About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Zainullah shirtless with his arms wrapped around himself

Zainullah Ibrahimi

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:




Asif & Shawiz Tamimi

“I’m 27 but my heart is ten times bigger than my age,” says Afghan asylum seeker Zainullah Ibrahimi. Born in Iran, he left the country with his blind brother at the age of 25, due to both financial struggles and discrimination. Reflecting on his departure and the family he left behind, he says, “I feel a lump in my throat.” The journey was full of anguish, including when he witnessed a smuggler violently attacking his brother: “If I were to describe that scene with a word, it was misery.” Now living in a refugee camp in Greece, he keeps busy by playing soccer and tending to his hairdressing business, which he launched despite having no prior experience: “I’m not that depressed … These activities are saving me.” But to Zainullah, soccer is not just a hobby; it’s a lifelong passion that he fosters tenaciously. “My only dream is to become a soccer player,” he says. “Even right now I’ve not lost hope. My leg is injured, and I’m aging, but I’m still hopeful because age is just a number.”

Trigger Warning: Violence/murder; discrimination.

full interview

Could you please introduce yourself?
In the name of God. My name is Zainullah Dawodzi, and I originated from Afghanistan. They know me as Ali in this camp now.

Yes, I’m here to answer your questions.

In what type of housing do you live?
Well, it’s obvious. You live here as well. In a city called Ioannina, and a camp called Katsikas. There are around two or three hundred conex boxes here. I live in the conex A39. Everyone has to endure it and we’re homeless just like everybody else.

How is your life?
Our life… We’re single. I’m here with my brother and he has vision problems, my leg is also injured. We went through a lot to get here. Thanks to God it’s not that bad here. We don’t have a hard time and somehow pass our days.

In general, is your situation good or bad or just normal?
If you ask from that perspective, then we’re not satisfied. No, we’re not fine. But we’re forced to [endure it] because this wasn’t our destination. We’re far from our acquaintances and friends and we have to endure it somehow.

What is lacking here in your opinion?
A lot is lacking here. Just like I said this wasn’t our destination. That’s why this country can’t provide us with what we lack. We’ve been in Greece for two years now. My brother has vision problems. We’ve reserved a time at the hospital almost four times and each time they’ve postponed it. That’s the same thing with my leg. It’s August now and when we went to the hospital they postponed my surgery until December for the fourth time. The condition at the camp is the same. In our conex everything is broken, the kitchen sink, inside the bathroom, everywhere. It’s not better outside either. Inside the camp. We’re not satisfied but we have to somehow cope.

Who do you live with?
Well, it’s me and my brother and five other singles. We’re in conex 39. We’ve been together for almost a year. Yes. Single.

How do you spend your time every day? Do you have an occupation?
Thanks to God ever since we entered this camp, we realized we have no specific pastimes. Of course I played soccer, in the Greek team. I thought about hairdressing and starting a business next to our conex. Even though I didn’t know how to do it, I started despite my great fear and anxiety and I’m still doing it. It’s not bad. I pass my days well thanks to God and I do something productive.

What brings you joy and happiness in this place?
I’ll be delighted if our case progresses well [and] if they treat us well. When I see a family that had a hard time here moving forward to their country of destination which they like I feel joy. It’s the same for myself. I’m also looking forward to the conditions to get better in the camp so that people are satisfied. It’s the small things that bring me joy. I can keep myself happy somehow, I can get out and spend some time, but to me it’s not enough, one should think of everyone’s happiness.

How has your life been ever since you reached Europe?
Well as I recall ever since we reached Europe with my brother. We’ve never relied on anyone. It’s not a good thing to say. What I mean is that we’ve stood on our feet as much as possible. Take my [hairdressing] shop as an example, or anything else that I did. I helped others as much as possible but never asked for help. It somehow passes thanks to God. We’re standing upright. We’re living on our own. There is a God above.

What has been tough for you and what has been good?
Hardships, well, if you’re talking about the journey, we went through a lot of hardships.

