The Lament of the Butterfly Lover

This poem was written by Saad when he was still in Aleppo, Syria

 

From darkness, my night unravels

and from memories of my beloved—the prisoner

Your likeness smiles at me, recalls you to me

—so much of you more and more of you.

Your love is healing

and yet great torture

For it was you, sir, who made me the droplet of water

striving against the current

And it was your love which made me the liar

even unto myself

that someday, you might be

` my prisoner.

But I do not blame the soul that made you my lover

as I do not blame the soul who laboured to gather

all the letters in the world all the prose and poetry

to unite them—individually, patiently in one phrase

I love you.

And I would not blame you, my inspiration

if

you turned back in your steps

if

you broke me for my sins

if

my heart were splintered and torn.

No—I will stay loving you for one thousand ages

stay loving you until my heart withers

and the rising wind scatters

east and west.

And you will stay— you the tears raining from my eyes

succour for the thirsty spirit water for spring flowers—fragrant

like I was, my prince the day I loved you.

But what patience it took

to be saddled with the weight of your love

to be changed from youth to infirmity

I did not choose your love

not once did I choose it

but it illuminated me

filled me with fire and with ice

as you stretched out your hand to me

do you remember?

and said come

come

come

then you paved my way with boulders

and left me

and left

and what else does the butterfly know,

oh, my killer

other than death

by the flame?

Saad AbdllahSaad

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Refugee Stories: Danial Shirzad; 17 years old from Afghanistan

 

Danial, who is now 17 years old was born into a very poor family in Afghanistan. His family dreamt for a long time about going to Europe but their poverty meant it was impossible. However the family had many problems in the village concerning disputes over land which had resulted in the death of his grandfather and other close family members.. His father decided that they had to leave the country and he spoke with someone in Turkey to help them come to Europe. This man told his father to first send Danial to him, because he is young and then the rest of the family can come later.

Danial arrived in Izmir with just 100 euros in his pocket. “I was very afraid because I was on my own and this was the first time I had been so far away from my home and family. I was also very hungry. I couldn’t buy anything because I needed to keep all my money to get to Europe. The Turkish man, my contact, had met me at the station in Izmir and took me to a big house where there were many refugees who also wanted to go to Europe. After one day in the house he gave me a little food but I was still very hungry.”

Danial was only in Izmir a few days before he and many others tried to get to Mitilyni in a small boat but they were caught by the Turkish police and Danial was taken immediately to prison. He was very shocked and afraid – “I cried a lot and couldn’t understand what was happening to me and why I was in prison”. The prison was terrible. There was very little food, the water wasn’t clean and nowhere to shower. He was not allowed to keep his phone so he couldn’t call his family or his only Turkish contact. “All I had were my tears.”

After 10 days of this hell he was released. There was a big celebration of Islamic people in Turkey on this day and many people were released from prison. Danial was very happy to be free but he had no idea how he was going to find his Turkish contact. Fortunately some of the people who had been with Danial in the prison saw how upset and alone he was and took Danial back to the area in Izmir where his contact lived. Danial remembered the area well and luckily was able to find the house and his contact.

Samos

A few days later they set off again. This time to Samos. There were 58 people (children, old people and many women) with him in the small boat. “I was very very frightened. I can’t swim and I am very afraid of the sea. I was wearing a sweater to keep warm. The faces of my mother and father never left my mind.”

“After 4 hours we reached Samos but it was not easy to land so the driver of the boat said that some of us would have to leave the boat and get to the shore ourselves. 30 of us got out and the 28 left could easily get to the beach. Of course I was afraid but luckily for me the man near me who was like a body builder saw that I was very afraid and also very slim and he took me by the hand and on to the land.

Danial arrived on Samos on October 17th 2016. “I was so happy to be still alive but at the same time very sad to be so far away from my family. I had no contact with them or know anything about how they were. I thought I would be alone for ever. I cried.”

After around 10 minutes of walking up the mountain one of the group phoned the Samos police who came and took us all to the Camp.

“I didn’t know what to expect. I had never thought about it.”

But “I was afraid and also very tired. I felt so young and alone. I was nervous because I thought there may be people from my area in Afghanistan in the camp and that I would get beaten and bullied. I knew that some people wanted to kill me and my father. I shared a small tent with a very nice man from Syria and he helped me to call my Turkish contact who told me that my family had got out safely and were now in Iran. I was so happy to know that they were in a safer place.”

The other refugees he met in the camp warned him not to say much to the Asylum Service, not even his correct name. Then for next 10 days nothing happened and nobody came to help him so Danial decided to go back to the Asylum Service and to tell them exactly who he was and where he was from. But Danial had no passport and no ID and he wasn’t believed. It was only when he met a psychologist in the camp that his situation changed.

“I was very upset when I talked with the psychologist. He made me comfortable and everything poured out of my heart as I remembered my family. This psychologist stood by me and helped me correct all my details and then arranged for me to move into house ‘for minors’ travelling alone. It was a good house with 21 boys from many countries and there were many people there to help us.”

“I was very happy. I saw life for the first time and felt like a human being.”

In this home he was given a mobile phone so he could call his family in Iran. He learnt to play the guitar and they also bought him one. He also started to learn English with his teacher who he described as “a wonderful human being” who helped him so much.

“OK I could not choose what to eat, or to buy clothes I liked or have money in my pocket to buy a coffee in the town but these were good days for me. I felt safe and care for. I miss Samos very much, the streets in the town and all the people I knew there.

Athens

“I was very happy when the UNHCR decided that I should move to Athens. I am sure no one can understand my feelings when I was on the ship because it was my big dream coming true.”

Danial is now living in a house for unaccompanied minors in Athens where he shares a room with

two other boys who he likes very much because they are very kind and respect him.

But there is much in Athens which makes him sad especially the Greek people who are homeless on the streets without food and clothes.

“It makes me feel very shy because they are from Greece, from Europe but they have no one who cares for them. I am from another country and yet I have found people who love and care for me. It makes me think again about my dream of Europe and I sometimes wonder if in the future I will be like them out on the streets.”

“At the moment I don’t have any plans but I hope to meet other positive people like myself who can help me start my life again in Europe.”

Danial is an intelligent boy who has managed to keep a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. He like so many others deserves a chance for life.

(This article is based on conversations between Danial and Saad and then written by Saad and Chris)

Athens: Name without title

Athens: Name without title

(Saad and his partner H arrived in Athens at the beginning of August. I asked him if he would write something about his first impressions. And this is what he wrote. Chris Jones)

A torn panel painted by the most exquisite artist

And a dark room for sex and addiction,

It is a land on which livestock are born;

A sea in which desires sink and honesty drowns

And the sky becomes dreams without wings or addresses.

Land originated from the dust of the past

And mansions built in golden years now dead

Who are you?

Whisper to me…

Who is that old woman whose face shows the effects of ageing?

Athens?!!

Yes, Athens, capital of gold now stolen,

The garden of the lying and hanged king,

Or the beggar prostitute in the streets.

City of false extinct dreams

And school to love and science, now closed.

You are the flower of humiliation and scattered petals.

You are the spray of free perfume from the sea-shore .

Athens hear me please.

I swear to you that… I don’t have a tongue to decry the pain in your streets.

Nor do I have enough tears to clean your streets or wash your wounds

And there is no ink in my pen to write a poem of your death.

Yes, I will say that the homeless in your streets today are the same as the philosophers of your past,

The hungry today in your buildings are the same as the merchants of your past.

Please remove these soiled clothes

And begin again the search for your past glory.

Look at the distant sky.

The stars of the night are crying

And the evening sun will tell you

If you don’t wake up the dream of the past will erase your being.

Athens…

You are a fire without a fireplace.

You are a heart without arteries and veins.

You are a book without a library.

You are a young man imprisoned, accused and innocent.

You are a voice shrinking to nothingness

And you are a failed state without order.

Every spot on your face is a temple

But they will not diminish your torment or gain a thing.

Please, my old friend stop playing and crying

And rise up as those rose up who lived on your land and left.

Drink from the love glass that remains forever

And dance on the chest of your lover without undressing or kissing.

Saad Abdllah

Becoming a Refugee

Kiss the Jasmine

Take me to kiss the jasmine

Let me stand on the threshold of your garden

Let me smell what I long for

Amongst the grains of sand on your beach.

