Island of despair

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

While the outrage of Europeans has been turned to Donald Trump’s wall and the handling of migrants at the border with Mexico, they ignore a humanitarian disaster closer to home. The EU has left Greece to handle the influx of refugees on its own and those stuck on Lesbos are living in abysmal conditions.

Friday 30 November 2018

The dark-grey sky is wide open. The rain keeps pouring out of it as if from an Asian monsoon. Every now and then a crack of lightning rips open the heavens. Torrents of mud are flowing across ‘the jungle’, the parallel refugee encampment which sprang up alongside the ‘reception and identification centre’ of Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos (Lesbos, in English). The mud is coalescing with the ubiquitous faces, until the mixture forms a small river. No toilet facilities have been provided at the barbed-wire-ringed camp, let alone showers, save for those falling from the clouds.

Some 1,500 people living at the outer edges of Moria camp – currently home to some 7,000 refugees and migrants – are desperately trying to save their pitiful belongings. The filthy bilge is flooding their improvised dwellings. The cardboard-bolstered tents keep sagging under the weight of this Mediterranean monsoon.

Some of the children, who represent over 40% of the refugee and migrant population, nonetheless take to frolicking in the mud. A number of parents try to step in and protect them from the fury of the elements, but their efforts are to no avail. The scavenger dogs seek refuge under the trees. A group of defeated-looking men simply stand there in the rain, silently staring at nothing in particular. The women are struggling to save what little food they have stored in the tents. Since the mice and the rats are constantly on the prowl, the provisions are kept as high from the ground as possible. Despite these efforts, water, which is trickling down from the tents’ ceilings, is now threatening their precious stashes. A number of shrieks and wails can be heard from all over the perimeter.

The very colours are being washed away in the deluge. The one bright thing you can still discern amid the total and all-pervasive greyness is the garishly cheerful sign which, without a hint of irony, bids the inhabitants of the camp ‘Welcome’.

____

“We would have gone anywhere where it was safe. Where we could live like human beings. But the situation here is impossible to bear. We’re struggling to survive. Over here, it’s worse than war,” Alina, 27, tels me in her small tent.

Alina arrived here from the eastern part of Afghanistan, which the EU, for some reason, considers to be a safe country, despite the fact that conditions in the Hindu Kush are worse than at any time since 2001, with the Taliban now controlling two thirds of the Afghan provinces. Things are especially bad for the Hazara, the long-persecuted people whom the horrific experiments in ethnic cleansing sent fleeing to Europe in their tens of thousands.

Should their asylum application get rejected, Alina, her husband and her five children are facing deportation. It is a prospect that chills them to the bone. And for good reason: at least 10 of their compatriots have already been killed or gone missing after being sent back to Afghanistan from Germany or Sweden.

“We set out 13 months ago,” relates Alina, as she sits wedged between her children in the tent designed to accommodate only two people. “We simply had to leave. The fighting had reached our village. We borrowed the money. We first spent almost a year in Turkey. A lot of the time we were living on the street. My husband got work helping out at a cow farm, but the pay was disastrously low. So we decided to take our chances and head to Greece.”

The real irony is that the dire conditions on the other side of the fence, behind the tall barbed wire and surveillance cameras, are comparatively better, even though the ‘official’ camp only provides a single shower for every 84 inhabitants and one toilet for every 72, according to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee. Beyond every low lurks a lower low.

Europe’s migration frontline

In the wake of the European-Turkish refugee deal and the closing of the Balkan refugee route in the spring of 2016, crossing the strait between Turkey and the Aegean islands became much harder. Even the smugglers found themselves in a tough spot after the Turkish authorities started cracking down on the incomers, and after ‘protecting’ the EU’s external borders was entrusted to Frontex, the Union’s border and coastguard agency. The price of the risky voyage to the Greek islands has risen considerably, even though the prospect of reaching central or northern Europe have become slimmer than ever. The Greek islands have now completed their transformation into the frontline of the European migration policies.

At present, Afghans are the most numerous group on Lesvos, constituting more than 40% of the entire refugee population. The Greek authorities, assisted by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, have transported most of the Syrians over to the mainland. According to official UNHCR data, the Syrians were the most numerous group arriving in Greece as a whole in 2018: 41% of all incomers were from Syria, while 20% hailed from Afghanistan, 15% from Iraq and 6% from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The numbers paint a clear picture of the changing flows brought about by EU policy. In the current year, 30% fewer arrivals reached the European Union via the Mediterranean than last year, while Greece has experienced a 40% increase.

