How refugees enrich their new homes with hope, resilience and grit
The house was empty when he got home from school one afternoon.
Eight-year-old Farhad Agajan wandered out to ask if any neighbors had seen his mother or siblings. Crying and increasingly frantic, he reached the home of a relative who lived nearby and heard the words that changed him forever: “He gave me some money, and he told me, ‘Your life is in danger. Take this and leave, immediately,’” Agajan recalled.
He would spend the next decade as an unaccompanied minor, journeying from Afghanistan through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey before landing in Greece at age 16 and eventually learning that his mother was still alive back home. By then, he had fallen in love with his new country and considered himself Greek.
Now, although Agajan talks with his mother over Skype every week, he’s applying for Greek citizenship and is focused on giving back to his adopted home and people. The resilience and optimism he cultivated throughout his ordeal were what got him through – and what have paved the way toward success as the now 28-year-old works with Mercy Corps as a field officer in refugee camps while finishing high school and learning computer programming.
Agajan is one of more than 65 million people in the world who are displaced from their homes – the highest level on record. That staggering figure includes more than 21 million refugees, who had to flee to another country. In Syria, where war has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in our lifetime, 11 million people, or half the population, have had to leave their homes. Three-quarters of them are women and children.
Agajan’s escape from Afghanistan predates the current global emergency and has put him in an ideal situation to help others weather the trauma. Recognizing the powerful ways technology can help refugees, Microsoft is working to bring the right tools to people like Agajan and aid organizations like Mercy Corps. In all, Microsoft has contributed more than $30 million to support refugees around the world in the last year.
“We see our efforts as a big part of the company’s mission of empowering every person and every organization to achieve more,” said Mary Snapp, who leads Microsoft Philanthropies. “Broadly speaking, our focus is to help nonprofit organizations access technologies, especially those in the cloud, to work more efficiently and to serve as many beneficiaries as possible. We also support digital and technical skills training for people who would otherwise be left behind as innovation advances.”
Leen Toukatli is about the same age as Agajan – she’s 30 – and also fled to Europe from a war-torn country, but her journey couldn’t have been more different.Farhad Agajan, 28, fled Afghanistan alone when he was 8 years old. He made his way through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey before landing at age 16 in Greece, where he’s now applying for citizenship and working for Mercy Corps in refugee camps. “My own experience helps me help them,” he said.
Toukatli grew up peacefully in Damascus, Syria, a beautiful city UNESCO named the Arab Capital of Culture in 2008. The family spent time abroad, in France, where her doctor father furthered his medical studies. She studied law, including stints at a Parisian university, and became a lawyer for a Syrian telecommunications firm.
She lived with her parents until her marriage in 2013, and her memories of that home, in a stable area, are unmarred by the fighting that broke out in 2011. But when she moved into her new husband’s high-rise apartment, with a panoramic view over Damascus, she had a front-row seat as the city was bombed every day – with explosions sometimes only a mile or two away. “We could see the war in front of our eyes,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.”
At the end of 2014, realizing they were in immediate danger, Toukatli and her husband filled three suitcases with their law licenses, clothes and a few wedding gifts, and fled.
Like Agajan, Toukatli is cautious about publicly revealing the frightening details of why she had to leave Syria, and how she did it. But she had French language skills and a familiarity with the culture, making France the obvious choice to flee to. She and her husband were granted French citizenship last month.
“The French government accepted me, protected me, helped me and respected me and my ideas about liberty, and that’s how I survived,” Toukatli said. “So I feel like I’m Syrian, but I’m also French. Like a kid who lost his parents and got adopted by other parents. Those new parents become his family and become the real parents for him. And so France is my family now.”
Toukatli studied in Paris when she first arrived, until she was allowed to work. An internship with Microsoft there led to a position as an attorney working on the company’s behalf with French-speaking African countries.
“Microsoft helped me rebuild my career, which I had lost when I left Syria,” Toukatli said. “When I came to France, I was nothing. But Microsoft believed in me. I came from a country that had no electricity or internet, because of the war, and now I work in one of the most important companies in technology.”
Toukatli’s managers at Microsoft also encouraged her to do something to help other Syrians in France, so she and a colleague began teaching young refugees how to write resumes and cover letters, helping them search for jobs and generally integrate into their new homeland.
