The refugees continue to bleed from the countless wars now devastating the middle/near east. A very small minority of those fleeing Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia ever make it to the shores of Europe. But whilst only a minority of the 52 million refugees worldwide, thousands do make it the coasts of Turkey and North Africa only to face the battlements of Fortress Europe and a new chapter of danger in their search for safety.
There are now many reports, especially from human rights organisations which provide graphic detail of the appalling treatment of refugees arriving in Greece. These are important as they describe how inhumanity is spreading and being embedded in both state agencies and even being pushed out into the general population. As we have written before, the Greek state is attempting to stop people from being human when it comes to helping refugees. Threatening to punish you, or confiscate your vehicle or boat if you help. The state wants the people here to believe that all refugees are dangerous – most likely terrorists or carriers of some fatal disease. We must reject this pressure to judge people in this way.
This takes us to one of our key points which is too often neglected. What we find on the streets of Athens and saw first hand with regard to Wasim, were refugees working together (and with many of their Greek neighbours) to create happiness and practice humanity in the face of huge pressures. It is remarkable in its tenacity and effectiveness. Whilst humanity may be battered in the mainstream of society amongst the poorest including the refugees, it not only shines like a beacon but throbs with real power.
Many will be familiar with the story of our friend Wasim. Wasim and his family were in no ways exceptional but his story tells us much. We have already told of how having reached Samos Island in July 2013, he did not find safety for his wife and 2 young children but tragedy and torture. Fleeing from the chaos and dangers of Syria his young family perished in a forest fire on a remote part of Samos where they had been abandoned first by the traffickers and secondly by the Greek authorities.
It is with great happiness that we can now report that Wasim is living in Sweden where he arrived in September 2014. More than that, in early December he married Zeinab and with her and her 2 children from an earlier marriage, Wasim has found happiness in Gothenburg!
That Wasim is safe and now has a chance to re-build his life is entirely due to the support he received from refugees in Athens, from Greek friends he made in Samos and some key friends back in Syria. As people came to learn of Wasim this network of support widened to include people from Norway, Germany, England and Sweden amongst other places. Materially and emotionally they supported him. What united them was their humanity; their sharing of Wasim’s pain, their determination to do something rather than just talk. And naturally, all utterly condemned the cruel and inhumane policies and practices of the EU and Greece in the matter of refugees.
(How do these institutions get away with it? How has it come to pass that instead of providing safe routes to Europe for people such as Wasim and his young family, these authorities have made their escapes so dangerous and expensive? If this was in some other place wouldn’t these same governments be condemning such practices by other states? )
One of the fundamental truths of the streets of Athens is that if you are poor from Greece or a refugee from Syria or elsewhere you can expect nothing but hassle from the state. Wasim was no exception. But in its place there is a wide network of support systems where by word of mouth help is found and given. There is an understanding that receiving and giving help are tied together. So as you get sorted you in turn do what you can to help others, and so it passes on and the networks of support widen. Needless to say, there are no leaders or managers directing these efforts; there is no obligation. Confidence grows as people discover their talents and realise how strong they can be together. It can and does lead to great resilience.
In Wasim’s case as with many others the giving and receiving of help took place simultaneously and were incredibly helpful in making his life worth living again. His involvement in play activities for young refugee children in Athens was more therapeutic than any medicines offered by the doctors.
It didn’t take long for Wasim to realise that through his example he could give hope to others who had also experienced great loss simply by sharing his tragedy and its consequences for him. Of course there was sadness but equally there was much joy and happiness. We had a lot of laughs with Wasim and created beautiful moments as we shared feelings from the heart.
Humour and laughter is one of the great strengths of the poor the world over, whether in Gaza, Calcutta, Liverpool or Algeria. Humour seals and creates relationships on so many levels. It more often unites rather than divides people. It shows that happiness is never dependent only on material well being and possessions. Laughter and joking is a basic part of our resistance and capacity to survive. Some of our refugee friends tell us that ‘we are doing just fine its the rest (of Greek society) you should worry about’. What they often mean when they say this is that they see the deep unhappiness and stress of the Greeks. They sense the dismay that follows from discovering that the system is incapable of bringing happiness only sorrow. As far these refugees and ourselves are concerned there is no happiness to be found in this system.
The year that Wasim spent on the streets of Athens was sweet and sour. But when he did at last get to Sweden he was a different person to the one we first met on Samos. As for thousands of other refugees the solidarities of the street had worked for Wasim. He not only got to Sweden but he arrived as a human being. These solidarities of the refugees sustain and help in ways that the authorities could never imagine. It is amazing what is achieved and the ingenuity of people to find solutions together. But be under no illusion, it is hard work that never stops. The flow of refugees does not stop and the street networks have to confront not only the traumas which led people to leave their homes and families in the first place, but the deep wounds that they endure once they get to Greece. So it goes on. To give up is not an option.