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A New Nightmare: Picked up in the Aegean and Returned to Syria

Saad Abdllah

For the past ten days I have been waiting for news from Mohammad. Like me he comes from Aleppo but for the past 6 years he has been with his mother and brother living in Istanbul. Mohammad is 18 years old.

We became friends through Facebook where he saw that I was involved with many refugees in Athens and in Samos. He had read my story in the Samos Chronicles. As a young gay man he turned to me for advice and help which I was happy to give. Over the past six months we have talked a lot and a good friendship has developed. I know that he trusts me.

For Mohammad his determination to leave Turkey and to seek a life in Europe was decided when his bosses refused to pay him. After three months of working in factory manufacturing textiles he went to his boss and asked to be paid. They refused. Even after much pleading they still refused and told him to go. They would never pay him and if he didn’t like it he should go to the police. This is what he did. But the police told him that without papers they could and would do nothing. Mohammad again pressed them, asking them to go to the factory where they could meet the people he worked alongside who could tell the police how he had worked there for three months. But they took no notice. They did nothing.

For Mohammad this was the final straw. He would leave Turkey and come to Greece. As he told me he wanted to be a human being with rights. He would no longer be a slave or be treated as garbage. We started to discuss options. I told him that he should come as quickly as possible to Athens and together we could sort out the next steps. I thought the fastest way would be to come through Evros in the north of Greece and then travel down to Athens where I was ready to care for him. But he was shy about this idea. He only had 400 euros. He did not want to be a burden on me. So he decided that the best way for him was to go down to Izmir and find a smuggler to get him to one of the Greek islands. He told me that by going to the islands first he would at least get some help with accommodation and food.

These were tense days for me waiting to know what was happening to Mohammad. For over a week I heard nothing from him. Then came his call. He was not in Greece but in Idlib province in Syria. I was completely shocked. As for Mohammad he was crying and crying. Very very upset.

In Izmir he had found a smuggler to take him for 400 euros. But they had not long left the shore when they were caught by the Turkish coastguard who returned them to Izmir. Then he was in the prison for 6 days. The police then came and handcuffed all the people he had been travelling with and loaded them onto a bus. Of course, he said, people were asking their guards what is happening, where are you taking us. But their only reply was a beating. “So we were silenced and scared. After many hours we were eventually put into cars, still handcuffed. The next thing we knew they were releasing us not far from a small town. Then they told us we were free to go and that we were now inside Idlib province in Syria”.

At no point did they meet anyone who could help . No lawyers came to the prison. The police took their Turkish papers and destroyed them. “One of the young guys with us kept pleading with the police to let him go back to his elderly mother. But all he got was a beating. I was very frightened”.

Mohammad is devastated to find himself in this position. He is back in Syria but in an area where war still rages; where the Free Army and Daesh roam the streets and which is simply not safe.

As he had no family nor friends in this province it was the solidarity from those he travelled with that found him a place in a family home. There is not much space but at least he feels safe for the moment. He hopes to find a smuggler who can take him back to Turkey. But I am afraid for him as the border is now harder to cross and the Turkish border guards are shooting and killing those trying to cross. I have heard many stories about this bad situation around the Turkish border near Idlib but this is the first time I have heard about refugees who are trying to cross to the Greek islands being returned to Syria in this way.

Now all I can do is to wait for news from Mohammad. I write his story because I want his situation known. What has happened to him is wrong and I am sure it is not legal under international law. I know that Turkey is unlikely to be punished. But as a refugee I know that many of us only survive because we help one another and get the best help from those so called ordinary people in the streets who we meet as try to get to a safe place. These are the people I want to reach out to. Not governments.

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Still Here: Samos Refugees June 2018

The recent silence of this blog does not imply nothing is happening with 2,335 refugees currently on Samos. We should have written earlier. In our silence we unwittingly supported the forgetting of the refugees detained on the Greek frontier islands such as Samos. This forgetting is an insidious process. For the refugees it compounds their sense of isolation and abandonment.

Lunacy and Profits

It is difficult to describe adequately the cruelties and inhumanities embedded in the reception and detention systems based on the frontier islands. The fact that refugees have to risk their lives and spend vast amounts to make the short journey from Turkey is simply outrageous when there are regular daily ferry crossings at around 30 -50 Euros per head. For the authorities safe passage is a total non starter. As far as they are concerned safe passage would open the gates to waves of refugees. Their stated objective as exemplified by the ever expanding European border force, Frontex, is about hardening and patrolling borders making it ever more difficult and expensive for refugees to get out of Turkey and into Europe. In 2015 Frontex had 300 guards which has risen to 1500 guards in 2015. In May this year the EU Commission announced its plan to create a standing corps of 10,000 guards which is to be up and running by 2027. In 2006 the Frontex annual budget was 19 million Euros. By 2011 it was 118 millions and in 2016, 232 million Euros. And on it goes with seemingly no limit. The EU Commission announced in May that it will increase the budget on ‘external borders, migrant and refugee flows from 13 to 34 billion Euros by 2027 which is the biggest proposed spending increase within the entire EU.

Frontex Guards

And for the refugees? What can they expect? Not much when out of the total of EU resources for refugee policy, 46% goes on securing borders, 16% to send them back and just 17% on the refugees themselves (2014 figures).

All of this makes for joyous times to those who profit from surveillance and the hard ware from ships to drones and who can confidently predict a rosy future. They will never succeed in stopping the flow any more than the EU/Turkey pact of 2016 has stopped the refugees from getting to the frontier islands. They might be effective in reducing the numbers and in closing some routes, but hell will freeze over before they can prevent entry into Europe. But what the hell. The ever shifting relationship between the refugees and the European authorities simply justifies ever more costly inappropriate and ultimately ineffective strategies.

The big players in Europe’s border security complex include arms companies Airbus, Finmeccanica,
Thales and Safran, as well as technology giant Indra. Finmeccanica and Airbus have been particularly prominent winners of EU contracts aimed at strengthening borders. Airbus is also the number one winner of EU security research funding contracts

Finmecannica, Thales and Airbus, prominent players in the EU security business are also three of the top four European arms traders, all active selling to countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Their total revenues in 2015 amounted to 95 billion euros

(https://reliefweb.int/report/world/border-wars-arms-dealers-profiting-europe-s-refugee-tragedy)

Deliberate Cruelties

Virtually all of the top five asylum producing countries for the EU are on the visa black list (the exception is Albania). These are: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Albania and Pakistan (according to FRONTEX 20 January 2015). There are EU and/or national sanctions on carriers such as airlines and ferry companies of €5,000 at least for each passenger they bring to the EU without proper documentation (including a valid passport and visa). There are no EU delegations open in Syria which issue visas. So instead of paying the €30 which EU citizens hand over for a day trip from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands or the other way around, Syrians have to pay smugglers according to latest calculations more than US$ 1,000 per person for a dangerous and sometimes fatal trip. This is simply because no authorised carrier will accept refugees without passports or visas or both.

