Samos Refugees: A reluctant update on enduring cruelties

Over the past few months I have been asked by various groups and individuals to provide an update on the refugee situation on Samos.

Until now I have not responded to these requests for the simple reason I have nothing new to add to earlier blog articles. For as far as the refugees here are concerned it is still the same old shit.

Of course there have been changes over time the most notable being the EU/Turkey pact of 2016. Before the pact, refugees on the whole were held for months, sometimes just a few days, before being allowed to move off the islands. Now it can be years. But whether it has been just for a few days or 3 years the refugees have never been welcomed or embraced by the authorities. This is perpetually demonstrated by the penal like design and construction of the camp, its appalling accommodation, its unspeakable food, lack of basic medical facilities, wholly inadequate toilets and showers, the refusal to open empty schools and hotels to offer decent spaces for people to live,…..the list goes on1. Its been like this for so long now that it’s almost normalised. And there is no end in sight. All of the latest proposals from the recently elected conservative (New Democracy) government promise more repression and more detention. It is always hard to predict in Greece what will actually be implemented but on Samos at least the Government is now building a new camp located on the site of an old slaughter house in the middle of nowhere which will not only be closed, but will also contain a prison for holding those identified for deportation.

So there is simply nothing to update on this basic reality except to say that the main responsible agencies have become masters of consistency in the reproduction of shit. The seemingly endless publication of critical reports which highlight many of these issues on Samos and elsewhere have not made one iota of difference. Water off a duck’s back.

In the meantime the refugees continue to arrive. 600 last week which makes a mockery of the government’s periodic ‘decongestion’ efforts of periodically shipping ferry loads of refugees to the mainland. Turkey has long recognised that the massive numbers of refugees living in Turkey (3 million plus) and its awareness that the EU is desperate that they should stay there and not move onto Europe gives them a powerful weapon. Currently there is little doubt that the recent increase in refugees arriving on the frontier islands is an attempt by the Turkish government to force the EU to stop harassing Turkey over its oil and gas explorations around Cyprus. To that end, Turkey is now making life very difficult for refugees especially those living in Istanbul with forced deportations especially back to Syria and Afghanistan. This is the context of the current increase in numbers seeking to escape from Turkey. Refugees are little more than a pawn in this conflict used mercilessly to extract concessions from one side or the other.

On Samos, as with the other frontier islands, it has now become widely seen as a ‘bad thing’ for refugees to be detained for so long on the islands. But on Samos at least the reality is more paradoxical. Today increasing numbers of refugees on Samos would prefer to stay here rather than be moved to the mainland. Many know that camps such as Nea Kavala in northern Greece – an isolated former airfield- are far worse than Samos. It is hard to forget David’s reaction when he arrived from Samos to the Nea Kavala camp. Total shock! He told me that he along with the 300 refugees who were moved there from Samos just walked around in a daze at what they found. Many wanted to come back to Samos where at least they had easy access to the town and its facilities and some much needed services provided by volunteer groups and NGOs. But most importantly, because of their extended stay on Samos this is where they have established networks of friends and in the ‘jungle’ surrounding the Hotspot, they have built shelters and homes some of which are breathtaking in their comfort. No one in their right mind would dispute that the camp and the surrounding jungle is a hell hole. But it is also much more. It is also a place of homes and of people (including thousands of children) making a life. To ignore this as many do leads to a fundamental mistake in failing to acknowledge the extent of refugee well-being falls on their shoulders and their humanity. This week Younis a young Palestinian from Gaza was telling me how much he enjoyed visiting his friends in the jungle and spending the evening laughing and eating sitting around an open fire. In parts of the jungle the refugees are developing clusters of around 10 shelters with each cluster having its own shower and toilet!

Making a Home

Shelters

 

 

Inside the Shelter

Part of the Jungle

Last week over 600 new refugees arrived on Samos. Included in that number was Juno from the Congo, traveling alone. Once finished with the initial processing he and the others in his boat were taken to the camp. They were told to find somewhere to sleep in the jungle. He was given no tent, no blanket and no money for at least 2 weeks. All he was told was where the Africans have their tents. This is now the common experience for new arrivals, especially single men and women. Families with children usually fare better. If it wasn’t for the solidarity and self-organisation of the refugees Juno would have found himself in danger. Within days of his arrival he like hundreds before him were hauling wood and polythene into the jungle where at a small cost he had his shelter made. There is a thriving shelter building business now in the camp!

So there we have it. Despite the shit and their abandonment the great majority of refugees irrespective of origin are engaged in that elemental human activity of making a home drawing on whatever materials they can afford or scrounge.

But the skills, the talents, the ingenuity and the extraordinary resilience of the refugees as a whole is not applauded and not even noticed in most cases. Although in an Open TV broadcast in late November 2019, the reporter Zizi Mousios observed “ what is happening in Samos is something unprecedented,we started in Leros, we went to Kos , here [on Samos] we have a favela” (My Samos Blog, 29th November 2019).

Since the autumn we have had a new mayor (Giorgos Stantzos) in Samos town. He is making a lot of noise about the camp and refugees. He wants the lot out. “There is no way that Samos, which doesn’t have a mosque, will accept a Muslim village” (The Samos Uprising, Ekathimareni Nov 28th 2019). Amongst his latest announcements he has expressed concern about the high number of ‘unauthorised’ structures that the refugees have built in the jungle, and the creation of ‘neighbourhoods’ there. The fact these shelters allow the refugees to survive is utterly ignored. That we are not burying bodies every week is almost entirely due to the refugees. Amidst the anger, the tensions and conflicts which are ever present realities of refugee life on Samos there is also a deep resource of solidarity and care which in the end is far more significant.