 

Don’t kill the lovestruck stars

Don’t tell the sun and the moon to be silent

Let them speak.

 

Oh you, who can pass to  future

Take from my hand the key to my house,

Take my name, take a jasmine.

Because I’m now homeless between my past and your future

Between the sea, the tent and the harbour.

 

Why do you use my name but abuse my being?

I curse you in the name of god.

Why do you injure my soul and my mind?

I curse you in the name of god.

 

Why do you think your blood is different from my blood?

What disgusts you with my name – ‘refugee’

you who gave me this name?

 

I have never been an enthusiastic supporter of President Assad but life before the war life was not so bad in Syria. We had free education from primary school to doctorate. The teachers were very nice and good in the university. Our hospitals and doctors were good and all this was free. Now I hate armies. They have destroyed my country. My university was bombed 2 times whilst I was in class there. One time they hit the food hall and another time one of the dormitory blocks. Over 100 students died. This is what armies do to us.

I like to study but the war made this more and more difficult. It was so dangerous that I studied at home with my mother’s help during my final year of high school. At the same time I was working in a pharmacy near to where I lived. I very much wanted to study pharmacy at University but my final grades were not good enough so I chose my second love which was archaeology and started my degree in Aleppo University.

My home was in a Free Army area but the university was in the Government area although it was very near to where I lived. It became very difficult. If I was stopped by the Free Army I could never continue with my studies. By being very careful I managed to complete the first year of my course. With my boyfriend (H) we made a home in the small house my father had had built for me. While I studied H worked as a hairdresser until he moved to Turkey. Then one summer’s day I had a phone call from my mother who was now in Turkey, that she had left some important papers in the family home which I would need. She was worried that the house would be robbed because it was now in a Free Army area. So I went. I thought just for a few hours to get the papers and then back home. I never returned. Instead I was stopped by a Free Army Patrol. They wanted my Army Book which we all have to carry and this showed them that I was a university student and allowed to stay out of the army. I told them how much I wanted to continue with my studies at the university but that if they had a university I would go there. They told me that they were against universities and studying. It was not necessary. They took my paper and told me to return in a few days. I was lucky to have a friend who still had his business in this area and he made contact with some people he knew in the Free Army and it allowed me to get my papers back the next day. But they had put a Free Army stamp in my book which meant that I could never go back to the university which was in a Government army area. If I was caught it would be straight to hell. So I left for Turkey immediately.

I had to think and act quickly as I was now in danger. Being gay made it all the harder as we have no rights at all in Syria. The Free Army is very clear that it will kill gay people. The government side might not kill us but they treat you very badly if they think you are gay, or not manly. Like one of my friends. The police stopped him because they said he was not walking like a man. They wanted to fuck him but he refused. He went to prison for three weeks. It was terrible. They said to my friend that this was a lesson! You can live as a gay person in Syria, like I did with H. It is possible. But you have to hide your feelings and sexuality. You are never safe.

Into Turkey

I paid $200 to be taken in the night by car with four others to the border with Turkey. We then waited until around 2 am to go on. We walked for about an hour through a pipe in waist deep water and then onto a road. On this road we were caught by the Turkish army. They took us in a car to the prison where we waited until 4pm. We were outside and it rained all day which is normal for this mountain area in September. We were very wet and we asked for some cover but they said they had nothing. We had no food. This is how we were from 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. Sitting in the rain with only some guard dogs walking around us.

I knew no one in this group. I was very very hungry. In this situation I knew I could do nothing. I just sat and looked. Wondering what will happen next. Sometimes I cried. But mostly I just sat and looked.

At 4pm they came and took our photographs and then said go. This prison has two doors. One into Turkey and one back to Syria. We went out the door for Syria. Outside was the man who had bought us from Syria and he told us to shelter under the trees whilst he found another way. We waited until around midnight but I cannot be sure as the charge on my phone was finished and I couldn’t know the time exactly. We still had not eaten.

We then walked with this man along a road for maybe three hours and then we were caught again.

When we were caught the first time there was a young policeman there who came over to me and searched my bag. He saw the medicines I had and asked if I was a doctor and I said yes. That’s all that we said then. When we were caught again he was there and came over and said “aren’t you the doctor we caught this morning?” Yes, I replied. He said come with me and he took me to a chair and told me to sit and wait. I felt empty. I had nothing; no home, no country. I have never felt so tired. I was very very hungry. The policeman asked me if I wanted him to help me. I said of course if you can. OK he said. He asked me again if I was a doctor and I said yes. He did not know much English and he would use English, Arabic and Turkish words. It was difficult speaking. He said he wanted my number and that he wanted to meet and speak with me once I was in Turkey. He did not ask but demanded my number saying he was in control and I had to agree.

We then went outside where there were some taxis. He went over and told one of the taxis that he was to drive me into Turkey. My heart lifted at these words and I turned to the young policeman and said if you really want to help me then you will let this old couple travel with me – they were married, from Syria and very old and afraid. He said OK and told me to bring the couple and sit and wait in the taxi whilst he went to speak to his officer. He was not happy and told the young policeman that he had no authority to do this and I was sure then we would be sent back. But the young policeman was saying that we must help as the old couple were like his parents and that I was their son. The officer then said OK and off we went to Antakya.

We arrived in Antakya at 5 am. The first thing I did was to find a toilet where I could wash and change my clothes which were very dirty and then get my phone charged. With the help of another Syrian I met on the street who had been in Turkey for some time and who had a Turkish sim card, I called my father who was in Izmir. He quickly arranged my bus ticket and I traveled in comfort across Turkey. I was lucky because for the first part of this journey I was with the old couple who came with me in the taxi and they gave me some bread and cheese that they had carried from Syria. I can’t tell you how good this was with a cup of tea!

For 2 or 3 days I did nothing but eat and sleep when I got to my parent’s small home in Izmir. But once I felt better I started to think about what to do next in terms of my future. One of the first things I did was to call a close friend in Aleppo who had a key to my home to ask him to go and take everything and to tell the landlord I no longer needed this place. I wanted my friend to have all my things – my books, my papers, my clothes. He has no money so I couldn’t ask him to send anything. Anyway I was very happy that he had my things although it would have been even better if he was with me in Turkey.

I went to Istanbul to see the university as I wanted so much to continue my studies. I thought it would be good if I could go the university and also find some work and H could join me and we could take a small home and live together. But this was not to be. The university in Istanbul was very welcoming and told me I could come and study there. But it turned out that I could attend the classes but I would not be allowed to sit any exams so I would never get a degree. So I returned to Izmir.

H had come earlier to Turkey and had found work as a hairdresser. He is very skilled and has been doing both men and women’s hair with his uncle in Syria from the age of 12. In Turkey the work was hard with long hours and little pay. Some days he took money and other days not. He worked until the boss said he could go. It was a bad situation but we had no choice.

We had not been many days in Izmir when H said I want to take you to the beach and swim. We went with my two brothers. H and I wanted some time together so we told my brothers that we would go and get some cold water and come back. We walked and found a quiet place where there was no one around. We sat and then hugged and kissed one another. But we did not see 2 guys on a motorbike who were parked nearby. They saw us and walked over. I knew that this was not going to be good and told this to H who said be calm and let me talk with them. I had little Turkish but H could speak fluently. I can’t remember their clothes but I will never forget their faces with their big beards. ‘Hello’ they said, ‘what are you doing here?’ ‘Are you brothers or friends?’ H told them that we were just sitting and that we were brothers. ‘Do you think it is right to be kissing and hugging your brother like this ?’ H said we weren’t doing anything. But they told us that they saw us. They explained that they wanted to help us and that we should learn that God does not like what you were doing. H replied that he had not thought about that and maybe they were right. He thanked them. ‘Thanks are not enough. You can’t just walk away. You must come with us now to our office’. It was clear from their voices that they would not let us go easily. H turned to me and whispered in Arabic that we will have to run and was I ready to do this. There was no choice as these men were frightening. Also I did not want my brothers to see these men.

So we ran and ran. Very fast with them chasing behind on the motorbike. Eventually I could run no more. We were now on a street which was closed at one end. The motorbike was getting close. At this point H shouted out ‘father father!’ to an older man who was coming down the street and we ran towards him. It worked as the motorbike turned around and left.

I was very shaken and upset. As soon as we got back to my brothers at the beach I said we must leave and go home. I couldn’t tell them what had happened but they knew something had upset me as they kept saying why has your face changed colour? I felt very unsafe.