(https://www.opendemocracy.net/digitaliberties/elspeth-guild/surveillance-and-2015-16-refugee-crisis-in-europe)

From the very beginning of their contact with Europe the refugees arriving on the frontier islands are not welcome arrivals. They have not come ‘legally’. The tone is set. The island hotspots look like and are open prison camps.

The problem for the refugees on Samos and on all the frontier islands is that such barbarity is deliberate. It is a key element of the European deterrence objective. The Hotspots/Camps they argue should minimally sustain but no more, or they would attract more unwanted arrivals. The consequences are well known as countless reports from countless bodies have made clear. But nothing changes fundamentally. No one bears any consequence or is held to account for the shortcomings and abuses such reports reveal. There are no refugee champions amongst those who have any say in determining policy or practice. Although there are some individual police and other officials well down the pecking order of power who try to make a difference. But this is becoming less common as police are drafted in from both Greece and other EU countries on short rotations which inhibit any meaningful relationships with the refugees.

Until the 2016 EU/Turkey pact, camps on the frontier islands were primarily transit points. The refugees were moved on to the mainland, many within weeks of their arrival and the majority after 3 months. During 2014/15 when arrivals were at their hight refugees were being moved on within 24-72 hours. Now many are detained for 2 years or more on the island. They are not allowed to move on. Tourists can now forget their dreamy ideas of Greek islands as being laid-back, with music and welcoming locals at the ports greeting them. On Samos at least, ferry departures are distasteful events involving armed and tooled up ninja turtle like police checking lorries and vans and plain clothes police mingling with the departing passengers pulling out those who remotely look like a refugee. Samos is a prison island for refugees.

And this is set to continue. On April 17th 2018 the Council of State (the supreme court of Greece) declared that the detention of refugees on the islands of Lesvos, Rhodes, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos is void. In its majority ruling it said that “the practice of indiscriminate imposition of the geographical restriction, initially by the Police and then by the Asylum Service, against every newly arrived person on the islands since the launch of the EU-Turkey Statement has led to a significant overcrowding, whereby people have been obliged to reside for prolonged periods in overcrowded facilities, where food and water supply is insufficient, sanitation is poor and security highly problematic”. (http://www.asylumineurope.org/news/17-04-2018/greece-council-state-annuls-geographical-restriction-asylum-seekers-islands?)

The EU response was immediate. This was not acceptable. Refugees had to be kept on the islands and processed there. Onward passage to the mainland was to be dependent on a successful asylum application. Otherwise deportation. On no account do the EU authorities want them on the mainland where some of the refugees have more opportunities to move clandestinely, on into Europe. In contrast to almost any other area of policy the Syriza Government took almost immediate action to restore the restrictions by issuing on April 20th an administrative order which annulled the Council of State decision. Even by Greek standards such a decision to ignore the supreme court’s ruling is of massive significance in terms of the relationship between the legislature and the judiciary. Moreover, it was not achieved by new legislation debated in parliament but but through an administrative order. But then of course the subject is refugees which might explain the muted response to such an important and dangerous development.

A New and Bigger Camp

In a further consolidation of this policy the Greek government announced at the end of May 2018 that the camps on the islands are to be expanded, and in the case of Samos, moved from its present location near the main town. In addition a new prison would be built for those who have been unsuccessful in their asylum bid and are to be deported.

Nothing is ever certain in Greece so whether these decisions will result in any action remains to be seen. But what is certain is that there are no plans to change the policy of island detention.

Not surprisingly the recent announcements about expanding and re-developing the camps on the frontier islands has met with immediate opposition from the local authorities. Singularly and collectively the respective mayors of the islands affected have condemned the decision which flies directly in the face of their demands that the islands must be de-congested (of refugees). The response by the mayor of Samos on June 4th 2018 is shared by all the frontier islands and unlike in the past he draws on the suffering of the refugees in the existing facilities as a significant reason for de-congestion and, for good reason thinks that there is every possibility that any new expanded camps would continue to be places of hardship and inhumanity for the refugees. Given the long standing antagonism towards refugees by Michalis Angelopoulis, the mayor of Samos, this is just the latest example of his unprincipled exploitation of any issue which he believes will strengthen his case.

These factors now sit alongside their longer standing arguments that the presence of refugees has damaged tourism – their biggest source of income – and adversely affected the local population whose tolerance has been pushed to its limit. Ironically, the Samos mayor acknowledged the government’s decision to move the existing camp away from its close proximity to the centre of the island’s capital as at least giving legitimacy to his long-standing and untrue claim that the camp has placed an intolerable strain on the residents of Samos town. The irony lies in the fact that the ‘refugee business’ is the biggest single year round economic activity in Samos town. It accounts for the employment of hundreds or people. Who in turn spend money in the town including hotel accommodation and the like. Then there is the far more limited spending power of the refugees, but when numbered in thousands bring considerable returns to local shops and supermarkets. The majority of refugees are buying basic food stuffs to supplement and transform the meals provided in the camp. Spices and fresh vegetables can and do make the unpalatable edible. The possibility that the camp will be removed to some remote spot on the island is going to have a profound negative impact on the economic well being of Samos town. And as for the refugees where will they shop, where will they be able to wander around a town like any normal human being, how will they access the money transfer businesses vital to so many and so on?

As is common here the idea to move and enlarge the camp in a more remote area has simply not been thought through and such thoughtlessness will bear down hard on the refugees. For example, the refugees get their medical care from the only hospital on the island. It is one and half kilometres from the camp. It will be disastrous for the refugees to be moved further away from such a vital resource especially on an island which at the moment has just 2 working ambulances.

Islanders and Refugees

Whatever the mayor claims about the stresses on the local population as a result of the refugee presence, it is the case on Samos at least, there is no evidence to support the notion that there is such a problem. Unlike Chios and Lesbos there has been no noticeable growth in racist or fascist responses against the refugees. There is Samos SOS, of which we wrote about earlier, which does it best to foretell doom and despair as the islanders are islamicised but such claims are more likely to invoke laughter rather than anger. Instead what is daily evident is that refugees are just another aspect of life in the town who like others do their shopping, walk by the sea, play with their children on the swings and roundabouts, sit in the platias and town garden with their friends, swim and fish. There is no evident tension. Neither refugees nor locals display any unease by the others presence. And as for the tourists from northern Europe there is nothing unusual about seeing the kind of ethnic diversity which is both common and more extensive in their cities than on Samos.

