THESSALONIKI, GREECE — Zaidoon Khalaf is a self-described loner and introvert. Soft-spoken, with thick black hair and a sparse beard, he often stays up until 2 a.m. writing poetry in Classical Arabic or reading Oscar Wilde. At age 16, he’s learned four languages, including Greek, and he’s working on German next.
He is also a refugee.
It's July 2016, and Zaidoon lives in Thessaloniki, an ancient port city of nearly a million people in northern Greece that in recent months has absorbed tens of thousands of migrants turned away at the Macedonian border 50 miles to the north. He's staying at a shelter for minors, a quiet, overgrown compound of rustic stone buildings with red tile roofs. It's 20 miles from the chaos of the city, and in some ways, a world away from the despair of the many refugee camps in the area.
Sitting in a fraying wicker chair on a shaded porch at the shelter on a breezy day in July, Zaidoon describes life before ISIS in northern Iraq. Until August 2014, he lived with his parents, younger brother and two sisters in a modest home in Tel Benat, a small village 50 miles from the Syrian border. His father worked as a designer, and Zaidoon learned Photoshop to help him when he wasn't in school.
Now his family is scattered across two continents, and he's working his way north to reunite with his parents and brother in Germany, where they sought asylum a year ago. Zaidoon's dream is to one day study philosophy in Germany, but he says he also likes being in Greece because the country had great thinkers like Aristotle and Homer — a poet, like him.
Zaidoon is one of an unprecedented number of underage migrants fleeing to Europe without a guardian. Men, women and children alike have left their homelands with whatever possessions they could carry, driven out by a civil war that has wounded or killed one in every 10 Syrians, the encroachment of ISIS, and other wars from the horn of Africa to the Afghan desert. But the story of child migrants traveling on their own is one of the lesser-known tragedies now unfolding.
Unaccompanied minors, especially girls, are easy prey for the traffickers who prowl around refugee camps and migrant routes, and untold numbers of young people have simply gone missing or arrived at camps in northern Europe pregnant or beaten.
The number of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in the EU skyrocketed from 13,800 in 2013 to a record 96,000 in 2015, according to Eurostat. Three-fourths were boys ages 14-17, though some are as young as 5. Four in 10 traveled from Afghanistan, with large numbers also coming from Syria, Iraq and northern Africa. Many aid organizations reach out specifically to minors, and European governments are looking for ways to protect and resettle them more quickly, but resources are scarce and the number of available places in shelters like the one where Zaidoon landed in Thessaloniki fall far short of the need.
Zaidoon is asked to recite one of his poems, and after some coaxing, he chooses one in Classical Arabic. His voice is gentle and intense, the language swishing off his tongue with such emotion that other boys stop their horseplay to look at him, and he finishes to a poignant silence.
Poetry doesn’t translate well, he says, but he gives a rough paraphrase: “I want to be free. I want my homeland, for one second. I wish I could claim my dream, but I cannot sleep.”
In December 2015, Zaidoon set off alone on foot across the Sinjar Mountains of northern Iraq, embarking on a nine-month, 2,500-mile odyssey in which he would face down cold, hunger, loneliness, the Turkish mafia and the EU bureaucracy to eventually reunite with his parents in Germany.
But his journey began even before that when, as a 14-year-old boy, he witnessed the atrocities of ISIS as they drove an entire people from their homes.
The long walk
Zaidoon is a Yazidi — a member of an ancient monotheistic religious community, neither Christian nor Muslim, that the Islamic State has been systematically exterminating since it invaded Iraq three years ago. It's unclear how many Yazidis there are; estimates range from 70,000 to 500,000, most of them concentrated in small communities near the borders where Syria, Iraq and Turkey meet.
In August 2014, ISIS fighters looted and burned Yazidi enclaves across northern Iraq, massacring 5,000 people, mostly men, and kidnapping an untold number of women. They drove tens of thousands of people, including Zaidoon’s family, from their homes into the Sinjar Mountains in what was later officially declared a genocide.
“I still hear the children screaming for water when ISIS burned the people to death,” Zaidoon says.
