Aizen – Part 4: Do Good & Throw it in the Sea

After finally reaching Europe, Aizen was back in jail. He had calculated that the journey from Afghanistan to France would take three months. But more than two years later, he was somewhere completely different. Then, finally, his luck started to turn.

This episode was produced by Al Shaibani and edited by Alex Atack and Dana Ballout, with editorial support from Heba El-Sherif. Fact checking was by Eman Elsherif and Deena Sabry, and sound design was by Monzer El Hachem and Paul Alouf. Artwork by Ahmad Salhab. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.

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[Intro sting]


DANA BALLOUT: I’m Dana Ballout and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures.


This is episode four of our Aizen series so if you haven’t listened to our previous three episodes, I would go back and do that to make better sense of this one. 

DANA BALLOUT: What you’re hearing is the annual European Tree of the Year awards – a competition that started more than 10 years ago and it’s organised by the Czech Republic.


And if you heard that audio right, every tree participating in this event has a unique story.


Sixteen countries take part and each one of them puts forward their candidate for ‘Tree of the Year’. It’s like Eurovision or The Voice, but for trees.


And it’s pretty serious: hundreds of thousands of votes come in; the winning tree is voted best based on its story: how it weaves in nature and people. 

Last year, the winning tree was an Oak from Poland but I want to tell you actually not about the winning tree but instead about the runner up. Not even from last year but from 2016. You’ll understand more later. 


It’s a tree known as the ‘1000-year-old lime’ and it’s from a tiny village called Tatobity in the Czech Republic. It’s this massive tree and the star attraction there. And it’s on the village flag and on the coat of arms too. 


Just to give you an idea, its diameter is bigger than a car and the trunk is in the shape of the letter c. It’s hollow and from one side, it’s open so you can go into it like stepping into a room. Kids would play inside it, new mothers would hug it for good luck, and generations of couples have probably gone on dates and made out underneath it. 


But even though it’s called the 1000-year-old-lime, it’s actually not a 1000 years old. It’s around 650 years old. 


When it comes to figuring out how old a tree is – and you might know this already – but you can cut the trunk and count the rings. And each ring represents one year. 


But when it comes to humans, there’s actually no equivalent methodology for telling how old a person is. Like, for example, I’m 35 but how can you be sure? 


ZUZANA PAVELKOVÁ: Until today, there is scientifically no method how you can measure someone’s age really precisely.


DANA BALLOUT: This is Zuzana Pavelková, a lawyer in the Czech Republic.


ZUZANA PAVELKOVÁ: The law officially allows the authorities to use medical evidence or medical methods. There are several ones, and they’re quite complicated.


And then on that basis, they can say, what is the biological age. And then from the biological age, you try to assume what could be the chronological age. 


DANA BALLOUT: Chronological age is the number of years you’ve been alive, while your biological age refers to how old your cells and tissues are based on your health. Goes back to me: I’m 35 but I feel 23.


ZUZANA PAVELKOVÁ: So the biological age tells you how old is the body of this person, right? But that doesn’t need to mean that this also correlates, identically with the chronological age.


So there is also like this huge variance, which can be which I think can be two to three years between what comes out as a result of this assessment and what is the actual age of the person.


DANA BALLOUT: It’s one of those things that stumps authorities when it comes to migrants. Especially when someone arrives without documents or a passport. 


This was the case for Aizen. If you remember when he tried to cross into Bulgaria that first time, the border police took all his belongings, stripped him naked, and burnt everything. One of the things that they burnt is his ID. So he had no documentation to prove his age and this issue is becoming even more pressing as you’ll hear in this episode. 


Over the past three episodes, we’ve followed his journey from Afghanistan through the long smugglers routes that took him through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia.


While he thought it would take him 3 months, two years later, he finally crossed the frontier of the European Union. And he did it on the back of a truck that was carrying tires – crouched and hidden inside a stack of them. He passed through Hungary, through Slovakia until the truck was stopped in the Czech Republic.


This is the fourth and final episode in our series: ‘Aizen – the most unlucky person in the world’. 


Part IV: Do Good & Throw it into the Sea


Producer Al Shaibani takes it from here…


AL SHAIBANI: Czech Republic – more recently rebranded as Czechia – is not a welcoming country to refugees from the Middle East. 