“Living through a war gives you the power to survive,” Toukatli said. “And I feel like now I have extra power for other things: extra power to live, and to improve myself, and to help others. In my work for Microsoft, I do everything I can to make a difference, because I am different.”
Snapp became head of the newly created Microsoft Philanthropies division in December 2015, about a year after Toukatli arrived in France, as boatloads of fleeing Syrian refugees were landing daily on Greek shores. Snapp quickly realized the company’s traditional focus of providing humanitarian aid for natural disasters wasn’t enough. So early last year, her group expanded its charter to include “man-made disasters.”
Living through a war gives you the power to survive. I feel like now I have extra power to live, to improve myself, and to help others. In my work for Microsoft, I do everything I can to make a difference.
Microsoft’s donations of cash, equipment, software and training are aimed at empowerment – for humanitarian organizations such as Mercy Corps working to meet critical needs, and for displaced people trying to rebuild their lives.
For example, through Mercy Corps, the company gave computers to youth centers in refugee camps in Greece, including the ones where Agajan works, and provided trainers to teach digital skills. At one refugee center Snapp visited this year in Athens, a group of young men was learning how to create Sway presentations about their lives – developing not only technical skills but also the ability to tell stories and express themselves creatively.
Language is key to refugees’ success, Snapp said, no matter where they are. Agajan picked up eight languages along the way, while Toukatli already knew three when she arrived in France. But more than half of the world’s refugees are children, many of whom have never had formal schooling because of crises and may be orphans or separated from their parents in a foreign land. It’s critical for them to learn how to communicate.
As refugees began flooding into Germany in 2015, a firm there realized its popular “Schlaumäuse” app, developed in 2003 to help young German kids start school with better language skills, could be a big help to refugee children. Microsoft helped redesign the app for the new mission, adding spoken instructions in Arabic, French and English, and donated devices with the app for aid organizations to hand out.
In the free app, whose name means “clever mice,” two animated mice named Lingo and Lette teach kids how to speak and read German through stories and games they play together. One game teaches the words for various articles of clothing, for example, while in another, kids learn words for items they might find in kitchens or schools. About 80,000 refugee children are using the app now, said Jacqueline Graf, part of the pedagogic team for Helliwood Media & Education that developed it. And German children around the country are spending their free afternoons playing the games with newcomers to help them learn, she said.
Snapp tells of her recent visit to Jordan and the the Zaatari refugee camp, which is now five years old and is home to 80,000 people, making it the country’s fourth-largest city. Although inhabitants live in tent shelters, the camp has 29 schools, two hospitals and about 3,000 informal shops and businesses. Snapp met with a group of leaders there who presented her with a pitch – not for food, water or medicine, but for the technology they said they needed to help run their new, hopefully temporary, home. That included such detailed requests as Microsoft’s data visualization service, Power BI, to help map the camp and keep an updated assessment of the condition of its shelters.
“They are communities that are reliant on support, but very much want to build their own livelihoods,” Snapp said. “When you hear the United Nations say an average stay in a camp is 17 years, you realize how important it is to provide livelihood training and technology so refugees can have productive lives where they are, and perhaps even work where they are in areas of technology, whether within the camp or starting their own businesses. That is a key element of what we need to do, when we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people in camps.”
Agajan was one of the people Snapp met on her visit, and she remembers well the hope he inspired. “When we went to the camp with him, he knew people, and he shook their hands and clapped the men on the back and asked about the children,” she said. “He provided them with a sense of hope that they could do it, a connection to a world that they hope to be in one day.”
Thinking back on that day his family disappeared when he was 8, Agajan said his “mind was nothing, just to leave from this place.
“From the day I was born, it’s war and war,” he said. “From the time I understood my right hand from my left hand, from that time, I remembered only war, and I thought nothing is going to change.”
The relative who lived nearby asked if he had any relations in another country that no one knew about whom he could flee to, and Agajan remembered the name of a town in Pakistan his father – before he was killed – had taken him to when he was 5, to visit family that had fled there during the Russia-Afghanistan war. So he took the money his relative gave him, ran to the main road and bought a ride in a car heading toward the border.