Refugees have been easy targets for blaming the problems confronting tourism on Samos. There has been no focus on the multi-national tour operators who determine the flights and destinations. Without any local consultation or any accountability, they decided that refugees would make islands such as Samos unattractive to their customers and so reduced their charter flights and hotel bookings. There have never been refugees on the south side of the island where many of the biggest tourist facilities are located. Even in 2014/15 many tourists would never have encountered a single refugee. The refugees are concentrated overwhelmingly in Samos town and are rarely seen in Kokari or Pythagorio the 2 principal tourist centres on the island.

That relationships between the locals and refugees in Samos town are neither fraught nor tense owes much to the refugees. Now that the refugees are here for such long periods increasingly locals recognise that they bring to the town a vitality that was not there before, especially outside the summer season. Laughing children in the playgrounds draw smiles and bring joy. Eating falafel and hummus in the town square is celebrated rather than condemned as some underhand cultural challenge. Of course it is not all sunshine and light and the refugees can tell you of the bars, shops, hairdressers and gyms which will not serve them.

Without question many islanders are suffering badly. But this has nothing to do with the presence of refugees. It is the never ending economic and social crises which have and continue to devastate the lives of so many islanders. This is as much a humanitarian disaster as that of the refugees. Needless to say the multi national tour operators who turn the tap on and off with respect to tourism have exploited this by paying wages which can not sustain a worker and demand working hours in excess of 50 hours per week. At the end of May 2018, Keep Talking Greece, reported that 30% of workers in the private sector were paid below 365 Euros a month (which is the level of unemployment benefit for the minority who are eligible).

Children

As we have written before, the big story that never gets attention is why the Samos camp has not exploded. The presence of so many police and guards of all kinds in the town; the parked up buses with riot police regularly seen near the camp all indicate the authorities’ awareness that they are managing and sustaining a powder keg. Of course there is no short or simple answer to why apart from some relatively minor disturbances that the camp has not descended into chaos and protest.

The following observations provide some clues. Go to the camp and one is immediately aware of the very large numbers of children running around and playing with their friends.

Children in the Camp

They are everywhere and those under 12 years old now account for around 30% of the camp’s inhabitants. Despite the grim conditions in and around the camp the sight and sounds of so many children playing have an uplifting effect. For many refugees their concern over their children’s safety and future drove them from their homes. They thirst to see their children safe and happy and turn away from actions which might threaten them. And the fact that women account for 21% of the refugees here is also a factor in the avoidance of violent and destructive actions. There must be times when some of the young men might want to burn the camp down but the presence of so many children and babies makes such a prospect appalling. Of course, that is not to say that such desperate actions will never happen.

As noted earlier, easy access into the town functions as an important safety valve. The camp is open and there is no reason to stay inside the camp 24/7. In the town and on the beaches they can pass their time. Many make use of the Alpha Centre which is run by the Samos Volunteers for the refugees.

Alpha Centre

In a large building near to the bottom gate to the camp refugees can meet together to drink tea, use the wi fi and attend a wide range of classes and activities. It is amazing to see the fluency in English that some have achieved through these classes. And importantly, a number of these activities and lessons draw on the talents and experiences of the refugees themselves who now lead or assist with their delivery.

Many of the refugees are busy. Some are incredibly busy! They play a huge role in sustaining life and morale in the camp. Those who are fluent (enough) in English are in great demand to accompany refugees to the hospital which has no translator. Most of the doctors speak English so they can manage. Very few refugees learn Greek as they have no intention of staying in this country once they get their papers. Virtually every interaction with the camp authorities needs an interpreter and refugees have learnt it is better for them to have someone doing this who they trust and who knows them.

But as much as we laud the resilience and creativity of the refugees we cannot ignore the pain and depression which damages so many refugees. Deep depression is ever present with all its painful consequences. To survive as a human being in these conditions is a huge challenge.

Disdain

One of the biggest flaws which has characterised refugee policy and action in Greece over decades has been the absence of any constructive engagement with the refugees. This is all the more clueless now refuges are stuck for years in camps all over Greece and have the time to be more involved. As Saad pointed out in nearly one year in the Samos camp he was never asked for his opinion on anything. No psychologist or social worker ever asked him if knew of anyone who needed their help. Yet the refugees often know well who amongst them is struggling. In its various forms this lack of engagement, and here we would include most of the NGOs, portrays a fundamental disdain of the refugees.

But in its absence the refugees in a myriad of ways make their lives better. Those who can cut hair set up their workplaces. Cooking groups abound where evening meals are cooked and shared. Artists paint and draw. Nails are manicured. And so on with the spaces filled by Facebook and Whatsap. With a little bit of imagination and most importantly trust in and respect for the refugees life even in these appalling open prisons could be so much better. It is unlikely to happen but we can still dream.

Finally in trying to understand why there are so few explosions within the camp we should not forget that the police and the army are in their midst. They carry guns. They have tear gas and batons. And in Greece as we all know, they will use violence without much provocation.

WAIT

“I hate this word. I have come to really hate this word. Because it is killing me.” Assad 23 years old from Syria speaks for the overwhelming majority of refugees in Greece. Sometimes we are not careful in our choice of words. But if we to listen to the words of thousands of refugees stuck in Greece then we need to recognise that the endless waiting endured by the refugees demands to be described accurately; it is a cruel form of torture.

There are many casualties. Our friend from Morocco for example who lived with us for four months has been driven crazy. He stripped off all his clothes and ran round the central square in Samos town waving his arms like a bird. He is now in a psychiatric hospital. Then there are our friends from Syria who went back to Turkey in utter frustration at the delays and waiting – over 14 months – on Samos only to find themselves in a worse position. Their close and loving relationship has fractured under the pressure. Their current plight is dire. We have a Somalian friend who fled from a violent relationship in Turkey leaving behind her 4 year old son. This is now 2 years ago. She told the authorities her story and how important it was to get her son from the father who does not now want him. Her son is now 6 and still in Turkey. Our friend does not even have a date for an asylum interview. Whenever she asks she is told ‘ no news’ you must wait. Ahmad’s long standing partner could not cope with waiting in Athens and after 16 months set off on his own to find a way into northern Europe. He is now stuck in the central Balkans, alone and depressed. Ahmad on the other hand similarly depressed by not being with his love waits but only to find out last week that his asylum interview will be in June 2019 and this is being fast-tracked so he should count himself lucky!

Your life in many respects stops. You lose control over key areas of your life. You can’t plan. One friend from Syria managed to secure a scholarship worth $30,000 a year for 3 years to study in the USA. He has lost it to the wait and no decision. A few like Ahmad have a date fixed but for the majority they don’t even have an appointment. So they wait. There is no warning when a decision on asylum or detention on the island will be reached. There is a continual uncertainty. You hope, you despair, you go from moment to moment, as maybe tomorrow ………? Many turn in on themselves. You quickly get to know those who get decisions and how long they have been here. You wonder how some get quick decisions and you not. Is there a problem? Have I done something wrong? It is an environment that generates gossip and innuendo. Waiting in the dark like this corrodes well being. It is cruel.