I talked with H’s mother who understands our situation and is very helpful. She told me that we couldn’t stay in Turkey and that we should go to Europe. She said that we will always have to live in fear if we stayed. She said that I because of the way I behave and speak, I will always be open to attack in Turkey. And to H she said if he wanted a life with me he would have to leave for Europe as well.

We started immediately to look for the way to Europe.

Leaving Turkey

When we decided to leave Turkey for Europe it was not difficult to find the way. First I looked on the internet and saw that we had to go through Greece and that there were many chances to find someone to take us. I got some phone numbers from the Syrian market in Izmir and we eventually chose someone who seemed to be a good man who we could trust. He wanted 400 euros each for me and H but I told him we had 500 euros for the two of us. We spoke many times for a few days and then he said OK I will take you both.

The first time we were caught by the Turkish coastguard on our way to Chios. We had been in the sea for about 20 minutes when the engine stopped. Some of the refugees tried to fix it but then dropped the engine and it sank to the bottom. Then others suggested that we should use our hands and paddle the boat. But it was hopeless. After a short time the Turkish coastguard arrived and took us back. I was very afraid then because some of the coastguards were beating us with one of them jumping down to beat us. I told H that I was frightened and he said keep down and don’t speak. We were not hurt as we were sitting near the women but many of the men were beaten.

When we landed we were taken by the police to a prison where we were kept through the night without any food, without anything. We were very very cold. Our clothes were wet and I felt like ice. In the morning they took our photographs and finger prints and then took us by bus to Izmir where we were let free.

One week later we left for Samos and got through.

When I stepped into the small boat with 55 other people I thought there was a 99% chance that I would die. But we could not stay in Turkey. It is not possible for us to make a life there. My family are poor now and they don’t have money to support me and H. My father would always try to find money if I asked but I can’t as it would be wrong. So I took my 1% chance.

Pushing at the Door into Europe

 

Arriving in Samos

Every house has a door. For me Samos is the door to Europe. But it is not open. For nearly ten months I have had to push and only now is it beginning to open.

We had no idea what to expect when we arrived. But we did think that we would only be staying a few days. I very much wanted to visit the archaeological sites on Samos and I persuaded my boyfriend that we should spend a week here before moving on to Athens. We were in for a big surprise.

First we were taken by the police from the beach to Samos town. Here they recorded some basic personal details and we had to sing the Syrian national anthem and draw a picture of the flag. Then they wrote in black pen a number on our hands. Were we no longer to have a name and just become a number? I was nervous.

Then we were taken by a bus up to the camp. We were amazed by how many people were there (October 2016). How could it be? If people stayed as we still thought just for a couple of days then where had all these people come from. Surely they had not just arrived.

We were given a tent and told to find somewhere inside the camp to put it. There was no room and we ended up putting the tent on a very steep concrete slope and spent all our time sliding to the bottom. We still had not spoken to any of the other refugees and spent this first day and night sleeping.

We had to move the tent. It was impossible where it was and the next morning we found a good flat space at the top of the camp. We soon discovered that this was an area for Afghani refugees but they were prepared to let us put our tent there as long we moved when they needed the space. As we were sorting out the tent, a young child of about 7 years came over and offered to help us. He told us that he could show us where the toilets and showers were and where to get food. Then the child’s father arrived. He was from Syria. We were very shocked when he said he and his family had been in the camp for 8 months. I said surely you mean 8 days! No 8 months he replied. I thought he must have some special difficulties maybe concerning his lack of papers. But no. He told us that had a passport and his Syrian ID. Here you wait he said. Everything takes a long time. We could hardly speak. We were so shocked and surprised and I was very concerned for my boyfriend and how to keep him strong.

Our first meal in the camp was a boiled potato with some olive oil poured over. When H saw this he was disgusted but I told him it was very healthy food and that Greece was world famous for this dish and we should be happy to have this chance to eat it!

In the first days we had much to do. I walked around the camp and was amazed by what I saw. I gathered blankets that had been thrown away and washed them so we could make the tent more comfortable. Later we went into the town and bought a long cable which we then connected to the electricity supply. In this way we were able to have light in the tent and most importantly a place to charge our phones. We had no guide to help us and had to work out life in the camp for ourselves. Just smell the camp it tells you everything. It is a place for rubbish. There are no flowers in the camp.

But it is not easy for the camp authorities because there are so many people there and nearly every day new people are arriving. It is a big problem. And what if they let us go direct into Europe that would be a problem too because they don’t know who is coming over from Turkey. Maybe there are big criminals coming.

We shared our tent with many mice. There were no cats and dogs just mice and the mosquitoes.

There are not enough toilets and showers for all the people in the camp. You always have to queue and you have cold water in the showers and there is simply not enough hot water. The showers are being used all the time.

The food was not good. Breakfast was ok but some of the lunches and dinners we threw away as the food was not cooked and we had no way of making it better. I was often hungry.

We spent most of the time in the tent, sleeping.

My English is ok and this was important. H has very little English so I did most of the talking and finding out what we had to do. The chaos of the camp came as a shock. For example, on our second day we went to the Asylum Service office to start the registration process. When we went at 9 am which was when the office opened we found hundreds of people waiting at the door. It was incredible and we had no chance. So next morning we woke at 4am and went to wait at the office. There were already 4 other people there waiting. When the doors eventually opened we were very lucky to be seen as they told us they could only see 14 people that day and although we were at the front there were pregnant women who took priority. One of the workers there could see we were upset and she took pity on us and we were seen.

A young male psychologist asked if he could help us and I thought this might be good. He visited our tent everyday for three days and would speak to me and he was very kind. On the fourth day he saw me with my boyfriend and he never returned. He never said why he suddenly stopped coming. I think he was upset about my boyfriend.

We were interviewed separately. I was very open and spoke about the problems I had faced in Syria and Turkey because of my sexuality. I told them about my love for H and how we wanted to make our life together in Europe. H is very shy and he didn’t feel comfortable about talking about these issues with the Asylum Service. I think this caused us some problems as they agreed to H’s asylum application where I was refused.

This made me very very sad. I felt lost and confused. It was made much worse when in the same days I lost all contact with my family. I have heard nothing from them for 6 months now and I am very upset. Then I was sent a video clip of our house in Aleppo. It was totally destroyed. This was the place where I was born. Where I grew up and lived with my parents and three brothers. All this was gone and I was alone. My past seemed to be destroyed.

I took to my sleeping bag and for three days I did nothing but sleep. H was very worried but he could do nothing for me. On the fourth day I got up and walked around the camp. I was crying. I then came to the children’s play area and sat and watched them. I saw these children laughing and playing and realised that I now needed to be like them. I needed to find happiness again and start to build my life once more. The laughter of the children made a big difference to me. I slowly began to re build my strength and was determined to get this door to Europe opened for me and H.

Our home in the camp

 

Ten Months

..very bitter coffee I drank waiting for life 

..ten months have passed and I am still waiting 

..ten months and I didn’t finish the cup of coffee 

..that big cup that contaminated the atoms of my blood

..and merged with the cells of my body 

..ten months and the sun shines and then goes and I didn’t finish the cup 

..ten months and the moon visits my tent and I didn’t finish the cup 

..the wind brought me rain, dust and storms but I didn’t finish the cup 

..with restrictions and controls my foot crashed from the path and I didn’t finish the cup 

..every night I was overcome by tears. On my pillow I dreamt in freedom but the cup didn’t end 

..with every night and the dawn of morning I asked the cup when will I take the last sip? 

..and look at the blackness and weep pain 

                  ●             ●               ●

..ten months and when will it end?

..ten months of pain and dying 

..between the rays of the sun and the sound of flames 

..I swear to drink the last sip from you in the middle of the sea

..ten months to the date 

..I will drink the last sip of the black cup and 

..I will swallow the hot sun  

..but I can’t drink it . ..never 

..how to drink it when I hear the voices of tortured people oppressed 

..amongst the debris and filth of the camp 

..ah … that coffee and its manufacturers 

..oh coffee maker stop please 

..many people receive your coffee 

..who said to you we need coffee ? 