Often, there are racist narratives and news articles about how migrants are criminals, radicals, deviants. I know this because I’m from Czechia. I’ve seen it and heard it around my hometown and on local TV. 


This is the case even though the country isn’t the final destination for refugees – they’re mostly just passing through to Germany, Sweden, France and the rest of Europe.


And so when Aizen arrived there, the police immediately treated him with distrust. 


So this is why we’ve been talking about the importance of identifying age. 


Thing is, if the Czech authorities recognised him as a minor, the government would be obliged to give him access to a whole bunch of services and support as a refugee. It’s EU regulation. Things like education, housing, psychological counselling, social counselling and he wouldn’t have to go through the complicated asylum procedure to apply for a permanent residency. 


If they did not recognise Aizen as a minor, he’d be treated as a criminal.


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): They had like a doubt that I’m not 16. So they took us to hospital to do the test if we were underage or no. They took the… like X-ray.


The results came and they said that you’re between 16 to 18, but we don’t know what’s your actual age. And I was like, I’m 16. So they sent us to this place called Bela Jezova.


AL SHAIBANI: Bela Jezova is a detention centre a couple of hours north of Prague – hidden away in the middle of the forest. It’s an hour by car from my hometown. 


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It was a long drive. 


AL SHAIBANI: It was a police car or what was it…?


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yea, it was a police car. You cannot see outside. You have like the handcuffs in your hand. Like, how can I say? Like professional criminals. 


They bring you food. You cannot go outside. You cannot go out of your room. You just stay in your room. You can see from the window, you just do like: hello! 

AL SHAIBANI: Throughout Aizen’s journey so far, he’d been alone.


Yes, he was always travelling with other refugees and migrants but really, each one was on their own journey and had their own destination. There were friendships and connections made along the way – but staying together wasn’t guaranteed or expected. Each person elbowed their way forward without looking back. 


And yes, he met smugglers and traffickers who helped him but they weren’t people who had his back. 


Same goes for volunteers. There were volunteers at these refugee camps in Serbia that came to help. But when the sun set, he was on his own. 


Czechia is where that started to change. 


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): When we arrive there, it was a Tuesday that they say, oh, now the lawyer is coming. You have to talk with the lawyer and if she can do something for you.


The lawyer was speaking English, which was good. She said to us, “I will try my best to do something for you guys.” 


Her name is Zuzana Pavelkova, Pavelkova… or something like this.

AL SHAIBANI: I went to visit Zuzana in Prague. She’s a senior lawyer at this organisation called OPU (opu for short): the organisation for aid refugees. I wanted to understand why Aizen had been held in detention – and really, what he could do in that situation. 


The office was in a modest 3-storey building in a quiet neighbourhood. It was the beginning of September when the last flashes of summer would come in with heavy rain. It was a particularly wet day – you can hear the storm from inside where we were recording.


ZUZANA PAVELKOVÁ: So my name is Zuzana Pavelková and I do legal counselling. I go to detention centres every week and I provide people who are there with legal counselling.


When a person comes to Czech Republic without any documents which they could use to prove their age, there is really no clear legal framework on how to proceed in order to establish what is the age of this person. And the authorities tend to be really suspicious, let’s say. Especially when it comes to people from the Middle East.


AL SHAIBANI: And just like in Afghanistan, they didn’t believe he was a minor. Remember, back in Kabul, they did this ‘botched’ age test and claimed he was 18 when in fact he was only 16. 

He was – again – in the same scenario, held in detention.


ZUZANA PAVELKOVÁ: By law, the police is allowed to detain people when they believe, when they have some reasonable grounds to believe they are not minors.


And in his case, the bone test was saying that the biological age is 19. And I think that’s also another question: can you use these methods on actually, you know, population or young people from the Middle East? Because these methods were developed primarily on white, US population in the 1950s.


And I also remember that the Czech police was kind of even more suspicious because then they were saying, “We don’t trust you, that you’re actually from Afghanistan. We think you are from Russia or from Ukraine, because you don’t look Afghan to us.”


AL SHAIBANI: This method of determining age is actually from the 1960s and is based on X-rays of the left hand, wrist and fingers. But it’s wildly unreliable. 


Yet the Czech authorities still use it. If they determine you’re underage, you get 100% protection and if the next day, you turn 18, you get nothing.


