An Afghan refugee risks everything: A tale of danger, hope, courage

In “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees,” Matthieu Aikins documents a perilous escape from Afghanistan.

"The Naked Don’t Fear the Water" by Matthieu Aikins, HarperCollins Publishers, 336 pp.

It’s not easy for someone who’s never been a refugee to understand what drives people to leave their homes and endure enormous risks to make a new start. It’s even harder to grasp what the journey is like for those who experience it.  

A compelling new book by journalist Matthieu Aikins, “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees,” provides penetrating insights into the refugee experience by following the path of an Afghan refugee who flees Kabul as the Taliban advance. 

Aikins was burned out from reporting on the war in Afghanistan as a freelance journalist and felt ready to leave. His driver, a man identified only as Omar, had become a friend. Omar had worked for the Americans and planned to get a Special Immigrant Visa so he could come to the United States. As a combat interpreter who had served alongside U.S. troops, Omar qualified. Unfortunately, he neglected to collect the paperwork to document his service, and the U.S. government took a hard line: application denied. 

Omar’s only option was to flee overland to Europe. Aikins decides to accompany him. After seven years in Afghanistan, Aikins is not afraid of danger, and he reasons that by doing this he can “see the refugee underground from the inside” and help his friend find a new life. He offers to pay for everything. Because Aikins holds Canadian and U.S. passports, he runs the risk of being kidnapped and held for ransom if his nationality is discovered, so he disguises himself as an Afghan migrant. 

But Omar repeatedly delays their departure. He wants to marry his girlfriend, but her wealthy family will not accept him as a suitor. Omar rarely sees her and is afraid to leave Afghanistan lest she be forced to marry someone else. Eventually, Omar concludes, if he gets to Europe, he will have something to offer her. So he leaves and she promises to wait for him. Throughout the journey Omar will wonder if she will keep her promise.  

The road from Afghanistan to Europe is long and arduous. Distance is not the only obstacle. There is danger everywhere – “the risk of getting arrested, stuck in transit, scammed, kidnapped, or killed.” More money means less risk. With enough money, you can literally buy safety, with price varying by destination: “America’s immigrant investor program requires nearly $2 million, while a golden visa to Greece needs only a quarter million euros [$280,000].” Everyone else faces choices that trade off safety against ease of passage. 

After a couple of false starts, the two men arrive at an apartment in Istanbul, Aikins after being briefly jailed and Omar after being beaten by border guards. A smuggler gets them to the Greek island of Lesbos where they live in a squalid migrant camp and spend their days discussing the best way to get to the mainland without being thrown into prison. 

They pay another smuggler to get them to Athens, where they take up residence in an abandoned hotel that has been occupied by anarchists. Once again, they endlessly debate how to get out of Greece and into one of the European countries that will grant Omar refugee status. From a smuggler, Omar buys an airline ticket to Switzerland and a Bulgarian passport under the assumption that nobody will expect him to speak. He clears airport security and arrives at the gate only to be told, “Sir, you have someone else’s boarding pass.”   

This is a beautifully written tale that features danger, uncertainty, fear, hunger, desperation, and isolation. Readers will be alternately fascinated and horrified by the life-or-death decisions that refugees make with limited information about where and how to move next. 

Equally revealing is the vast network of refugees and smugglers the men encounter along the way. Refugees do not face a lonely existence; there are plenty of others traveling the same road. Whether they can trust each other is another matter. “People will cheat you for one euro here,” a fellow refugee tells them. “Don’t trust anyone, OK? Don’t even trust me right now while I am telling you this.” 

Ultimately, any refugee’s story is one of hope, risk, courage, and chance. Hope for a better, safer, and more stable future leads them to risk everything. Courage sets them on their path and enables them to carry through the dangers and difficulties they will inevitably encounter. It’s also about circumstances. Even careful plans go awry, as Aikins repeatedly reminds us.  

This is something like a modern version of Homer’s “Odyssey,” except that in this telling Odysseus is named Omar and he is fleeing Kabul rather than attempting to return to Ithaca. And like the ancient Greek leader, he will endure toil, snares, and devious creatures in an effort to reach his destination. 

If you want to know if Omar reaches safety or sees his Penelope again, you’ll have to read the book. This compelling story is sure to stay with you long after you put the book down.

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