No, since you entered Europe.
Since we entered Europe… Unfortunately, we went to the island. We spent a year at the island. It passed with all the good and bad stuff and it was really sad to move here. We left a lot of memories there, at Lesbos island, Moria camp. We were there for almost a year. When we got here… Actually they lied to us over there, they told us we’d be going to this camp that is for vulnerable people and they’d help us and process our case faster, that they’d give us IDs and stuff, whatever that is. Unfortunately, when we wanted to change our documents here they postponed our interview for nearly two years. It was really painful for us. Now we have to wait for one year and two months. This is the only painful thing that happened to me. It was a huge psychological blow for me.

What are the good aspects of this place in your opinion?
Well, I see no good in this camp, in this country, or whatever you call it. I see no good because it’s not my final destination and when a place is not your destination nothing good will happen to you even if you ask for it, unless you reach where you want. Unfortunately, I’ve tried Greece. We’ve been here for almost two years. I don’t find it appealing. There is nothing good here.

How do you feel about your life here?
My feelings about my life here… If, God forbids it, we had to stay here, I reassure you that I’d experience another psychological blow. Yet I stand upright again and the God above will help. We’ll have to cope out of necessity and start a business like this. A wage that lets us help our family who live in Iran. I’ll feel as if I was forced to stay and I have to feel comfortable here.

No, specifically how do you feel ever since you got here. Specifically.
Well, from that perspective, I’ve gotten a few steps closer to Europe and being in Europe makes me feel good. I’m not ungrateful. It’s an honor for me and I really feel proud that we could make it this far. As I said, my brother is blind and my leg is injured and coming this far makes me feel good. Right now we have no problems. Just like I said, if you take everything into account you feel hopeless here. You’ve no hopes in general. I mean no hopes for your future.

How do you feel about being away from your country and the rest of your family?
Well, I grew up in Iran. I would never say that I’ve never seen Afghanistan in my life. I got deported twice. Once from Iran and the other time from Turkey. The second time I went for a month to Afghanistan. We have been in Kabul for a while, in our village, Qara Bagh, at Dwazeh region. Yet, I wasn’t familiar [with the place] and I returned to Iran and again from Iran… Most of my family lives in Iran and actually the feeling… When I recall it I feel a lump in my throat but then I had to [move away]. I feel sad, each time I remember, even my mother, my sister.

And how do these feelings impact you?
For sure, definitely, when there are feelings… they have some negative aspects, mentally, on how you can keep working. It’s all harmful to anyone. Definitely, anyone who goes through these troubles will suffer. 

Have you ever imagined coping with your current situation?
Well, I didn’t imagine living in such a place, such an environment, somewhere that is not a house, inside a conex box, placed in a remote location and surrounded by mountains, where we are treated poorly and everything is disappointing. I never imagined it and I repeat, here is not our destination and if God is willing it’ll be fixed in the future.

What do you see your strengths in?
My strengths… Well, it’s something… If God is willing for us to move forward then I will continue my work, study in the field of my own occupation… Because I was a mechanic in Iran for ten years and I’m quite capable in that field and I was a hairdresser here and thanks to God I’m starting to get a hang of it, so it’s either this or that. But I would like to get a mechanical degree.

The way you coped with the situation, I mean coping well is an ability and it needs endurance, some people don’t cope or make other decisions but you were here for two years so definitely you have an ability…
If you’re talking about that then that’s because I’m someone who has a high spirit. I’ve always kept myself busy. I play soccer, I’m at my shop or do a lot of other things at the camp and I have a special ability. I’m not that depressed, unlike my brother who is very depressed and has no abilities to do something for himself. These activities are saving me.

 Do you think this situation has created an ability in you that let’s you progress?
One hundred percent! One hundred percent! Ever since I set my foot on this journey to become a refugee, from Iran to Turkey and then to Greece, it’s all been an experience for me. I’ve gained new abilities and even right now I keep going. It’s been all important.

What about the ability to cope with the situation? Did you gain it as time passed and you went through [new] incidents or you think you had it all along?
I never thought about it before. In Iran the situation was completely different, in the presence of our family and [other] stuff. If we had any troubles our family was there with us but being here alone, we had to learn to cope as time passed depending on the situation and we had to show strength to overcome them.