In stark contrast to the authorities, the refugees have been and are busy still preparing for the heavy winter rains which started a few days ago. I can’t speak of the other frontier islands but Samos has monsoon like weather, especially in January and February, but also earlier like now when it can rain torrential for days at a time. To my knowledge, never in the past 13 years have the authorities done anything significant to help the refugees get through this season. Adherence to the deterrent doctrine which so self-evidently fails to halt the movement of refugees, is as strong as ever. So nothing, nothing at all is or should be done to improve conditions and services for refugees as to do so would attract even more. And flowing from the same deterrence doctrine resources which should and could be directed towards refugee welfare are flowing with ever greater rapidity into border hardening, surveillance, and militarisation:

The European military and security industry through their successful lobbying has succeeded in framing migration as a security threat rather than a humanitarian challenge. This has turned on a seemingly limitless tap of public funding for militarising our borders yet prevented the policies and investments we need to respond humanely to refugees and to tackle the root causes of forced migration.”

Available data shows at least €900 million has been spent on land walls and fences, €676.4 million on maritime operations (2006 to 2017) and €999.4m on its virtual walls (2000-2019). In addition, companies have benefited from the €1.7 billion budget of the European Commission’s External Borders Fund (2007-2013) and the €2.76 billion Internal Security Fund – Borders (2014-2020). In the next EU budget cycle (2021–2027), the European Commission has earmarked €8.02 billion to its Integrated Border Management Fund (2021-2027) and €11.27 billion to its coastguard agency Frontex.

(TNI, November 2019, https://www.tni.org/en/article/berlin-walls-30th-anniversary-the-businesses-booming-from-europes-new-walls)

Here on Samos, the much heralded Zeppelin airship has come and gone (no explanation given for its departure) but now we are more likely to see patrol boats and warships from our beaches than fishing boats; we now have to negotiate our departures through intensively policed ports with their accompanying plain clothes officers sidling up to you in the queue to board the ferry asking for your papers, as well as the armoured ninja turtle police crawling around and on top of the lorries seeking out those refugees trying to escape from Samos. This impacts on all of our lives. We can see the growth in police numbers in Samos town as well as their modern paramilitary vehicles on our streets and the coach loads of riot police sitting day in and day out on the roads around the camp.

Welcome to Samos!

For the refugees these changes have made their journeys from Turkey to Samos more difficult and hazardous. It is common place now to hear that refugees have made 5, 6, 7 or more attempts to cross. According to the Aegean Boat Report between November 11th and November 17th 2019 a “total of 164 boats started their trip towards the Greek Islands, carrying a total of 6097 people. However, 91 boats were stopped by TCG/police, and 2444 people arrived on the Greek Islands. So far this year 2849 boats have been stopped by The Turkish Coast Guard and Police.” (http://www.statewatch.org/news/2019/nov/a-b-rWeekly-46-19.pdf). But for the moment at least the patrol boats operating out of Samos are still rescuing refugees who have made it into Greek waters and bringing them to the island. Ten years ago this was not the case and the Samos coastguards were notorious for their push-backs.

This is what I witness on Samos this little Greek island that finds itself on the frontier of Europe. This tiny spot on the map has and continues to be a gateway into Europe for tens of thousands of refugees. It is for the great majority their first taste of Europe. And what a taste they get! Over the years it takes to become a ‘legal’ human being again, they are treated like SHIT. If they were horses, or dogs, those responsible for their cruel treatment would be hauled in front of the courts.

But tiny as it is, Samos along with all the frontier islands must not be ignored for these are some of the places where a terrifying politics of cruelty has taken root and is flourishing, virtually unopposed. Sometimes the press will fleetingly remind a wider world of Samos if there is something sensational to report, usually deaths at sea. But as with mushrooms the policies, practices and doctrines that are being played out on Samos and elsewhere along the frontier flourish better in darkness. This is what it feels like.

And it is dismaying and disheartening that such elemental cruelties are allowed to continue year on year. The consequences, many yet waiting to be revealed for both the refugees as well as the people of Europe are certain to be dire. It would seem that others are now recognising this. Dr Christos Christou, International President, Médecins Sans Frontières has just published an open letter to ‘European Leaders’. Returning from the Greek frontier islands, he wrote:

The situation is comparable with what we see after natural disasters or in war zones in other parts of the world. It is outrageous to see these conditions in Europe – a supposedly safe continent – and to know that they are the result of deliberate political choices. (my emphasis)

Rather than acknowledging the human cost of your approach, you continue to call for a more forceful implementation of the EU Turkey deal. You even consider more brutal measures, like the Greek government’s recently announced plans to convert the hotspots into mass detention centres, and to accelerate deportations.

Stop this madness.….

As MSF, we can’t accept this blatant dehumanisation. No matter what assistance we provide to our patients, afterwards we have to send them back to the conditions which are making them ill, conditions that you have deliberately created. ….

As a medical doctor representing a humanitarian organisation, I am outraged to see how you have justified and normalised this suffering, as if it were an acceptable price to pay to keep as many people as possible out of Europe.

No political reasoning can justify measures that deliberately and consciously inflict harm – and we have repeatedly warned you these policies do. Stop ignoring it, stop pretending that they don’t.“(November 27 2019, https://www.msf.org/european-leaders-must-stop-punishing-asylum-seekers-greek-islands)

The entire approach of the authorities responsible both in Greece and the EU has led to the creation of a mega business with powerful vested interests which has much to gain and is unlikely to be shifted. It is naive to think otherwise. The growing grass root mobilisations around the world against global annihilation are fueled by the understanding that the greed and avarice of the powerful will drive us to extinction. And it is the very same values that frame the cruelties unleashed on the refugees. Any chance of a future for humanity rests not in the citadels of existing power. This is where MSF and other NGOs get it wrong, time and again, for none of their critical reports or statements over the years have had any impact on power and their policies Change will only come from the ‘bottom’ and only when we realise more widely that virtually all the major challenges facing humanity – environmental destruction, wars, massive inequalities and poverty and the flows of people forced to move as a consequence are deeply inter-connected. They draw their power from the same well.

 

 

Footnote 1 Missing from the list is any mention of the Greek Orthodox Church which has a massive presence and influence on Samos and Greece as a whole. Sadly, at least with respect to refugees it has demonstrated no compassion and no humanity. For the global Christian world it must be deeply shameful to be associated with such a cruel institution

Painful Times

One day in September, in Athens, the capital of Greece, I do not remember the exact day or time, but I remember that the sun was gathering it’s beautiful red dress and preparing to leave. I remember being at the house of one of my friends drinking hot green tea when my phone did rang. The caller was my close friend Hamid with whom I have shared my life for four consecutive years.

