Dostema: A conversation with my friend
Keani Vonge & Najibullah Safi | 14 February 2020
Wall of expression. Photo by Keani Vonge
Dostema (دوست مه) means 'my friend' in Dari, one of the main languages spoken in Afghanistan. In French, we say mon ami. The story that follows was written by two friends whose paths crossed three years ago in the city of Toulouse.
It is a very painful experience to leave one’s country.
You are home for the last time, taking with you only a pair of shoes, a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. You say goodbye to your family but you don’t get the chance to say goodbye to your friends, the people you have grown up with. You don’t know when you will be able to visit them again or if you will ever be able to come back to your country. Then, you arrive in this new country, with this new culture and this new language. You have lost your family and with them you have lost all hope. It feels very difficult – almost impossible – to pursue your life here.
This was how I felt before I met you.
The first time that we talked to each other was on the shores of a lake. That day, I had come to visit a friend and we ended up joining you while you were studying your French lessons on the grass. I remember that you were so eager to learn French that you did not mind about making mistakes and were happy to practice. We drank tea together, you seemed very kind and funny. On the way back however, you asked to switch to English as you were broaching more sensitive topics. This was when I understood that there were two Najib: the one who liked to laugh and share joy around him, and the one whose mind always wandered back to his country and his loved ones.
I remember that I was not feeling well at that time, but every time I told you that I had a headache you would try to get me out of my flat. You were in a student association that organised activities for refugees, and each time there was an activity, you would invite me, and we would go together. We visited some museums and gardens and went to dance class. Sometimes we ate kebab or walked around the city. Most of the time we talked about the language and the customs of our countries.
Sometimes I also came to visit you and some other friends that you had in those shared flats. I was amazed to see Afghans and Sudanese getting on so well together, talking with each other in French, playing football and homemade board games. There was a sense of community that was so strong that every time someone got their refugee status there was a big party to celebrate, and every time there was bad news it seemed like everybody felt down. I had so much fun during those nights, dancing to Sudanese music, watching you perform traditional Afghan dances and eating delicious food. But these light-hearted moments did not last.
There is a saying in my country that before you can choose your friends, you first need to put them to the test. In a way, this is what happened for us because before we could really enjoy good times together, you stood by me through difficult ones. Each time I felt I was losing hope you tried to bring it back for me so I could go on with my life.
One day, we went to the prefecture together and I walked out alone. All of this because of a European law called the 'Dublin regulation”, which says in substance that there can only be one European state responsible for examining an asylum application. That day they took you to a detention centre with the aim of sending you back to Denmark, where your asylum application had already been rejected. When I got out of the prefecture, I started crying but then I thought to myself that I had to be strong for you. So I took my phone, called a lawyer, and then took the next bus to go to the detention centre.
I have lost many things in my life but I did not think of any of that when they took me to the detention centre. I only thought about two things: that I had lost my best friend and that I had told Marion that I would come and help distribute vegetables for other refugees in the evening. I remember that when I got out of the detention centre, the people that were the happiest to see me were Nathalie, Pauline, Johanna and you. I could not go back to my previous flat because of my legal situation so you let me stay in your flat and went to stay at your boyfriend’s place. I don’t think many people would have done that and I am so thankful that you did.
It was obvious to me that I had to fight alongside you because I could not lose you. Hopefully, I would never be alone. On the days that followed your detention I discovered just how loved you were when many people reached out to me to organise your defence together, which we did. But we soon discovered that being detained was only the beginning of your administrative nightmare, which lasted for months.
When I got my first negative decision, I wanted to leave for another country. My Afghan friends tried to convince me to leave without telling you, but it was impossible for me. I told you my plan, and you said that you thought leaving would be a mistake but that you would support me regardless of my decision. You told me that life would be difficult here, but that at least we could find the solutions together. So I stayed.
Rejection after rejection, we held onto the hope that you would one day be allowed to start your new life in France. Finally, after 18 months in France, you were allowed to apply for asylum and received protection. We were not living in the same city anymore when you got your decision, but we shared this moment together over the phone, and I can’t tell you the joy and relief I felt in that moment.
Today, those difficult times are behind me and I can’t help thinking that all of the good things that happened in my life were because of you. I am so proud to be able to call you my friend and I hope that everyone gets the chance to meet a friend like you.
Keani Vonge & Najibullah Safi
Keani was born in Tahiti and studied in the city of Toulouse. She holds a Master’s degree in political science and wrote her Master’s thesis on the implementation of the Dublin regulation at local level. She has volunteered in several organisations providing legal help to asylum seekers in France and in Greece and is passionate about migration and women’s rights.
Najib was born in Afghanistan. He is 27 years old and graduated from Ghulam Haider Khan High School in 2011. He then worked in AWCC (Afghan Wireless Communication Company) until 2015. His life was at risk in his country so he left and came to Europe. He has been living in France in the city of Toulouse for 3 years now.