Ever since coronavirus [pandemic] has started, how has your daily life, emotions, attitude or your behavior been impacted?
Well, ever since coronavirus emerged, it shocked the whole world. It was really horrendous and painful. It didn’t affect me personally. I was careful, like other people who thanks to God didn’t contract the virus. I took care of myself, based on what the doctors said and what they taught us here in the camp, things like using soaps, disinfectants and other stuff… Whatever it was, it kept me safe from this cancer and thanks to God I have no troubles at the moment and I’m sure nothing in particular will happen anymore.

You mean the changes before coronavirus…
I saw no changes in myself and it has not impacted my life, thanks to God.

What made you leave your country?
Well, I didn’t really leave my country. My parents were the ones who left our country. I grew up in Iran. I lived in Iran for 25 years. And if I were to talk about the reasons that I left my country, Iran, then that’s because in the past ten years Iran took a really big financial hit and got sanctioned. Iran was sanctioned in many ways. And our business stagnated completely. We couldn’t save any money. There was a lot of pressure at work. I mean we couldn’t make enough money. We had to spend all we earned just to survive. Electricity and water cost a lot over there. We lived in a rented house and we had to pay for it and it wasn’t enough. On the other hand, it was sickness and other stuff. That’s why our family decided to send me and my brother towards Europe. Everything was expensive and we were really behind with our jobs and unfortunately the Iranians didn’t treat us well. Imagine living in a country for 25 years and not having a SIM card under your name, that’s so unfair. It was all hard on me and I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Europe.

Then why didn’t you go back to Afghanistan at that time?
At that time… Well, it’s obvious, everyone in the world knows it. It has the lowest rank in the world when it comes to security. Even if it’s not the lowest, it must be the second or third lowest. We grew up in a country that is ranked three in the world from a security perspective and it was really hard for us to live in a country where they talk about war and stuff like that everyday. We were forced to move towards Europe and postpone [going back to] our country again.

How did you feel when you were leaving Iran?
Well, I tried three times and on the third attempt I managed to reach Greece. To Turkey and then Greece. A really painful feeling and the feeling of… I mean I felt defeated because after spending so much time in a country I had nothing and I had decided to emigrate. It’s just the beginning of your troubles, after 25 years you have to make a new living. You have to study for three years, four years, study for a job. I don’t know, that was a huge blow to me and it felt really painful.

How was your journey to Europe?
I only recount the last part of my journey to Europe. As I told you, I tried three times and got deported twice. I went through a lot of trouble on the way. At the border of Iran and Turkey there were three or four long and deep rivers and we had to pass them. We took off all of our clothes and tried almost three times and we ran into thieves. Then in Turkey, when we got to Istanbul, there were police officers that could arrest and deport us. We had to run away from the police, go here, go there. We were hiding until we got some money. My brother told me again that we should keep going towards Greece, and to take the water route which was quite dangerous. There were around 25 or 26 of us and we couldn’t cross in the first try. Thanks to God we made it in the second try and arrived in Greece.

Were there any particular events that had been difficult for you? Specifically, on your journey from Iran to Turkey, or from Turkey to Greece, or within Turkish cities.
The only bad scene that I observed and happened to me, well, not to me but to my brother who has vision problems, it was when around two or three hundred refugees were trying to pass the river. My brother fell in the water. He doesn’t know how to swim or to move in water like this or that. The river was flowing and it was deep. When he fell in the river I was on the other side. He couldn’t move and forced himself back to the other shore. That’s when the smuggler kicked him in the face a couple of times and everyone was just passing. We couldn’t do anything because we had to put up with it. It was the harshest scene for me, to see that a stranger, a Turk is beating my brother like that before my eyes. But we had no other choices and we kept going. It was the worst thing that happened to me. Thanks to God no financial or life-threatening accidents didn’t happen to us. It was just the difficulties of the journey which we endured all the way.

How did you feel when that was happening to your brother? What were you thinking? How did you feel exactly?
If I were to talk about my feelings at the time… I mean if I wasn’t a refugee, if I was anyone of importance, if I was that guy’s partner, or anyone but a refugee, I’d beat him. Maybe I would even kill him. My brother had vision issues. If he was healthy it wasn’t a problem. I mean I’m not a rough person, I don’t fight or quarrel and swear. But this person, if the circumstances were different, I might have done something to him. Maybe I would drown him in the water. But then again as I said, you have to tolerate it sometimes. He was also putting himself in danger for our sake because if they caught us he was the first person to be imprisoned and deported.  It was worse for him. That’s how it was. We couldn’t do anything.

