to cover their noses with their shirts. One of them, 18-year-old Mohammad Reza Bahadori, carefully folded a UNHCR complaint form into a paper airplane and a small boat, handing the homemade toys to the smaller children so they could play.

Reza writes two letters to UNHCR every single week. Every letter is the same. He pleads with the staff to speed up his resettlement process, or, at least, provide them with some food and shelter. He's done this every single week for three years. But nothing, he said, ever changes.

"We're not living, we're just alive," Ali remarked.

In the morning, Ali and Reza hosed down a small stretch of the sidewalk for a woman who lets them sleep outside in exchange for the occasional chores. They used the hose to clean their face and hands and fill up small water bottles. Ali told me that he is only able to afford an actual shower once a week, using the facilities at a nearby public restroom for Rp 5,000 ($0.37 USD).

Another teenager, Muhammad Yussea Hakimi, brushed the hair of his 5-year-old sister Zahra. Yussea spent two years in Indonesia alone before his mother and younger sister joined him—all of them sleeping at night on the same foam mat covered with characters from the Disney movie Frozen. Their blue mosquito net is actually just a sheer sheet full of holes.

Yussea's mother, Fatma, 38, was checking her young daughter's arms for mosquito bites as we spoke. She told me that it's hard to get more than a few hours sleep each night with the buzz of the mosquitos and the constant sound of cars and motorcycles driving by mere inches from from their feet.

That evening the rains began. Ali and the other boys scrambled to protect their stuff. They gathered together the backpacks, bags, and mats; hiding them under plastic tarps. A few of the boys gathered up the cardboard used for beds and hid it underneath a small shed to keep it dry. The once bustling street emptied out as Ali and his friends ran to find shelter on the steps of a nearby warung.

"If it rains, we don't sleep," Ali said. Some nights the rains don't stop and Ali has to spend the entire night standing underneath the warung's small awning, just waiting.

Yussea came back with a broken umbrella he found on the street. He shredded a piece of a plastic into tiny strands, knotting the fabric together at the end of each metal point.

All around them, daily life in Jakarta, a city of more than 10 million, continued on as normal. Jakarta, to most outsiders, is a surprisingly safe place, a sprawling urban megacity that's equal parts grime and glitz where violent crime rates are far less than in the cities of the US.

But life is different for Ali and the boys of Kebon Sirih. Few trust their Indonesian neighbors, preferring instead to keep their distance and maintain as low a profile as possible. Ali told me that one of his friends was stabbed after refusing to move from his spot on the sidewalk. The boys are often approached at night by older men offering to pay them for sex, Ali explained. Each time, the boys politely refuse.

But Ali's fear began years ago, when local teenagers told Ali and his Hazara friends that they couldn't observe Muharrum, a holiday mourning the death of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala.

"They told us when we see you on the road we will beat you and punch you," Ali said. "That's why we kind to them. Even when they say bad things to us, we say ok. We have to because we have no choice. They can make life worse for us."

The boys formed a tight clique and they look out for each other. Every night they take shifts sleeping so that someone is always watching their stuff. They share whatever money or food they have so that everyone is able to eat. Most of them were just kids when they traveled to Indonesia completely alone. But, together, they were able to create an unconventional family of sorts that loves and cares for one another. But this life, they told me, is not what they want.

"Last night I dreamt about Australia," Yussea said. "It was amazing, I did not want to wake up."