I travelled on the overnight ferry to Pireaus. On a good day, when the ferry does not break down it takes 14 hours from Samos island in the east Aegean. Already on the ferry was a group of refugees and I went over to join them. Samos has for many years been an entry point to Greece and Europe. It is very close to Turkey and both sides of the straits with isolated beaches and forests works well for the traffickers. This year the numbers have increased with over 3000 coming. 2000 more than last year. Why? Syria mainly. It is now common to find refugees on the ferry. This group had just been discharged from the detention camp in Samos town. Most of them had a paper that allows them just 30 days in Greece. They had been in the camp for one month and a few others for longer.
I always travel with refugees when I can. Samos was where I arrived in 2006. You quickly learn that you need your friends when you are a refugee. Without friends it is hard to live in Greece. That evening I was travelling with 23 refugees from Syria. Their ages ranged from 5years to 45 years and included men and women, girls and boys. Some of the group were Palestinians escaping from the camp at Yarmouk near Damascus – a site of horrendous violence within a terrifying Syria.
You can feel confused when you first come out of the camp. These are your first ‘free’ hours in Europe – the goal of your journey. You’re both excited and afraid. The future is not clear. You are not sure what to expect in Athens, but you know it won’t be easy. At the same time there is sadness at leaving behind friends who quickly became brothers and sisters whilst surviving the camp. You laugh and cry when you leave.
Refugees carry sacks of problems on their backs. In the case of the Syrians with me on the ferry they carried great weights of sadness and grief. Many had lost close family and friends to the war. There was the young mother with her 5 year old son. She told of how her husband was killed and that she was now alone with her boy. Only because of the boy she kept going. She said there was nothing left for her.
To run to survive or to stay and suffer is not much of a choice. Many of the Syrian refugees were troubled and confused. They were in situations and places which they never thought could be possible in their lives. Few of them could be described as street wise. They looked like refugees. This is not just about how you look physically. It is also about your spirit and confidence. How you stand and walk. How you look at people. Whether you show fear. These are things you learn. If you succeed you are more likely to avoid the checkpoints, of getting picked up on the street and of getting through border controls. Without it life is very hard.
They might still look like refugees but they were not stupid. They knew from their networks – especially Facebook- that they would not be well received in Greece and much of Europe. Needing to pay sums of between 3 and 5 thousand euros just to be trafficked secretly at night across the narrow straits that separate Samos from Turkey tells you about the welcome you can expect. Why do we have to travel like this? Why do we have to face danger to get to Samos? With the right of piece of paper we could travel in safety on a ferry for less than 20 euros. Without the paper people die every year trying to make the same crossing.
From the moment the police pick you up for arriving on Samos with no papers the humiliations begin. The fact that you have seen horror, experienced terror and fear, lost loved ones counts for nothing. You are now a criminal and processed as one. The first we meet are the health workers who are masked and gloved . The message is clear. You are unhealthy, a danger, a kind of poison. You need to be cleansed. Then it is on to the camp. The lines of one storey huts are built on terraces climbing above Samos town. It is isolated up a single track. No other buildings close by. Certainly no local people around. The entire site is surrounded by two wire fences about 3 metres apart and 2.5 metres high each topped with coiled razor wire. The camp looks like a giant cage. It is a giant cage. If you did not know otherwise you would think you are looking at a high security prison.
There are many questions. The authorities want to know names- who brought you, what you paid, your local contacts. They want personal details. The questioners never seem to believe your answers. It is taken for granted by the police that you lie, about your name, your age, your nationality and your family. For the first few days I thought that malaka was how you said ‘hi’ in Greek. It was only when I greeted a guard that I learnt it meant wanker. We were always malakas. The distrust can have very hard consequences. For the 45 year old Syrian man with his 14 year old daughter it had meant him being separated from his daughter for six weeks. She was held in the camp, her dad in the police cells in the town. The police maintained that she was not his daughter and that he was trafficking her. He was eventually re-united but under severe restrictions until DNA tests have proved the relationship. Tests which he was told will take 6 months to complete.
It was beautiful to see the solidarities amongst the Syrians on the boat. In coming through the camp together they had created new and deep bonds of friendship. Resources were shared. Sharing with strangers out of humanity is what you learn in the camps. This is how we get by. This is how we build our networks both far and near. These are what we depend on when we travel and move. In a hostile place, in a country you have never visited before, the camp group becomes your family, your home, the people who share the same fears and hopes. No surprise then to find the group deciding that they were going to stick together when they got to Athens. They would look for places to stay near to one another, in the same building if possible.
We talked through the night. They wanted to know about Athens. The group had plenty of phone numbers of contacts who could help them. Some had already arranged to be met at the port by Syrians already established here who would help them to find places to stay. But in 2014 there is a new reality for refugees which was not so strong when I first came to Athens in 2006. Now, no help is free. Everything comes with a price. Even the tickets for the ferry they had to buy. We were given them.
As refugees we expect nothing from the Greek state. It is not humane and it is not humanitarian. It shows no kindness; is never generous, never takes you in its arms. It treats us like dirty garbage and is more likely to beat and imprison us than help us. Some of the police and coast guards show pity but many are ignorant and rude.We quickly learn that Greece does not help refugees. Its speciality is harassment and messing you about. 18 months in a police cell designed for one or two nights custody is what awaits those who can’t get out of Greece in 30 days and have no other papers which allow them to stay. There are thousands now held in these cells. It is torture. What have we done to be treated like this? What makes governments behave like this?
There are only a few safe places in Athens. The steki in Exarcheia is a shining example of where refugees and local activists have made a community building. This is where I learnt Greek 8 years ago and its classes and teachers continue. Without some Greek living here is like being in a dark place. The steki is a place for meeting friends, to eat free meals at weekends, to keep in touch with what is happening both in Athens and elsewhere. It is a safe place where you can relax and laugh.
There is no network of stekis in Athens. There is not much of anything – no work, no money, few places to get help. In this desert a kind of service industry has emerged. Much of it is in the hands of street wise guys including local Greeks as well as migrants. They have found ways to make money out of the refugees by selling a range of services. It is easy to be judgemental and angry at those who survive on the back of the refugees. But they sell services needed by the refugees. Especially when there is nothing else. But no help is free now. You pay someone to find you a mattress at 5 euros a night in a shared room. The alternative is a hotel room at 20 euros a night. You pay to be put in touch with people who can help you leave Greece. Then you pay for the services you eventually receive. It is an economy with systems which are adapted to uncertainty. Each day you never know what might happen.
Some of the Syrians come with money that they have gathered from selling homes and cars before they left. Others rely on friends and families to help them. Only a few of this group had any clear destination. But they all knew that they had to get out of Greece quickly. It is a prison, that doesn’t want you to stay but at the same time makes it very hard to leave. The longer you stay, the more your resources drain away and the walls of the prison grow higher.
We talked for hours through the night. And as ever, when you meet and talk with refugees, the discussion returns to the big question. WHY? Why are we treated like this? What are our crimes? Why are states so cruel to us? Why when so much is known about our suffering is so little done to help us? We look for safety and a place to be left alone to live in peace. But we get anger, prison and abuse. Why? When will more people speak out and share the pain of the refugees? When will we realise that our silence means that we also damage our own humanity? This is what we think about. This is what goes around and around in our heads.
Sofiane Ait Chalalet