If you were to describe it in a word like sadness, sorrow, disappointment…
If I were to describe that scene with a word, it was misery. Just one word: misery. I was miserable at the time because I couldn’t do anything to him.

We’re miserable under all circumstances.
Maybe people are lucky that they’ve made it this far and the conditions at least let them breathe [ a sigh of relief].

Have you been impacted in your daily life by that scene, or that accident, or whatever accidents you experienced on your journey?
It definitely has an impact. But I reassure you, not just you but everyone else in the world… I’m 27 but my heart is ten times bigger than my age. If I were in the smuggler’s shoes and I’d accepted someone as a traveler, I’d never beat them. I mean I can’t really put myself in his shoes. One has to empathize with others. It was really wrong and if it were me I definitely would have acted differently.

How does it impact you in your daily life within or outside the camp?
Well, it’s something in the past. I can’t say it has influenced me because when I recall that scene it affects me but I try not to recall it. It’s better if I don’t recall it because if I do then I might do many other things in the camp to somebody else. Just like they say it, some people keep those complexes in their heart and then they retaliate by hurting other people. If I recall that scene I turn into someone like that and it’s best if I don’t remember. Thanks to God it hasn’t influenced me in any special ways. Because it’s something in the past.

Is there something specific that makes you recall that scene?
Well… If God is willing there is nothing specific. But when people talk about this accident or things like that, like how they came here and other stuff, the first thing I remember is that scene. I mean that scene is really the first thing that comes to my mind. Yes.

When you recall that accident, do you have any particular feelings that you can put into a word? What is it?
Well, feeling of sorrow. Depression. These two words. I feel really sorrowful. Like I said, I feel miserable.

Did you imagine coping with that situation before the accident? To face the situation?
The thing that happened to my brother… Well, it was my third attempt. I’d tried two more times before that to reach Turkey, from Afghanistan and Iran, but I had never seen a behavior like that and I never imagined a human being could do something like that to another human being. I’m sure even animals don’t treat each other like that. To hurt a traveler among 300 other people, [someone] that you have no enmity towards, that has done nothing to you as a, maybe it’s not good to put it this way, smuggler or his assistants. I never imagined something like that before. Definitely if someone were to imagine these scenes beforehand, they’d never try [to cross the border]. They either won’t put themselves in danger or knock out the other person.

How do you deal with these memories? The difficulties you’ve gone through have left you with bad memories. How do you deal with them?
I try to not remember the bad memories. I don’t even recount them to my friends, especially to my family who are alone now. They’re not alone, there are 15 or 16 of them living together, there are also my brothers. One of my brothers used to live in Italy for almost ten years. He’s really wise. Our family is well educated in general. Just like they’re called, these memories are just memories. It means that you have to hold onto and cope with them under every circumstance. One can publish a book, write a story and publish it as something global, online or whatever. I have coped with them in every possible way. I have told them to my friends or acquaintances here two or three times, people who had a great understanding.

Which plans or decisions help you forget these memories or let you reduce their pain?
That’s right. I’m the type of person that doesn’t forget easily or hard times or however you call them. I mean I can’t forget them because they help me as life experiences, in the future or at the moment, wherever I go. I really don’t like to forget them, because I was there and saw that and I coped with it and I want to keep it with myself until the very end. I mean I can’t forget this scene, these memories, as if I just got here from outer space. I went through a lot of pain and suffering to get here…I saw quarrels, knife fights, they abducted me and did other stuff to me, all of the good and bad memories. When I entered Istanbul we took a photograph for our family, that was the best incident at least for my family. It was a whole different world to me. It doesn’t make a difference to me. I’m busy with my work here, I have friends, I play soccer and other stuff. I have no reasons to say that I’m pained [by my memories]. Thanks to God these memories are always with me and I promise that one day I’ll publish them, I’ll write them and get them out there.