Based on this assessment, Aizen could have been deported back to the first European country he was registered in: Bulgaria. 


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I was scared and nervous. Cause sending back to Bulgaria all the way that you came and sending back, I was like… “What is going on?”


And yeah, we talk with the lawyer and the lawyer said, “I will try my best cause you are underage, so I will not let them deport you.”


AL SHAIBANI: Zuzana was fighting in Aizen’s corner. 


She began filing legal papers and challenges on his behalf. And while all that was percolating through the judicial system, Aizen was in that detention centre. Waiting …in a building in the middle of a nameless forest, shielded behind trees, away from the Czech population. 


ZUZANA PAVELKOVÁ: So they are put in detention and they pretend the person, I don’t know, like disappears. Right?


And the police will always say, “We’re not punishing people. It’s not punishment.” Because they haven’t committed a crime. Even, you know, according to Czech law coming without papers: it’s not a crime, it’s just a misdemeanour. And so it’s, it’s an administrative offence at maximum and the police says, “No, we’re not punishing them. This is an administrative measure so that we can do further steps in their kind of residence status situation.”


So we were, so basically, working on two things at the same time. So one thing was trying to get him out of the detention centre and then stopped the transfer to Bulgaria.

AL SHAIBANI: There was an odd sense of community that developed between the diverse detainees in that centre. There was a group of middle aged Ukrainian women, a queer Brazilian couple, and other migrants too. One of the Brazilians was a hairdresser and would style the womens hair for them each day despite the language barrier.  


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): We become friends; we don’t even understand each other language but we just become friends. 


Like we are waiting every day for them to come and call our names, say who is free and who is not. 


ZUZANA PAVELKOVÁ: And then I just remember one day coming in the detention centre and people kind of playing volleyball over the fence, you know, and it was like such a weird image because in some way it was like, it gave this impression of some chill, summer afternoon.


But it was also so strange to see people playing sports over, over this fence. So it was just like this really some kind of a very bizarre image. And this is what I actually remember.


AL SHAIBANI: The detention centre feels like one of those ‘in between’ places – like the narrow strip of grass between two sides of a highway. It’s a place that has its own rules and ambiguity at the same time. It’s transient but feels like forever too. 


And the friendships there were also transient.


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I say to all my friends, the guys and girls there: you will go today, you will go tomorrow, I will be the only one staying. In this day, all of our friends, like all the boys and girls at my age, she said all of their name without me and I was like, “What is going on? Why just me?”


I was so depressed, like don’t have anything to do. Alone, like more than half of the time alone. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Then a group of girls came – Ukrainian. They were not speaking English, not even a word. So it was a bit weird; 


One day one of them told me she likes me. I was like “Oh ok, thank you.” we were using the translator she say I like you and I say, “Ah thank you.”


She was so nice, she was like kinda my best friend. And then at her last night, she was leaving at the morning so she was hugging me and she was talking to me. And when she left, her best friend that was with her in the same room, she also told me that she also like me. I was like, “Wait, what the hell is going on?” 


AL SHAIBANI: Not even detention centres can stop the magic of a teenage crush.


And the magic didn’t stop there. One day, one of the Ukrainian women got stung by a bee. 


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): She was in pain, she was crying. And I told her, “I will do something, but if you have belief.” She was like, “Yeah, I believe in God.” 


I say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim or whatever you are, just believe that what I do.” She was like, “Yeah, okay. Just do.” So I read dua for her. If I read dua, you will not feel pain. 


AL SHAIBANI: Dua is an Arabic word that means a prayer where you ask for something. 


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): After two hours, she came to me and they all came to me like, she said all to the people and they come to me and they were like, “What you did?”


I didn’t do anything! I just read the dua and say you will be fine. 


And they were like, do you have something? I was like, “I don’t have anything. I’m a normal human. [Laughs] They were like, “No, how this can work?” 


I was like, “I don’t know, but it works.” 


AL SHAIBANI: This group started to believe Aizen has some mystical powers. They started to ask him to predict the future – asking when each of them would get released. 


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I was like, “Come on. I’m not…” And also the other lady say, “You said to all your friends that you all leave but you will stay, how will you know?” I was like, “I just say something because I feel this, I know my luck.”