Me : Hi Hamid .

Hamid : Hi Saad try to come quickly to the house i want tell you something very important.

Me : what’s happened? Please tell me .

Hamid : we have to leave Greece today walking to Holland . That is my decision.

Me: what are you saying? Are you crazy?

Hamid: No, I am not crazy, but I am so tired of this disgusting situation, a year and a half in Greece and we have not even got our confidence to prove ourselves and still we wait for the right of asylum. We must leave this tired country.

Me: But the journey is long and very difficult and we will need a lot of money that we do not have.

Hamid: My cousin will go with us and he will help with the cost of the journey .

Me: What about me ? How i will do it with you ? I have no money.

Hamid: you know that we have a small amount of money that should be enough to get to Bosnia, and after Bosnia I will ask my cousin to help and if he will not accept i will find way don’t worry .

Me: No no no this talk does not convince me. I’m afraid

Hamid: Please agree . We do not have enough time for discussion, the group is ready to go and they have decided to start today in the evening.

Me: Let me call Sam and Bob.

Hamid: I agree, call them and ask them, maybe they will give us useful advice.

I called Sam.

Me : Hi Sam, how are you?

Sam: Hi Saad, I’m fine and how are you?

Me: I’m not okay, Hamid says that we should leave Athens for Holland by walking, what do you advise us to do.

Sam: Whaaaaaat? What are you saying, how’s that? when ? And how?

Me: I don’t know the details but he said that his cousin will be with us and he will help us with some money, and that they want to go this evening; in just a few hours.

Sam: What? this fast ? What do you think of this decision? Do you agree ? are you satisfied ? Can you walk all that way?

Me : I am not convinced and I am afraid that I can not walk so far because of my asthma. And I do not have enough money and I have no idea how much this travel will cost and no idea of the seriousness of the journey and what can happen to us.

Sam: What about Hamid? What is his vision?

Me: Hamid is completely determined to go and does not want to change his mind.

Sam: I understand so try to talk with him again maybe he will change his mind and if he doesn’t accept just let him go but don’t give him any money because I’m sure he will need it later in his journey.And don’t change your mind but stay in Athens because Hamid will need your help later .

 

I put some clothes in a bag and gave it to Hamid and walked with him to the door of the apartment as the tears poured out of our eyes like rain of the last of November.

I said ‘take care of yourself, trust me and my love for you and know that my soul will accompany you on your way. I have no one in this world except you, please be strong. Trust that failure is the beginning of success and you will never fail. If you will feel for one minute that you will not be able to go on then come back and you will find me here waiting for you’.

Hamid, do not be afraid because you are a strong man, keep yourself well, remember the beautiful things and consider this trip as a journey of scientific exploration in order to get know other countries which you can share with me.

I love you so much as you are and as you were and as you will be and I will never abandon you.

He just said that I love you and trust you , he said it simply but his eyes were full of tears and his mouth drew a beautiful smile which hid so many of his feelings.

Hamid went and i closed the door quietly and in my heart I hoped that he would return after an hour or two. I did not know what to do. Should I cry until i lose all the water and the blood from my body and then fall down unconscious ? or follow him quickly ? or change my clothes and wait for Zoe and her boyfriend Nikos and my friend Ghiath who i have appointment with in my home  after one and half hours ? There was not enough time left to think . I should change my clothes and put the table and chairs on the balcony to welcome my guests.

I washed my face and attended to everything to receive my friends, but my heart was very sad because the water that washed my tears could not free my heart from its sadness and confusion.

 

Ghiath brought with him a Syrian sweet ( Halawa Tahinia ), which is one of the most delicious types of sweet whichI love so much. Nikos and Zoe brought with them flowers .

Perhaps those flowers will fill the empty space in my room or even accompany me during the night, but the dessert was the most beautiful gift from Ghiath as for a short time its taste made me forget the bitter taste of Hamid’s leaving.

We sat on the balcony and the conversation was fun, I tried to share their laughs and smile but my heart was crying.

That evening passed quickly and I was able to hide my tears and secret fears. After some hours my friends left and I stayed alone in my room and there my tears flowed safely without hindrance.

It was the longest night of my life, sitting on my bed, covered with a white cover and painted with colourful flowers.

Oh that bed now seems very very big, even bigger than the whole world and I do not know how to sleep on it; is it bigger than the distance between me and Hamid at that moment? I do not know the answer, but I am very sure that I miss him and I want him beside me now, but I do not know how.

I tried to contact Hamid more than once, but he did not answer. I do not know why, but he must answer and return back because I need him and I can not live alone without him.

The question I asked myself was ‘am I weak? Or is parting just so very difficult? ‘

I could not sleep that night, not even a minute. Tears did not allow my eyes to sleep.

With the sun shining and the sound of sparrows outside my window ,my phone rang.It is Hamid.

Me: ‘Hamid Are you back? Do you want me to open the door? I knew that you would not continue that damned journey which will grow the distance between us’.

Hamid: ‘No no darling I have not come back I just want to apologize because I could not answer your call yesterday as I was on the Greek-Albanian border. I am now in Albania and I will go after few minutes to its capital. The weather is very good here, I miss you a lot, are you okay ? Please don’t cry, you promised me to be strong, I am sorry i have to go now .

Me: ‘Hamid tell me that you love me, please’.

Hamid: ‘I love you.’

Then he broke down crying and ended the call.

I remember that I slept a lot that day and when I woke up, darkness coloured the sky .

I can’t describe that day because everything was tasteless and odorless. No, maybe everything had a taste and smell, but my senses don’t want to know anything.

Three days passed,. During those days i had many calls from Hamid as he told me about the route from Greece to Albania and tabout the soldiers guarding the Albanian border for fear of refugees. He told me about the water flowing in the rivers and crossing the land and borders without a travel document or visa and those birds that do not build factories and do not study medicine or engineering, informatics, philosophy and physics and yet roam the skies in freedom without the need for papers. Why is that fundamental right on earth only denied to (some) humans ? Especailly those who for so many reasons cannot stay in their homes?