When you lived in Iran…

 And you had no decision of leaving the country because you hadn’t grown up in Afghanistan and you’d never seen it there, what were your dreams for the future?
Well… when I decided to leave Iran I never thought of Afghanistan [as an option] because a lot of people came from Afghanistan and crossed the Iranian border to reach Europe and if I thought about Afghanistan [as my destination] I was a reverse human being. [Doing that meant] I’m different from other people, I mean obviously it was like thinking backward. My only dream when I got here was to make my family proud and [help them] live comfortably in Iran. Or do something to bring them to Europe like they’d asked for.

If you were to say it specifically, did you have a dream besides your everyday activities, like dreaming to have a certain job or achieving something?
One hundred percent. We talked about it another day. I enjoyed that conversation a lot. I’m an athletic person. I’m not into Kung fu or Taekwondo or fighting. I worked. I changed jobs four times in 25 years. We had a factory for plastic injection, then I did welding with my brother for two years, and then I dyed textiles, it was all in the same factory. My last job was as a “car master” which they call a mechanic in Iran. I worked for around eight or ten years, I owned a business and a lot of people didn’t pay back my money and the only reason for coming here… If I were to tell you the truth, my only dream was to become a professional soccer player and for people to see me on TV one day. I liked it for real. Even right now I’ve not lost hope. My leg is injured and I’m aging but I’m still hopeful because age is just a number. The only thing that matters is physical ability so that you can show yourself. Certainly every normal athlete has a high-level athlete as a role model. My role model is Cristiano Ronaldo, not just in soccer but in every aspect of my life. My only dream is to become a soccer player. Even right now I’m extremely eager to move forward and become a soccer player.

What was your dream when you decided to leave your home and come towards Europe?
At the time my brother kept telling me that I should do this and that but my only dream was to play soccer. Obviously, I listened to my brother and mother and did as they said. As I said I have a barbershop here, my brother didn’t tell me that I should be a barber or do this or play in a Greek team. My only dream… personally… If one has a dream, then they try to achieve it. Dreams are personal. No one can tell you to consider this dream. My personal dream was to become a soccer player. That was my only dream. I had really big contracts in Iran that benefited me. I was a great player until I was forced to come here. I had a contract with a really big club in Iran. That’s it. My only dream is to become a soccer player. Even at 27 I’m physically ready, it’s just that my meniscus is torn and I need surgery. It happened to me almost three years ago when I was testing for the national team. Ostad Razagh was at Tehran. He is the coach of futsal’s national team. I fell right before his eyes. They took me to the hospital. And I keep playing soccer without having had a surgery, without having rehabilitated. They tested ten migrants here for the soccer [team], they were all healthy, unique players and still I was chosen despite my condition and now I take part in all the competitions.

Is that your dream right now?
Currently my dream is [to play] soccer. I like to fight as long as I breathe. If I can’t [achieve my dream] then I forget about it and pursue my current job or whatever that is and study for it.

What did you consider as your ability when you were in Iran?
As my abilities… Well… what can I say… I’m not saying that [I have] tons [of abilities] … I was confident in myself that I can [do it] with these conditions… When someone decides to become a migrant… On the other hand, my brother had migrated almost ten years ago when no one had any ideas about migration or Europe. It helped me a lot. His abilities were transferred to me and made me see it in myself, that I can get through everything and make my way here.

No… when you had no intentions of coming to Europe. What were your abilities back then?
Under those conditions I saw no abilities in myself. I kept on living while being depressed. Really.. Despite playing at the highest level of soccer and being seen by many. Many for example took pictures with me, many knew my name. But I had no specific plans or stuff in Iran. I did my work and when I didn’t work other guys called to tell me there was a competition somewhere and I had to go. That was my plan. Well… that was my ability. As I said soccer was one of them, many counted on me. I took part in every competition and thanks to God we got the championship every year, we won a cup or two. If you’re talking about jobs, then I was a mechanic. I… There are many who work as an assistant for six or seven years before starting their own business or receiving a percentage of the revenues. I chose this job because of my mother despite not liking it. I didn’t like it at all. I knew it was a dark and burnt job, that you have to work hard and say nothing. My mother wondered why we didn’t have a mechanic in our family when this person’s children were mechanics. That person had come to my mother and told her that her children couldn’t become mechanics. Maybe you won’t believe me but it was the last year of highschool and I was about to get my high school diploma. One morning I threw a uniform in a bag and went to become a mechanic. I was competent as well and I continued. It requires great skill to receive 60 percent of the revenue within only two years. It was like a job that starts and ends.  After two or three years I started working at Iran Khodro’s official service center. Some people there had 20 years of experience and yet when a new car arrived the center’s manager didn’t let anyone touch it. He brought it to me. It’s an ability in itself… you can call it overcoming fears and like that. You can’t call it an ability. Well, I see all kinds of abilities in myself.