More than 50,000 Yazidis were trapped on Mount Sinjar, an imposing, colorless ridge rising out of the plains of Nineveh, and surrounded by ISIS. The dramatic siege catapulted Yazidis into headlines worldwide, and even after U.S.-led forces broke the siege and allowed safe passage from the mountain, ISIS retained the territory for several months.To this day, many Yazidis live in refugee camps and mountain squats, their villages burned to the ground or riddled with land mines.
Along with his parents, younger brother and two sisters, Zaidoon trekked through Syria and Iraq on foot for seven days without food, finally finding refuge in Zakho, a Kurdish-Iraqi town on the Turkish border about 300 miles north of Baghdad. They lived on the street for three months before moving into the white-domed tents of the Cham Mishko refugee camp, one of several camps in the area set up by aid groups to house the thousands of displaced Yazidis.
After nine months in the camp, in July 2015, Zaidoon’s parents and brother set off on foot to make their way to a new life in Germany, leaving him and his sisters at the camp in the care of an uncle until they could afford to follow.
“I told them not to worry, I would join them when I could,” Zaidoon says — but even as he said the words, he didn’t know whether he would ever see his parents again.
Two months later, he got word that after walking more than 2,000 miles, his family was safe in Germany, and he prepared to join them.
In December 2015, Zaidoon left Iraq under cover of darkness, traversing the barren Mount Sinjar toward the Turkish border over 10 hours. A year and a half after the siege, numerous Yazidi families were still camping on the peak as winter began to set in.
It took Zaidoon 16 days to cross Turkey on foot, sleeping by the road and eating sparingly of small handouts that he worried could be rotten or poisoned.
Most migrants cross from Turkey to Greece by boat over the Mediterranean Sea, paying smugglers hundreds of euros per person for the five-mile crossing. Last year, 3,771 people died when flimsy boats proved unseaworthy. Zaidoon opted instead to continue north to Edirne, Turkey, where the frigid Evros River makes a wide U-turn on the border between Turkey and Greece. He paid a member of the Turkish mafia 1,200 euros to take him across in a small rubber boat, but ended up jumping in the water and swimming when border police came after them.
“The Turkish police yelled at me to come back,” he says. “I was in the middle of the river. I told them, if you are men, come get me!” The police threw rocks and brandished guns, and they caught several others who attempted to cross that night.
On the Greek side of the river, some strangers offered Zaidoon dry clothes. Now in the EU, he went to register as a refugee, and the Greek authorities put him in a detention center in Orestiada where refugees are routinely held. Mafia were lurking in and around the center, Zaidoon says, and at one point he was threatened with knives.
He heard a rumor that telling the authorities he was from Iraq could get him sent back. Panicked, he said he was from Syria and got a temporary registration as a Syrian refugee.
After nearly a month in two detention centers, the U.N. referred Zaidoon to Arsis, an aid organization that provides shelter and social services to unaccompanied minors in Greece, and he moved into the shelter in Thessaloniki along with 29 other teenage boys.
Most of the boys at the Arsis shelter are from Afghanistan and Syria. Irida Pandiri, a child protection specialist who has worked at Arsis for seven years, says she's seen a shift in the kids and teenagers living there over the last few years. They come from war zones and are traumatized, she said. Many have lived on the streets for more than a year or worked in sweat shops in Turkey.
“We have a lot of anxiety, panic attacks, a lot of self-harm cases,” Pandiri says. “They are small fighters, not children. You need to create a safe space for them, an environment where they can feel safe again as far as they can, and start from the beginning to feel their childhood.”
Some young migrants, like Zaidoon, are trying to reach family; others have family following behind. Still others don’t know if their family is alive.
“The most traumatic cases are those when they don’t know where their parents are — don’t know if they are tortured or dead somewhere and not buried properly, or if they are alive somewhere,” says Pandiri. “Each person’s story has something to tell you. They are children, they have lived everything in just a quarter of their lives, and we can’t imagine (what they’ve been through).”
Arsis enrolls the boys in school and structures their days with language lessons in Greek or the language of the country where they will likely resettle; sports, such as swimming, football, tae kwon do or dancing; and some free time. Three social workers, one psychologist, a translator, a lawyer, and several teachers and caregivers are available to help the kids, especially those with severe trauma.