After a week living on the streets in Albania keeping away from the police, Hamid reached the border with Montenegro. It was very hard. He had to walk two days. The weather in the border mountains was cold with snow and lots of rain. They slept outside with snow for a bed and rain as a blanket for their bodies.

Everything around him was harsh . He told me ‘I heard my heart beats calling me and shouting “enough enough”. I am so tired. I want to give up . The cold is too harsh , I can’t bear it anymore. I felt that my bones had frozen, I could not answer my heart because my mouth was frozen too and my tongue did not want to move. It was fear of the cold, and I screamed inside me “my God if you exist take me to you quickly maybe i can be warm and safe again “ That was everything he remembered before he lost consciousness.

The next morning Hamid and his friends woke up when the sun shine painted their bodies ,carrying with it warmth which entered their bones and veins and awakened their blood cells and ordered them to work.

Hamid arrived in Montenegro and the joy of victory accompanied him. He had escaped death and the police. This was the most beautiful victory of an oppressed bird.

One night I was sitting in my big room with my tears hugging me. I felt that Hamid was in danger. I tried to call him several times but he did not answer and the fear grew in my heart. I wrote him a travel poem with my pen that holds ink from my tears and blood and I told him .. .…

You, absent one, whose heart beats through my veins

Tell me – where are you, where did my tears fall?

Relieve me from this, my chest tightening, my ribs cracking.

Only my heart has escaped the tormentor.

Fleeing without wings or the will to return,

It has left me alone in my room,

to be wrestled into submission in my bed

Where are you?

Tell me frankly, without fear of my pains, my tears.

Or take me to you, lost here in the dark wilderness of deceit.

Send me your voice as thunder dragging over the foothills

And please, silence the voice of that brazen bird

who flirts daily with his false song through my window

telling me of spring, of the blossoms flowering like

a noose around my neck.

It squawks as it approaches to caress my face

alarming my innocent cat.

I do not want to hear its voice, unaccompanied by the melody

of your own.

And I do not want my bed without you, my cod and numb bed.

Can you see that picture on the wall?

It weeps daily, without knowing its tears erase

the words of reproach and guilt and longing.

I am afraid.

I am very afraid – do you hear my heartbeat accelerating?

and the tremor of my hands that pound my chest,

my feet which strike the ground like a barren tree?

Oh, despair, mine and yours

Despair that has only heightened my longing

Despair that has banished the day while the night too flees.

Speak to me, my love – tell me about the stars above your path

and about that liar, the moon.

Don’t be silent.

Tell me about the mountains long your route – are there really

wolves in their shadows?

And about the people of the prairie – do they really sleep in fog’s embrace?

Tell me about the road, about the flowers – are there really

tusks concealed in their leaves?

and about the grass that turned red

was it from the blood of the exiles that fed the soil?

And my god, tell me what has happened to your long, midnight beard?

Was it really turned white by the spite of the world?

Tell me about your body, about your youth, the beauty of your face and robes

did they really became the prey of bandits?

Tell me about your desire, about your lust – or has it too

become a currency with which you feed yourself?

Curse those people and their alien rituals

Curse the clouds that rain only filth

Curse the land sprouting tainted seeds

I am here, can’t you hear my voice?

Tell me, I am begging you – which way does the road to you lie?

And which faith will allow me to bow down at your feet?

Tell me – who am I in your absence? And who are those at your side?

Is my name still inked on your chest? Is it still the spell in your eyes?

I want nothing more.

I have no more power, to drag love from the touch of your palms

Come to me in a blink of an eye or take me to you at a glance

Or be certain – I am flesh, the worn residue of a heart,

of sallow skin and spent organs

a faded pulse

I am he whose shadow sleeps behind the sun

And the title of all the sad poems will take his name.

Saad Abdullah

Nea Kavala Camp: Hell in Northern Greece

Leaving Lesbos for Nea Kavala ” Sept 2nd 2019 Ekathimerini photo

I  cried when I heard that the Greek government said  that it is going to send 1000 refugees from Moiria camp on Lesbos to Nea Kavala on the mainland. They want to relieve the pressure on the camp with all its new arrivals. I heard that the refugees to be moved were all seen as ‘vulnerable’.

I want to shout out “Don’t Go”, “please don’t go”.

I was a ‘vulnerable’refugee on Samos and In March this year I was moved to the mainland with over 300 refugees from Samos. I was sent to the Nea Kavala Camp.  I lived there for 4 months.

It is HELL.

It is CRUEL

It is SHIT

If I had known what was waiting in this desolate camp in northern Greece I would not have moved. They would have had to carry me there by force. But I knew nothing of this camp. They told me nothing. They never asked me if I wanted to move.

When you are held on the islands like Samos you get the idea that the mainland is a better place to be. They say this a lot on Samos. The mainland has better resources and facilities than the island. This is what we hear.

As I quickly learned THIS IS NOT TRUE AT ALL. And yes, I want to shout this out. Please listen.

Nea Kavala Camp is one of hell’s chosen spots in Greece. And to think that this government sees it as a suitable place for vulnerable refugees shows to me how much it must hate us. Nobody should be expected to stay there.

Shock! All of us from Samos were shocked by what we found there. It was so unbelievable. In just a few days many I traveled with left the camp, disappearing in the night to try and find a better place to stay in Thessaloniki or Athens. They had nowhere to go to. Most had little money. But they wouldn’t stay.

An old photo but shows lack of shelter

First, Nea Kavala Camp is an old military airfield. It is in flat and boring countryside. There are no trees. It is isolated. It is at least a 20 minute walk to the nearest shop. The nearest village is a 40 minute walk . What you see are lines of tents and cabins with no shade and no protection.

I was in my own room in Samos town. I shared a bathroom and a kitchen. It had a washing machine. It had electricity. It had wi fi.