“It was dark when we got to Pakistan, and I was young and small, so the police didn’t check me,” he said. “They thought I was with some other family there, so I was able to pass through the border. Then I saw other boys climbing into the backs of trucks and covering themselves with tarps, so I did that, too. They seemed experienced, but I didn’t know why, and I didn’t have the chance to ask them what they were doing. I just did it.”
Agajan made his way to the right village, and finally found his father’s relatives there. They consoled him, took him in, and let him live with them for six years while he went to school and worked, never able to find out what had happened to his mother and siblings. When he was 14, he decided to leave and forge a new life.
It turned out his relatives had saved all the money young Agajan had contributed to the family’s finances, and they gave it all back to him. They also paid to help him get to Iran. It was a long, dangerous trek by bus and car with other refugees, until they were told to jump over a short wall. “And when we jumped, he said, ‘This is Iran,’” Agajan said. “And I said, ‘This is Iran? But there’s no city, no houses.’ And he told me, ‘Now your journey is starting.’ And we walked and walked and walked through the mountains in the dark.”
The memories Agajan is willing to share are specific – of fights among refugees over the scarce bottles of water brought to the group by men on motorbikes who then disappeared and left them alone in the mountains; of rides under tarps in the backs of trucks winding along roads at terrifying speeds; of a new, half-finished house they hid in for days in one village; of holding tightly to two or three other refugees on the backs of motorbikes to keep from falling off; of desperately trying to clean the dirt off his face and hair before boarding a “normal” bus that took him into a city; of meeting other refugees there who helped him find odd jobs and a place to sleep.
It’s what he won’t – or can’t – share that haunts the most.
“Most things I don’t want to remember,” he said. “It was so difficult. If I start one thing, I should say another and another. And it’s so hard to have to remember all these things again.”
From Iran, Agajan made his way to Turkey, guided by moonlight through steep mountains on a path so narrow he couldn’t stand with his feet together. Life in Istanbul, working odd jobs that only provided enough money to survive, was hard. Agajan came from an educated family, and he longed to study, perhaps even to become a doctor like his father.Agajan slept on a park bench in Athens for a few months when he arrived in Greece at age 16, as an unaccompanied minor. He began learning Greek, found a job and now has his own apartment and is focused on giving back to his adopted homeland.
He had never heard of Greece before. But on his way toward London around 2005, he crossed a river from Turkey in a plastic boat, got under yet another tarp in the back of yet another truck, and suddenly found himself surrounded by Greek police – and also by elderly men and women from a nearby village, who held out milk and biscuits to the weary refugees. When Agajan saw the smile embracing him from one old Greek woman’s eyes, he knew: He was finally home.
“It was scary but happy,” he said. “I was so confused. I felt I was in another world. I didn’t know the language yet, but I could see her face. I was so happy, this feeling, it’s hard to describe. It was the first time in my life I felt welcomed.”
After the police released him, he made his way to Athens and slept on a park bench in the city center for a couple months. In the early mornings he would watch from his bench as people rushed to work, while he sat, hungry and thirsty, in the dirty, smelly clothes he hadn’t been able to change. “What’s the difference between them and me?” he recalled thinking. “I have eyes, hands and feet, just like they do. If I try my best, I can have this life, too.”
A man who lived near the park offered Agajan a hot shower and a phone card. The telephone numbers he remembered for family and friends in Afghanistan still didn’t work, but he was able to call the relatives he’d lived with in Pakistan and let them know he was alive and in Greece.
Then he set about learning a few words, including the crucial phrase, “Good morning, boss, do you have a job?” He found steady work at a factory, where he traded extra shifts for Greek language classes.
He had learned some English at the school for refugees he had attended in Pakistan, and that, along with the other languages he’d picked up along his journey, eventually landed him a position as an interpreter for an aid organization. He made Greek friends, worked his way up to supervisor and rented his own apartment. Last year, he was hired by Mercy Corps as a field officer, to help connect people living in the refugee camps with the services they need to survive.
I was so happy. It was the first time in my life I felt welcomed.
“If you’re down, and someone gives you their hand to help you up – that’s what I needed when I arrived, and now I’m so happy to give my hand to others,” Agajan said. “I can show them what they can do and how to improve themselves. My own experience helps me help them.”
In the meantime, Agajan studied at home after work every day, and after six years in Greece, with a stable income to support himself, he was able to go back to school. Now he’s finishing high school, taking classes at night with an emphasis on computer programming. He’s saving up to buy a house, the most important thing to him right now – even greater than his continuing desire to be a doctor.
