For one Afghan teenage girl, the refugee trail is as dangerous as the war left behind

The World
Hoor, 16, arrived in Istanbul in late June

Hoor, 16, arrived in Istanbul in late June, after being smuggled from Kunduz, Afghanistan, where her uncle had plans to marry her to a much older man. After arriving in Istanbul, she was raped. Hoor saw the sea for the first time in Istanbul. When she looks at it, she says she feels calm and comforted. She is now living at a state-run orphanage and in the process of getting her Turkish residency.

Elie Gardner/PRI

Bravery has consequences, and 16-year-old Hoor is paying the price.

She escaped a forced marriage in Afghanistan, defied deportation in Iran and crossed the border into Turkey with smugglers, and without her family.

Hoor, who asked not to be identified by her real name, thought she would be safe once in Istanbul, but instead she’s hiding in a Turkish orphanage. She takes cautious excursions on weekends with refugee volunteers.

On a sunny Saturday, Hoor sat in an Italian restaurant in the tourist hub of Istiklal Street, picking at her pizza. She didn’t have an appetite. Her feet fidgeted and her brown eyes focused on the floor. As she shared her story, she vacillated between being a boisterous, happy teenager and a victim of rape who suffers from fits of crying.

“My father made me promise to stay honorable no matter what happens, to stay pure,” she said, sobbing as she wiped her tears with the edge of her burgundy headscarf. “But I failed." 

Hoor wears a black dress

Hoor says her favorite colors are black and white, colors she says were meaningful to the prophet. "When I wear the black color, I feel so brave," she says.


Elie Gardner/PRI

One of many

Hoor is among tens of thousands of unaccompanied minor refugees in Turkey who have fled wars. Those who cross the borders on their own are at most risk. In an August report, the Women’s Refugee Commission said female refugees may face “sexual assault, extortion, exploitation and rights violation at every stage of their journey.” The report criticizes the European Union’s deal with Turkey to stop the flow of refugees to Europe and describes women’s and girls’ ordeal as a harrowing obstacle course for survival. The numbers in Turkey have risen because the flow of refugees crossing to Greece has dropped since the deal was sealed in March.

As of September, more than 116,000 Afghans in Turkey are seeking asylum to a third country, according to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. About 16,000 are Afghan girls under the age of 18. The number of minors increased by at least 3,000 since January when hundreds who would have made the perilous sea journey to Europe started being kept in Turkey. 

But the deal has made it easier for Afghan asylum seekers who can now receive free healthcare and schooling in Turkey.

In Turkish cities, some refugee girls whose families need money to survive work in factories for menial pay, sell tissue or beg on the streets. Most are Syrian, but Afghans are the second largest refugee group in Turkey and the world.

An Afghan aid worker in Istanbul who did not want to be named said only a handful of Afghan girls like Hoor venture alone on the treacherous 3,000-mile trail from Afghanistan to Turkey. 

“She’s very brave,” he said.

The aid worker helped Hoor escape the smuggler who raped her.

Hoor, 16, has been helped by organizations and individuals, like this woman from United Rescues

Hoor, 16, has been helped by organizations and individuals, like this woman from United Rescues. They have helped put a roof over her head and settle her in Turkey. Hoor now calls this woman sister.


Elie Gardner/PRI

Born into a different life

Hoor remembered a carefree life in her home in Kunduz, an ethnically mixed province in northern Afghanistan that is now the frontline between the government and the Taliban. She calls her father her hero, a jeweler who died of brain cancer five years ago. Hoor is the oldest of four daughters, and the patriarch of their family spent any disposable income on their education. Hoor, whose native languages are both Farsi and Pashto, received English and Arabic language lessons. She also learned Urdu from visits to Pakistan with her dad. And now she’s practically fluent in Turkish, after only four months in Turkey.

After her father’s death, her mother, a teacher, and the girls wanted to live on their own but one of her paternal uncles, a criminal and a gambler, refused to allow it, Hoor said. 

“He told us it was dishonorable for women to live by themselves. He married my mother for a $4,000 dowry to a farmer so he could support his gambling habit,” she said.

The uncle then moved the four girls into his family home. They weren’t allowed to communicate with their mother, who occasionally contacted Hoor in secret.

Last year, her uncle told Hoor she was ready for marriage because she had reached puberty. He was going to wed her to a middle-aged polygamous suitor once he collected the dowry, but Hoor resisted. She reached out to her mother, who called one of her father’s wealthier friends. The family friend hired a smuggler to get her out of the country. Hoor’s plan after fleeing was to raise enough money to free her sisters from her uncle and his plan to marry them off for money, and have them join her in Turkey. 

Hoor’s family friend in Kabul had agreed to pay smugglers $2,000 for her arrival in Turkey. Half of the money was collected at the beginning of her journey and the rest was to be delivered once Hoor crossed the Turkish border.