..we want the steamer and to drink the coffee from the surface 

..we want to open the door safely 

..release our hands and untie the bond  (the coffee maker )

..we are not criminals and addicted to coffee

..please let us continue on the path 

..so I can look at the sun, during the light of the day and at the dusk of the evening 

..without restrictions and where not even the coffee prisoners in the waiting room are broken 

..there I left my breath and left my body and my clothes 

..I left my blood and my pen 

..I am now announcing that I am human 

.. free, without restrictions, I have broken the coffee cup with my pen.

Saad Abdllah

(Samos Island, July 2017)

Voices of Young Male Refugees. Samos July 2017

“We presented a detailed case of our situation to the Asylum Service. We told them of the tragedies we experienced in Aleppo and why we had to leave. We wrote about the difficulties we faced as gay lovers both in Syria and in Turkey and that we wanted to stay together. The Asylum Service rejected this report and told us that if we had a gay marriage then it would be different. We want to get married. But where? Syria, Turkey? That’s impossible. Why do they say this?” (Syrian 22 years)

“The psychologist asked to see me and said she could help my case. I spoke to her for 30 minutes. Then she said can’t help me. She isn’t a psychologist who helps people with problems. Her job is just to write a report. Why did she let me talk for so long when she knew she couldn’t do anything for me.” (Syrian 23 years)

“I had a good relationship with the psychologist. I was seeing her once a week. Then last week when I went to see her she told me not to come again. There was nothing she could do and she was very busy. I am confused. What did I do? (Moroccan 24 years)

‘You live in this house but it is not your home. You are not the boss. We decide everything’. (UNCHR housing service).

“I have just come from the UNCHR office and they told me that they have all my details and that they will call me when they have news. Why do they lie to me. They don’t have my number and they never asked for it. “ (Syrian, 33 years)

“ They want us to accept everything. We must be happy with anything they give us. If we complain we are seen as difficult. I have been given a bed in an attic bedroom. I was very happy to move out of the camp where I was bullied everyday. But I can’t breathe in this room. It is so hot. It is an oven. They told me if I didn’t like it then I should go back to the camp.” (Syrian, 19 years)

“When I got to Athens I found that my paper was not correct. The Asylum Service had forgotten to add a signature. My lawyer told me that they make this mistake many times on Samos. I was frightened about what would happen to me if the police checked my papers in Athens. So I came back to Samos.” (Syrian 23 years)

“My Somalian wife was 9 months pregnant and we needed help. We went to many refugee services in Athens. We went early in the morning but there were always lots of refugees already waiting outside the offices. We would often wait hours outside. It was very hard for my wife. Most of these organisations had security guards to keep us outside and were not friendly. We were treated like cattle. Then when we got inside and we found people who were useless. ‘We know nothing’; ‘We can’t help’ ‘Do you want to see a lawyer?’ I was so angry. I told them you take refugee money. You live from our backs. But you do nothing for us. So many of these people tell us that they are new on the job which is why they can’t help us. But we need people who can do the job. Why do we get this?” (Algerian, 36 years)

“I hear what you are saying about the long lines of cars parked up by the camp (over 100 yesterday). I think there are around 300 people now working in the camp. But we have a big problem. It is very Greek. There is no organisation and no leadership. Many of the workers are appointed through Government schemes where social criteria are used. This is often positive but so many lack any skills and without some one to draw up work plans and support they do nothing. Many of the contracts are short term and sometimes wages are delayed. These are not jobs that many people want.” (NGO co-ordinator, Samos)

“ We know about the cell in the police station. They use it to threaten us. Last week I spent a night there because they said I was rude to a policeman in the camp. This was my punishment. I am 16 years old”. (Pakistani boy)

“No idea. I know nothing about Ramadan and nothing about Eid.”

(Care worker in home for minors of whom over half were observing the fast. Eid was 2 days later).

“Why me? Why me? This is the question which never goes away; night or day. I can never relax. I never feel safe. All those I came to Samos with have now left for Athens. There is just me still on Samos. Why me? What have I done?” (Syrian 24 years)

“I went to a hairdresser in the town and told to leave. ‘We don’t cut hair of refugees.” (Afghani 27years)

“Nobody stops to give me a ride. I have been walking for over three hours [from Karlovassi to Samos Town). You are the first to stop. Thank you.” (Moroccan 24 years)

Samos Notes July 2017

Last week we asked a friend whose son works as a policeman in the port why he thought the police were so violent in searching out the refugees who tired of waiting and fearing a negative response to their asylum application tried to leave the island clandestinely – without the necessary papers. They do this in a variety of ways usually by hiding in or on the trucks leaving Samos for Pireaus. If they are discovered they are routinely given a beating before being released back to the camp. It appears from what he replied that the port police on Samos are penalised by losing wages if any unauthorised refugees from Samos are caught in Athens or Pireaus. In other words this threat to their livelihoods drives them towards violence in the hope that it will deter the refugees trying to escape Samos.

In the first week of July the police launched a major sweep to locate refugees who had exhausted the asylum process and are to be deported. 138 such refugees were caught although many more are thought to be in hiding. When refugees are in this position they do all they can to evade capture. The police routines are predictable. For example they tend to come into the sleeping cabins in the camp at around 6am looking for those who have been refused asylum. The refugees in turn move around the cabins and don’t stay in their allocated places. It is a life lived on the edge, always vigilant and always insecure.

The police presence on Samos is now significant. The island is rapidly losing those laid back characteristics which were commonplace on Greek islands. For the refugees in particular as well as for those local people still offering help and solidarity to refugees there is a tangible sense of being under police surveillance, including being photographed and stopped and questioned. It is a presence evident in the many new police vehicles of all kinds especially in Samos town where the camp is located. Less obvious are the many plain clothes police who wander the streets and bars and especially at the ports when the ferries arrive and depart.

A couple of our friends with their new born baby visited last week from Athens. Before leaving from Piraeus their papers were checked three times at the ferry by different plain clothes police. The same happened when they returned a week later. They are from Algeria and Somalia. We were standing with them waiting to board the ferry when a young guy in shorts and tee shirt sidled up to us and asked them for their papers. He identified himself as a policeman. This happened again 10 minutes later when another plain clothes policeman demanded to see their papers. And all these additional checks come after being checked at the gates to the terminal by private security workers before allowed access to the ferry area.

Last week there was a fire in cell where refugees are detained awaiting deportation. Sometimes they are held in the cell for weeks. This single room has 4 toilets and a shower. The floor is covered with foam mattresses. The only windows are high so there is no view of the outside world. There are no exercise facilities and they are locked in 24/7. The cell is on the ground floor of the police station and is under constant camera surveillance. At the time of the fire there were 33 people held in the cell and the day time temperatures had risen to over 40c. Fortunately there were no deaths but four refugees plus 6 police officers needed hospital treatment for smoke inhalation.

On July 9th the Samos police workers issued a statement saying that it was by sheer luck that there were no fatalities and demanded to know who preciselywas responsible for imprisoning so many refugees in such a small space and complaining that they were being damaged by being expected to manage an inhumane policy.

The fact is that police cells all over Greece are being used in this way: cells which at best were expected to house detainees for a few days and never intended for long term incarceration. Greek prisons are not known for their positive qualities but the police cells go well beyond anything you will find in prison. The appalling conditions and the lack of basic rights are well known and have been the subject of endless condemnatory reports but nothing changes.

All of this taking place under a Syriza government that claims to be progressive and humane. It is nothing less than shameful.

Interventions in a Crisis – Working with Refugees on Samos Island

(I hope that readers won’t find this post excessively long. It is the basis of some talks that I have been asked to give to social workers in England in February 2017 reflecting on some of our key experiences of being involved with refugees on Samos. I am especially pleased that I will be speaking at Liverpool Hope University as students and staff there have been amongst our long term major supporters. This is an open lecture on Wednesday Feb 22nd starting at 5.30pm in the Senate Room of the University.)

Our work with refugees on Samos has been rooted in our common humanity and informed by mutual respect, solidarity and empathy. In Samos we have come to recognise that these human qualities are shaped by where you stand with the refugees. If you stand shoulder to shoulder as brothers and sisters it nearly always followed that relationships formed where people connected, despite massive differences in background and experience. Even 2015 when the average stay of the refugees on Samos was between 2 to 3 days it was astonishing to see so many friendships made between the refugees and the local activists who met them on the beaches and helped provide clothes and food. Even 2 years later many of these connections have endured.

On the other hand we also saw many ‘helpers’ who did not stand with and alongside the refugees.