And there is no light on the horizon. Hoped for destination countries such as Germany are deliberately slowing down their refugee polices including family re-unification and relocation. There is no mystery as to motive. The waiting has become an embedded aspect of Europe’s deterrence approach. There may be little evidence to show it deters arrivals but there is growing evidence that it encourages refugees to give up their European dream and return to their countries especially when a small financial inducement is included.

The Greek frontier islands such as Samos have become prison islands for the refugees. Most are here for months and many for over a year. And it goes on. All of the Mayors on these islands are unhappy and kick out at being places of indefinite detention and consistently refuse central government’s demands that they develop their facilities. Maybe these Mayors will succeed but the outline of the intended policy becomes ever clearer. Refugees are increasingly going to be kept in Greece even if not on the islands. The EU and its constituent members, albeit unevenly are all moving in this direction. Hold the refugees in Greece: here and no further except for a tiny number.

But in these fields of grief there are many miracles that often go unnoticed. Despite the wait the overwhelming majority of the refugees continue to endure and do not collapse in the face of such cruelty. They surely suffer but they also resist. Friendship networks play a huge role in keeping people sane. We have spent hours in friends’ rooms drinking tea and talking and talking. Shisha helps too and if you have a good pipe you will never be short of friends. Laughing, playing and talking together, with children, family and friends is critical. And not least these friends can be a source of walking companions. When you have no money you tend to walk a lot. When your accommodation is uncomfortable you walk even more! Many of our friends talk about walking as a way of relaxation. Certainly it can help you sleep and nothing is better at eating away the hours than sleep. And for those fleeing war there is the relief to walk without fear.

The most cursory glance at the many survival strategies operating could not ignore the role of the ubiquitous smart phones. Again of massive value not only for keeping in contact with distant friends and families and your home country but also for passing the time, watching movies, playing games, flirting and choosing images for your profile picture. (These seem to change regularly and often reflect the person’s current mood.)

All the refugees we know have no money other than the small monthly allowance they receive from UNHCR. For single people in the camp this is around 90 euros a month; slightly higher for families. If housed outside the camp, which is the case for many in Athens then the sum is 150 euros a month and from this your are expected to feed yourself. In Greece you always know when you are in an area with a lot of refugees because of the presence of money exchange offices, especially Western Union and MoneyGram. These companies make money out of refugees. But without the remittances sent by (usually hard pressed relatives and friends) many would be utterly destitute and hungry.

Their poverty means that their survival strategies are without significant costs, hence the walking, visiting friends and sleeping. On Samos, there is also the fishing and in the summer, swimming. The weather plays a big part and the winter months are much harder to endure if the weather is bad. The desperate poverty of some push them towards much more ambiguous and often hazardous behaviours including petty crime and also what has come to be called survival sex involving both boys/men and girls/women. That there are so many Greeks all too willing to take advantage of these vulnerabilities says much about Greek society but that is another story.

The survival strategies are many and varied and stretch across a wide range of activities. Many pass up and down this range depending on their circumstances and mood. Forged out of necessity and a long way from what might be considered normal everyday activities, the majority of refugees escape the psychiatric ward, and the hell of drug and alcohol addictions. They are never unscathed but neither are they defeated.

But these miracles can never be taken for granted. As the wait gets ever longer; as they never get any information about their own applications nor about the context generally the stress levels will inevitably build. They see the hundreds of people who work in the Samos camp and the long line of their vehicles stretching along the lane which leads to the gate. Quite understandably they ask what are all they doing? Why with so many people are we watching months turn into years? No answers. Never any answer other than wait.

It takes no sharp intelligence to predict that we are going to see increases in suicides, self-harm, anger, frustration…… and many feel that the big question now is not if the camps will blow up but more when. But we have also learnt never to under-estimate the capacities and intelligence of the refugees. And we know that the violence of the state should also not be under-estimated. As the camps simmer the authorities and front line agencies continue to dig in. We have a lot more police in Samos Town now with more gear, buses and para military style vehicles. The agencies in the camp have now put fences and guarded gates around their offices. Employees of the notorious GS4 ‘security’ company now stand guard at these gates. Without an appointment you won’t get in. And all these smaller compounds are already within the fenced and guarded camp! It is a prison, with prison design and prison regulations. But it is refugees who live here; not criminals. And what is frightening some of us now is that the endless feeding of negative stereotypes of the refugees is creating the kind of hostile atmosphere which would tolerate a violent repression if the camps did ever truly explode. The many children in the camp will not offer any protection should this happen.

It is of critical importance that the human beings currently detained on the islands and on the Greek mainland are not forgotten. For if they are forgotten and pushed into the background as a regrettable footnote so the darkness will deepen which in turn will open the doors for greater violence and cruelty. The refugees here confront power far greater themselves. Until and unless there is a massive public outcry at these cruelties the nightmare will continue.

Fatima and Ahmad

On Tuesday morning I said goodbye to Fatima. At least for the time being. Some time tonight or in the early morning tomorrow she will be taken from Samos to Lesvos and from there to a closed camp in Turkey. As always accurate information is hard to come by if you are a refugee. When I asked the police officer this morning when she would be leaving he replied that he didn’t know yet.

Fatima expected to go Turkey a week ago. Last Monday the police told her that she had to leave her room and come down to the police station with her bags. We went together first having dropped off the keys to her place at the Arsis office. (Arsis is a Greek NGO which acts for UNCHR on housing issues on Samos.) It was all very emotional as she said goodbye to the other refugees who lived nearby as well to the workers in the Arsis centre who had been significant in supporting her over the past 7 months. All her hopes and dreams of finding a new, safe life in Europe had been shattered.

Fatima was kindly met at the police headquarters and unlike the other refugees (men) she was not put in the police cell to await deportation. After 30 minutes however she was told that she would not be leaving for Lesvos the next day and that it could be another week before she was deported. The police did not want the hassle of caring for Fatima for this week and quite rightly told her she would be better off staying in her room and to come back in a week. As one of the duty officers said to me the police cell was a terrible place to be, not least for a single woman. Moreover Fatima posed no risk of escape from Samos.

But for Fatima, the delay was distressing. Fortunately Arsis immediately said that she could return to her house and they took her and her bags back.