[What about] the abilities you had back then which you have kept until now?
I’ve kept them. I mean they’ve even increased. I didn’t know how to play guitar in Iran and I learned it after coming here within one month. Not from an instructor but from my friend. I wasn’t a hairdresser but I started a business here and thanks to God now the whole camp comes to me. As I walk in the camp everyone greets and knows me. Just like some say work hard and get the gold. (the pun cannot be translated in English) Gold as in a golden medal. Work hard and get the gold. These are my abilities and I’m sure I can achieve other things as well. There is some insignificant stuff, a car, a house. They’re really insignificant to me and I never think about them. Unfortunately, ever since I got here I’ve got depression. As I said, two years of my life are wasted but if I move forward [to a third country] there is a lot for me to do. Thanks to God in Iran… I’m not saying we were in a bad condition, we had houses and stuff, but our condition over here is not that good and if God is willing I hope that the United Nations or whatever else that it’s called helps us sooner.

Another question. The incidents that happened on the journey… Do you think they have helped you grow and progress?
One hundred percent! It’s been important not just for me but for everyone else. I saw for myself. When I chose to emigrate my brother told me that I should go on this journey and that I’d see many things and gain a lot of new experiences. I kept thinking about what my brother said ever since I got here, that he was right. I’ve gained a lot of new experiences. All of it was a new lesson, a new philosophy. It helped me a lot.

If you were to talk about the positive aspects of this journey… Were there any positive sides to it?
Positive aspects… It was the experiences that I gained, a new job, a new occupation that I didn’t know. Another one is that I have to attend language classes and study Greek and English which has helped me grow again. I’m going a step further. I’m turning into a new person. I met a lot of new people, Arabs, Kurds, Africans, Germans, French, any type of person you can imagine. I can distinguish good from bad. I learned how to treat each person. It has really affected me.

And in the end would you like to… I apologize for taking your time and thank you for answering…
No, you are welcome!

Do you have a message to other people about the situation of immigrants, something that helps them understand the situation of immigrants better?
Well, who are other people? Other people are the officials, the ones who administer the migrants, I don’t know what they’re called, it’s not within my education. [Anyway] you know what I mean. The ones in charge, the ones who handle the migrants…

And the rest of the people…
And the rest of the people in the world. Anyone that has the ability to help refugees should really do it. Just like what it’s called, a refugee is a refugee. When one decides to become a refugee that means they had a problem, they needed something, wanted to see something new, to get something new. And I pray from here that if God is willing all refugees get what they want whether it’s a good day or a bright future or a business or a house or a car or anything else and to live in peace. I repeat, I ask officials to please do something. There is nothing here to look forward to and what I’m saying is coming from my positive personality. I’ve no support here, to tell myself that I’d eat this food, drink this water, it’s like this and that, I can go strolling in the town easily. It’s not like that. It’s been two years that we’ve been held up from reaching our goals. We haven’t seen many things. We have to get out with our friends and take pictures and then talk about it for a week to pass time. We play soccer and again we talk about it for a week. If there was a way to get somewhere and have a free mind. I mean we’ll keep taking pictures and playing soccer and talk about it, no matter where we go, but with a free mind. We know that we’re just keeping ourselves busy here. There are many who do things that they shouldn’t. It’s not good to name those things here. Even me who has the ability to do many things might be forced to do what I shouldn’t here. I really ask the officials to do something. I, as an immigrant, and you too, would like for a path to open. Even if we are supposed to stay here in Greece [I ask them] to provide us with a good living. We’re human beings too, we’re not different from other people in the world. Humanity is humanity everywhere. We should help each other. This was my last message. I’m thankful to you. It really made me happy. You asked intriguing questions and helped me experience something new again. Thanks a lot.

 Thank you too!

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.