These people could talk the talk of their concern for the refugees but they saw themselves as both different and superior. Such an attitude prevented meaningful contact with the refugees and often led to ‘help’ being given in ways which were humiliating and disrespectful. This was evident in many ways. Refugees for example were and are viewed as supplicants with almost no rights to even choose the clothes they were given. If a young male refugee refused a needed pair of jeans for example they were immediately seen as ungrateful. The very idea that they should care about how they looked or comment on the labels/brands on offer was seen as outrageous. Yet in so many ways the young adult refugees are just like their European counterparts in that they do obsess about labels and brands and do care greatly about their appearance; one of the very few parts of their lives they now have any sort of control over. Virtually every other aspect from what they eat to where they sleep and when they can move are under the complete control of others.

Since the EU/Turkey pact in March 2016 refugees have been detained for months on Samos and it is possible to see more clearly how refugees fight to hold on to some control. At the cricket matches organised by the Pakistani refugees the hair styles of many of the players are stunningly fashionable. These are all done within the camp and those with the skills and equipment are in high demand. Their clothes and shoes are not up to much – they never get to choose the clothes that are handed out in the camp -but their hairstyles are top drawer. And this is true for the majority of young male refugees on Samos. Control over their hair style is about all they have!

Here They Come!

The summer of 2015 marked the beginning of a new period in Samos’ long history of being a gateway into Europe for undocumented migrants. The massive increase in arrivals with over 90,000 coming to Samos – three times the population of the island – precipitated by the devastating war in Syria simply overwhelmed the already feeble capacity of the authorities. It was an experience which was repeated again and again as the tidal waves of refugees swept northwards out of Greece during that summer.

On Samos, the previous practice of detaining refugees in a camp that looked like Guantanamo Bay surrounded by a double fence topped with coiled razor wire had to be abandoned. The camp built in 2007 (replacing an equally horrendous ex-police station) had a capacity for 240 detainees and despite the warnings of the impending increase of refugees about to cross the Aegean from nearby Turkey, no additional provision (such as opening closed military camps and empty hotels) had been made.

The decision was taken that the only way to manage was to move the refugees off the island as quickly as possible. Of course, there were other options, but on Samos at least those with power and authority were firmly of the view that anything which made Samos look positive to the refugees would result in even more arrivals. This they wanted to avoid at all costs. So from early summer 2015 all the daily arrivals were no longer taken to the camp but were immediately directed either to the port in Karlovassi or in Samos Town where they could get a ferry to Pireaus/Athens. At the outset the authorities privileged the refugees fleeing from Syria, who were considered to be the most vulnerable. Whilst constituting around 80% of the arrivals there were also significant numbers of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, north Africa and Iran. The plan was that Syrians would be ‘fast tracked’ at the port and on to Athens within 72 hours of arrival. All other nationalities were to be detained in the camp where a more intense processing would take place.

But it was not to be so simple and it was only ever partially implemented. For a start the refugees are not stupid. Most of them knew that the Samos authorities had implemented the Syria first approach. So unless your skin colour (e.g. black) indicated that you were unlikely to be Syrian all other refugees quickly realised that it was best to declare yourself as Syrian if you wanted to avoid being delayed. (Just as in 2006 most of the refugees coming then declared that they were Palestinian because they knew that to be Palestinian meant you wouldn’t be deported.)

Most of the police at the ports clearly knew what was going on and often encouraged refugees from elsewhere (Iraq and Afghanistan) to declare themselves as Syrian because it meant that they avoided the hassle of detaining them in the camp and they could rapidly move them on. For some however this was taken as further illustration of the widely held assumption by the authorities that refugees lie; they are never to be believed. It is an assumption which can have fatal consequences as our friend Wasim discovered when the police refused to believe him in 2013 when he told them that his wife and 2 young children were trapped in the forest in a remote part of Samos. Not only did the police take no action they handcuffed Wasim to a chair for over 24 hours as he protested in vain. His wife and children died in the forest.

Refugees rarely travel ‘alone’. Most of the refugees are with others, either friends or families and these are vital forms of support. But through their smart phones they are also in contact with a much wider network of others including those who have have gone before them. These networks were and remain extremely important and valuable to the refugees. It provides information about routes, about smugglers and other contacts necessary to their onward journeys. It alerted them to what they could expect from the authorities they would be forced to deal with en route. It did not take long for some of the mainstream media to suggest that owning a smart phone indicated that the refugees were not having such a hard time if they could afford such a gadget. They wilfully ignored how vital they were to the refugees’ survival. We met many refugees who told us how their family had all chipped in to buy the phone before they left home and many we discovered were paid for by their mothers. The phones were life lines. This is why one of the most pressing needs expressed by the refugees shortly after arriving here was phone charging and access to free wi fi. The phones and networks created by the refugees became crucial ‘intelligence’ resources in their hands.

In the summer of 2015 the two ports on Samos and not the camp became the focus of the islanders’ efforts to help the refugees. It was here that the refugees were corralled waiting to be photographed and have their basic details (name, birth, country etc.) recorded before being given a ‘white paper’ which allowed them to move on to Athens. Once there they were expected to continue with their applications for asylum. Very few wanted to stay in Greece so there was no question of lingering in Athens for further processing. They were not interested in seeking asylum in Greece. They could see that the Greek economy was in ruins and that there was little or no chance of decent work. They wanted to move on and join the wave of refugees pushing northwards. In any event the Greek asylum service had collapsed and through a newly introduced application system operated through Skype it was virtually impossible to obtain even an initial interview to kick start the procedure.

The Boat Groups

The scenes at the two Samian ports for much of this summer were extraordinary with hundreds of refugees milling around waiting to be dealt with by the police. Every available fence was used for drying the clothes that had been soaked during their crossing and every place that offered some shade was occupied. The great majority of refugees stayed together with those they had travelled with, especially during the sea crossing from Turkey. Some of the groups were mixed and included a variety of nationalities but mostly they were from the same countries – Syrians with Syrians for example. Within each group, of usually around 40 to 60 people, there would be sub groups of friends and families. But the solidarities that formed as a result of the sea crossing which threw people together who were often meeting for the first time were exceptionally strong and significant.

At this time the ‘boat groups’ became the most important survival resource for the refugees. With the authorities offering nothing in terms of food, shelter, clothing and comfort of any kind, the well being of the refugees depended largely on themselves. There were no NGOs on the island, and not only did the authorities do nothing neither did other significant local actors such as the army and the ubiquitous Greek Orthodox Church which turned their back on the refugees It was in the boat groups that money was shared so food could be bought, or hotel rooms could be booked for those who were most in need of a proper bed and toilets – young children, those with disabilities, and those with the greatest trauma. It was from within the boat groups that money was raised to pay for the ferry tickets for those who had lost everything. And it was in these groups that compassion and support was offered. Many times boat groups refused to leave on the ferries until all their group had been issued with the necessary authorisation to leave Samos. Nobody was to be left behind.

Representatives/spokespeople always emerged from the boat groups, usually selected on their ability to speak English. In Karlovassi port we had the enormous advantage of having an Arabic speaker who had come to Samos as a refugee in 2006. Creating effective communication systems with the boat groups was crucial. They were able to identify those within their groups who needed special attention, usually medical but also financial. It was important that our involvement needed to be fully engaged with the boat groups and directed to supporting and deepening their solidarities. For example, it was evident from the beginning that in order to avoid chaos and mobbing over food and clothing distributions that the refugees themselves had to be involved and given responsibilities. The boat groups became vital in this effort and they created effective systems for ensuring that food was shared and distributed with dignity and respect. They also organised the lunches setting up lines of sandwich makers. And they were especially important in terms of maintaining some semblance of hygiene in a very difficult situation.

The negligence of the authorities seemed to have no limits and this extended to a complete disregard for the hygiene and cleanliness of the ports. In Karlovassi for example, apart from the quayside bars some of which allowed the refugees to use their toilets there was a single broken w.c. in an abandoned port police building at the harbour. Yet there were often 200 to 300 refugees staying there. Within days this single toilet and the empty rooms in the building were a public health disaster area. Under pressure from the locals the local authority announced that it would install portaloos in the harbour. They promised immediate action. But as ever nothing materialised. No portaloos ever came. To do nothing quickly became impossible. The health risks from this stinking excrement filled building in the very centre of where the refugees stayed at the port were extreme. With nothing forthcoming from the system the activists at the port took over the abandoned police building, cleaned it out, painted the rooms and got the single w.c. working again. In the meantime another local group had managed to raise enough money to install additional toilets and outside washing sinks. No permission was sought. Direct action was taken.