So it was that we returned to the police on Monday. This time it was planned that she would leave for Lesvos some time during Tuesday afternoon/night. I went to see her on the Tuesday morning to take her coffee and some breakfast and to say goodbye. As usual I had to be checked in, showing my passport. And for the past month you now have to pass an armed police man on the door who holds some kind of machine gun. Drip drip the screws keep turning. But of course I say nothing. There are no guidelines/rights concerning visiting people held in the police station. You rely on the mood of the police who determine whether you can get in or not.

When I arrived I found her in the reception area, not in the cell and quickly learnt that this was where she spent her entire time. She had been given 4 grey blankets to make her bed on the floor by the chairs in the open reception area. No privacy, no tranquillity. There was a toilet but no shower or washing facilities. The breakfast she had been given was untouched. In a small plastic bag there were 4 pieces of stale bread and 2 small portions of strawberry jam. Inedible.

It was impossible for her to sleep. Not only were there police moving around her ‘bed’ all night, the shouting from the ‘prisoners’ in the cell which is at the other end of the reception area kept her awake. Then she witnessed a refugee being brought in who had cut his arms and there was blood and screaming before he was taken off to the hospital, but only to be returned a few hours later with his arms bandaged and locked up in the cell. It beggars belief that a young man who had self harmed should be detained and abandoned in such a hell hole.

Fatima was desperate for some company not only to get by during her stay in the police station but also to share her deep anxieties about returning to Turkey. So we were both upset and dismayed when after 30 minuted the officer in charge called me over and said I had to leave. My time was up.

Now it is 7.45 am on Wednesday 13th December and for the last hour Fatima and I have been exchanging whatsap messages. They took her and 2 others at 3.30am and she is now en route to Lesvos. She has no idea of how long she will be held there before going on to Turkey. I don’t think she has eaten or slept since Monday morning. She is exhausted and frightened.

Fatima does not want to go to Turkey. “For six years we lived with the war in Idlib. Of course we thought about leaving for Turkey but we knew enough to know that there was no future there for us”. It was only after their house was destroyed by bombs in early 2016 that forced them on to the refugee road.

There is only one reason for Fatima’s decision to return to Turkey. A decision which meant she had to abandon her application for asylum in Greece even though she had successfully got through the most important first phase of the process and had been given permission to leave Samos. She is giving all this up in order to rejoin her husband, Ahmad, who was deported last week to Turkey from Samos. They had been together on Samos for over one year. In this time she had two miscarriages. After the first miscarriage UNCHR moved them from the Camp and into a house in Samos town.

Fatima and Ahmad with their cake to mark one year detained on Samos. October 2017

Fatima is not prepared to live without Ahmad.

Unlike Fatima, Ahmad’s application for asylum had been rejected two times. As far as the authorities and many of the NGOs are concerned that is the end of the line. In Ahmad’s case that involved Arsis telling him that he would have to leave the house he shared with his wife, and the lawyer from Metradassi (Greek NGO) saying that his case was now closed and there was no more legal support on offer. He refused to leave Fatima and the house and though no attempt was made to evict him Ahmad was in constant fear of being arrested and deported. For the next two months Ahmad rarely left the house. He felt completely abandoned and with no idea of what to do. This all worsened after the high court’s decision in Athens in late September which confirmed that Turkey should be considered a safe place for returning Syrian refugees. Ahmad felt sure now he would be taken even though he knew of no Syrian refugee who had been deported. Then misfortune struck when on one of the few occasions he went into the town centre with Fatima he was stopped, arrested and taken into administrative detention in the police station. This was 2 weeks ago.

It was the last straw for Ahmad. As soon as he was detained he told the police he wanted to be deported to Turkey. As Fatima told me, after one year on Samos “he has no patience left. He cannot continue in Samos. He is being destroyed”. For nine days Ahmad had to endure the prison cell in the police station. There was no risk that he would escape from Samos. He was volunteering for deportation. But he was held and Fatima suffered the forced separation only able to see Ahmad through the gates of the cell for a few minutes each evening.

Throughout all their time on Samos Ahmad and Fatima were never formally acknowledged as a married couple. This had many implications such as dealing with the their asylum applications as if they were totally separate and hence the incomprehensible decision to admit Fatima’s application but refuse Ahmad. As far as Ahmad and Fatima were concerned the fact that their household consisted of 2 wives and 4 children which according to Fatima is not uncommon in Syria was simply of no concern to the asylum authorities. For them, Ahmad could have only one wife – the one still in Syria with their four children, and not Fatima. That Ahmad and Fatima’s marriage had been formally acknowledged and documented by the mosque had no bearing.

Ahmad is convinced that his marital status was a main factor in his asylum rejection. He told me that he was made to feel uncomfortable and anxious whenever this was raised and he never felt relaxed to discuss his household. Quite simply all these experiences were hitting Ahmad especially hard. He was going crazy.

Now it is Thursday morning. I lost contact with Fatima last night. I am not sure where she is at the moment except that she has no access to the internet. Ahmad is now in Istanbul. He was held in the

Adiyaman Camp in Adana Turkey for just 3 days before being released and so able to travel to Istanbul to stay with his brother. Fatima hopes to be with him shortly.

********

It is now 9 pm on Thursday, 14 December and a few minutes ago I received this message from Fatima:

“Hi, I am now in a prison in Lesvos. The situation is very bad. The prison is very bad. The bed is made of stone and there is no mattress. The blankets smell foul. There is no light at night. And many insects. It is very scary.”

Responding to Hysteria

Recently on Samos we have been experiencing one of those periodic spasms of anti-refugee sentiment. These spasms feel orchestrated and even if not coordinated involve a diverse range of actors. This particular spasm has been sparked by both the high number of new arrivals especially in September and the lack of any preparation to meet the autumn weather. All the refugee authorities use these moments to demand additional resources and powers; local business interests demand VAT reductions and other economic interventions because as ‘we all know’ the refugees have been devastating for tourism, the Mayor calls for meetings with government ministers and on it goes. And at the same time beyond Samos, we see the head of UNCHR warning of the calamity unfolding on the frontier islands as winter approaches as well as other reports highlighting the agony of the refugees on the islands. Add to this mix, Samos SOS, an anti-refugee group which has been intermittently active for many years and which relishes moments such as these as a means of mobilizing support.

Over the past few months Samos SOS has been taking its message of cleaning the island of refugees because of the threat they pose to the essential way of life on Samos out to the villages and small towns and not just simply staying in Samos town. It is necessary to understand that the refugees on Samos are located in just one small part of the island around the main town. Leave the town and it is rare to see any refugee. In the overwhelming part of Samos the refugees have no presence at all. Sadly it seems, Samos SOS have had some success in whipping up anti-refugee sentiment in places with no contact or awareness of the refugees.

