Love, not war, sent an Afghan family fleeing from Iran during last summer’s chaotic mass migration to Europe. Luck reunited them a year later, after a dark night in a Turkish forest separated 14-year-old Mahdi Azizi from his parents and sisters.
The boy’s father was at an open-air concert in central Sweden this summer when he thought he spotted his son. Nader Azizi had spent anguished months seeking information about Mahdi’s fate, not knowing if he were alive or also made it to Sweden.
“Is that Mahdi?” Azizi, 36, recalled thinking as he strained to keep sight of the youth in the crowd. “I told myself it was a dream.” He pushed closer and shouted out his son’s name. Mahdi turned around and exclaimed “Baba!” the Farsi word for dad.
The chance father-and-son reunion at a small town racetrack, along with a warm welcome from Mahdi’s Swedish foster family, offers a bright spot amid the bleak stories emerging from the migrant crisis.
After joining the waves of refugees — mostly Syrian but some from Afghan and Iraq — pinning their hopes on human smugglers, Mahdi got split up from the rest of his family in Turkey during the rush to board a truck headed for the border.
The boy traveled thousands of miles under the watch of different smugglers. He managed to reach Sweden, unaware his family was at an asylum center less than 150 kilometers (93 miles) away from the foster home where he was placed.
“I was really confused,” Mahdi said of his first days alone in the country. “At night, I couldn’t sleep. I was crying myself to sleep thinking of my mother.”
Azizi had moments during their yearlong separation when he felt confident he would see his son again, others when he feared the worst.
“When I thought about the difficult route, I was pessimistic,” he said. “But then I could see lots of people still making it, and I found hope again.”
Mahdi’s mother, Raheleh Azizi, 34, at first didn’t believe her husband when he called to tell her their son was safe and only moments away.
“He said, ‘I’ve seen Mahdi, I’ve found him,’” she recalled. “I said, “You’ve seen Mahdi? Nader, please don’t tease me, don’t joke!’ He said, ‘I’m not joking. He is with me right now.’”
She paced around the family’s room at the asylum center, not daring to believe the news. Then, Mahdi knocked on the door.
“We embraced and I cried,” Raheleh Azizi said.
What triggered the Azizis’ journey was an old family feud that began in their native Afghanistan.
Nader and Raheleh fell in love as teenagers while he was working as a servant in her wealthy family’s home. Her family opposed the relationship, so the young couple ran away together.
Relatives attacked and made repeated death threats against the pair over the course of their marriage, believing Raheleh had dishonored the family, Nader Azizi said. Family members continued to pursue them, with the aid of a tight Afghan community in Iran, even after they moved with their two oldest children to Tehran a dozen years ago.
Azizi said he decided his family needed to leave the region when the threats turned to kidnapping the children. The family sold their belongings and gave 40,000 euros ($44,000) last year to smugglers who promised to take them from Iran to Sweden.
Asked about the night Mahdi got left behind in the woods, son and father are overwhelmed by painful memories.
“We were sitting in different groups underneath the trees. Then suddenly, the trucks arrived and we all rushed toward them,” the elder Azizi recalled. He was carrying his younger daughter, a toddler at the time, and thought his son was following just behind.
“Once we were inside the truck, I yelled, ‘Mahdi!’ But I didn’t hear him,” he said, breaking off the story to compose himself.
Mahdi boarded another truck and eventually was pushed onto a boat for the crossing to Greece. Forced to keep moving, the boy said he could not get anyone to understand or care that he wasn’t supposed to be by himself.
“I tried to explain that my family were still there, that I couldn’t continue without them,” he said. “But the smugglers wouldn’t listen, and I didn’t understand their language.”
Last year, more than one million migrants reached Europe by sea, and a further 34,000 have crossed from Turkey into Bulgaria and Greece by land. After Germany, Sweden was the top destination for asylum-seekers entering Europe last year, with a record 163,000 people pursuing shelter there.
Among the 35,369 unaccompanied minors to arrive in the welcoming Nordic nation was Mahdi Azizi.
He quickly was placed with a Swedish foster family. His guardian, Carina Arnberg, took Mahdi and two other boys she and her husband were caring for to the July 29 concert at a racetrack about an hour’s drive from her home.
Little could she have imagined that Mahdi’s family was living nearby, or that his father would stop to listen to the music of a Swedish pop duo at the racetrack.
Arnberg gets goose bumps when she talks about how the stars aligned that day. One of the boys she was chaperoning pointed to a tree other children had climbed for a better view.
“Mahdi and I turned around to look at the tree,” she said. “Mahdi said ‘Wow! It’s my dad.’ And his dad said ‘Mahdi!’ They were so happy.”
Arnberg and her husband invited the rest of the Azizis to stay in a cottage next to their home. There, Mahdi reconnected with his sisters — three-year-old Ghazal, who forgot him during his long absence, and 12-year-old Parvaneh.
But the happy ending is not yet complete. Although Sweden is known for its welcoming attitude to immigrants, lawmakers tightened regulations for asylum and family reunification in January to help manage the growing flow from the Middle East.
As an unaccompanied minor who has been granted asylum, Mahdi, now 15, lives at an apartment provided by the Swedish government. However, his parents’ and sisters’ applications were rejected on the grounds that they could live safely in Afghanistan.
They are appealing, but if forced to leave, hope another country will take the whole family. In the meantime, Mahdi had to return to school a six-hour bus ride away this month, interrupting their reunion.
“I don’t know when we’ll be able to see Mahdi again,” Azizi lamented as he watched the boy who was lost and found board a bus for school. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know anything.”
But for a few strange and joyful days at the end of the short Scandinavian summer, just knowing Mahdi was safe was enough.