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Loss And Reunion For Family Fleeing Afghanistan


We're going to start the program with a story that is not in the news every day but could be - that's the migrant crisis in Europe. The leaders of five Nordic nations met with President Obama yesterday to talk about this and other issues. In a few minutes, we'll hear from the foreign minister of Sweden who was in those talks.

But first, we want to remember that when we talk about the crisis we're talking about people, often families trying to stay together under the most difficult conditions, like the Rabani family of Kabul. One of their children disappeared one night in 2015 as they crossed the Mediterranean. But as NPR Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Lower Saxony, a German Red Cross worker refused to give up the search.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Even now it's hard for the mother, Shukria Ismaili, to describe what happened on that chilly night last year when she, her husband and their five children huddled with other migrants near the Turkish shore.

SHUKRIA ISMAILI: (Speaking Dari).

NELSON: She says they ran to the rickety boats waiting to take them to Greece. In the scrum, she says she lost track of her children save for the youngest whose hand was pressed tightly in hers. By the time they reunited in Lesbos, one family member was missing - her second-youngest boy, Mahdi.

S. ISMAILI: (Speaking Dari).

NELSON: Ismaili says, they thought the 10-year-old had drowned. She sunk into a depression as did her eldest daughter, Khatereh.

NELSON: The 16-year-old listens nearby with tears streaming down her face.

KHATEREH ISMAILI: (Speaking Dari).

NELSON: She whispers it was her fault that Mahdi went missing and I try to comfort her. Her mother asked me to turn the recorder off then tells me Khatereh is the reason the family fled Afghanistan. A strong man decided he wanted to marry the teen, and he beat up her father and threatened to kidnap her sister if the family didn't consent to the match. So the Rabanis ran, but the quest to save one child appeared to have cost them another.

MEIKE AROLAT: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Red Cross worker Meike Karolat says when she and her colleague, Rani Hijazi, heard about Mahdi they wanted to help the family find out what had happened to him. With thousands of migrant children reported missing in Europe, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Week after week, Hijazi checked the computerized registries of new asylum-seekers. He started in Germany and then broadened the search to Switzerland which is also favored by fleeing Afghans.

KAROLAT: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Karolat says last December her colleague made a shocking discovery. Mahdi was alive in the Swiss canton of Bern. The boy was reunited with his family here in Lower Saxony in March.

MAHDI: (Speaking Dari).

NELSON: Mahdi says the night he went missing he had boarded one of the boats with a friend. He thought his parents were not far behind. When he got to Greece, there was no trace of his family. He says he cried as he waited on shore for a full day.

MAHDI: (Speaking Dari).

NELSON: Another Afghan migrant Mahdi says he called uncle, took the boy to Switzerland where police sent him to live with a distant relative they found at a refugee camp. Mahdi now lives in a modest apartment with his parents and siblings. He dreams of playing professional soccer for a German team someday.

S. ISMAILI: (Speaking Dari).

NELSON: His mother says she can't describe the happiness she feels about having him back, but her joy is tempered by fear that they won't be allowed to stay in Germany. German officials say that after investing billions of dollars in civil and military aid to stabilize Afghanistan, they don't see a need to grant asylum to most Afghans now. Khatereh, too, is worried. She says for the first time she feels she has a future. She wants to become a doctor.

K. ISMAILI: (Through interpreter) In Afghanistan, girls aren't worth anything. On top of that, you go to school and there are a thousand suicide bombings and other violence.

NELSON: Khatereh says that if Germany rejects her family's asylum request, she'll run away. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News in Uelzen, Lower Saxony. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.