"This isn't a refugee story, it's a love story"

Last updated 21 June 2023

Hamed Amiri’s life has been extraordinary – a Russian doll of stories tracking from his home in Wales to Afghanistan.

Here, he describes his family’s escape from Herat, which inspired a sell-out play, and what the word ‘refugee’ means to him.

It was the year 2000 and we’d just received an execution order for my mother.

She saw that things were changing for women in Afghanistan and had decided that enough was enough. She had to speak out, become a voice for the voiceless. Her speech was so stirring, that those in charge feared an uprising.

Living in Afghanistan wasn’t easy. My mum didn’t want us boys to grow up in an environment where people – not just women – were treated badly. She was doing it for us, as well as for the women around her.

My mother is a powerhouse. But she was in danger, so we had to leave everything behind – fast.

I always knew we’d have to. My older brother, Hussein, was desperately ill with a heart problem, and we were told that two places could save his life: the US and the UK.

But that time was now. A terrifying journey lay ahead, and I knew that people had died along the way. From that point on, I stopped being a child. I was 10, Hussein was 12, and my baby brother Hassam, was just 8.

For anyone who thinks the journey is easy: it isn’t

It took almost two years to reach the UK. We were robbed twice and had no food for days and we barely slept.

We were bundled into the backs of cars and left in the middle of nowhere while we awaited the next leg of the journey. Our decisions were no longer our own. We just got used to doing what menacing strangers told us.

I didn’t know if we’d see the next day sometimes.

To distract us from the horror of the moment, Hussein played the clown. We learned to join in too, bantering, messing around, trying to distract our parents. Trying to make things seem normal.

Humour gave us some humanity and got us through the worst of it. Or maybe it was Hussein’s indomitable spirit, despite feeling so unwell.

From Afghanistan, we went to Moscow, to ‘jungles’ in Ukraine, to Poland, where we slept in a barn with animals. We met some children along the way. They looked tired and scared, and I realised it’s what we probably looked like too.

But what could we have done? If we had stayed, my mother wouldn’t have lived. And we wouldn’t have had another 17 years with my beloved brother. Nobody does this because they want to.

What does the word ‘refugee’ mean to me?

In Austria, we were given fake passports. I’d gone from being ‘Hamed Amiri’ to a boy called ‘John’, and later, ‘a refugee’ when we reached Calais, via Germany, Belgium and Holland. Our identities were stripped away bit by bit.

What does ‘refugee’ mean to me? It wasn’t a word that I chose, it was a word that was given to me. I’m just Hamed. I’m a human being. We’re all just people with names, and stories and reasons why we had to leave our homes.

For me, this isn’t a refugee story; it’s a family story. It’s a love story – three boys with a love of football, a parent who wants to sacrifice everything for their kids. Tell me which parent wouldn’t want to do that?

Luckily, some people understood. For one glorious afternoon in Austria, we stayed in a centre run by the Red Cross. There was a football pitch, a playground and kind volunteers.

As we started zooming round in the sunshine, it was the first time we’d felt like kids in months. We didn’t want to leave.

We finally got to the UK on the back of a lorry. It was piled high with containers and we had inches between us and the ceiling.

By this stage, Hussein was no longer joking around. He was quiet, and exhausted from the long journey to the vehicle. My father had to carry him across his back from the notorious Calais ‘jungle’ to the lorry at the port. Time was running out.

The kindness of strangers

We’d never heard of the NHS before we arrived, but they were amazing. They treated my brother – a 14-year-old non-national who couldn’t speak English - with nothing but compassion and kindness. Over the years, he had numerous operations in Wales and England.

He made friends with all his heart specialists and the nurses who cared for him – joking around and teasing them too.

To give back, he volunteered where he was treated in Bristol, supporting families in the hospital who needed him. We later heard how kind he’s been to some of them – giving moral support, buying them food and making them laugh. The hospital asked him to become a governor.

But while Hussein was his irrepressible, positive self, I didn’t do so well. We were sent to live in Cardiff, and I struggled with a new school, new language and new country. Plus I was still only 12.

I was a very defensive kid – after so many bad experiences along the migration route, I had my guard up. It was very hard for me to ask for help. But internally, I’d be screaming and shouting, saying ‘I’m scared, I’m confused’.

Eventually, the kindness of strangers helped me too. I was really shut down and failed my A-levels, but I received support from specialist outreach workers and volunteers – the Red Cross included.

Somebody just said ‘it’s ok not to be ok’, and I realised they were right.

I felt Hussein's presence again

Now, I’m just incredibly proud I got through it. I’m so resilient. I compare things to my brother’s experience – if Hussein could get through that journey, then I can get through anything.

Sadly, Hussein did pass away aged 31. But we are so grateful to the NHS for the 17 years we got with him.

To honour him, I wrote the ‘Boy with two hearts’, which was turned into a play. Writing it was hard, but it means Hussein will never be forgotten.

Seeing it on stage brought him back – his cheekiness and laughter. I felt Hussein’s presence again. I even wrote passages from his will into the play, so I could hear his words every night.

My parents and brother Hassam saw it at sold out performances in Cardiff and at the National Theatre in London. I said ‘dad, look around. They’re all here to see your story and your son’s story.’ He was so proud.

Afterwards, my mum asked to meet the actors. She and the actor playing her just cried and cried.

I hope the ‘Boy with two hearts’ changes minds

One night, someone came to speak to me after the play. They said that they’d bought into the anti-immigration rhetoric on social media, and wanted to hate it.

Instead, they had cried the whole way through and then apologised – it really meant a lot.

I hope that our story continues to change minds. For me, it’s about being a voice for the voiceless, standing up for what you believe – like Gary Lineker did recently.

The Boy with two hearts is about Hussein’s physical heart and the almighty spirit that kept him going. But you could also say it’s about every displaced person – their heart in the here and now, and the heart in the country they left behind.

Afghanistan in crisis

23 million people in Afghanistan need humanitarian help. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been supporting the people of Afghanistan for over 30 years. We won’t stop now.