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Afghan Teenage Migrant Risks All for Promise of a Better Life

On a hilltop above the port city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, Mohamed Eckberry sits on a bench in a pine forest with five other Afghan friends, escaping the heat of a sunny Mediterranean day.

“It's nice up here,” he says, reflecting on events of the last 20 days, since he leaving his Kabul home.

Eckberry is just 17. His parents weren't sure about his departure. Would he be killed by smugglers, or drowned at sea? Afghanistan's never-ending war, and its dim economic prospects, also weighed heavily on their minds. But Eckberry, still in high school, was more sure than they were.

“If I stayed in Afghanistan, I cannot continue my education. I really have no future in Afghanistan," he told VOA. "I want to study and continue my education here in Europe.”

With his parents' blessings, he and his friends set out in search of a better life.

All in their early 20s, Eckberry's friends sit calmly and listen while we talk.

“Do you know anywhere we can go swimming?” he asks with teenage excitement that gives away his age. An odd question to ask sitting on a hilltop surrounded by the Aegean Sea.

A dangerous journey

Getting out of Afghanistan was not easy. Smugglers took him and 21 others across the border into Iran.

“They put 22 people in a small car, and they kept pushing and pushing us farther into the back," he recalls. "It was the worst experience of my life."

Crossing the border into Turkey only saw things get worse. Turkish police spotted them and took pursuit firing guns. The young men ran into the mountains and hid for three days.

The six young Afghan men on Lesbos. (Jeff Swicord/VOA News)

The six young Afghan men on Lesbos. (Jeff Swicord/VOA News)

“There was water because water was coming from the mountain," he says. "There was no food, bread — nothing and it was really cold at night. I thought we were going to die on that mountain.”

The 3-kilometer sea crossing to Lesbos didn't go much better. Smugglers packed the young Afghans and about 45 others into an inflatable rubber boat designed to carry 10, pointed out a lighted spot on the horizon and sent them off. As with many migrant sea crossings, the smugglers didn't climb aboard themselves, but instead designated one person to steer the dinghy's outboard motor —​ an inexpensive, 15- to 20-horsepower engine that quickly became swamped with water and failed.

Stalled halfway to the eastern coastline of Lesbos island, which is littered with abandoned rafts, Eckberry thoughts turned grim.

“The waves were really high and we thought we were going to die in the middle of the sea," he says. "We just kept drifting.”

Finally they were spotted by the Greek coast guard and brought to Lesbos.

The beach on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Jeff Swicord/VOA News)

The beach on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Jeff Swicord/VOA News)

North into Europe

Now on the outskirts of the Greek port city, Eckberry and his friends are just a few of the hundreds of migrants who squeeze against the entrace of Mytilene's travel offices each day, pouring into the street and dodging traffic in hopes of securing a spot on the Athens-bound ferry, which, about the size of a small cruise ship, always sells out fast.

Mohamed Eckberry's ticket and registration paper for the ferry to Athens. (Jeff Swicord/VOA News)

Mohamed Eckberry's ticket and registration paper for the ferry to Athens. (Jeff Swicord/VOA News)

After four hours in line, Eckberry and his friends were able to buy a ticket for the following day.

Pulling his ticket and registration papers from his pocket, the registration, with his picture on it, is written in Greek.

“Is this good for all of Europe?” he asks.

Having spent all their money on ferry tickets, the group considers returning to the camp for free food. Reminded that they will need a lot more money to continue their journey northward to Europe, they resolve to buy a somewhat decent meal anyway.

“We will have our relatives wire more money to a bank in Athens," says an optimistic Eckberry, his youthful enthusiasm coming through. "We are not going back now!”