In her notebook, Hoor writes Turkish words

In her notebook, Hoor writes Turkish words she is learning and their translation in her native Dari. Hoor left three younger sisters behind who, she says, inspire her to learn Turkish and work so she can find a way to bring them here.


Elie Gardner/PRI

The long journey

The Afghan smuggler took her on a bus at 2 a.m. with other families from Kabul across the country to Nimroz, an Afghan province rampant with drug running and lawlessness on the border of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. They crossed the desert into southern Iran only to be caught and deported by Iranian police. But the smuggler reassured Hoor they could return the next day, and when they slipped across the vast desert to Iranian soil again, she and the other women were handed black Iranian chadors, the enveloping veil, and told to remain silent. Their Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi, might give them away as illegal refugees.

The rest of their journey in Iran went smoothly. The smugglers — all men — changed in each country, but they were the same network. Hoor walked for two hours through mountain passes until they reached Van. There a Kurdish smuggler demanded the other $1,000, but Hoor didn’t have it and her father’s friend in Kabul didn’t wire it to the smugglers as was planned.

The human traffickers detained Hoor.

“I wasn’t the only one without the full payment. They kept us in a house and fed us cheese and bread. One man was there for six months waiting for someone to pay the smugglers’ full fee,” Hoor said.

Another man from Kunduz, Hoor’s home province, lent her the money. The man was a refugee turned smuggler with a shop in Istanbul. He brought her to Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu neighborhood, where Afghans and many Central Asian refugees and immigrants reside. He had an Afghan wife and toddler girl.

Hoor wanted to apply for asylum, but he urged her against it and offered to give her housing and work. She agreed.

“The family was nice to me. He gave me a room in the family home and helped me get a job as a seamstress. I trusted him.” Hoor said.

It took just a month for the trust to be broken.

Hoor repeatedly blamed herself for her decisions. “I had no one else here,” she cried.

One night, when Hoor came home after her 12-hour shift at a textile factory, the man burst into her room drunk. His wife and child were at his in-laws’ home. He promised a free passage to Europe for her and her sisters if Hoor had sex with him. Frightened and shaking, she refused.

He then raped Hoor, a virgin, who barely understood sex. She endured excruciating pain and bled for 23 days. But worse is the emotional trauma. She tried to commit suicide with toxic cleaning liquids before Turkish social workers stopped her. She takes medication to fall asleep.

Chastity before marriage is paramount in most segments of Afghan society, and without it she cannot find respect — or a husband. Families in rural areas have been known to kill their own daughters for the “crime of infidelity," having had premarital sex or even having been raped. They do so to restore “honor,” they say. In many countries, including in parts of Turkey and Afghanistan, underage victims are forced to marry their rapists.

Turkish feminists protested and stopped a bill in parliament that would have allowed rapists to marry their victims in exchange for charges being dropped. Currently, statutory rape is illegal in Turkey.

Hoor fled the apartment. She called an Afghan aid worker she had met at a meeting for refugees and told him her story on a street corner.

“She was crying and in awful shape on the street,” the aid worker said.

He contacted organizations working with the UN refugee agency, and a translator from the Human Resource Development Foundation took Hoor to the police where she filed a report. The police checked her into a women’s shelter. She underwent medical and pregnancy tests; doctors confirmed she was sexually assaulted and police promised to capture the offender. Hoor, afraid he would hurt her family in Kunduz, didn’t give police the man’s address. She did, however, tell them about the small shop he owns in Zeytinburnu where he was seen haggling with new refugees seeking a passage to Europe.

Hoor initially felt safe after she was moved to a Turkish orphanage for girls under 18. But she’s more religious than the other girls in the orphanage, who drink alcohol and date boys. She prays to calm herself and takes Turkish language classes. Her goal is to go to a Turkish university, get a job and save her sisters from their uncle.

The teen eventually applied for asylum, and it’s the Human Resource Development Foundation’s responsibility to follow up about the criminal rape case on Hoor’s behalf. The agency handles some sexual assault cases and is responsible for lobbying for justice for UN asylum seekers with the Turkish government, but they do not have the power to arrest perpetrators. The agency did not return emails or calls for comment.

After a reporter visited the Turkish police to inquire about the case, the suspect was arrested a week later. The police asked Hoor to testify and identify the man.

But Hoor said she couldn’t, because the suspect’s wife found her near her Turkish school and begged her not to cooperate with police. Hoor’s sense of safety was shattered.

“I don’t know how she found me, but I don’t feel safe any more. His wife said her husband did a terrible thing, but I should forgive him,” Hoor said, her voice shaking. “I can’t testify now. If they can find me, they can easily find my family in Afghanistan and hurt them.”

The suspect will most likely go free.

Hoor saw the sea for the first time in Istanbul

Hoor saw the sea for the first time in Istanbul. When she looks at it, she says she feels calm and comforted.


Elie Gardner/PRI

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