At the moment, almost 70,000 refugees and migrants are based in Greece. The very number is a clear testimonial that many have become permanently trapped. The recent developments have put an increasing strain on the housing capacities all over the country. The official limits have long been surpassed. The local asylum system may be markedly more efficient than it was two years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is anything but slow.

At the time of writing, the accommodation centres on the mainland house around 20,000 people. Although the regional authorities in Lesvos issued, at the end of September, the Greek Ministry of Migration with an ultimatum to ‘clean up’ the Moria camp in the next thirty days, the desired changes did not take place at the required pace, with the organised departure of only around 2,000 people from the island to the mainland occurring over the past six weeks.

But fresh newcomers keep rolling in.

____

“We made two different attempts [to cross to Lesvos]. The first time we were caught by the Turkish police,” recounts Alina. “On the second occasion, we hid in the forest for three days and nights. There were seventy-five of us. We all had to fit on to a single rubber boat. The children were absolutely terrified. All I could do was keep pretending everything was just fine. After an hour at sea, the boat sprang a leak. Before long, we were sinking.”

The group was fortunate enough to be picked up by the Greek coast guard. As the Moria camp had long reached its capacity, they were left to fend for themselves. After applying for asylum, they pitched down in the middle of what used to be a grove, located right next to the camp.

“All of this came as a horrendous shock to me. I’ve never seen anything remotely like it. It’s so crowded, and there are no toilets or even running water,” says the petite Hazara woman. “We are so hungry. Every meal means waiting in a line for two or three hours – though there’s no guarantee you will get served. And there’s so much violence here … At night, the children are forbidden from leaving the tent. I myself don’t dare go anywhere without an escort from my husband.”

“The Greek policemen are merely observing the violence. They couldn’t possibly care less for our safety,” she adds.

Just like in her homeland, Alina is surrounded by violence, misery and the threat of sexual assault. The latter is so omnipresent a number of women and girls in the camp have taken to wearing diapers during the night. Healthcare is virtually non-existent. For the (at least) 7,000 people here, a single doctor is available at any given time. Alina’s doctor appointment has been postponed and postponed for over a month now.

No wonder she is terrified something truly horrible is bound to happen. “All of my children are sick. They keep coughing. All of them complain of aching lungs. They have lost a lot of weight. Everything here is so filthy. I am unable to help them,” Alina explains, powerless. “But what will happen when the winter comes? I know we will have to somehow survive it here. We badly need some winter clothes and blankets. We have nothing. Our asylum interview has already taken place, but it takes several months to get a response.”

Follow the money

With all this wretched misery, one can only ask: where did the EU money go, namely €1.6 billion euros allocated to Greece since 2015 to help the refugees? How is it possible that two years after the closing of the Balkan route, people are still living in such festering landfills, cut off from the world and stripped of all resources?

Some Greek journalists refuse to balk at such compelling but difficult questions. A few weeks ago, the Fileleftheros newspaper published a story on the misappropriation of European funds. The defence minister Panos Kamenos, the president of the far-right The Independent Greeks party, responded by sending the police after the two journalists and the editor. The paper had managed to link Kamenos to a local businessman grown rich by what passes as servicing the refugee camps. His company, funded using EU money, was in charge both of the distribution of food and the plumbing. The prices were dictated by the supplier, and the contracts were awarded overnight and without oversight.

At least the journalists were released the very same day they were arrested. Furthermore, the European Anti-Fraud Office immediately launched an investigation into the ‘suspected irregularities’.

____

Ahmad Ebrahimi, 31, is another one of those who, despite completing his interview with the Greek Asylum Service five months ago, has yet to receive his reply. The slight and surprisingly calm young man tells me he is trying to keep a cool head and take advantage of his infinitely bleak and frustrating days at Moria.

Back home in Afghanistan, he was working as a journalist. He was a TV producer, and also produced his own podcast. He enjoyed the work, and was making a decent living, at least by Afghan standards. From a reasonably well-off family – his father owns three stores in Kabul – he has never known penury. Ebrahimi’s desperate flight to Europe was not motivated by economics. The only reason Ahmad set off for Europe was that his status as a journalist – and a Hazara – had made him a target for the Taliban.