Although driven by the immediate health needs of the refugees, both they and the activists were well aware of the broader context where refugees are routinely demonised as being dirty and diseased. The disgusting state of the port police building was taken as yet further proof of this stereotype. In Karlovassi, the importance of keeping the area free of garbage and keeping the restored building and toilets clean became a daily drum beat. It was not only about keeping themselves as healthy as possible but it was also a conscious fightback against one aspect of their demonisation.

This was the broad context in which islanders responded to the needs of the refugees. It took various forms and was spontaneous. There was no overall co-ordination although a web of relationships formed between the various groups which helped with effectiveness. Neither was there any time when any individual or group attempted to take control. This in part might be explained by the absence of the organised left parties such as the communist party (KKE) and Syriza in these initiatives. As anyone with any familiarity of the Greek Left knows, their thirst to manage and control is (in)famous. Their absence was justified largely on the grounds that these popular interventions allowed the authorities both in Greece and the EU to evade their responsibilities for the refugees. And with some justification they argued that the explosion of popular action across Europe in response to the refugees deflected attention from the machinations of imperialism and neo liberalism which were at the root of the refugee crisis. But for the islanders who were at the ports the all too evident suffering of the refugees demanded immediate action. And for many it was never a question of either helping the refugees or criticising the neglect of the authorities or the evils of imperialism and global capital; both were seen as necessary. There was also some hope that their example would shame the authorities into doing something humane for the refugees. This never materialised.

Criminalising Help

Help for the refugees came from a range of quarters on Samos. For example, before the NGOs arrived at the end of the summer, a collection of tourists and regular summer visitors to Samos (between 15-40 at any one time) made a crucial contribution in meeting the refugees when they landed on the beaches. A phone rota was created so that when refugee boats were spotted coming into land, usually between 4am and 7am they could be called on to drive down to the beaches and help both with the landing and above all to take them to the nearest port. Despite the high summer temperatures the authorities made no provision for either the landings (need for water and dry clothes) or transport to the ports. Without the drivers and their vehicles the already exhausted refugees faced a walk of up to 20 kms to get to the nearest port. Furthermore public transport was not an option as the bus company refused to carry refugees. The same applied to the taxis, although that changed later in the summer as it became evident that they were missing out on a highly lucrative source of income. But worse still was a long standing law in Greece which criminalised giving any lifts to refugees either by car, boat or even donkey. Even though this restriction was lifted in the early summer of 2015 (although you were still expected to inform the police every time you took a refugee) the police took a great deal longer to accept that the law had changed. So drivers were often stopped and told that they were breaking the law; they had to report to police stations with their documents and were generally harassed.

The tourists and holiday visitors were not so fearful of this law nor of the Greek police and saw it as an outrageous attempt to curb their humanity. Not only did they continue to drive in the face of police harassment but they often came down to the ports with food once the refugees had settled in. Moreover, many of those continued to offer valuable financial support once they returned home by fund-raising for refugees on Samos and some have linked up with refugees who they first met on Samos and who successfully made it to northern Europe.

As always it was the refugees who suffered most from these laws. Countless cars and pick-ups with room for passengers never stopped to pick up refugees tramping to the ports. Many islanders reported of being afraid of the consequences if they stopped to help. As recounted in detail in Samos Chronicles for some refugees the consequences have been fatal as in the case of Wasim who was not helped by the local fishermen as he swam along the coast looking for help for his wife and 2 young children trapped on the shore. Boats would approach him but turn away once they saw he was a refugee. They feared if they helped they would be arrested as smugglers and lose their boat. It was not an idle threat as confiscations had happened and been widely reported. But for Wasim it was a contributory factor in the death of his family. Similarly when a motor launch capsized in 2014 and led to the deaths of over 22 refugees locked in the cabin, none of the small fishing boats in the nearby fishing village were prepared to go out and take part in the search and rescue of survivors. When pressed they all expressed fear that they would be arrested and risk the loss of their boats. We watched in mounting horror from the vantage of our home this drama unfold when for over 2 hours we could see no attempt at rescue.

Laws criminalising refugee help, seeing it as an aspect of smuggling, are widespread in Europe and not confined to Greece. But there can be no doubt that here on Samos it has been a contributory factor in making locals fearful of helping refugees. The islanders live under an unrelenting drizzle of propaganda which demonises refugees. They are dirty, they are diseased and a threat to our health, they are violent, they are selfish, they are sexual predators, they are terrorists and not least they are mainly Muslim. The list is endless and changes depending on the latest ‘outrage’ and moral panic. It has many consequences and generating fear amongst the people is one. It was evident in the small numbers of islanders who offer lifts to the refugees which was not just the consequence of the law. It was evident in some of the ways in which much needed clothes, food, and water were distributed at the ports. Cars would arrive and simply leave a pile of clothes or fruit with no attempt to make direct contact with the refugees and help ensure its fair distribution. Similarly, very few refugees were ever invited to stay or visit the homes of islanders. The lack of a common language did not help but the fear element also played a role.

The nervousness of many local people wanting to help the refugees was in fact easily overcome. Those who crossed the line and sat and talked with the refugees soon found themselves in conversations like those they would have amongst themselves. Again and again islanders exclaimed that the refugees “are just like us” after spending time with them at the ports. For so many this was a life changing revelation especially given the intensity in which refugees are portrayed as being not like us; as different and often dangerous. It was a revelation which energised activists who flourished as friendships with the refugees deepened. It was just as well for with hundreds arriving every day and with the rapid turn over as the refugees moved on to Athens, systems had to be re-created almost on a daily basis.

Help from ‘Below’

Scores of islanders came to help the refugees in whatever ways they could. It was all the more impressive given that Samos as throughout Greece was in its sixth year of devastating austerity which had seen wages and pensions slashed and jobs evaporate. Poverty on Samos is acute and widespread and if it were not for the gardens that so many islanders cultivate and the high level of home ownership the situation here would be utterly desperate. With many having given up their cars and pick ups and a bus service which (poorly) connects the main towns leaving the smaller villages isolated meant that going to the ports to offer direct support to the refugees was not an option for many. But even so many organised clothing collections in their villages, others collected fruits and tomatoes from their gardens and some became involved in cooking groups and clothes washing and drying. In other words they ‘dug where they stood’ and contributed with great generosity and with love. It was exemplified by one older woman in one of the villages who after going through her few possessions came up with a pair of women’s shoes. They were leather, in good condition but there were some scuff marks on the heels. So she had her friend re-dye the shoes before giving them. As far as she was concerned giving scuffed shoes would be an insult. This concern with the dignity of the refugees was common and reflected in the quality of the clothing donated. It was very rare to find rubbish.

Those who came down to the ports represented only a fraction of the local people who helped the refugees. Those who were there distributing food, especially cooked meals commonly had behind them a network of women who in their homes and villages were preparing meals and who had organised rotas which allowed their efforts to be sustained over the summer months. Others spent hours washing, drying and recycling clothes. Family relationships and friendships with those in local businesses were also activated with great effect. Some pharmacies either donated or massively discounted essential medicines and first aid materials. The same was true for some of the locally owned (not the big, national/multinational chains) supermarkets and fruit sellers and one businessman gave rent free a large modern warehouse to be used as a refugee clothing and equipment store.

So much was learnt during these days. We learnt about the importance of working together with the refugees; of the myriad ways in which to communicate when there is no common language; of the power of humour; of the bonds which unite us despite our differences and of the importance of working in ways which strengthened refugee solidarities. It was during that summer that it became clear that personal contacts with the refugees were as important as providing meals and shoes. Landing on the beaches of Samos in the early hours of the morning is a tumultuous experience for the refugees. There is the relief at surviving an often terrifying journey through the night. Low in the water, packed in small underpowered rubber dinghies, being steered by another refugee who might have had 5 minutes practice with the engine before leaving the Turkish coast most of the refugees pray their way through the 4 – 8 hours it takes. Not surprisingly they are overwhelmed when they arrive with some just sitting sobbing whilst others who have got a signal on their phones are shouting with joy to friends and family as they tell them that they are alive and now in Europe. Not knowing what reception to expect it meant so much when they were met by those who gave them a hug which is such a powerful act of fellowship and solidarity and was just as important as the dry clothes and snacks provided. The arrivals often had no idea who we were. Many had endured months of being scared of strangers as they made their way to the Turkish coast. Some had been attacked and robbed. In this context an embrace, a hug and a smile can almost instantaneously vaporise their anxieties. They were at least for the moment with people who cared for them and who didn’t see them as garbage.