Even so a major problem remains for Samos SOS namely that there is simply no evidence to support their hysterical claims such that Samos is in danger of being ‘islamicized’ or on the brink of widespread social unrest. It is a joke. Even in those villages where Samos SOS succeeded in gaining support it would be highly unlikely that any felt that their way of life was under threat or that they were about to become Muslim. Moreover, walk any day around Samos town and you will see refugees and locals go about their business in utter peace. The refugees don’t walk around as though they are in imminent danger neither does anyone else. You can even eat felafel in the main square now!

Samos SOS never acknowledges that the ‘refugee business’ is now probably the biggest single economic activity on the island sustaining in Samos town a diverse collection of hotels, bars, eating places, local mini markets, hire car companies, apartment rentals and so forth. Unlike tourism which lasts for 5 months in the year refugee monies flow throughout the year.

But this has not stopped Samos SOS which recently held a high profile public meeting in the central square of Samos town on Sunday October 22nd. From the photographs published a fair number of refugees were also present. Like Samos SOS they would love to leave the island at the earliest opportunity.

Samos SOS Meeting 22.10.2017 photo from My Samos Blog

One consequence of the meeting has been the publication of an Appeal to the islanders by a group of 23 ex mayors, prefects and councilors from across the island. This Appeal was published by My Samos Blog on October 29, 2017. Samos SOS delights in claiming that it speaks for the silent majority and that its truth is what is real. Appeals like this suggest otherwise.

We have translated it from the Greek as best we can.

An Appeal for Calmness and Soberness in Dealing with the Refugee-Immigrant Problem

Our public intervention is happening today, because we find that in the local community of Samos with the excuse of the refugee crisis, some by their actions or by their omissions are driving things to uncontrollable situations, which trouble us and in addition will discredit and tarnish our island.

The refugee-migration issue is a major international problem that, if its causes are not addressed at world and international level (wars, poverty, exploitation, authoritarian regimes, climate change) it will not stop. Greece and especially the islands of the east Aegean, places in the passage from the East to the West will always be under pressure from migratory flows, as was the case in every other century.

The Joint Statement European Union -Turkey (March 2016) to address the refugee and immigration crisis, unfortunately has not been adequately met by Turkey (which is obliged to take any necessary measures to prevent illegal immigration from its territories to the EU), but neither by most EU countries who closed their borders and failed to meet the obligations they had assumed for proportionate participation in the management of the refugees.


So the islands of the Eastern Aegean were turned into a peculiar warehouse-zone on the border of Europe which sends the message that no refugee and migrant will go to the “Promised Land”, central and northern Europe, consolidating the image of an EU of xenophobia, extreme right radicalization and racist attitudes

Within this negative climate the Greek state with its services was called upon to face unprecedented situations and showed its inability to manage the refugee migratory wave in an effective manner, both with regard to identification and asylum procedures and to infrastructure hospitality and organized temporary residence with human and dignified conditions. All this has resulted in the presence of a large number of immigrant refugees on the islands as well as their particularly troublesome and miserable living conditions inside and outside of hotspots.

In the small communities of our islands this long-term stay of such a large number of refugees
-immigrants has logically created disruption and concern, despite the high degree of understanding and solidarity, which the islanders inexorably maintain and offer.

Here in Samos, from the great lessons in solidarity and humanity that Samos men and women gave in the summer of 2015 with the supporting of more than 120 thousand refugees-immigrants who were hosted for a while on our island, we passed last autumn with a small number of arrivals but also with numerous worrying SOS voices (‘Samos clean from refugees’).

However in the last period we have an overt attempt to create another, particularly negative and, in our opinion, worrying, climate. Samos SOS exploits the ineffective management by the EU, the government and the UN, of the refugee-immigrant with the encroaching on our island of several thousand uprooted people and the general economic hardship and fears about the Islamization of Samos, with mosques and plans with controlled “Turkish” minorities when none of the refugees in question are either Turks or want to stay in Samos.

Unfortunately, Samos SOS, operating systematically by exaggeration, misinterpret intentionally or unintentionally the real problems, they construct imaginative scenarios and spread conspiracy about Islamization of the islands and their gradual occupation by foreigners and heathens, resulting in creating and enhancing a climate of insecurity for citizens of an imminent gradual loss of national territories, with our race and religion at risk. In addition to their tours and gatherings in the capital and in villages with inflammatory reasons based largely on their political delirium they create conditions of polarization and social confrontation, which sometimes go beyond the limits and become insults, abuse and even assaults against every fellow citizen who dares to express a different or opposing view.

They are the ones who consciously or unconsciously rushed to choose “partners” in the ceaseless war, which regrettably rages for a long time between the two ranks of self-government of our country. In this civil war, beyond any wisdom and rationality, instead of reconciliation, they preferred polarization, and on the pretext of the “salvation” of our island, they prepare the ground and the connections for the next elections, with the support of dishonest means and the willingness of the system. Their wages are worthy.

Instead of putting the real problems facing the society of Samos, they are targeting the hapless refugee, as the one who brings all the suffering to the island and with stale arguments cause division of our fellow citizens and tarnish the image of a place where every home has experienced and has memories of refugees and immigration.

Fellow citizens

We appeal to all of you and especially to the citizens of the capital who raise the full burden of the crisis to calmly address the situation with the humanity, the logic, the measured sense and the solidarity that characterize us over time.

The real cause of poverty and our problems is not the refugee-immigrant, who crosses Samos with a destination in Europe, but the respective government policies, imposed by the European Union and the powerful of the earth.

We call on the government and personally the Prime Minister, Mr. Alexis Tsipras

For the immediate and continuous evacuation on a permanent basis of supernumerary refugees-immigrants from the islands of the eastern Aegean, under the responsibility of the competent services of the country, moving them to mainland Greece and with a final destination in accordance with European and international treaties.

For immediate and complete staffing of all necessary support structures and asylum services to ensure the dignified and healthy living of refugees-migrants (for as long as they stay on our island) and fast processing of identification and asylum requests, so as to move as soon as possible to the mainland.

For the immediate activation of a permanent inter-party committee of the Parliament, including MEPs, for management planning of the refugee-immigration issue under European and international law and UN principles, to monitor developments at local and supra-regional levels taking the necessary initiatives to further improve the existing agreements and the positive overall enlargement of the relevant institutional framework as well as for political and economic control of all bodies, public and private (NGOs etc), where they are involved in any way in this problem and its treatment.

For the freedom of our country and from war and for cooperation with all the peoples of the earth for world peace, solidarity and democracy.”

The text is signed by Apostolos Dimitrios, former president City Council of Pythagorio and 22 others.

Post Script

Coincidentally on the same day (29th October) Ekathimerini published an interview with Frans Timmermans one of the key figures in the EU Turkey Pact in which he praises the people of the frontier islands for their heroic efforts in helping refugees and yet condemns them and the refugees to remaining trapped on what are in effect prison islands.

