I have had this book for three weeks. I have read it two times and it remains by my side so I can dig even deeper. I find it compelling. I recommend the book.
For me at least it provided a bleak reminder of the costs of my endless injunction that we need to shine light into dark places. Holman takes us deep into the darkness of European refugee policies and practices and their overwhelming and extraordinary cruelty to vulnerable human beings who seek safety. As many now know, it is quite simply a crime against humanity. This is where we go with Holman. For me it left me furious and sad at the needless violence of what the refugees call ‘the system’ (in which the police have a pivotal role) that dominates their lives as they wait for their asylum.
Greece is the main site of the book covering refugee experiences mostly between 2000 and 2020. As the European strategy changed over this period in response to numbers of refugees looking for safety and a future in Europe, so did the role of the frontier states such as Greece, Italy and Spain. In Greece, we have seen the state taking ever increasing control of European policy implementation. Greece now takes money previously distributed by the EU and UNHCR; vast sums some of which are spent on an ever expanding police force highly equipped and armed with fleets of new para military jeeps and of course new prison camps such as at Zervou on Samos.
The voices of the refugees are strong throughout the book. Some we get to know well. When they are talking of the violence they routinely experience, both physical and psychological, it is nearly always inflicted by Greek men in uniform. Slapping, thumping, batoning seems totally normal to them whether targetted at a child, woman or man. Of course, they highlight the exceptions of police officers and other state agents who have provided decisive help but they are the exceptions.
One of the strengths of the book is that Holman helps us to understand some of the particular issues rooted in place and history which feed into creating men of cruelty and intolerance. For some guarding the border of Europe is appropriate given Greece’s role in creating ‘civilisation’ and they are duty bound to prevent contamination. Islamic influence has a particular importance as alien and to be feared, often explained by the four centuries of Ottoman rule. [This was highlighted by Holman’s reference to the mass movement of Greeks from western Turkey in 1922 where despite their Orthodox religion and Greek ethnicity they were abused and abandoned when they came to Greece. They were “baptised in yoghurt”.]There are more than a few Greeks who believe that whilst their country maybe poor, that they themselves are the most civilised people of Europe. A notion that is actively pushed by the Orthodox Church. This can have toxic consequences when it comes to refugees.
But as Holman reveals there are other histories especially within working class Greece which are rooted in solidarity and struggle. So we learn something about the recent class history of Pireaus and Patras and how huge labour markets in docks and shipbuilding have evapourated leading to the destruction of working class communities and livelihoods. It was in neighbourhoods like these that many of the thousands of refugees trekking through Europe in 2015 came to stay albeit often (but not always) for a short time. That they survived was in large measure to the solidarity of the Greek neighbourhoods who in so many different ways, sheltered, fed, clothed and cared for the refugees. It was a truly magnificent effort. And as Holman is told on many occasions and in many places across Greece many Greeks have direct family experience of being refugees. Katerina for example was 17 years old when she escaped with 16 others in a rowing boat from the Nazis in Samos in 1943. She spent over two years in a refugee camp in Gaza. She knew the importance of kindness from strangers. Many here do.
Refugees commonly experience acts of both solidarity and hatred in Greece. Many tell Holman that they like the Greek people but hate the Greek state and its police. The latter they say are just like what they have run away from. Most expected something better. After all isn’t western Europe supposed to be civilised? But even so most of the refugees talk of and plan to leave Greece at the earliest opportunity because they are hoping to join with friends and family already in other EU countries or because they see little chance for work in Greece. Many would prefer to stay if they believed that they could make a life there.
We can learn much from the refugees as this book highlights. They provide a powerful lens on where we live and how we think and act. They recognise the impact their arrival has on small island and frontier towns and villages who have little or no history of living with ‘strangers’. Many refugees come from similar places and talk of living close to their friends and family who are now often scattered and isolated throughout Europe and Turkey. Such communities throughout the world are commonly characterised by wide and diverse networks of solidarity which in a short time embrace refugees as they come to meet each other and live in the same spaces.
