R is a deeply troubled young man. He looks smaller, shrunken somehow since the last time I saw him. His delicate Hazara features betray a deep well of suffering, his shoulders have begun to slump from carrying its load. He confirms he's lost weight, and his hair has begun to grey. He's 24 years old.
I first met this softly spoken, sensitive soul at a Greek refugee camp this February. His story was heartbreaking yet relatively commonplace in such an environment. Having graduated from an Afghan university with a degree in English, R hoped to become a teacher. He soon realized this was impossible. Stories began to reach him of other young graduates who had travelled home only to be immediately intercepted and murdered by the Taliban. An infestation throughout the scarred country, these fundamentalists have a particular stranglehold in R's home province, with their eyes on anyone deemed to be promoting Western values. Added to the real threat of death, work in Afghanistan is scarce: Trading Economics.com places unemployment at 40%, the fourth highest in the world.
R was travelling with a group of other Afghans, who clung to each other amidst the hellish conditions and in the face of animosity from the majority of Iraqis and Syrians in the Greek camps. I stayed in contact with him via Facebook, and a few weeks ago was amazed to see posts of him with the Reichstag as a backdrop. I had no idea how he'd made it out of Greece with seemingly little money, with all borders closed and in the face of chronic obfuscation from asylum agencies.
I met him in a cafe outside a railway station in the centre of Berlin. We embraced and I ushered him to a seat, offering him a drink, which he accepted after some badgering (R is polite and humble to an almost chaste degree).
He began to open up to me in his mostly fluent, idiosyncratic English. Around a month after I'd left, R and a group of 30 other Afghans had been smuggled into the Macedonian mountains. The smuggler had dropped them there and scarpered, leaving the group to make their own way across the wilderness with meagre provisions of food. Two weeks had passed and R was almost resigned to starvation, when the smuggler finally reappeared with food and directions.
From there the group began to disband. Travelling on foot, some opted to stay in Albania, while others continued north to Croatia. It was here that they were captured by the police and placed in a closed prison camp. R feared for the worst. He knew he'd already struggle to assimilate and find work wherever he'd settle; with a criminal record, his odds were virtually nil.
After being quizzed in an interrogation room, officers instructed him to go to another room where his details and fingerprints would be taken. Briefly left alone, R acted quickly, burning his passport before setting off down the corridor, where he continued without stopping into the yard. He then strolled past the gate with as much self-assurance as he could muster, before picking up into a sprint once he was on the road and out of sight.
Alone for the first time, R now began a three-month journey across Europe via train, bus and on foot, culminating in his smuggling into Germany, which he managed after a few attempts. He's now under the care of the German government who are putting him up in flats and hotels while his asylum claim is processed. He can't work for nine months nor do anything except learn German. For a young man who's spent most of his life learning English in the hope of teaching it, this must be pretty galling. But he puts on as brave a face as his short, pained life allows him.