One of the most common responses especially to our articles on Wasim, has been “I feel shame”; “I am ashamed to be Greek/ European’ and so on. We can understand such feelings but it makes us unhappy. In a gentle way we want to criticise this response.
We can only be ashamed when we are responsible for our actions which cause pain and sadness. We believe that none of those who tell us that they are ashamed have had any part in the cruelties we have discussed. They have no reason to be ashamed. Disgusted yes, anger and rage absolutely yes, but not shame.
We are always learning. Sometimes we get things wrong and have to think again. We are often not certain and this definitely applies here when we talk about shame. But it is our growing experience that when people tell us that our writing makes them ashamed that we are not making them more powerful. It seems to us that feelings of shame don’t lead to active resistance but somehow reinforces passivity; of doing little or nothing. This we have found applies particularly to those with some influence who work in the system yet know of its inhumanity. It is often lawyers, social workers, left politicians both in local and national councils and parliaments and others like them who tell us of their shame. Sorry companeros, but this is not good enough. From where the refugees stand in the camps, the prisons, the ghettos your power stands in stark comparison to their vulnerabilities. They also know from direct experience that those lawyers or social workers who rage at the system’s brutalities and go that extra mile exploiting the cracks, working clandestinely to find ways to stand with them and provide practical help can make a huge difference to their lives.
For some, we believe shame is a way of excusing their passivity and to make us feel sympathy for their feelings. But many of the refugees we know and speak with get crazy when they hear left parliamentarians tell them that they are ashamed to be Greek. “You want us to feel sorry for them?” they ask us. “We don’t want them to be ashamed for being Greek. Be ashamed for humanity” “We need them; we need all the friends and support we can get, but this shame takes us nowhere ……we need something to be done now; we need help now and things to change now, not soothing words.
As ever, it is the poorest who help the most, who are there with them everyday. Athens is full of stories of everyday solidarities between poor Greeks and refugees. Money, food, clothes, rooms flow regularly between them. So does company, relationships and having fun. It is inspiring as it is essential.
But what to do?
Again we hear this a lot. Many people ask us this question and it makes us think because we are reluctant to answer.
We are reluctant for many reasons. Mainly, we don’t want to work in a way which encourages people to think that we have some special insights. Nearly everything we write has been learnt from those we meet. They are not our thoughts alone and have come from discussions and arguments which are so much better precisely because they involve so many people. It is amazing what people know and what we can learn if only we listened and talked to each other more.
As a general rule we have found that those people and political parties who claim to know the answers and have developed their plans of action are not always very useful. They may be legends in their own eyes but not for many others. We wonder if they know that many times the refugees we met simply laughed and joked when we talked about them. ‘Represent us? You must be joking. Did they ask us? Did they talk with us?’ And refugees are not the only ones who say this. It has been a mantra of poor communities for years. That they don’t vote in elections is taken as apathy. Wrong. They see no point. It is an active decision not to vote in many instances.
Democracy also gets many laughs and is often funnier because we are in Greece which claims to be birth place of democracy. ‘What is this democracy which only cares about voting and does nothing about economic and social democracy’. As far they can see there is little civilised or democratic about Athens or Greece.
But it is not such a laughing matter when you are a refugee from Libya/Iraq/Afghanistan and have been bombed by NATO in the name of bringing you democracy and left your country in ruins. These people can tell us a lot about democracy.
We all Matter.
The system endlessly tries to make us think that only those at the top of the pile are worth listening to and those on the margins can be ignored because they are ignorant, barbarian and garbage. This is a complete lie. There are smart people everywhere. Just because some one has little schooling does not mean that they are stupid or uneducated. Refugees have a lot of time on their hands when there is no work. In their homes and meeting places they talk. They try and make sense of what has and is happening to them. Some of them have studied these issues deeply and in these meetings those present learn and think. It was exactly what we saw in the West Bank, especially in times of extended curfews where families and households talked, of their history, the occupation, such that it seemed everybody had a PhD in Palestinian history and struggle.
The system constantly promotes this idea that the poor and marginalised can be ignored. It underpins many state practices and policies. In the case of Wasim, the police took no notice of his pleas to save his family from the forest, because they see all refugees as liars. Hundreds of kids abused in children’s homes were and are ignored when they report their physical and sexual torture for the same reason. The examples are endless.
These state ideologies of inferiority and difference divide us when they infect our minds. Not the least, it can stop us from listening, talking, learning and laughing together. This is a massive objective of the system if rarely stated openly because it is afraid of us when we come together. Just like the captains in the British navy in the 19th century, who when asked what they thought when they saw groups of sailors talking together, they replied without hesitation; ‘mutiny’!
“Why don’t those who say they care about us come to our neighbourhoods and have a coffee with us?
In general terms we do have some ideas about what we can do and how we might do it. We need to talk to each other more. We especially need to talk more and listen to those such as refugees and the poor in general whose insights into the barbarity of the world today are profound. And who knows what will follow? At least as our Somalian friends told us we might then be seen as human beings and not as Islamic terrorists, illegal and criminal. That despite all the differences between us we share much as humans with the same hopes and desires to live our lives freely without fear. They might realise what makes us leave our homes and friends. How the places where we were born are being impoverished by the looting of our lands and resources; where giant multi nationals benefit from the privatisations of our electricity, water, our sea shores, forests and lakes. All for them and nothing for us.
We simply have to fight every attempt to divide us. We are many, they are few. But we are too fragmented to be powerful.
Don’t be Afraid
What we have found to be very disturbing here in Greece is the ways in which the state makes people frightened to show solidarity with the refugees. In the case of Wasim small fishing boats turned away when he called for help when they saw that he was a refugee. During the recent tragedy when over 20 refugees died close to the Samos shore when their boat over-turned at the beginning of May, some local fishermen didn’t want to go out to search and help. In both cases they were frightened that they would be arrested and have their boats taken away, because to help refugees today can lead to you being charged with trafficking. These are not isolated examples on Samos. A friend of ours told us how when she gave a pregnant refugee a ride to the hospital that the police there told her that ‘they would look the other way’ so as not to arrest her. Or the man from the village whose home was raided by the police because he was reported as waving to some refugees whilst he was fishing from the rocks. There are many such stories, and we suspect that on other gateway islands such as Chios and Lesvos we would hear similar accounts.
Terrifying refugees is common policy but now it is being rolled out more widely. It is vital that we should fight back and not be afraid. Let them arrest us and take us to court. For what? For being human? Do we really think that many won’t come to our support if they should do so? We don’t believe it. We will be supported.
And we have every reason to be confident, and not to be afraid. What we are up against is powerful. We know that. But we also know that there are many outlaws too. People who see the lies and deceits and simply don’t buy what the system tries to sell. This is where we have our strengths and gain our courage. Our task is to find ways to bring out the outlaw in all of us.