It was night-time and it was raining. That’s when the shooting started.
Nine-year-old Wali Khan Norzai remembers holding his father’s hand in the mountainous, borderland darkness. Ahead lay Turkey, behind them Iran, further back their abandoned home in Afghanistan. Now suddenly, all around them, bullets.
The group of 100 people scattered. When the dust settled and Wali Khan and his father, Said Ghullam Norzai, emerged from hiding, there was no sign of Wali Khan’s mother or his six siblings.
In the year since, father and son have heard nothing from them. Norzai says if he had known that the journey would have meant losing seven members of his family, he would have stayed in Afghanistan and risked life under the Taliban.
From Turkey, Norzai and Wali Khan’s journey to Britain was the sort of tragic odyssey that has become familiar over the past few years: a hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean, a long walk through European countries they had never heard of, and months in Calais risking their lives to get on the back of a lorry.
But if the mass movement of people to Europe was the tale of 2015-16, the story of 2017 is what happens to those people now. What does the future hold for the tens of thousands of families like the Norzais?
It is these questions that the Guardian will explore as we embark on an ambitious project to learn about Europe’s new arrivals and the communities in which they are making their homes. Teaming up with Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País, we will follow refugees and asylum seekers in four European countries – a large Syrian family in Germany, a Sudanese family en route to France and a group of Africans who have joined a football team in Spain. In Britain we will be telling the story of Said and Wali Khan, and others like them, who are desperately hoping to make the country their permanent home. We will assess whether Europe is keeping its promises to refugees, how they are changing European society and how it is changing them.
For Norzai, a melon farmer driven from Kunduz province by a resurgent Taliban, his new life is a lonely one. As an asylum seeker , he is not allowed to work and has few connections in Derby where he and his son have been sent to live by the Home Office. The 40-year-old speaks almost no English and progress at the free English classes he attends is slow. He is tormented by thoughts of his missing wife and children.
After he drops Wali Khan at school, he sits alone in his flat in the quiet for as long as he can bear. There is little else to do. He has no radio, computer or smartphone; the television in the bedroom that father and son share is broken. When he can take the silence of the flat no longer, he goes out and strolls the streets of Derby by himself, counting the minutes until the school day is over and he can pick up his son.
In contrast, Wali Khan’s English after just a few months in a British school, is already good and the nine-year-old functions as interpreter for his father, calling doctors, officials, even G4S, who manage the property they live in, to report maintenance issues. He loves school, he says, and has eight friends there. They play tag and sometimes football and cricket. He would like to be a doctor.
Whether he will have a chance to study here is uncertain; the Norzais’ life in Britain is extremely precarious. A few days before publication, Norzai learned that his asylum case had been rejected on the grounds that Afghanistan is considered safe.
As he is illiterate, he did not open the letter sent to him, and has now missed his 14-day window to appeal. He is discussing his case with an immigration solicitor and hopes to file a late appeal. About half of all appeals from Afghan asylum seekers are granted.
At the end of 2016, 38,517 people such as Said and Wali Khan Norzai applied for asylum in Britain. To tell the story of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, the Guardian has travelled across the country, from Coventry to Cardiff, Liverpool to Leicester. From church halls in Sheffield and community halls in St Helens, to the flats of asylum seekers in Nottingham and Peterborough, we have been meeting those who are seeking sanctuary and the communities, charities, lawyers, case workers and faith groups trying to help them.
In some ways, Said and Wali Khan Norzai’s story is fairly typical. In 2016, Afghanistan was the fourth most common country of origin for asylum seekers to the UK, accounting for 8% of asylum claims. Roughly 70% of asylum seekers in the country are male – often because families can only afford to send one person and for a variety of reasons choose a young man – and, as was the case with Norzai and his son, it is rare for asylum-seeking families to arrive in the UK intact.
Said Ghullam Norzai: ‘I don’t know whether [my family] are in Iran or Turkey, whether they are alive or dead.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
At a drop-in centre in Liverpool visited by the Guardian, Ahmed*, an Iraqi Kurd in his early 40s, recounted how he was forced to leave his home after Shia-Sunni tensions escalated in his region. One night, less than two months before he was sitting sharing his story in a cold church hall in Merseyside over a plate of vegetable curry, the family’s home was set alight while they slept. Ahmed got his two sons – a six-month-old baby and three-year-old – out of the house. His sister was killed inside and his wife died in his arms in the street.
He fled Iraq, taking with him his three-year-old son. He had to leave his younger boy in the care of his mother because he felt he could not make the journey with a baby. He hopes his younger son will be able to join him once he has refugee status, but for now he is stuck in limbo, with his older boy and his grief for company.
Ahmed was just one of many who visited the drop-in centre that day. Others included two young Sudanese men who have been in the UK for three weeks, having come from Calais on lorries. There were two Palestinian men – one of whom was a prominent figure on Arab television – who met in Britain after fleeing the Palestinian territories and became friends, one slightly starstruck by his famous companion.
“You talk to people with the most incredible stories,” said Peter Carpenter, who was at the Liverpool drop-in centre as a representative of the charity Refugee Action. “And you ask: what would it take for me to do this? To put everything I own on my back?”
Later an older Sikh couple from Afghanistan came in. They left the country after attacks on Sikhs escalated and the man’s beard was cut and his throat slit. They did not want to stay at the centre for lunch but did want a pair of socks. The woman pulled up the hem of her dress to show she was wearing slip-on shoes with no socks and she was very cold. The clothing bank, stocked with donations, was out of socks and the woman was told to come back next week. She left, but returned a few minutes later to make sure they understood how serious the situation was. If anyone came with socks, she said, could they please save them for her.
For many, there is enormous gratitude to be in Britain and to be safe; for others there is frustration that their claims are taking so long to be heard and boredom while they wait. Many do not understand why they cannot work while they wait for their claim to be processed, and some complain of difficult, sometimes intolerable conditions in the accommodation provided for them by the Home Office.
There are serious issues faced by asylum seekers in the UK and over the course of this series the Guardian will explore these, comparing the issues in Britain, Germany, France and Spain, asking how the different governments and communities have responded to the new arrivals.
We will follow the story of some of Britain’s asylum seekers, beginning with Said and Wali Khan Norzai. We do not know how their case will progress.
“I want to carry on with my life here so my child can continue with his education, to become something,” said Norzai.
“When my son is coming home at night he is asking me: ‘Dad, where are my mum, brother and sisters?’ Now I am here I thought they would give me a passport. I’m now waiting for a document to go to Turkey and look for them. If I can’t find them I’ll go to Iran. Apart from this, what can I do?
“I’m asking the British government to give me a document to go and search for my family. It is one year now that my children are lost. I don’t know whether they are in Iran or Turkey, whether they are alive or dead.”
*Name has been changed
This project is funded by the European Journalism Centre via a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
by Kate Lyons