She said, “When we will go?” I just looked to all of them like, you will go first. Wallah brother tomorrow, they said, “You are leaving.” [Laughs]


It was so funny. I just choose her, you know, between all of them. She was looking nice. I was like, “Yeah, you’ll be the first one to leave.”


AL SHAIBANI: Aizen, the mystic, the only remaining guy in the detention centre, was held for weeks. He didn’t know how long he’d be there, what would happen to him, or why he was the only one who wasn’t being let go.


And without a phone, none of his family, his friends, his contacts knew where he was or what happened to him.


Except for Zuzana, the lawyer.


Then one day, Aizen received a call on the pay phone in the detention centre.


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I received the call and they said “Hello!” And I was like, “Who the hell is she?” Cause I know, I don’t know anyone who speak English and call me in here, like while I’m in the prison or in detention centre. 


She was like, “I’m Anežka.” She was volunteer. She was helping refugees.


ANEŽKA POLÁŠKOVÁ: My name is Anežka. I’m 39 years old and in the free time I volunteer with refugees. 


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): She was like, “Your lawyer told me that there is three Afghans that they don’t have anyone in Czech Republic. If you need anything, tell me. This is my number. You can call me anytime you want.”


ANEŽKA POLÁŠKOVÁ: And first he told me, “I really don’t need anything. Don’t send me anything. I’m really okay. Thank you for your offer, but it’s okay.” 

AL SHAIBANI: Anežka and I met in this loud cafe in central Prague. She has a gentle smile and a soft youthfulness about her. 


She had shoulder length straight dark hair and wore a black cardigan. She kept pulling her sleeves into her hands while we spoke. 


ANEŽKA POLÁŠKOVÁ: Anyway, I send him some sweets because, yeah, it’s nice. Nobody knew for how long he will be arrested. So, yes, for the first contact, I just wanted to show him I mean it seriously, I really want to help him.


I try to call him maybe two or three times a week, or he called me also when he was like bored or … And I was surprised from the first contact with him how he speaks English.


AL SHAIBANI: Anežka and her friends would visit the detention centres from time to time. These volunteers would go around Czechia to see the newly arrived migrants and check if they needed anything and then sent them care packages. 


ANEŽKA POLÁŠKOVÁ: Usually we send some sweets there, chocolate, biscuits, coffee, tea, this and the Maggie soups, you know, what is it? The noodle soups, Chinese noodle soups, and during Ramadan we send also dates and much more better food.


AL SHAIBANI: Two months. 


Two months passed and Aizen was still in there – he picked up some Czech and Ukrainian because no one spoke English. 


The bureaucratic, judicial system that Zuzana was fighting was slow and viscous. Each day, the courts would close by 5pm and if his name wasn’t called, his hope of getting free flickered. 


Remember, he had just spent over a year in Serbia trying to cross into the EU and now, having finally made it, he was in jail. Again.


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It’s five o’clock. I’m playing cards with these girls. We are all sitting and playing cards, and I see that nobody’s calling my name so I was like, “You’re here forever. You’re done”


The lady who was working there, she say, “Go pack your bag.” I was like, “What are you talking about? Go pack your bag, what do you mean?” I saw all the girls already pack my clothes, they know before me that I’m leaving. So they bring my clothes and stuff. They all hug me and say, “We are happy you are going.” The old girls, the young, all … even a lady crying like… why are you crying?


And they already call Anežka as well. They say Anežka is already waiting for you there.  


ZUZANA PAVELKOVÁ: Usually what happens is that, you know, the person gets released from the detention centre. They get like some small pocket money, which is just enough to get to Prague, but then they would be left with nothing. 


And I think this really shows the irrationality of the system that the police puts people in the detention because they say we cannot allow that someone without papers is, you know, running around the Schengen area and, you know, in the decisions you will always read, like how this person was irresponsible and violating moral norms of Czech Republic and blah, blah, blah. 


Okay, so they’re put in the detention and then, they are released and the police does like nothing happens.


They don’t even say, “Oops, sorry.” So the person is simply, you know, like put behind the gate of the detention centre and if they’re lucky and the social workers have time, maybe they will bring them to the next train station. And that’s pretty much it.


AL SHAIBANI: It was that abrupt. Zuzana had won the legal challenge to stop the deportation and to get Aizen out. She told me how when it comes to minors, they win 90% of cases. 