Migrants, he said, must stay on the islands, despite the difficulties, because their transfer to the mainland would send a wrong message and create a new wave of arrivals.”

For the Refugees Nothing is Easy: Catching the Ferry In Karlovassi

I took Saad and Hamid to Karlovassi for the Blue Star ferry to Piraeus at 1.45am yesterday. There are not so many people or cars there at this time. Immediately we entered the port area 2 young port police in black jump suits approach us and ask for our papers and tickets. They pulled us over to one side and begin to go through their ID papers and my passport. The boat arrives and starts to load. We still wait but we after 15 minutes we are now afraid of missing the boat. They won’t tell us why we are treated like this. He just walks around us speaking on his phone. The passenger gang plank is raised and we are at the bottom of the ramp as the remaining lorries board. As the last lorry approached us at the ramp a pair of legs could be seen hanging down near the wheels. The police screamed for the lorry to stop which it did and this teenage boy dropped to the ground. Thankfully not injured. At that very moment the police gave us our papers and told us we could go. Saad and Hamid scrambled up the ramp and the boat left.

I go to see 2 friends off and all three of us are treated like criminals. I suspect few passengers if any saw or took notice and yet this is going on before their eyes. And then there was the lad falling from the lorry. He could have been killed. All he wanted was to get to Athens. And as well as this, when we were first pulled over the police were with a young refugee lad maybe 14 -16 and telling him to go away that he was not getting on the ferry. All I could hear him saying is that I’ve got papers and tickets and I am going to my parents who are waiting in Athens. I don’t know what happened as they moved us away. But later I did see the lad from the lorry limping away from the port. The police did not hold him. He was alone, with no bag, summer sandals and a tee shirt. He was abandoned.

This is Samos, October 2017. Encounters like this are commonplace now at the two ports. When the ferries are due to leave the ports are alive with officials, some in uniform others in plain clothes. No two sets of uniforms look the same. Some are from Greece others from Germany, Italy and other EU states. Some are clearly special forces given all the armour and weapons they carry. Not only are the refugees physically separated from the other ‘regular’ passengers but they endure an entirely different boarding procedure where they have to prove their right to travel. Every time our refugee friends want to visit Samos from Athens this is what they have to endure. Both coming and going. It is a process saturated with suspicion on the part of the officials. There is a total absence of respect.

This is Samos. Many here choose not to see any of this.

Mahaa and Zaman

Saad Abdllah and Chris Jones, October 2017

 

Saad met Mahaa and Zaman in Athens at meetings of LGBT refugees. Their stories below are based on taped conversations which have in places been edited. Their stories, as their lives, continue to unfold in the daily uncertainties facing all the refugees in Greece today. If you would like to contact them please do so through the blog and we will pass any messages on to them.

Mahaa

Mahaa was born and grew up in Basra, Iraq. S/he is now 25 years old and a transsexual. S/he was 12 when s/he had her first sexual relationship with another boy. S/he had no words for this and talked with no one. But s/he knew that he wanted to be a girl. And that this was a big problem for his family. So as a teenager s/he did a lot of physical exercise and body building and developed an amazingly muscular body. S/he joined the army and went to the army school where s/he continued with his/her gym exercises and sports. S/he became well known for his fitness. For Mahaa this was her big defence to make sure no one saw her as a sissy and no one would think of her in this way.

She worked some of the time outside the school and held a responsible administrative job for the army based in the city. Mahaa describes this as a good time in her life as she kept her feminine side completely hidden. She liked her job, was passing her diploma exams at the army school and at the same time building a private life where she could be herself.

But this all changed dramatically when she lost her phone. She searched everywhere, at home, in the office, in the car, on the street but with no success. The following day she was back in the office when one of the other soldiers came to her desk, saluted as normal and said that her superior officer wanted to see her immediately in his office. “Even before I had finished my salute my superior was saying that he couldn’t believe it; how was it possible that I could hide myself like this?” He then showed Mahaa the photos from her phone which he had copied out on to a sheet of paper. They showed Mahaa in women’s clothes and also with her boyfriend. Some showed them kissing. Just romantic pictures. No pornography.

Mahaa was taken directly to the prison where she was held for three months. They asked many questions about how she got into the army. “They said it is not possible for gay men to pass the entrance tests and get into the army! Who helped you? Who inside looked out for you? How did you come to the office for 3 years and no one saw you. Many many questions like this. I am just normal” she told them,“I live a quiet life on my own. All the romance with my friend was in private and never in public. I had no other gay friends. No one helped me hide anything. I passed all my tests and my diploma by my own work”

After 3 months of solitary confinement Mahaa was taken to a general prison for 1 year and 1 month. They then took her to the court and told her she could go free but that she would lose everything connected with her previous work. Obviously the job was gone but all her achievements and awards were wiped from the record. “I lost everything”.

But coming out of the prison was when Mahaa’s problems really began to escalate. With nowhere to live she returned to her family who had already been informed that she was in prison. It was here that her three uncles and their sons came with knives and bars to beat her senseless in a locked room and to leave her to die. (Her father had died many years earlier which is why the uncles came.) Neither her mother nor her brothers and sisters tried to stop the beating. They just cried. But when the uncles left her terrified twin sister unlocked the room and took Mahaa out to the front of the house where she called Mahaa’s boyfriend. He came immediately and took her to a friend’s house.

These were very hard days. Mahaa was hurt (her body is full of the scars) and her family had enough money to pay for people to find and kill them both. It was only when Mahaa’s boyfriend survived an assassination attempt that they decided that they had to leave Iraq. He took her to Jordan where she stayed for 3 months. “But I was never relaxed there. Many of the people there were just like those I saw in Iraq. I didn’t feel safe and I couldn’t find work. I did not call myself a trans at this time. I didn’t know what it meant. I just knew I wanted to be a girl. But Jordan did give me the chance to get some nice clothes after all those years in prison and army uniforms”.

Mahaa then met a Jordanian gay friend who helped a lot with her hair and eyebrows as well as clothes and make up. Much of this was new to Mahaa. But this friend was clear that Jordan was not a good country for her and that she would never find safety there to live her life.

So on she moved to Lebanon for 7 months but it was very difficult for her because it was so expensive and the money she was sent by her boyfriend was not enough. “He is a very good man and he came to visit me but he is also responsible for caring for his mother so it is not easy for him to spend time away. At the supermarket near to my home in Lebanon I met a man from Iraq and as he came to know my situation he said I would be much better in Turkey and that he had some contacts who could help.

“So I left for Istanbul and for the first time in my life I met other trans people like me. It was amazing for me. I was very happy”. Mahaa stayed with her trans friend for two and a half years and she taught her much. About hormones, clothes, many things. And she introduced her to dancing and the night clubs where they could make money. “I knew nothing about dance at the beginning but now I know everything!”

