From Afghan war refugee to refugee rights campaigner

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.

Syed Hasnain
Syed Hasnain

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.

Mountains in Afghanistan, Helmand Province / Afghanistan Matters_Flickr CC BY 2.0

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.”

Syed Hasnain in Rome
Syed Hasnain in Rome

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.

Syed Hasnain graduating from Sapienza University, Rome, 2019
Syed Hasnain graduating from Sapienza University, Rome, 2019

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.

Pizza in wood fired oven / CC0 noah-holm
Pizza in wood fired oven / CC0 noah-holm

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.

More information:
Nina Walch – Rights and Democracy Campaigner