And now, Aizen had 30 days where he could stay in Czech Republic legally – the argument being that would be enough time to apply for asylum or to organise his travels to leave the country.

AL SHAIBANI: From that detention centre, Aizen went to Prague Central Station where he met Anežka.


That was actually Anežka’s main volunteering role and how it all started. She was swept up by the news of all the refugees passing through Prague back in 2015 and ever since has organised with her friends to be at the main station.


She goes there and with the donations would help refugees find accommodation for one night or help them buy train tickets onwards to Germany. 


So Anežka met Aizen there for the first time. Before, they were only talking on the pay phone. With her, she brought a pair of football shoes.


ANEŽKA POLÁŠKOVÁ: When he got out of the train – it was nice. He had the long sleeve from me, which I sent him to the detention centre by post and… 


He was still smiling. He was so thankful for everything. He was extremely thankful and he was still repeating me that he will never, never forget what I did for him, but I told him it’s just sending chocolates to the detention centre. It’s nothing but yeah.


When he was talking about these football shoes, his eyes were shining as a children eyes during Christmas.


AL SHAIBANI: Anežka has been going to that central station almost every day since 2015. She’s met countless refugees and migrants over the years. But I wanted to know why she remembers Aizen. Of all the people, why him? 


ANEŽKA POLÁŠKOVÁ: He’s, yeah, he’s really unique. A kind of boy, you very quickly get in friendship with him because yeah, there is some special energy. 


And for me, it was also a nice moment when we met at the train station or the day he was released because it was day of my birthday and yes, so I told him I got you as a gift. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.


When I told it’s my birthday today, the day he was released. First, he was a little bit angry because he told me why you didn’t tell me that before, because we should celebrate this birthday and I must send you some gift or I must greet you again this day of your birthday next year. So I will never, I will never forget this day.



AL SHAIBANI: Through Zuzana the lawyer – Aizen filed a lawsuit against the Czech government for detaining him even though he was a minor. This legal challenge is asking for €2,000 compensation for the almost two months he spent, held in that centre, in the middle of nowhere, amidst the trees of Czech forests without his phone, without support and without knowing what will happen to him. 


His case isn’t unique. Zuzana told me that they see about 100 – 150 minors eacg year. 


ZUZANA PAVELKOVÁ: Human rights of refugees, and all migrants in Czech Republic and generally in EU are being violated on a really massive scale.


The people who come here are really not welcomed and that what they have to go through is fighting all kinds of battles, all kinds of legal battles, all kinds of battles in their daily life. And that we can do differently. We could create a Europe, which is really welcoming and which is open and which supports these people instead of punishing them for coming here.


AL SHAIBANI: It was August 2020 when Aizen got free. 


Finally, he can go to France. Finally, his destination was a train ride away. Finally, his luck had started to shift. 


He first went to Berlin where a volunteer he met in Serbia hosted him. He thought about staying in Germany but at the time, the German government was deporting Afghans back to Kabul so he didn’t want to risk it. 


He stuck with the original plan and bought a ticket to Paris. 


Remember, he had planned for this journey to take 3 months. More than a year and a half later, he was almost there.


After the break… Aizen and I meet for the first time. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): From the first time I arrived. The smell in the… like when you come out of the station, you see the people, yeah? It looks like Afghanistan. I was like, “Hell no, not gonna stay in here.”


Yeah, like the people, the way that they sell cigarettes in front of the stations. It’s totally like Afghanistan. 


AL SHAIBANI: This is the first time I’ve heard anyone compare Paris with Afghanistan. But then again, Aizen is a dramatic teenager.


Yes, he loves football and anime but he hates a lot of things: he hates loud laughter, he hates when someone doesn’t text him back quickly. He hates cars and he hates pasta.


He hated France. 


In spite of that, he tried to apply for asylum there. It was his destination for the past year and half because one of his neighbours from Afghanistan emigrated there years ago and planted the idea.


And now that he was in the country, the way to apply for asylum was to call a number to register with the authorities.  


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Call the number more than 100 times, they didn’t pick up. You just go, ding, ding, ding, ding, I’m like okay… My friend said the only other option is to stay in this tent, that people stay in Paris.


They will, the police will come evict you, take you to the camps place hotels. Then you can ask asylum. That’s the second way. And I was like, “Hell no I’m staying in these tents.”

