The refuge of Torbay and a dangerous, costly journey here – Pharo’s story, part one

Barely a day goes by without a news story about asylum seekers. They are primarily sensational and almost always negative.

Here in the Bay, we have hosted more than 500 asylum seekers, most of them men,  from a myriad of countries, and some of their stories are truly harrowing. These are people, not statistics, and Torbay Communities is proud to help and support them.

Interestingly, the asylum seekers began arriving at about the same time as the first of 350 refugees from Ukraine and despite the fact that many of them had one thing in common: wars in their home countries, the narrative could not have been more different.

Ukrainian refugees were welcomed; however, the asylum seeker’s reception was volubly the polar opposite.

More recently, attitudes have slowly changed, and over the last few years, polls have shown that despite the rate of immigration rising, negative attitudes are falling.

It is time to change the narrative. Every migrant is a person, and all have a story to tell. Take Pharo; it is August 2021 in Afghanistan, just weeks after the Allied forces completed their withdrawal.

It’s another hot, dry night. He hadn’t slept in weeks. It wasn’t the cacophony that kept him awake; as a child of war, this was nothing new. But this time it was different. The air was frantic, and the danger was far more tangible than it had been in a long time. There wasn’t even fighting anymore. The fighting was done. This was something else. Something far more dangerous. The terror of the streets was palpable. The devil was no longer at the gates. It was here, in his streets. It looked like him, spoke his language, and resented his life.

His uncle burst in the door. Covered in bruises and grime, gasping for breath and franticly grabbing at his nightshirt. “They’re coming, you’re on the list, we need to go. Now!” he implored.

The boy’s crime, at just 16, was that he was now the head of the family. A mantle given to him when the new regime (the Taliban) decided his father was an enemy for the momentous crime of selling chocolates and sweets to American and British soldiers.

They left through a window. They didn’t have time to grab anything. With just the clothes on his back and his uncle’s hand on his shoulder, he slipped through the stone alleys until he reached the edge of the town; then, he ran into the night.

He doesn’t remember when his uncle’s hand fell from his shoulder, he was too afraid to notice, but he could still feel his hand guiding him forward.

His mother and five younger siblings fled in the opposite direction. It was the only way to ensure their safety; in that instant, his world was gone. Even his uncle was now gone. Gone to be with his father. He had nothing left but his life. So he ran with it. And ran. And ran.

He stayed in the deserts, away from the roads, terrified that anyone could be “one of them”. He made his way north until he reached the border. He was young and scared, but he was resolute. He needed to get to safety. He felt like he was against the clock.

He spoke English, so he told himself England was where he needed to be. That’s where he could begin life again, quickly, and start saving his family’s life. So he walked. He followed the water through Turkmenistan into Kazakhstan. Somehow, he slipped across Russia and into Europe. He wandered down through the nations until he reached the French shores.

His journey so far had taken him about a year.

He needed to always keep his wits about him, particularly when crossing so many borders. He would look for a mountain and use that to cross, but if he couldn’t, he would get to a border crossing and watch it for a couple of days to figure out “how it worked” so that he could slip through when there would be the least resistance. If there were patrols, he would work out where they ended, then find a forest past that point and slip through at night.

Fourteen months after fleeing the family home, he boarded a dinghy for the hazardous voyage across the channel, arriving on these shores in October 2022.

Next week, Pharo arrives in Paignton, tracks down his family and meets Torbay Communities’ Specialist Community Builder Ash Rangasamy.