In Nea Kavala I was given a tent. On my own which was something ok. But no bed, no electricity, no reliable wi fi, no personal security ( my tent was robbed 4 times of food and clothes). Now I faced long queues for the toilet, for the shower and days waiting to wash my clothes. Because I was given the tent and food my monthly allowance was cut

my tent

from 150 to 90 euros. The food from the army was disgusting. I couldn’t eat it or face the queues and stress in getting the food so lived for most of the time on croissants, bananas and milk from the supermarket.

Of course I had to stop my Greek classes on Samos. But in Nea Kavala there was NOTHING like that. None of the people responsible for the camp stayed at Nea Kavala. Even the Camp Manager who I got to know only came for a few hours a day. She told me she was frightened by the place. The only people there all the time were some soldiers involved with the meals and some police. The police could not be bothered with  us. I reported my thefts each time to be told to go away. They were always rude and aggressive.

Nea Kavala is in the north of Greece near the border with Macedonia. It has long and cold winters. In the first few weeks it was  very cold at night and we had a lot of rain. On the second night an old woman in the next tent died and I am sure the cold finished her life. We had just one blanket each. Over Easter the sewage system broke and I found a river of sewage flowing past my tent. It took days to repair because of the holidays.

Then came the summer. We cooked in our tents. No shade. No where to get cool. Torture.

This is where they are sending over a thousand vulnerable refugees. There will be many children and older people. Their tents are waiting!

I am sure that there are other mainland camps just as bad. I just know Nea Kavala. It is not a place for human beings. The refugees being moved there must be told. The world must be told. When you now hear that refugees are being moved from the islands to the mainland don’t assume that they are going to a better place. Listen to us! Don’t stand by in silence. Please.

 

Abshir, (Somalian, 26 years old)

 

They have arrived now. See

Migrants deplore conditions in new Greek camp

(https://www.france24.com/en/20190904-migrants-deplore-conditions-in-new-greek-camp)

“We left Moria hoping for something better,” said Sazan, a 20-year-old Afghan, referring to the main camp on Lesbos.

“And in the end, it’s worse.”

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Stories

Abshir’s

Just over a week ago Abshir, from Somalia, was transferred from Samos to a mainland refugee camp at Nea Kavala in northern Greece. He was part of around 350 refugees taken that day from Samos as part of the Government’s attempt to ease pressure on the massively overcrowded camp in Vathi. All of them left on the ferry to Athens and in Abshir’s case with some others, he was bussed north. In all a journey of nearly 24 hours. No food or drink provided.

Abshir was very nervous about this move. He did not want to leave Samos. After 5 months this shy gay young man from Somalia was at last feeling more comfortable. UNHCR had recognised that it was not safe for Abshir, on account of his sexuality, to stay in the camp which led to the Greek NGO, Arsis, funded by the UNHCR, to provide him with a single room in a modern shared apartment. It was not five star but it was a million times better than the tent he had in the jungle around the camp. He had access to a shower, washing machine, kitchen, wi fi; he had his room and he was warm and dry. As he grew in confidence he made some close friends and started Greek language classes, again funded by UNHCR. He was also making plans to create a small business.

If Abshir refused to move he would lose his monthly UNCHR allowance and his accommodation. Without any family support or other sources of regular income he felt he had no choice. So his focus shifted to finding out what he could expect when he got to Nea Kavala and to ensure that his case papers were transferred. Basically he was told that he need have no worry and that he would continue to receive the appropriate care although he would be need to be patient as they had many people arriving in Nea Kavala, especially from the frontier islands of Kos, Lesvos and Samos.

Since arriving in Nea Kavala Abshir has been living in a tent. He has one blanket. Most nights he is cold. He sleeps on the floor. The tent sits on stones so the floor is uncomfortable. It has no electricity, no furniture, no wi fi access, no cooking facilities. The meals are basic and he can’t eat them as they give him a bad stomach pain. Hours are spent in lines – for food, for the showers, for the toilet. The water is heated by solar panels so in the early mornings the water is cold. This is when Abshir showers as there is no line. The laundry is overwhelmed and gives priority to established residents. He tells me that even if could find a way to wash his clothes he would have to sit and watch them. There is so much hardship in the camp that nothing is secure. Already he has had milk and bread and some money taken from his tent. Many people are very hungry he said. The only consolation is that he is alone in the tent, but he has been told that this could change at any time as new refugees arrive.

 

The camp which is home to over 700 refugees is isolated. The few facilities on offer are provided by a Danish NGO which is UNHCR funded. UNHCR and the Asylum Service have no permanent presence in the camp. Neither do any lawyers. So when they make their twice weekly visits they are overwhelmed. Absher has met with the lawyers who told him that he would have to wait. They did tell him however, that his papers had not yet arrived.

There is a supermarket around 20 minutes walk from the camp and the nearest town 45 minutes on foot.

Abshir is not alone in finding the camp a bad place to be. On April 10th an ayslum lawyer came to meet all those who were recently transferred with Abshir from Samos and to give them some sense of what they could expect with respect to the asylum process. They were told that they would need to be patient as their papers had not yet arrived from Samos. This came as no surprise to Abshir but what was more noticeable was that of the 350 who came together from Samos less than a 100 were at the meeting. According to Abshir, there was so much anger and disgust at the conditions in the camp – sleeping in tents, cold, terrible food, no electricity, its isolation and more – that those who could were leaving. Heading for the border, or to Athens, or to Thessalonika, leaving behind those such as families who could not move so easily. And this is what they told the asylum lawyer when he asked why there were so few of them at the meeting. There was much anger in particular over the cutting of their UNHCR allowances from 140 to 90 euros a month on account that they were now being fed in the camp and no longer were responsible for their own food. The lawyer’s response was that he had nothing to say about the conditions they were complaining of as he was only responsible for the asylum process. But he urged them to be patient and not to demonstrate because if they did the police would certainly come in and jail them.

One can only wonder how many of these 350 would have boarded the ferry in Vathi at the beginning of April if they knew what was waiting for them?

A little over a week ago Abshir had his own room in the town centre of Vathi……..