AL SHAIBANI: Then his cousin suggested: why don’t you head to the UK? 


By that point Aizen had seen how dire the situation was for refugees in Paris and besides, he spoke English already. Aizen quickly agreed.


But what that meant is trying to cross the Channel to reach the UK – a 240 km wide stretch of water, busy with cargo ships. 


And to do that, there are two options.


The first is to cross by boat. This is something smugglers coordinate from the northern coast of France where they pack refugees into small boats and try to cross late at night to avoid being spotted by the maritime authorities. 


The hub for refugees trying by boat is the town of Dunkirk. This option is expensive so in Dunkirk, you find refugees that have saved up or come from middle class backgrounds that can afford this. 


The second option is to cross by sneaking into a truck or car that is headed to the UK through the Channel tunnel. 


The hub for refugees trying by truck is the town of Calais – where the tunnel entrance is. This option is free – no smugglers are involved – but extremely risky. If you see Calais today, large fences and barbed wire barriers and police and border patrols give the area a really militaristic feel. 


Refugees who have no money, no other option, no smuggler network go to Calais. It got so big that at one point, more than 8,000 refugees camped near the town, trying to cross using these trucks and cars. It became known as the Calais Jungle – a name laden with xenophobia and racism. 


Aizen, with no money, headed there.


HENRY AMOR: The situation in Calais, yeah, it’s an incredibly complex one.


AL SHAIBANI: This is Henry Amor, who was the Operations Coordinator of a charity called Care4Calais between 2020 and 2022. 


HENRY AMOR: We go out into the field, we find the migrants, the refugees in Calais and we provide direct assistance to them. 


That can range from anything from t-shirts, socks, boxers to tents, and sleeping bags to food items, including food packs, snack packs. And we also provide a lot of different services to the guys in Calais.


So we give them an opportunity to charge their phone. This is probably one of the most important things for the guys there is their phone for many of them is their life. That’s how they keep in touch with their friends back home, their family back home. It’s how they keep in touch with each other in France.


AL SHAIBANI: Calais and Dunkirk are not official refugee camps. The French government a few years ago tore down the Calais Jungle and evicted the migrants from their shanty settlement.


Now, refugees are scattered under bridges, near train tracks, in the forests – huddled in soaking sleeping bags, relying on aid organisations to survive. 


The area is full of refugees from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Sudan. The French police – jointly funded by the UK government – have a mandate of evicting these refugees from their tents on a regular basis. 


HENRY AMOR: It’s a mass operation. Sometimes, you know, dozens if not hundreds of police officers involved, encroaching out on these sites to take away everyone’s belongings and often to put them on coaches to send them to other parts of France. So there’s not an opportunity for people to, to get away. There’s not an opportunity for people to pack up their stuff. It’s a completely arbitrary process just there to remind them that they’re not welcome. 

AL SHAIBANI: This is where I met Aizen. 


Ironically, even though he was detained in Czech Republic just an hour away from my hometown, I had no idea who he was back then. But later that year, in December 2020, I went to Calais to volunteer at the refugee sites. 


It’s an issue that is close to my heart: I was born in Baghdad, in Iraq, but through my mom I have Czech citizenship too. My Iraqi-Czech mix has shown me the privilege of having the ‘right’ passport – whatever that means. The privilege of being able to travel without thought. The privilege to get a visa or to get work without fuss. 


So I went to Calais to volunteer. And as soon as I got there, everyone kept telling me there’s this teenager that I just had to meet. 


Aizen was volunteering with the same organisation and the first time we met, we were sorting through tents that had been donated. We immediately became friends and we spoke some Czech, things he picked up from his time in detention. 


HENRY AMOR: I think this is one of the hardest parts of of working there is you get to know these people, they become your friends. You have such a close connection with them. And every now and again you’re reminded of quite how morbid the situation is. The reality is there, you know, young girls that we were playing football with in Dunkirk, one day, two days later, their body washing up on the shore.


Calais will always find a way to remind you of what the reality is there. 


AL SHAIBANI: Aizen tried to cross to the UK in a boat a couple of times. In the dead of night, him and a group of refugees were put in an overcrowded dinghy by the smuggler. But the motor wouldn’t start. It was cold, wet, and the weight was too much. 


