In 2010, when Nurzai was eight years old, a shoot-out at the Afghan-Iranian border separated him from his family. It was late at night, and Nurzai, his parents, his older brother, and his sister were trying to cross into Iran by automobile. Instead of being met by border guards, they found themselves negotiating with smugglers.
“They told us to get out of the car and walk,” says Nurzai. “We had been warned by the smuggler’s own henchmen that he was a thief and might kidnap children, even if we paid him . . . we thought that if we ran for it we might escape. They opened fire, spraying bullets everywhere. . . Everyone else ended up in one group and I was on my own.”
Nurzai, who prefers not to reveal his real name and hometown, is now a demure, soft-spoken fourteen-year-old. He has spent the last six years making his way, alone, to Greece—the first European foothold attainable from Asia. The fuzz on his upper lip suggests a high school sophomore, but his experiences, his composure as he relates them, and his very survival reveal a resourcefulness and maturity rarely found in adults, let alone children.
Nurzai’s family had reason to take great risks leaving Afghanistan. In the months preceding their attempted escape, a powerful neighbor sought their then ten-year-old daughter, Semiram, as a bride for his son. The two families met to discuss the match, but it went badly. “The man’s son was not a good kid,” recalls Nurzai. “He was a thief, and my father told the neighbor, ‘I cannot give you my daughter. She will not be happy with you.’ After that the problems began. They kept coming to our house and saying, ‘if you don’t give her to us we will kill you all.’” Nurzai’s father was a farmer with no political connections. In contrast, he says, “these people had power. They had the Taliban on their side and my father could do nothing about that.” After Nurzai’s older brother was beaten badly at school, the family locked itself up at home for several months. “We were afraid that we would be kidnapped if we left the house. We kept hoping the man’s son would get married to someone else.”