"I arrived in Athens in an ice-cream delivery truck from a village near Istanbul. The truck was partitioned in the middle and one part of the truck was sealed as if it contained parts of the gearbox or engine. Under normal circumstances, the customs officials would never think of opening a sealed, riveted part of the body of an ice-cream truck. They only looked at the ice-cream by opening the door at the rear. We were between the ice-cream boxes and the driver, in the sealed box which had a hole opening towards the ground. It was our source for oxygen and dirt. We were thankful even though it was December and the cold wind was swishing inwards. You must have watched the news on TV recently: fourteen Pakistanis suffocated to their death in Turkey. Those could have been us without that perforation in the floor. We were shivering but we had oxygen.
"I was sitting with my knees huddled to my chest. My feet had nine toe-nails missing. My body had shed whatever it could without losing the vital organs on a frozen, marshy non-passage between Iran and Turkey. And the truck rumbled to a halt in a yard in the outskirts of Athens. The yard belonged to the local agent who was responsible for keeping us for some days after arrival. He gave us very little food: one pizza slice and a glass of cola in 24 hours per person. Our stomachs had probably shrunk because even this felt sufficient. We rested and called our families to ask them to give the remaining amount to the agents in Pakistan. Athens was the final destination of our paperless journey on the land route from Narang Mandi.
"In the first couple of months, I just recuperated and familiarised myself with the city, the local laws and the community of illegal immigrants from Pakistan. I registered myself with the local authorities and got a 3-month, but renewable, residence permit as an illegal arrival. At the same time, I tried to learn some Greek and started looking for work. After the first six months of joblessness, I found one day of work. It involved carrying some furniture to the sixth floor of a building. I earned my first 100 Euros that day. Then again I was jobless. When I had no money, some Pakistanis extended me food and accommodation on credit. Some others just hosted me for free till the time I got work.
"Once I got a six-month contract painting a building, I started saving for the next part of my journey. It involved buying a Greek passport and putting my picture on it so that I could enter Spain. The cost was 1600 Euros. I was able to save 800 Euros after returning the money I had borrowed during my lean days. I called my elder brother back home and he arranged a loan of 800 Euros. I bought a Greek passport and got my picture affixed on it. Now I could travel within the Schengen zone. According to the agreement, I would courier the passport back to the real owner after entering Spain. So, after almost two years in Athens, I boarded a flight to Barcelona. During the flight, I could recognise four others who were travelling like me. When the plane landed, I just headed for the sign saying 'EU Citizens'. One person checked my passport with a cursory glance and waved me away. I was outside the airport and in Barcelona. I arrived at the house of some relatives who had entered some years earlier in an orange-delivery truck from Romania to France and then taken another van from Paris to Barcelona. Now they were all permanent residents of Spain.
"Some days after my arrival, I sent the passport back to Athens through a courier company. I am a paperless person now and registered with the local town council. Legally, I am not allowed to work but I have a job at a construction site where other Pakistanis work. The wages are low for illegal workers but Spain is enjoying a boom in its construction industry because of people like me.
"If I am not arrested by the police for any petty thing for three years, I can file a claim to permanent residence. I am also learning Spanish.
"I have evolved a complex set of habits. I try to walk in those streets which are not part of the police beat. If I see some police officers ahead, I change my course without attracting attention. I go to work early in the morning at a construction site and come back in the afternoon, just like a normal, hardworking resident of Catalonia.
"I live a cheap, frugal penny-pinching life with five other Pakistanis in a flat which has one bedroom and one lounge. We all sleep on mattresses on the floor. To save food expenses, we run a communal kitchen and buy food in bulk and take turns at cooking. We often cook what we are familiar with and buy grocery items at Pakistani shops. Every now and then, someone has a lucky break at securing some extra money. Then we celebrate by cooking sweet vermicelli or rice pudding. If there is any extra money, we send it home to help our parents or relatives.
"I consider myself lucky that I have survived a journey which I would never have undertaken had I known the perils I was to encounter. Not everyone who started with me was able to make it to Athens. My survival is not linked with my physical strength. I am actually quite frail, almost emaciated, and I have a chronic hepatitis C infection. Sometimes, after a laborious day, I start vomiting bile. Perhaps I survived because I cling to life more stubbornly or I am just lucky. Even now, I have registered myself with a local government hospital and go for regular checkups of my liver. After one year, I will file the claim for permanent residence. I have already acquired some health benefits that I did not have back home. I have hope. It is quite human. Really."
Published in The News on Sunday
dated August 10, 2008