A few people volunteered to get off the boat to ease the load. Aizen was one of them. As soon as he got off, the engine started. Another sign he was unlucky, that he was the problem, he thought. 


And so Aizen decided to stick with the other option: through land, on trucks. 


By night, he’d try to cross to the UK and by day, he’d volunteer his time. 

Nikiko dar dariya bendaz. Do good and throw it into the sea. 

HENRY AMOR: He might spend all of his night trying to cross to the UK and he would still be messaging me in the morning saying, “Hey, what’s up? How can I help today? Is there anything I can do to help? Like what time should I arrive at the warehouse? Can I assist with distributions today?” 


There is something about him that is distinctive, and it’s not just the fact that he doesn’t necessarily look physically like a traditional or, you know, typical Afghan guy. 


It’s so apparent with him when you first meet how good his heart is. I think he wears it on his sleeve and he’s very, he’s a very passionate person, you know, and you see that in how caring is, and you also see it flare up when he plays football sometimes.


You know, I’ve seen him get a bit angry playing football, never to a point where it was escalating, but, you know, “What are you doing? Pass me the ball. Come on.”


It’s something I loved playing and we used to spend a lot of time kicking a football round together, playing Keepy-uppies or, I know, we call it No Down, No Down, where you’ve gotta keep the ball in the air for as long as possible. We’d spend hours doing that.

There’s an amazing picture from Calais. It’s me, Aizen, and a Sudanese guy playing No Down. So the keeping the football in the air game, and the sun is setting in the background, the sky is this beautiful pink colour and we’re just, I think for an hour or two, we were just playing this, this game of football without, you know, it felt for that time, like none of us had a care in the world.


You know, I think that’s one of the reasons I love his passion for football so much is when he’s playing football, you can see – it’s almost like a weight’s been lifted off his shoulders. You know, you feel like you are getting the, the real Aizen there without, you know, he can have a 10 minute, 30 minute, hour long session where all those thoughts that must be rattling around his head all the time are just sort of, they disappear temporarily and he can just be in the moment playing football.


AL SHAIBANI: Football was his escape in Calais just like in Kabul, Afghanistan. I’d like to go back to something Aizen said in the very first episode of this series. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): When I play football, I forgot everything. Like I’m not in this world, I’m somewhere else. Like I don’t care about anything else. Like I forgot that I have family. I forgot that I’m in which country.


I forgot where I am going or what’s gonna happen to me. Just the only thing that, and sometimes I say football is the only thing that makes me happy.

AL SHAIBANI: August passed, September too. October and November, then December came. 2020 wrapped up and he was still in cold, wet, rainy Calais. That winter was brutal. I remember being there and unable to get the cold out of my bones. And I would see refugees who were shivering nonstop for hours.


January and February were harsh. March too. Europe was in its 2nd or 3rd wave of Covid restrictions. Aizen was still trying to cross. 


And then one day, in April, he saw a Range Rover that was being transported on top of a truck… He went up to it and tried the passenger door of the Range Rover. It was open so he snuck in. 


AL SHAIBANI: It was a car on top of, on the truck?


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, there were two cars on the truck. Like they check every car that go inside. They didn’t check this at all. They didn’t check it. So the car travel a lot. Go, go, go and we were so bored, like “Where is this car going?” 


Like I was reading the marks.


AL SHAIBANI: Like the signs? 


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Where is going? They say, London this way, this, this way. I text Henry. 


HENRY AMOR: I remember I was sat at my flat, I think we were watching a football match. I think it was Leicester City playing in the community shield or something. And I got a message from Aizen saying I’m in the UK and so I said, “What’d you mean you’re in the UK?” And he sent me his location and he was on the Euro tunnel tracks in the UK. And I remember just… I don’t remember, actually, I don’t remember what I did. I just remember sort of so many emotions running over me because I think by this point I’d known him for six or seven months and he’d become a very close friend of mine.


So I started to message some of the volunteers and past volunteers and our team in call, and anyone I could think of who, who’d met Aizen on his journey, just letting him know that he’d made it, he was safe for now and hopefully everything, you know, was good for the time being, at least.


AL SHAIBANI: And he ended up crossing in a Range Rover!


HENRY AMOR: It’s, it’s so Aizen.