Saad’s

At the same time as Abshir was being moved from Samos, Saad was moved from his apartment in Athens. In both instances they were given no choice. In Saad’s case he was moved by Praksis, a Greek NGO funded by UNHCR to provide housing for vulnerable refugees.

Alongside Saad there were two other refugees each with their own room. Most importantly, the apartment had a decent sized sitting room where Saad’s friends would meet to talk, to smoke shisha and to pass the time. There was also a balcony and all the bedrooms were furnished with wardrobes and cupboards. And over 18 months they had made the place into a comfortable home adding rugs, chairs, couches (most of them from the street) and pictures and photos on the walls.

Now Saad and his co tenants are in an apartment with just 2 rooms, no sitting area, no balcony, and no furniture. One of them has created a tent in the lobby and now sleeps there so Saad has his own room. Currently he has a bed and 12 boxes and bags with his belongings. Nothing else. Praksis told him that they can give them nothing more and that they should be happy not to be living out on the streets.

Saad and his co-tenants are furious with Praksis both with respect to what they have done and how they have done it. They say they can do nothing but Saad refuses to accept this and plans to appeal directly to UNHCR. As he said, at the end of the day he may get nowhere but he is determined that they should at least realise what they have done is inhumane, cruel and unacceptable.

Saad has been with Praksis long enough to know how to contact them. This is not a common experience for refugees as most of the agencies involved in the lives of refugees have developed a range of practices and mechanisms which make direct contact with someone who might know something about your case almost impossible. This was why Abshir was so concerned to ensure that information about his case should be transferred to Nea Kavala as he knew that once away from Samos, all the contacts he had made there would no longer be available to him and he would have to start afresh in the new camp. He has no named contact person and there is no continuity in his case management. This is the most common experience for all the refugees here.

Neither Saad or Abshir were given any clear reason for why they had to move. Neither were asked about how they felt and above all no choice. In Saad’s case the Praksis workers knew that the 3 refugees hated what they were given and that all are very angry. But no alternative is offered nor is there any attempt to work together to find a better place. It’s Praksis or nothing. As it stands at the time of writing, Praksis has now agreed to look for a more suitable apartment for the three of them but none of them is expecting much.

Living Space and Survival

Many issues are highlighted in these two stories.

Firstly, the powerlessness of the refugees over where and how they live. Their needs and voices are simply ignored. Refugees are given little or no notice whether it is moving house or moving off an island. Abshir and Saad had 5 days notice. As I write, the minster for migration is on Samos for a few days and he has just announced that when he leaves at the end of the week he will be taking hundreds of refugees with him on a Greek navy boat. I wonder if the refugees affected have been told yet? The casual way in which the agencies act in moving refugees without any negotiation or discussion; a complete disregard of their needs and circumstances reveals (once more) the fundamental lack of solidarity and respect for refugees.

Secondly, there is no sign that the authorities grasp or understand the critical importance of place (home, locality,) for refugees as they wait for the asylum system to process their applications. In Saad’s case, he has been in Greece since October 2016 and in Athens for over 2 years waiting for his final interview in June this year. As with thousands of other refugees his ability to survive these months where his life is virtually stopped has been down to his friends. In Saad’s case his apartment became part of a network of places where friends could meet and in many cases find a bed in an emergency. His home has been crucial to his well-being. This has now been taken away from him.

Abshir has his asylum interview scheduled for January 2021. As far as he knows he could be in Nea Kavala camp for 2 years.

Thirdly, these stories challenge the widely held view that refugees are better off being moved to the mainland from the camps on the frontier islands. It would seem that many assume that the conditions there would [must] be better than Samos.

There are simply no reservations to the mantra of de-congest the frontier islands of refugees. It is a mantra shared across the political spectrum and voiced by virtually every refugee agency/NGO in Greece. Here on Samos no questions are asked about where and what happens to the refugees who are moved. Of course no one asks the refugees what they think.

But there is no innocence to de-congestion. The authorities and the NGOs know very well that what awaits many of the refugees on the mainland will mark no improvement in their lives and may very well be worse than what they have left behind on the islands. But they say nothing to those leaving and do what they can to stop people from refusing to leave.

There is also a madness to de-congestion. In the week Abshir left with 350 refugees for Athens – heralded on Samos for relieving the pressure on the camp – a similar number of new refugees arrived. It is like watching a child trying to empty a bath whilst the water continues to pour in.

The camp in Vathi is an outrage. No argument. But then you are drinking tea with a 34 year old refugee from Gaza who has beautifully painted and fitted out the recently opened Banana House, a new refugee space, in Vathi. In the process of drinking tea he shows the photos of his tent in the jungle around the camp. It is amazing. From the outside it looks as desperate as all the other tents and shelters clustered amongst the olive trees. But! Inside his home made cabin under the trees he has created a place of wonder and comfort. It has a floor, carpets, store cupboards on the wall, a fire place, and a small kitchen area. He lives there with his wife and daughter. The man is a genius. There are many others maybe not as talented but who have created some comfort in such extreme conditions. They and not the authorities have done this. It is theirs. For many, their resilience as refugees rests on these kinds of activities and the spaces they create for living, meeting and talking; passing time as best they can as they wait. All these factors make arbitrary removals highly disruptive and damaging.

Without doubt after being detained on Samos being moved to the mainland carries more than the scent of a new freedom. For some their detention on Samos has been for up to 2 years and all have been on Samos for months. So it is with some hope they leave the island for the mainland.

But the way in which these movements of refugees – big and small- are managed makes them problematic and flawed. When it suits, major NGOs amongst others will draw attention to the trauma of refugees and in particular the psychological damage to refugees from being corralled in disgusting camps as on Samos. But what of their compliance in the cruelties such as moving people from their homes without notice or discussion. Silence. Where in this one part of the refugee experience in Greece does one get a clear sense that refugees are human beings with all our individual and paradoxical dimensions? Nowhere. Watching the refugees who are being moved off on the ferries is like watching sheep being herded. It is dehumanising.

