Syed’s story – and what pizza had to do with it
This testimony is part of our Europe Welcomes campaign.
Escaping war-torn Afghanistan, Syed saw little humanity during his dangerous journey to Italy. But then, the kindness of a pizza chef and an Italian teacher inspired him to stay, complete his University degree and fight for refugee rights.
My name is Syed Hasnain. I’m a 32-year-old refugee, born in the Helmand region of Afghanistan.
When I was just ten years old, my mother helped me to escape Afghanistan because my family was forcing me to fight for the Taliban during the civil war. I spent four years in Quetta city in Pakistan. Later, I went to Iran where I stayed for three and a half years. I was arrested, jailed and repatriated by the Iranian police for illegally staying in Iranian territory.
After my repatriation, I succeeded in re-entering Iran, crossing along the border to get to Turkey. Once again, I had to entrust my life to smugglers to get to Greece by boat. It was a long and dramatic journey, but eventually I arrived in Athens. The Greek police did not want to take my asylum request. I decided to go to the Greek countryside, but there I was the victim of labour abuse (as I also was in Iran) for several months. Disappointed by the conditions in Greece, I decided to leave the country. I went to Patras port where I was assisted by smugglers to hide myself under the truck near the engine. I was lucky to survive as I risked falling down and being hit by the truck.
I arrived in Torrecuso village, in Italy, in the middle of winter. It was very cold. I didn’t know anyone. I slept on the streets for a couple of nights. But then, I was fortunate to encounter Mr. Carmine Calabrese, a pizza chef who trusted me even though I was in a desperate situation. He took me to his pizza shop, and provided me with food, warm clothes and accommodation. He treated me like a human, and his kind behaviour – for the first time in my long journey – made me feel welcomed. I had intended to continue on to the UK, but this act of kindness changed my mind. I decided to stay in Italy. It goes to show that the kind and welcoming act of a single person can have a huge impact on someone’s life.
“Making refugees welcome means making them feel at home and motivating them in their pathway to integration.”
Later, I moved to Rome where I asked for asylum. This was the start of a new life. The recognition of my refugee status gave me the legal right to stay in Italian territory.
When I was learning Italian, one of my teachers, called Cesare, encouraged me to continue my high school education. He was very kind, and we visited a technical night school together. I decided to apply for admission. It was quite hard in the beginning because I was living in a reception centre for refugees. The reception centre had strict rules and a timetable for all services, including meal times. By the time I got home to the centre after night school, it was late and so I went to bed without dinner. After a year, I got a job. I left the refugee camp and rented a house. For a while, I was juggling both my job and my studies. I graduated from high school in 2012.
After that, I started University. I graduated in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Sapienza in Rome. My thesis was on the Participation of refugees in policy-making processes. I dedicated my graduation to my lovely mom, because she was the person who saved my life and it’s thanks to her who I am today.
“I have decided to invest my time and energy to do what is within my power, so that no one else goes through what I went through. I am trying to live the right to a safer and better life.”
From the very beginning, after learning Italian, I worked with refugees, asylum seekers and unaccompanied foreign minors as a social worker, cultural mediator and legal adviser. I worked with several humanitarian NGOs, like Save the Children, Jesuit Refugee Services, the UNHCR, Intersos and Médecins Sans Frontières.
In April 2019, together with six other refugees, I founded the first National Union of Refugees and Exiles in Italy, UNIRE. The aim of the refugee-led union is to change the negative and toxic narrative around migration by highlighting the active and positive participation of refugees in our host societies.
I am now working as an outreach worker and social media manager with Missing Children Europe on the Miniila App project. Miniila is a mobile application which provides legal information to migrant children and guides them to the nearest organisation providing services for children in eight European countries.
Recently, after much research, I managed to get back in contact with Mr. Calabrese, the pizza chef who had trusted me. I went back to thank him for his great humanity and the help I received upon my arrival. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life.
I am very lucky to have a wonderful family in my partner, Maryam, and my son, Taha.
I went back to Pakistan in 2011. And there, after twelve long years, I was finally able to hug my mom again.
Nina Walch – Rights and Democracy Campaigner