“I want to be married and have children and live in our own home,” he said. “All these years I lived alone and without family, so now I am trying for this. If you’re trying, and you have hope, you will find the way. If I can’t study, then maybe I can help someone else, and maybe my children can study.”
Agajan never gave up faith that his mother and siblings were still alive. “My feelings told me everything is OK and I will find them,” he said. “Sometimes I was thinking that maybe they are here in Athens.” When Agajan was 19, working in the factory and volunteering as an interpreter, his relatives in Pakistan gave him a telephone number they had found for people they knew back in Afghanistan. Agajan called it and waited while someone ran to get his mother.
Speaking with her for the first time in more than a decade, he said, was too difficult to describe. “She told me, ‘OK my son, you are good, you are safe, be careful and don’t try to come back now,’” he said. “After that, I saved my money to buy a phone for my mother so I can call her directly.” He learned that his siblings – some older, some younger – are scattered throughout the world. He wouldn’t say how many are still alive, out of fear for their lives.
Now, even though Agajan works all day and attends classes every night, he makes sure to find time to talk with his mom over Skype every week. It helps them both to be able to see each other with the video connection.
But he’s attached to Greece and wants to give back to its people. Agajan still vividly remembers villagers in Afghanistan thanking his father for providing free medical care, especially after bombings. “That’s why I like to help people,” he said. “I have a lot of Greek friends, and they give their old clothes to me, and I find people in the parks and other places and give the clothes to them. So, OK, I’m not a doctor, but I can help people with what I do have.
“I didn’t come here for somebody to help me or give me something,” he said. “I never sat without work, all those years, and from the day I got a job, I am paying the taxes. If you weigh this, how much Greece gives to me and how much I give to Greece, well, I am paying all the taxes, but Greece is giving me a new life. And so I try my best. I feel like a Greek person.”
His Greek friends say he’s more mature than others his age – to be expected, considering his life experience. But more than maturity, his journey showed him the power of positivity. “Whatever I passed through, I threw the negative things in the garbage and only took the positive ones with me,” he said. Now a hobby photographer, Agajan said he only takes pictures of “good” things, to help erase the bad from memory.
Those types of qualities make refugees invaluable to their new host countries, Snapp said.Mary Snapp met Agajan on her recent visit to refugee camps in Greece and Jordan, and she watched as he shook people’s hands, clapped the men on the back and asked about the children. “He provided them with a sense of hope that they could do it, a connection to a world that they hope to be in one day,” she said.
“Refugees bring character and resilience and grit,” she said. “Their perseverance enables them to be very adaptable in the workplace. They have the ability to work in collaboration, to really work with others. It’s a set of characteristics based on the experiences they’ve been through and a knowledge of how the world works that may set them apart from an engineer who graduated from MIT and came straight to us at age 23. And here at Microsoft, we need that perspective as well if we’re going to build products and services with features that are going to be useful for the population of the world.”
In December 2000, when Agajan was living in Pakistan and about to turn 12, and when Toukatli was still enjoying her idyllic childhood in Syria, the U.N. General Assembly designated June 20 as World Refugee Day, to raise awareness and action.
Now Agajan and Toukatli want people to know that “refugee” is just a name for someone who could very well be any of us.
“Nobody wants to be a refugee,” Toukatli said. “This is a circumstance that’s forced upon them. When I was living in Syria, without war, I never imagined that I would be a refugee one day. So why would you think that you could live your whole life without being one? It could happen to you, and then you would be with no home. And with no home, your personality is lost. Maybe now, you don’t feel the importance of your country. But if you lost it, there would be a part of you that is lost with it and that will be missed forever.”
Agajan hopes people will take a moment on this day to close their eyes and imagine.
“Don’t think; just feel it,” he said. “You’re in the sea with your family, in a plastic boat, and you can see nothing. It’s very scary. You love your home, but if you go back to that shore, somebody will kill you. If you stay in this boat, even though it’s built for five and has 40 people squeezed into it, if you make it to the other side, you will have a life. Which will you decide?
“Refugees don’t come to take. They just want to be somewhere that they feel safe, in a place that cares about humans. If you give someone a little bit of help, as a person or as a country, this help will come back to you.”