“They may come here at 14, but they are not 14 exactly,” Pandiri says. “We cannot treat them like children, but we cannot think they are men because they are not. You really need to find the balance between the freedoms they can have and the protection and safety they need.”
Zaidoon didn’t want to stay at the Arsis shelter. He left again for Germany five days after arriving in January of 2016. But in Skopje, Macedonia, just as he was about to cross the border into Serbia, his conscience got the better of him. He told police his documents were incorrect — he was from Iraq, not Syria. He was returned to Greece and taken back to Arsis.
Zaidoon didn’t like being there without his family, but at least life at Arsis was safe. He was one of the lucky ones.
In Greece alone there are currently an estimated 1,500 unaccompanied minors, but dedicated accommodations, whether in camps or shelters, exist for only 600 of them, Pandiri says. The law “protects” the rest of the kids who don’t have anywhere else to go, Pandiri says ironically, by putting them behind bars.
“They call it ‘protective custody,’ but it’s jail. Completely normal jail,” she says. “A child can be with a criminal offender together in one cell.” She said she knows of cases where minors have been raped or badly beaten.
Pandiri and other advocates have been working with authorities to establish an alternative to protective custody as the number of refugees in Greece has grown. Since April, they have created dedicated areas within refugee camps where minors live together and have access to social workers, psychologists, teachers and lawyers, and every day they contact local police departments to find kids they can bring to the camps.
“The lights of the world are upon us, so we hope the situation will become better and better,” Pandiri says.
Arsis has other problems. The Greek government doesn’t always deliver promised funding, and none of the groups serving minors has received a cent in months. They are expecting money from a new EU refugee fund, but so far it is functioning in every EU country except Greece as negotiations drag on. In the meantime, Pandiri and her colleagues are working without pay, asking for donations from locals and putting off building repairs just to keep from closing their doors.
Zaidoon lived at Arsis for seven months, where he communicated by Skype with his family about once a week. A loner, he resisted making friends with other boys, keeping to himself and writing poetry and learning German.
“I like to be alone because I’m a poet,” he says on the porch in July. “This isn’t life. All the time I feel lonely.”
In Iraq, Zaidoon wrote a book of 80 poems, but it went up in flames when ISIS torched his house. He pulls up a video on his phone of the charred remains, taken by his uncle a year after the fire.
Zaidoon is hesitant to write another book. “They killed my dream. I don’t want to feel the same thing again.”
The most beautiful day
Arsis helped Zaidoon apply for family reunification through the official asylum process, and on Sept. 8, 2016, he flew to Germany. The tearful reunion with his parents and brother was "the most beautiful day I ever lived,” he writes from Germany.
Zaidoon worries about his sisters still in Iraq. An estimated 3,000 Yazidi women and girls are still ISIS captives, most forced to be sex slaves. His sisters are safe with his uncle in the camp at Zakho, and the plan is for them to also come to Germany through a family reunification program, but it will take at least a year.
The family has been resettled in Warstein, Germany, a town of 27,000 people two and a half hours north of Frankfurt. Zaidoon is still writing poems, often about his homeland, learning to play the guitar, and he started school a few days ago.
He doesn’t want to forget anything he’s been through.
“I want to tell the world what happened with us (the Yazidis). Who kills us every day, who burns us every day, and who is the reason we are refugees,” Zaidoon says. “I don’t see ISIS as human. They are animals.”
He begins speaking in poetry again. “My country was a jungle until they cut down all the trees and the country became desert. I wish Iraq could be like it was, but we need a long time for that. As long as it’s a desert, I don’t want to see it again.”
This summer in Greece, Zaidoon said he has been sad by nature since he was a child. “I feel smiling is dangerous for me. When I'm sad, I feel better about my life,” he said.
But now in Germany, he says he's changed his mind. There's something about being reunited with his family and having hope for his future that has mellowed the broody angst he felt just a few months ago.
It even comes through on his Facebook page. Under his name, in parentheses, he has typed a simple word: "hopeful."