Yeah. If he’s gonna cross, he’s gonna cross in style. Exactly. Yeah.

AL SHAIBANI: It was April 2021 when Aizen finally crossed into the UK.


The car stopped at a McDonalds in Reading, just outside London, where he and the other refugee snuck out. There, they saw a group of food delivery drivers hanging around on their motorcycles. Aizen asked them to use their phone to call Henry and when that group heard that they had just crossed the channel from France, they were completely shocked. They immediately offered to take them home to rest and eat food for the night. Aizen politely declined. 


Henry had coordinated a taxi to take Aizen to London to the house of a volunteer he knew from Calais. During that hour-long taxi ride, the driver – an immigrant from Pakistan – also heard the story. He made a detour along the way, and bought Aizen a pizza and a can of Coke. 


And this is where we are now. In our first episode, we started with Aizen watching his hero Lionel Messi in his Kabul kitchen. More than two years, ten countries and 10,000kms later, I would be sitting with Aizen, watching Messi win the 2022 World Cup final in my London living room. We cheered, we hugged, we celebrated.

AL SHAIBANI: Over the past two years, I’ve gotten to know Aizen more and more and I keep hearing parts of his story that surprise me, that make me laugh, that fill me with sorrow. But through all of it, it’s his strength and kindness and humour that stand out.


From the boy he befriended in Turkey and taught him football tricks, to the officials in Serbia that he helped do translation work for; from the poetry he was writing in prison in Afghanistan; to the group of Ukrainian women who thought he had mystical powers in Czechia.


It’s a generosity that he carries with him and plants everywhere he goes. 


I want to go back to that tree you heard about at the start of the episode. The 1,000 year old lime in Tatobity, in Czech Republic.


It’s the village that my grandmother is from and we go to that tree every time I visit. It’s become an important ritual every time I go home. The tree is so big that I’ve stopped noticing if it’s gotten any bigger. It’s one of those constants in my life, a beautiful giant of the community.


In the 1950s, a lightning storm struck the tree and split it in half. The locals quickly built a steel band around the remaining half to hold it together. The tree survived and you can still see that band today. 


The part that fell down, it landed in a neighbour’s garden and that chunk rotted away because no one could bring themselves to chop it for firewood. 


That 1,000 year old lime holds within it so much resilience and wisdom and stories. I love that tree. And I see a lot of Aizen in that tree. 


How they have grown through wars and conflicts, through storms and harsh winters. How they’ve survived the assaults of weather and people and yet continue to flower time after time. 


No matter how thunderous things got. A resilience that’s rooted in giving


Over time, a group of people who love and care and tend for them have come around and built a support network. 


Aizen and this tree both stand tall with a wisdom that they carry alongside the question of how old they are. 


AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Like, I’m kind of old, but still not that old, but I have like a mind of a hundred years old. Cause I see a lot of things in my life that nobody see … 


And it’s just weird and I don’t think it’s good or bad. But I don’t know. It’s just something that I experience. 


Sometimes I think when people tell, like telling me that, “Oh, you’re wise and stuff.” I’m like, maybe that’s the reason. Cause I had a hard time that made my mind like bam and I … I dunno.

DANA BALLOUT: Aizen is currently in London where he has applied for asylum and is still waiting for the outcome of that application. In a few weeks, we’ll come back to Aizen’s story and follow up on his status. 


AL SHAIBANI: So it is July 19th, 2022. It is the hottest day of the year…


DANA BALLOUT: Zuzana is still a lawyer at OPU – the organisation for aid of refugees in Czechia.


The lawsuit that she filed against the Czech government on behalf of Aizen – the one to get €2000 compensation for being detained as a minor – that lawsuit has been rejected by the courts. 


Anežka is still in Prague, volunteering regularly at the central station, helping refugees find their way. In fact, one of the minors who was with Aizen in detention ended up deciding to stay in Czechia and apply for asylum there. He was accepted and now lives with Anežka where she registered herself as his guardian. 


Henry wrapped up his time in Calais and moved to Cairo, Egypt, last year where he now works at the United Nations. 


This episode was produced by Al Shaibani and edited by Alex Atack and me, Dana Ballout. 


Fact checking was by Deena Sabry and Eman El Sherif. Sound design was by Monzer El Hachem and Paul Alouf.


Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.


Thanks for listening. See you next week.