Abusive Authority

The contrast with the state authorities could not be greater. Newly arriving refugees were and still are met by police and other officers wearing masks and rubber gloves and in lieu of a common language revert to shouting at the refugees. ‘Malaka’ is one of the first Greek words many refugees learn. It is a vulgar term of abuse and is widely used by the police when talking to refugees. It resonates disrespect, of refugees ‘counting for nothing’. Surgical gloves and masks are also powerful symbols. The police on Samos never tire to tell us and our friends that we should not take refugees in our cars because of the health risks. In this context then an embrace and simply being with and amongst the refugees is a powerful and necessary act of solidarity as well as a repudiation of the state’s propaganda..

Abusive behaviour towards refugees is not unique to the police, who in any event should have never been given such a key role in the management of refugees coming to Samos in the first place. The Greek police has its own particular history which includes a significant long standing connection with fascism and is reflected in such facts that over 50% of the police in Athens voted for the openly fascistic Golden Dawn party in the last General Election. Given a long and well documented history of endemic racism within much of the Greek police which includes deaths, severe injuries, torture and routine neglect of refugees and migrants, it is astonishing that the police were given such a crucial role in the management of refugees. But with no papers, refugees are still considered to be illegal arrivals to be managed by police and so placed within a penal rather than welfare framework. That they are refugees traumatised and frightened leaving everything behind as they fled to safety is not the starting point.

The Arrival of the NGOs

The humanitarian NGOs which began to arrive in numbers from late 2015, including Medecin Sans Frontieres (MSF), Red Cross, Save the Children in addition to a number of Greek based NGOs. During the same period UNCHR greatly expanded its involvement especially in the provision of tents and temporary structures which made up the so named ‘Hotspot’ which was initially constructed in the port area of Samos Town. The arrival of the NGOs took the major burden of care off the shoulders of the locals as they took over trying to meet the basic needs of the refugees. Whilst the NGOs have benefited the refugees, their impact has also been problematic in a number of ways for both the refugees and the local activists.

For many of the big international NGOs such as MSF this was the first time they had ever operated in western Europe as it was widely believed that this part of the world was more than capable of dealing with such humanitarian challenges. That it was in fact incapable was not just a matter of politics but also a reflection of the extent to which neo-liberalism had hollowed out the social capacity of many European governments. They no longer had the agencies or the personnel to respond and were already over-committed to providing what shredded social services survived to their own vulnerable populations. This is spectacularly true for Greece where austerity has almost done away with state public services. Into this vacuum stepped the NGOs acting in much the same way as privatised contracted out companies which have taken over and richly profited from the vanishing social state. They may not be motivated by generating profits, but it was evident on Samos that not only are the international NGOs big business but they have come to form one part of the ‘system’s’ response to the ‘refugee crisis’ which was reflected in their ambiguous stance to the refugees, to the local activists and also in their relationships to the Greek authorities.

Obsessed by their concern to stay in control, the authorities both in Samos and Athens have placed all kinds of limits on the NGOs. Basically every NGO action needs official permission which in Samos means endless delays, countless meetings and unimaginable amounts of paper work. Obey us or leave was basically the Greek state’s message to the big NGOs. Despite their size and influence the extent to which the NGOs submitted to the control of the Greek authorities was surprising. It was exemplified in the contracts issued to their staff which required them to comply without comment, to the demands of the authorities and on no account to speak or disclose anything of their work. In short gagging contracts. We witnessed many examples where the NGOs failed to speak out so as not to upset the Greek authorities. Even though some did make an eventual stand over the EU/Turkey pact in March 2016 and declared that they could not countenance working in locked camps this should not be allowed to blind us to their temerity and concern not ‘to rock the boat’. To many on Samos, the NGOs showed a remarkable lack of political ‘nous’ and courage.

But it was in their failure to stand full square, shoulder to shoulder with refugees which represented one of the most serious flaws in the NGO interventions. Refugees are routinely excluded from any involvement in setting the priorities and then the planning and implementation of NGO operations. Whilst the NGOs never hesitate to claim that they speak for the refugees they seem incapable of engaging with or even listening to them. Since the EU/Turkey pact of March 2016 refugees on Samos no longer move on to Athens after 48 -72 hours which was common throughout 2015. Instead they are stuck here for months. Many have been here for 9 months which is more than enough time to build relationships directly with refugees and to get them actively involved. This has not happened.

The arrival of the NGOs significantly changed the nature of the refugee experience, both for the refugees and the islanders. Help has been professionalised with all that entails. Despite the presence of some truly inspirational workers it was surprising to see how many NGO staff kept their distance from refugees. It is unusual on Samos to see an NGO worker sitting with refugees offering them a coffee or juice in a café or in the squares. Groups of 10 -20 NGO workers can be seen every day in the summer months meeting up for a drink and a meal (on expenses in many cases). Never a refugee in sight. There was one notable occasion when the refugees forced open the gates to the camp in Samos town. It was a carnival atmosphere as the refugees flooded out of the open gates. Families with young children filled the streets as they made their way down to the sea front where they sat and enjoyed their freedom. In reality only a small victory but much enjoyed. However what stood out was that whilst the refugees and their friends sat on the sea wall all the NGO workers who came down were standing apart on the pavement and looking over to where we sat. None of them came over. That so few of the NGOs get close to the refugees and stay desk bound in their offices has led them to being nicknamed Never Go Out by the refugees.

In addition, top down social work has long been infected by infantilising those it seeks to help. Clients, in all shapes and form are often viewed as children (often insulting children in the process); immature, lacking in judgement and prone to unreasonable and irresponsible behaviour and so on. There is more than a hint of these perspectives thriving in Samos where refugees are not valued and their voices are rarely heard. This in turn contributes to an almost total disdain which sees refugees as having nothing to offer. For months the clothing store managed by ‘volunteers’ (mainly short stay visitors from the USA and Europe who come to ‘help’ the refugees) refused to allow refugees to either help in or even visit the store. What made this worse was refugees are clamouring with frustration and want to do something. The store offered one such opportunity for meaningful activity. The reasons given for this refusal was that the refugees could not be trusted not to thieve and/or to take more than they needed. Reasons that had added irony given that everything in the store was donated for the refugees. It was their stuff! And this was not an isolated example. Workers in one of the more respected NGOs even ran a ‘book’ betting on how long another smaller clothing store would stay open because it was managed by one of their workers who believed in working with the refugees. It was a joint initiative in which she gave refugees control over its organisation, access and distribution. In fact the store flourished and was more effective precisely because the refugees were involved.

The disdain of the refugees also characterised the NGOs’ relationships with the activists on the island whose core work they now took over. Of course this was an enormous relief but it also led to a significant withdrawal of islanders from working with refugees. In the main the NGOs referred to the local activists as volunteers and through their behaviour indicated that the time had come for the ‘experts’ to run the show. It was a process which not only discarded a valuable resource for the refugees but had profound consequences in widening the distance between the islanders and the refugees which is currently being exploited by the authorities on Samos. Diminishing numbers of islanders are now involved with the refugees and like them they are not routinely included in determining the activities of the NGOs. That wide web of relationships which had emerged in 2015 which connected so many local people to the realities of the refugees has largely disappeared. This disconnection between the locals and the refugees is now being relentlessly exploited by the island authorities. In the past six months for example, the authorities have found it easier to claim that the island has to be rid of all refugees because they have made life almost intolerable for the locals. Although tourism on Samos was declining long before the numbers of refugee arrivals exploded in 2015, it is now the common sense here that refugees are exclusively to blame for its current dire state. But as a consequence of the arrival of the NGOs and their style of expertise they have marginalised an important countervailing voice. All kinds of resentments are now being actively promoted as islanders read about resources supposedly being devoted to refugees whilst they get nothing. At the same time nothing is heard of the refugees resentment that these very same resources rarely get to them and simply support an ever growing number of people who do nothing for them.