Sometimes small individual stories take us to much bigger issues and in so doing reveal much especially illustrating the impact of macro policy and ideology on lived daily experiences. Abshir and Saad’s stories are such examples. For as they share their experiences we see just how pernicious and damaging is the European insistence of placing deterrence at the very centre of its refugee practices at least with respect to the kinds of refugees that come to islands like Samos. (It does not apply to those with wealth and who are offered ‘golden’ visas and the like.) As we see every day on Samos, deterrence allows no space for humanity; for dignity and respect. Deterrence does not allow for compassion and care. It is the very opposite of solidarity. And for the refugees the consequences are lethal at worst and distress at best.

(With thanks to Abshir and Saad. Your photos are great too!)

For Whom Do You Fly ? Zeppelin over Samos

The Zeppelin was launched six weeks ago with much fanfare about protecting and hardening European borders. The Samos authorities were so proud to be the first EU country to deploy an airship for this purpose. BUT since taking to the skies on the end of its 1000 metre tether, the flow of refugees here has increased significantly! It is wonderful to see as their arrivals torpedoes the stupidity of deterrence. We were laughing with friends from Gaza and Syria who told us that they now think that the Zeppelin provides a great target for the refugee boats to aim for as they travel over the sea.

At least the tourists on some of the Samos beaches can now be reassured that they are being monitored and they can also share their holiday moments with Frontex and the European security apparatus. Maybe they even see this as millions well spent by Frontex given the benefits it brings to the war industries which build these things.

Given that it is useless there are some who believe that the Zeppelin is not so much as about ‘managing the flow of refugees to this small Greek island but is more about advertising to the world a new product. If that is the case then we would recommend that Frontex use the airship to provide contact information and a price.

 

Who would have thought an ‘unmanned’ airship would need so many people!

Refugee Lessons: Let us Free Like the Birds !

 

My life has been turned upside down amd inside out. My brain has never had to work so hard to make sense, to survive and to live. For some of my hardest years, the system saw me and treated me as illegal. That is a big experience. I learnt much. But above all I thought about being human and being free.

Syria


Now 24 years old I was born in Aleppo in northern Syria. As one of the oldest human cities in the world it is rich with history. But I didn’t think of the city as a unique place. I thought that our cultures were everywhere in the world. As a young Syrian I couldn’t leave the country for many reasons, including money and international laws, which did not allow me to roam freely across the earth. I had no direct knowledge of the world other than Syria.

After the winds of war tore up my country, I was forced to leave Syria without any options other than escaping into Turkey, illegally. For the first time in my life I came to understand the incredible importance that humans give to ‘papers’ – passports, ID, visas and so on. If I had been a bird in Aleppo I would have been free to go where I wished with no thought about papers or borders. For birds and all other living creatures on this earth borders have no meaning. But we seem to be alone amongst living things in restricting this universal right.

Turkey


When I arrived in Turkey I discovered that there are people who speak a strange language (my first feeling), which is Turkish and they do not know Arabic. I thought that I must learn their language so that I can communicate with them, but the Turkish language was not the only obstacle; the Turkish way of life I found hard to accept.


In the short time I spent in Turkey I experienced a society where men and women worked so hard for little money. Life for many seemed little better than prison.


On one sunny morning I went to a public garden to sit under the sun. There were a lot of young and old people in the garden and I approached one of them and said “Hi” to him, but he refused to respond and then he said, “What do you want, do you know me?”


I returned to my house where I heard the voices of the women in our neighbourhood, which I did not understand, but they were very loud. It was strange for me that their women sit in the street and talk and prepare food and wear bright clothes whilst on their heads they put a coloured cap that does not cover half of their hair, while their daughters wear short skirts and go from morning until evening to work. Their life looked very difficult and complex and I did not understand it well.

On Fridays I saw men streaming to the mosque to hear the Imam’s speech ًwhich is filled with screaming, crying, warnings and intimidations from God. And the people there were all crying and praying. But once they left the mosque they go back to their hard work, and later, tired after long hours of work they drink beer (which is not allowed in Islam ) and eat dough mixed with chili. (I don’t like chili!) There was a simplicity to this life but it was so hard and I felt that I was never accepted as a refugee from Syria. I felt that I had to become like them in order to live with them.

After some days I decided that I couldn’t make a new life in Turkey so I left for Greece, again ‘illegally’. There was no other choice for me. I am no longer afraid of illegal travel. I have been a homeless and guilty refugee as some people in the world seem to see me and as international laws want me, but in fact I am a bird traveling wherever he wants.

Greece


When I arrived in Greece (Samos Island) I could not roam the streets or travel between the islands because I was forced to live in a cage (camp for refugees).


The
Samos camp was full of refugees of different colours, shapes and languages. For the first time I met many different people, who I hadn’t been able to meet before, such as Ethiopians and Afghanis, Pakistanis, Indians, Egyptian Arabs, Algerians and many others. I did not know that all human beings were so alike and that we eat similar food with a slightly different taste and that Afghans and Pakistanis have a lot of cooking skills. And others were into sports and learning languages, and the prettiest of all of this was the chance I had to touch the body of one of the black refugees from Africa without fear, and I knew they were human beings like us. And it was in Greece where I had the opportunity to meet and know people from Europe and the north America.

How beautiful it is to be a free bird.

Despite all these great and new experiences there were many difficulties in getting close to people from so many different societies. There seemed many issues which held us back from accepting one another.


Even gays from Arab and Asian countries
including Greece seemed closed to themselves and do not seem to like any person except gays. But I think that is a reaction because many people don’t accept them. How hard it is to be different and to be a friend to all people, they see you as different and you see them as different and both of you are afraid of the other.

The Greek government allowed me to fly to its capital after much trouble and time and to start another tale.

Athens is not similar to Aleppo or Izmir and was so different from them, with people from many countries and cultures. But this did not change the nature of its people who love to dance and party, drinking beer and raki which is the best alcoholic beverage they have.This may be nice for them, but I was very surprised that most of the workers I saw in Athens were immigrants and refugees from Asia and Africa.

It was not difficult to talk to the young Greek people because they speak English and I have enough to make conversation. But their pronunciation of the English language can seem strange as they speak a new language with a strange voice, but the bigger problem was with the old people who speak only the language of their country.