Her life was again turned upside down when the Turkish police caught her with her expired visa from Lebanon. “They told me I had to leave Turkey in 2 days or I would go to jail.”

“I cried all day. I was with my friend Sona. I couldn’t go back to Iraq. I have no contact with my family. I don’t know anything about them and I don’t want to know. My family will never accept me. They never accepted me as a boy and they would never accept me now. I hate my uncles and my mother who did nothing but cry and never tried to do anything to help me.”

So now the move to Europe.

Her friend took her first to Izmir, then on to Antalya and from there by boat to the small Greek island of Castelroizo. After a few days they took her to the prison in Kos. “All this time they think that I am a girl. I was taken from the prison to a camp and put in a container with other women. I couldn’t accept this so I went to the head of the UNHCR and told them that I am not a girl but a trans. They took me immediately to the chief’s office to stay and then I was moved to a house on my own. The UNHCR were very kind to me.”

The other refugees in the camp were also kind to her when they thought she was a girl. But when they discovered she was trans many became “like animals and they wanted to kill me. The best of them just laughed at me.” When she moved out she never went back to the camp. She stayed for one month and 10 days.

With an open card she moved to Athens in July 2017.

She does not like Athens largely because the 150 euros she takes from UNHCR each month is not enough to live on. She is desperate for hormones as “I am losing my breasts” but has no money. “But no one can or will help me. I asked Prakis (NGO) and I got nothing. I think I can only help myself. There is no one else.”

“But I can’t stay here as the language is too difficult. So I am learning English. I just want to work and be comfortable as a trans. Small money and a home where I can find safety and a bed. I can’t work in sex. I can’t go back. “

She is very clear that the loss of her phone did not destroy her life. Instead it it changed her life: “I went from being an officer in the army to becoming to a trans.”

“I enjoy being a trans and I want this life for me.”

 

Zaman

Zaman is 27 years old and also comes from Basra in Iraq. Zaman grew up with his uncle, aunt, their children and his grandmother. His mother and father died when he was young. He had no brothers and sisters although he had cousins. His relationship with his uncle was often stressed but his aunt cared for him as his mother and they are still very close. His grandmother was also very good to him and he loved her.

“I knew when I was a child that I liked boys more than girls. I love boys to care for me and to love me. When I was 10 I had sex with a boy. We had no words for that; whether it was wrong or right but I knew that I loved him. I was very feminine when I was young, but not now. When I was around 12 I started to watch dancing on the tv and on the movies and I would dance on my own in my room My aunty told me that the people here would not accept boys doing this type of dancing. Around this time I met a boy who I liked who told me about making money from sex and dancing. I didn’t like this way because I wanted to continue with my classes and study. But my family especially my uncle did not accept how I was and what I wanted to do so I started to listen more to this boy. I met many people who wanted to have sex with me but I knew I had to take money for this because otherwise they would not respect me. They would say I was very cheap.”

Then someone, he does not know who, posted on the internet a video of him dancing and his uncle saw it. He was furious and “attacked me and broke my leg deliberately so I would never be able to dance again.”

“This was the worst time of my life. In the family home my uncle insisted that I should be given little of everything – food clothes. It was impossible and so I decided to move. I will have nothing to do with my uncle.” So Zaman moved in with a gay friend and began to earn money from sex and dancing. He was then able to get an apartment of his own.

His uncle eventually left his aunt and remarried. Zaman felt responsible because his aunt wanted him to come home and the uncle refused. She is always trying to support Zaman which made her husband very angry. Since the divorce Zaman sends money when he can back to his aunt.

“I liked dancing and this work gives me strength.” In the process he met many powerful people. Zaman was close with a dancer from Dubai who told him that he would do very well there. So I went and I did make good money but as a gay person in Dubai I never felt comfortable. So when I heard my sister was ill I returned to Basra.

At that time my uncle was still with my aunt and he refused to let me stay in the family house so I stayed with a gay friend and his mother. In their neighbourhoood there are many mafia people. They saw us together and they didn’t like it. But I loved him very much and these were good times for me.

Then they murdered my friend.

These killers then said it was me who was the murderer. Before they took me to the police they beat me I had no chance as they also had friends in the police and the judge was also linked to the mafia. I was raped by one of the police during the questioning.

The judge said I had 2 choices. To stay in the prison to avoid being killed by the mafia or to leave Iraq altogether.

So I left my country and went back to Dubai where life was now much more difficult for Iraqi people in UAE. So I went back to Iraq for 6 months to see my sister and then I left for Turkey.

I had a she male friend in Istanbul who took me to his house. He said to survive in Istanbul that I would have to have sex everyday. No sex no money. I then met an Iraqi man who had a night club and he said it would be better for me to live and work back in Iraq. So this is what I did. But it was very difficult as I was supposed to live outside Iraq. I was very tired by all this stress and I was very nervous about the police and what might happen if I was caught. It was also a time when my relations with my uncle were very bad.

Many of my friends said I should go to Europe and that Turkey was on the way there. The money I took from working in the night club made it possible to make the trip.

Europe

When Zaman travelled fromTurkey to the Greek island of Chios he found himself in a 6 metre boat with 80 people leaving the Turkish shore. He was terrified. “I thought we would die. But we were caught after 10 minutes and I was very happy as we would live.”

The joy was short lived as the Turkish police were violent and beat them.

Second time trying to get to Chios was a success. It was May 25th 2017.

“I was very happy to be in Europe as I have heard so many good things about it. And I was also happy because my uncle was now far away and couldn’t catch me.”

“I was happy to be in Chios. But the people I came with in the boat knew I was gay and began saying bad words about me.” UNCHR as with Mahaa responded quickly in moving Zaman into a house with his friend Toofaha who came to Chios a little while later. “I told them all that had happened to me including the rape and they helped me get out of the camp. “

Zaman was on Chios for three months before he was allowed to move to Athens. He didn’t leave Chios immediately but waited a few weeks for Toofaha to get his papers and they travelled to Athens together where they now share an apartment.

Like many refugees, his first impressions of Athens are mostly negative. The on going collapse of the Greek economy and society cannot be avoided. It is on the streets with boarded up shops and businesses and of course no jobs with pay to keep you alive. With only the 150 euro monthly allowance from the UNHCR life is difficult.

“I have found nothing here. No good job. And I don’t like people looking me when I get dressed up to go out. Do they stare because of my gayness or because I am refugee? But now I want to wear trans clothes and feel comfortable. This is not the life I want.”

Zaman feels that he is now a very high quality dancer. Wherever he has danced he has been a success and all the time improving his performance. Many people like his dancing. “I want to be a famous dancer. But I need someone to help me get started again in Europe.”