We learn that for most of the refugees their most treasured help is rooted in solidarity based on a recognition of common humanity. The book makes clear that many refugees come to resent the ‘help’ of the NGOs and many of the ‘Volunteers’. They experience it as patronising, and charity, which give them no role, and denies their dignity seeing them only as helpless victims. Simply not helpful. The refugee controlled housing project City Plaza in Athens refused to use the label volunteer for all those who worked with them. “Volunteers are for the Olympic Games or charities. We want people to come here not so they can feel good that they are helping refugees, but to give something and get something back. This is no shelter or camp, with a hierarchy of NGOs -its not a place to misuse our privileges “ (Nasim, p168).
Some of those refugees Holman meets also tell of their anger at the manner in which the NGOs and Volunteers constantly manipulate and frame the refugee challenges as a ‘crisis’ in order to gain funding and power. Why they ask do they talk of crisis when even Greece has more than enough empty houses and abandoned land to offer every refugee a place to make a new start? The scorn for the NGOs and Volunteers runs deep amongst the refugees. It needs to be heeded if this form of parasitism is to be stopped and the vast resources re-directed into ways which work to realise peoples’ potential and needs.
You move around a lot in this book as people flee the wars in Syria and Afghanistan and other places and then you pick up their stories in Evros, the Aegean islands or the cities and towns of mainland Greece. It is a dynamic which provides a rich context for hearing these voices.
This is a book which disturbs and for me some of the darkest pages were where refugees described their experiences of the asylum process. Essentially, they lose control of their lives for anything up to 3 years or more. They are subject to sudden and arbitrary legal changes exemplified by the Greek state’s decision in June 2021 which stated that asylum seekers from five Muslim majority countries who came to Greece through Turkey should be returned there as this is a safe country from which to apply for asylum. Our close friend from Somalia who arrived on Samos in October 2018 now has to go through this new process. He is terrified.
All the asylum seekers live with little or no information as to what is happening to their applications; literally a soul-destroying limbo. And all this is compounded by the dire conditions in which they are expected to live. Immense strength is needed to survive this utterly corrosive experience. They know that the system has no care for them; they know that they are not considered as human. Many are damaged and some don’t survive. It is extraordinary how many get through but at such a cost to their well-being.
Does all this cruelty stem from Europe’s placing deterrence at the core of its approach?
It seems incredible to treat people so badly for three years or more and then give some of them the right to asylum and to resume control over their lives. So abuse them for three years and then say you can stay? What is this madness?
This question is not faced in much detail as for most of the refugees in this book are still stuck in the application limbo. But then the book does not end. It just stops. The story however does not and I hope that one day Holman will pick it up.
I want to end this piece with some words from Saad a young man from Aleppo who spoke with Holman and whose story is in part included in her book. He is a dear friend of mine who I met in the early days of his asylum application on Samos island. I asked him if he would read this review. He replied:
“I have read many pages of the book so a lot of sad stories. It is really describing the darkness in the refugees’ lives in Europe especially in Greece.
I had to live that life and I had long experience which are so like many stories I read in the book .
I couldn’t continue reading because, I did not have enough tears and power for it. I saw a lot of pictures from the life I had while I was reading.
It is so sad to escape from your country where you don’t feel safe even to be human and then arrive in a place where you are treated so badly that it feels as though you are in a prison; in Greece it felt like the place I had escaped but with a different language.”
Zoe Alexandra Holman is a human so that is why she can capture our sadness and tears and make them into words.”
I too often fail in my articles to acknowledge those who play a central part in my life including my writing. None of my efforts are solo. Indeed Tony Novak’s editorial skills often transform my pieces and this has been true over 50 years of partnership. In addition Tony and I now have great friends who we first met when they arrived as refugees in Samos. Friends such as Saad and Ali who read drafts of this piece and gave it strength. Thank you.
Zoe Holman can be contacted through her website : https://www.zoeaholman.com/