If I hadn’t met my English friends, life would have been harder for me in Greece. It was also great that my English friends are sociologists which helped them and me better understand the Greek people and others. I began to realise that I too had been influenced by the place where I grew up where the air I breathed was not so open and fresh.


In Greece, which is one of the gateways into Europe, you find a lot of refugees fleeing from their walled countries; many of them also seek to escape from Greece. And the reason is that they are looking for a country that does not have racism, fences and prisons, and is full of safety and love and coexistence. And where you have a chance to make a new life. Greece is a beautiful country but it is so poor that like many refugees I couldn’t see how I could make my new life there.

It seemed to me that most of us still carry in our minds many feelings of distrust and lack of acceptance of those different from ourselves just as we are looking for people different from us and to become like them. I experienced a lot of persecution from refugees which made me think that the freedom we are looking is still infected by the poisonous air from the soceities where we once called home. Even now I am still trying to understand all of this!


Netherlands


My illegal journey finished in Greece. I was so lucky when the Dutch government allowed to me to go to Holland by family re-unification. They recognized me as a free, legal bird . A few weeks after my acceptance I took the travel documents and went to Athens airport to stand there as all other people and could now say I am here ! A legitimate bird so you have to let me get into the plane.

I arrived in the Netherlands with my beautiful loyal dog Max after I got financial help from my British friends to buy travel tickets for me and my dog and some money to buy food, clothes and bags.

The journey was very beautiful, but the fear of another shock was in my mind all the time. I arrived in that beautiful green country, which is trying to escape from the water which is threatening it from all sides. Should it win then will I be safe with Dutch people or should I learn how to swim to start again my journey again but this time as fish not bird ? That was the first question in my mind. Crazy!


In the airport in Amsterdam my friend was waiting me to take me to his house in Enschede where he is living. It was not a house but just one room he shared with another three Syrian refugees.


These were not the easiest days for me in the Netherlands because I was living with my friend and Max my dog in a small room. I couldn’t relax because these Syrian birds didn’t accept me and my dog with them in the same house and because they see me as a ‘fucking feminine’ boy so they want to fuck me or for me to leave the house. They didn’t accept Max either because they said it is not allowed in Islam to have a dog in your house. Although I tried to talk with one of them to explain to him that we are both human and that I am a good person and not as he thinks and his answer was “why you are talking with me ? What do you want ? “


My question is, is he right that I shouldn’t have talked to him and every person must make his life in a small shell ? or is he a psychiatric patient who needs treatment in order to learn to live with others?

Smiles


Before going to my friend’s house I had to spend a few days in a camp sorting out my papers. I arrived at the refugee camp after a journey of more than three and a half hours, but the beauty of the nature and the houses there made me forget everything. I had not seen in my life more beautiful buildings and more beautiful grounds for a refugee camp.Wherever you look, you find trees, flowers and small houses with red rooves, white doors and policemen wandering around the camp on bicycles with a beautiful smile on their faces.


I can not forget those smiles that explained the meaning of life and assured me of my humanity, which I feel has been ‘imprisoned’ since I was a child growing up in Aleppo. And it was not only the smiles on the faces of the police, but wherever you go, you find people smiling at you and greeting you as if they knew you for years or as if you were one of their family.

Even the refugees living here were painting their faces with the same smile. Perhaps the secret is that when you see this smile everywhere and all the time it will draw on your face without thinking. This experience made me so happy because I never imagined that there are people smiling for all people even if they have different colours, religions, shapes, education levels, races and passports.


The story does not end here, but the smiles still accompany me everywhere here in the city where I decided to live in the east of the Netherlands. Every morning and evening I go out with my dog for a walk. I see people around me smile and greet each other and me . That is really the key to life and this is a beautiful society which seems to accept all cultures, and with smiles welcomes all people and all creatures.


Perhaps the Netherlands is not the only country with these wonderful qualities, but this is what I have discovered so far. Life is going on and my wings are stronger and longer now that I have I got legitimate wings. But I will never forget that legal or not we will never stop trying to fly, free like the birds in the sky.

Saad Abdullah

August 2019

Cruelties

This man is Hisham Mustafa from Aleppo, Al Sfir 

Turkish police transferred him 25 days ago from Istanbul to Syria ( Idleb). He was given no choice but to return to a place where the war continues. In Istanbul he left behind his wife and their three children. Without Hisham they don’t have any one to help them or to fed them. He had to get back to them. He tried many times but it is very difficult now in the border area between Syria and Turkey because it is full of Turkish soldiers. But then one day it was different because the soldiers let him to get into the border area after he had told them his story and his frantic concern for his wife and children in Istanbul. He had only walked some metres on Turkish land to find his body was the target of Turkish soldiers’ bullets.

In truth he was killed many times. The first time was when they let him get into Turkey with his family illegally without any papers . The second time was when they left him to work illegally in Turkey and to have a house and to slowly re-build his life, all illegally . The  third time was when they decided that being illegal in Turkey he should now go back to his country as he came originally; without his family without his money; without everything. And the fourth time was the easiest when they killed him with their bullets

He is now gone with his beautiful dreams and noble desire to return to his family to give them the help that they needed. 

Many of us who fled Syria and had the luck and the money to get into Europe have family and friends in Turkey which has been the home of millions of Syrians escaping the war. The life for them there is very hard – few jobs, low wages, overcrowded homes and poverty. For many this has been their life for six years. They rely on their own efforts with nothing from the government or UNHCR.

And now we have new fear in their lives. In recent months the Erdogan administration has started removing work from the men in particular and deporting them back to the Idlib region. Hisham was just one man caught and returned.

More and more we are getting terrible news from Turkey.

The woman in the photo  was taken as she was on a bus going back to Syria. The police caught her on the streets and forced her on to the bus. She cried a lot. She asked the police to give her time to say goodbye to her children. They refused.

We are now sick with worry for our friends and families stuck in Turkey. Although some of us are now safe Europe, we are so powerless to help. It is so cruel what is happening. We can’t stay quiet. We must not be silent faced with such evil.

Saad Abdllah August 2019