An Afghan man’s struggle to find refuge in Poland after escaping the Taliban

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, almost 4 million Ukrainian refugees have fled into Poland, where they’ve generally received a warm welcome. But at the same time, Poland is trying to deter thousands of migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere from entering, often by using violence. Ali Rogin reports on one Afghan refugee whose journey shows not all migrants are treated equally.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, almost 4 million Ukrainian refugees have fled their homes into neighboring Poland. The country has welcomed them warmly, and the government provides access to all social services. But at the same time, Poland has pulled the welcome mat from 1000s of Middle Eastern migrants. Ali Rogin has the story of one Afghan refugee whose journey shows not all migrants are treated equally.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Khaled Mohebi never wanted to leave Afghanistan. He had a good life as a software developer and coach of a computer programming team. A life made possible by peace.

  • Khaled Mohebi, Afghan Refugee:

    We were developing, you know, the nobody think about it that one day Taliban will come back because nobody support them.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But they did come back as the United States withdrew last August. Khaled worked for an American company. He knew he had to flee. He had a U.S. visa, but like so many Afghans was turned away at the Kabul airport. So he began and almost 3000 mile journey by car. He made it to Iran and from there flew to Moscow in mid-September, where his programming team was set to compete a few months later, but after the games, Russia wanted to send them back. Khaled Russian contacts suggested he traveled to Poland on foot through Belarus.

  • Khaled Mohebi:

    They asked us to go there illegally, we said, why? We are educated, we are from national team, we can go anywhere legally, why we do that? And why we play again with our life?

  • Ali Rogin:

    But he realized Russia was willing to play that game. So Khaled and his friends devised a plan.

  • Khaled Mohebi:

    Two days before our visa expire. We bought some jackets and we traveled there. And we were — we thought that OK, when we arrive to the Polish border, we will show our documents and everything and they will help us.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But Khaled didn't know that Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and ally of Russia's Vladimir Putin was playing his own dangerous game, luring migrants from the Middle East and South Asia, then pushing them to the borders of his Western neighbors. The group arrived at the Polish border in mid-October, walking straight into the no man's land of a hybrid war, facing barbed wire and armed guards. They hid in the wilderness for four days then tried to escape back to Belarus, but were caught.

  • Khaled Mohebi:

    They shot me by electric shock and hunter dog, by hunter dog. Dog cut destroyed this part of my jacket and my face and hand. And finally the soldier fired 10 or five centimeter distance with my head by gun, they said OK, now we don't — we didn't kill you. So you have another chance you can go to the Poland, don't come back and we said how, because we didn't have food, water. We didn't eat anything for four days.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But he still had his smartphone with a little bit of power left so he posted an SOS on face, writing, there is a cold war between Belarus and Europe, and we are the cannon fodder.

  • Khaled Mohebi:

    Receive message from all around the world.

  • Ali Rogin:

    One message was from Polish journalist Andrezj Miller, who had lived for years in Afghanistan, but recently moved back to a small town on the Polish Belarus border.

  • Andrezj Miller, Journalist:

    I got a message from Herat from a friend who wrote to me that few of his Afghan friends, I.T. engineers, they are somewhere in the middle of the jungle, at the border between Poland and Belarus. So he asked me, Andrezj, I think you live there, there's a kind of a war there, could you help them?

  • Ali Rogin:

    Miller also called Fundacja Ocalenie, a Polish volunteer group dedicated to helping migrants.

  • Andrezj Miller:

    We decided that we will call — we will do it officially, legally. We will call the border guard and they will ask for asylum in Poland. At the same time, local television and other media radio will come to the spot.

  • Ali Rogin:

    By the time the volunteers and cameras reached Khaled and his friends, they had been in the woods eight days all near death.

  • Khaled Mohebi:

    (Inaudible). We asked them to kill us please. The soldiers, please kill us, finish this story. But they didn't.

  • Marianna Wartecka, Fundacja Ocalenie:

    He was really brave. It looked like he was taking responsibility for the whole group on some level.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Marianna Wartecka was among the volunteers who met Khaled.

  • Khaled Mohebi:

    They give us food, water and the clothes and everything. And I can't forget that and I swear there — OK, I will help other guys like them one day because you know, they were like angel. They arrived there and they saved us.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Marianna told Khaled he'd have to go with the Polish border guards to apply for protection.

  • Marianna Wartecka:

    He asked me if I could promise him that it was going to be OK. I remember his face and his eyes when I had to tell him that, I couldn't promise him that it was going to be OK because I didn't know that.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But the guards behavior towards Khaled changed when they had an audience.

  • Khaled Mohebi:

    This time it was different, you know, they didn't push us back to the Belarus and they act very normal, standard like we are good Polish and we will not send you back.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Once Khaled applied for international protection, he spent a few weeks in a refugee camp. And a few weeks later he moved in with a family in Warsaw and applied for a work permit. When we spoke, he had recently moved into his own apartment. But Khaled's journey is not over. Just a few weeks after our interview, he learned he wouldn't get an update on his work permit until October due to the influx of Ukrainian refugees. He was running out of money so he left for Germany, where he has a job offer and better prospects for a work permit. And he lives in a refugee camp, he says is much nicer than the one in Poland.

    Marianna Wartecka says Poland is still treating non-Europeans at the border harshly while Ukrainians receive a warm welcome.

  • Marianna Wartecka:

    I am very, very happy that they are getting the help they needed. I think that's how it should look like in a situation like this. But it is very frustrating when you compare it to how badly the asylum seekers on the Belarusian border are treated.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But that hasn't stopped Khaled from trying to pay his good fortune forward. When he was in Poland, he volunteered at a shelter for Ukrainian refugees.

    After everything you have been through, where do you find the ability and the desire to help Ukrainian refugees?

  • Khaled Mohebi:

    When you help somebody, a refugee, and when you see his happy and smile, it will, you know, it will send you a positive energy and it will help me too.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Even while his own future in Europe is uncertain, Khaled is already making good on his pledge to help others like him. For "PBS Newshour Weekend" I'm Ali Rogin.

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