A Different Way of Working

Again and again the interventions most valued by the refugees were the ones in which they had involvement and shared responsibility. And none of these came from the official system whether an NGO or state agency. There were two outstanding examples and both involved anarchist groups, one from Germany and the other from Switzerland who set up kitchens on the island and provided the best food that Samos refugees have had in their history here. The key to their success was linked with what they did and how they did it. It is never a matter of just what you do but how you do it.

The 2 Open kitchens were brilliant for the refugees and it was a sad time in early 2016 when the army took control of food provision for the camp. Understandably the kitchens decided to leave and go on to where they were most needed. These kitchens were much more than just about providing fresh cooked nutritious meals. From the outset they involved the refugees in shopping, storage, cooking, food preparation and menus. The volunteer workers stood side by side with the refugees in all these activities, working and talking, laughing and joking. Unlike so many of the NGO workers as well as many of the newly arriving ‘volunteers’ the core staff did not stand apart from the refugees.

The kitchens were happy places. A characteristic that can be rarely applied to the NGOs and state agencies here on Samos, or even within many if any contemporary organised social work settings. It was in the refugee camps of the West Bank in Palestine that I first understood the importance of jokes and laughter as one of the means of surviving the intolerable oppression of the Israeli occupation. Alongside deep hurts the Palestinians had great jokes. I still don’t fully understand how this all hangs together but I do know that laughter draws people together in a myriad of ways and is a source of great strength.

Both kitchens created seating areas around an ever ready supply of tea. Noticeboards were created for sharing information and the kitchens rapidly became the most important centres for the refugees to meet, relax and to do something. The importance of activity cannot be under-estimated and it is no exaggeration to say that the enforced idleness of being detained on Samos for months, with no idea when they will have their asylum claims assessed drives them crazy with frustration. And guess what? The refugees had talent. Refugees came forward who had worked in kitchens and restaurants, who knew how and what to cook to satisfy their compatriots; others had skills in IT and were experts at trawling the net for information especially concerning the routes to follow once released from the island, others organised backgammon competitions, all of which made the kitchens places where you wanted to spend time.

The ‘politics’ of the Open kitchens were critical to their success which saturated everything they did. They knew that the ‘system’ was inhumane and had no care for the well being of the refugees. They were explicit in seeing borders and papers as cruel and unnecessary. They knew much about the ways in which our world creates refugees through wars and exploitation. They were angry at the hurts and injustices and the pain of the refugees. They felt this pain. They did not pity but were full of empathy and rage at the inhumanities before their eyes. They stood shoulder to shoulder with refugees as human beings.

And Then Came the Volunteers

The media spotlight on the Greek frontier islands such as Samos in 2015 drew individuals who wanted ‘to help’ the refugees. They have come to be termed the volunteers. At any one time there can be up to 50 volunteers here. They are overwhelming middle class and tend to be either young people from Europe or the USA and Australia with many having just completed a university course, or newly retired. They stay from anything from 2 or 3 days to a month, and a few even longer. They are a mixed group with different motivations for their interventions.

The volunteers do not come here as part of an organised intervention. They travel often on their own or as a couple. Few if any questions are asked of their competence. The very fact that they have volunteered seems to be enough to allow them to intervene. Some are excellent and stand full square with the refugees. Others are not. Some for example seem to be trophy hunters such as the young German couple who spent just under one hour with refugee children getting them to paint pictures of their experiences which were then gathered together to be taken back to Germany to show to their friends. Fortunately these volunteers were prevented by activists who asked whether they had sought the permission of the kids to keep their paintings. Of course they hadn’t. For most however it was their endless photographs/selfies of posing with refugees as they handed out bottles of water or snacks which are then posted on their Facebook pages which were most prized. Not only did these photographs elicit effusive responses as to their heroic actions but they also helped the volunteers raise funds for their stay.

Driven by their desire to do something, anything when they arrive also led to the volunteers falling into the embrace of the authorities on the island. For the system, the volunteers were rapidly seized upon as being useful as form of bottom tier labour that could undertake some of the dirty work such as cleaning rubbish in and around the camp. As the numbers increased the authorities made available a warehouse and entrusted the distribution of clothes, shoes, tents, sleeping bags and the like to the volunteers. (It was the local authority which insisted that the refugees should not be allowed in the store either as casual visitors or to help in its work. This injunction was not challenged by the volunteers.)

As with the NGOs the arrival of the volunteers has been a mixed blessing. As they themselves are now realising their contributions allow the funded agencies to evade some of their core responsibilities. This coupled with the experience of only being allowed to undertake work sanctioned by the authorities has pushed the volunteers into a fundamental review of their purpose which at the time of writing is yet to be resolved.

But as with the NGOs the volunteers have inadvertently contributed to the distancing of the islanders from the refugees. For a variety of reasons there are virtually no locals working with the volunteers and similarly little interaction between the islanders and the volunteers who tend to stick together even when socialising. Furthermore the island authorities have now created a system whereby all those who wish to work with refugees and are not employed by an appropriate agency are expected to register and be approved. Few local activists are prepared to seek permission to engage with refugees from the very authorities which are so patently part of the problem.

Some Final Reflections

There can be no conclusion as the inhumane treatment and management of refugees on Samos is still ongoing and the situation here continues to unfold according to the shifting policies of the EU and the other power brokers involved. As for the refugees it remains a tortuous time in which their humanity is routinely denied. Nobody denies any more that the conditions for the refugees on the Greek frontier islands are deplorable. Refugees are dying every week from these conditions. Detained for months, never knowing when they will be either deported to Turkey or allowed asylum is torture for them. Their lives in a sense have stopped.

There is still no evidence of any compassion in the ever shifting policies towards refugees. As ever so called security concerns always trump refugee welfare. So this winter we see hundreds of refugees living in tents during freezing weather but at the same time no hesitation in deploying additional police. Samos is awash with police. At the same time we have the authorities on all the Greek frontier islands insisting that their populations can take no more of the refugees and are trying to drive new wedges between the refugees and the islanders. On places such as neighbouring Chios we are seeing clear collusion with the fascist Golden Dawn who have been organising attacks on the refugees and their camps. These crimes are taken as a sign of the islanders’ frustration and anger at the presence of the refugees who have apparently destroyed their crucial tourist economy. It is scapegoating of a classic form channelling the desperation and misery of seven years of austerity on to the shoulders of refugees.

We are also witnessing a renewed focus on the so-called ‘economic migrants’ from Pakistan and north Africa who, without papers and authorisation, are a significant part of the refugee population on Samos. That poverty and hopelessness of any possibility for a reasonable life in their home places drives them on to the dangerous and expensive clandestine routes to Samos counts for nothing. Who would risk such a journey if they could flourish at home? Instead, they are dismissed as selfish vermin with no right at all to seek sanctuary in Europe. At this time, international law still allows all refugees to make a claim for asylum. One wonders how much longer this right will remain. Even so, the EU and its constituent governments have made it clear that those who are not basically fleeing war will have their asylum claims dismissed and be subject to deportation.

At the same time over 200,000 young people have left Greece in the past 5 years in search of work and a better life. It is a cause of sadness but never a cause for their demonisation as selfish free loaders. But it also illustrates in part the huge commonalities which are shared by both the islanders and the refugees both in terms of the causes and the consequences of their ongoing misery.

Today the ‘ European Refugee Crisis’ has moved down the mainstream media’s agenda as the numbers of new arrivals has dropped, especially via the ‘Eastern Route’ across the Aegean to places like Samos. There is still considerable movement, mostly clandestine, but there has also emerged, especially in the borderlands of Greece and the Balkans places where refugees are detained, fenced and stopped. These peripheral places, unlike the squares and railway stations of Germany, Austria, Sweden and the rest of the more prosperous north are easier to ignore and easier to manage. They are dark places and they need to be illuminated.

We have come to expect nothing of value and benefit to the refugees coming from the top whether it be an NGO or governmental welfare agency. They are part of the problem and certainly not the solution, On the other hand we have seen the power and effectiveness of interventions which work with and alongside the refugees as people ‘just like ourselves’. But if it is be more compelling we must recognise that we must also shed light on these darkest of places. It is a huge challenge. But it is necessary if the barbarism of the system is to be halted.

Chris Jones

Feb 2017

(With many thanks to Tony Novak for commenting on the endless drafts I turned out!)