18’s a young age to run away from home.
Especially when you love your family and home more than anything.
I had the good fortune of befriending Alard, an 18-year-old that fled home only three months prior. I had first met Alard while preparing dinner in the hostel basement kitchen, he had approached me with a contagious smile and clumsy youthfulness.
Only moments into our conversation his composure broke when he revealed that he wasn’t from anywhere and that his only attachment to a country was a “really bad stupid worthless passport”. “It’s Russian” he whispered. He sprung back after carrying on the conversation to small talk and indulging him in several fist bumps, a novelty to him.
We continued to exchange smiles and hellos for the duration of the day until nightfall when he approached me with the same smile, only this time, it was masking a heaviness.
Until that moment I hadn’t thought much about Alard, he was one of many Russians I had met throughout the Balkans. Especially with the current political climate, I’ve avoided initiating any discussions around the topic.
However, this time I stood and listened as his story began to reveal itself through our conversation.
Although born in Özbekistan, at a young age his family moved to a small town in Russia where he spent the entirety of his childhood.
Growing up in a small town amongst some extreme poverty, his classmates turned to various drugs and alcohol at alarmingly young ages. His interest in academics began to isolate him from his friends which turned towards darker paths, a common trend amongst youth in some impoverished Russian towns.
He found peace in teaching himself physics, math, and science which had recently paid off when he graduated at the top of his class this past April. A résumé that could help him into an established western University, but today, all Russian applications have been banned.
Four months ago was Alard’s 18th birthday which arrived with a letter in the mail from the Russian army. He would either be enlisted to fight in Ukraine or placed in jail. It was then he felt he was presented with his only option, to flee the country.
Alard is now living out of his backpack with 2 changes of clothes and one laptop (that was gifted to him by an English teacher he met online). He’s been diligently studying English over the past three months and has astonishingly become nearly conversationally fluent from his basic reading comprehension only months prior. He’s even gone as far to study British pronunciation and has nearly lost his Russian accent. He’s vowed that he’ll never speak Russian again, an extreme measure, but understandably fuelled by his teenage angst for the situation he’s been put in.
Alard will likely never be able to return to Russia and has accepted that he won’t be able to see his mother and siblings until she’s able to save up enough for them to emigrate. She hopes to do this quickly now that she’s no longer able to send him money due to sanctions put on Russian banks. Alard’s now living off the savings he’s put aside but understands that it’s his last safety net. He’s got no network, friends, or family outside of the country he’s fled.
He handed me his passport to look through as he explained its significance. Should he lose this document, he’ll be forced to return to Russia where he’ll then be put into jail for evasion of his current jail sentence.
I stood there holding back tears as he opened up to me. I put myself back into my 18-year-old shoes, the world was a big and confusing place, and I was even more confused about who I was, or where I was going. I couldn’t imagine standing there, looking out into the world, without a person to lean on, and having to endure the weight of these challenges that he’s braved of. Yet he’s still managed to be one of the friendliest and most positive outlooked people I’ve met on this trip. A real beacon of strength.
It was only a week later when I found myself holding another passport with a similar weight. At a hostel in Montenegro, a new friend, Kateryna, from Ukraine explained how she was fleeing in Spain two months prior when her passport was stolen. I sat there as she recounted in tears how her whole world crumbled around her, and she had to spend the next month venturing back into Odesa, Ukraine to receive a new passport. They only developed the infrastructure to begin reissuing passports days before she arrived.
While I sat in those hostels with Alard and Kateryna, we were nearly indistinguishable. We were both living out of our backpacks, having no idea of what our future held for us, and was all of similar age. But despite sharing the same shoes at that moment, there was a reality that couldn’t have made us feel further apart. It came with guilt.
That guilt while unpleasant is important to feel. It’s a sobering reality of the privileges and freedoms that we have. Privileges that have allowed me to meet these wonderful people with incredibly powerful stories.
I’m looking forward to seeing Alard again when he comes to Canada one day. He’s promised we’ll meet again, and with his tenacity, I’m confident in that promise.