Despite being somewhat aware of what was taking place along the European refugee routes, the actual conditions at Lesvos came as a profound shock. “I fled Afghanistan because I wanted to reach the free and democratic world, where I could safely do my work. But here, the situation is unspeakably dreadful,” he reflected. “The camp is in chaos. It is simply not safe for anyone. I mostly keep to myself. I don’t need anything from anyone. All I want is to leave and continue on my journey.”

Ahmed is currently volunteering as an organiser of photo workshops for his fellow refugees and migrants. He is also making a documentary on conditions at the camp. His most fervent hope is to leave this island of the damned and head for the Canadian embassy in Athens. A collaborative stint with a Canadian journalist had opened up the prospect of a North American job. Yet the burned-out Greek – and European – asylum systems are functioning to the tune of a merciless algorithm. Certain inhuman rules are in place, and the fates of individual humans are far from being a priority.

A whole new spectrum of trauma

“I met a number of families in the camp telling me of their escapes from Syria, Afghanistan and the Congo… They managed to flee some of the most atrocious wars on the planet, yet they all feel what they encountered here is much worse. They would rather have bombs falling on them than keep living in such ruinous conditions,” says Idoia Moreno, the coordinator of the Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic located next to the infamous camp.

MSF’s facilities are operating at peak capacity. During our visit, the medics performed a mass vaccination programme on the children across the island’s camps. Moreno informs me she has been stationed in the Congo, the Central African Republic and in Angola. She has served in camps ravaged by the Ebola virus, yet she has never seen anything remotely like Moria.

“In recent months, the camp’s demographics underwent a significant change,” reports Carola Buscemi, a paediatrician stationed at a small field clinic operating on Lesvos since February. “We’ve never had so many children as we do right now. They currently form almost half of the entire refugee population. We are operating in serious crisis conditions – and they should be recognised as such by the authorities in Athens and Brussels. Yet they refuse to do so. For the most part, people here are left to fend for themselves. The children’s medical condition is rapidly deteriorating. Even the ones who arrived healthy are getting sick. And the same goes for the adults. The situation grows more alarming every day. We keep notifying the authorities, but nothing changes.”

Every day, Buscemi treats 25 to 30 refugee and migrant children. According to her, the most pressing problem is respiratory disease, with skin conditions coming in a close second. In the Europe of the 21st century, malnutrition is a major source of suffering as well.

“The food is of very poor quality, hopelessly unsuitable for children. And there is not enough of it to go around. The children are losing weight in front of our eyes. A number of them have simply stopped growing,” she observes. “The stress is a major contributing factor. There is a lot of bed-wetting, anxiety, panic attacks and self-harm. I cannot emphasise enough how rife with psychiatric disorders the camp’s inmates have become. These people have fled savage war conditions, only to come here and face a whole new range of trauma. You can see the wages of post-traumatic stress disorders on every step.”

A few days ago, the Italian doctor treated a seven-year-old Iraqi boy who tried to commit suicide by jumping from a roof. It was his second attempt. The first time, he had already managed to fasten a rope to a tree branch and was only saved in the nick of time.

“It is horrendous,” Buscemi testifies. “I have never seen anything as awful as the situation here. And what makes it worse is that it’s taking place in Europe. Over here, at least, things should be very different.”

Over the past few weeks, the doctors at the clinic have tried to appeal to the international community for help through the media. “The parents at Moria fear their children have already sustained irreparable psychological damage. They come to the clinic telling us their sons and daughters have stopped talking, or that they have harmed themselves in a number of ways,” says Giovanna Bonvini, head of the mental health department at the Greek branch of Médecins Sans Frontieres.

Her colleague Caroline Willeren, the MSF’s coordinator of activities at the Moria camp, is even more direct: “It is a disgrace. Here we are seeing the high human cost paid by the refugees on account of the European-Turkish deal. The political arrangement gave rise to a human catastrophe.”

Fear is a dangerous thing

The local communities can be counted among those who have paid a heavy price for the European migration policies turning the Greek islands, the south of Italy and Malta into a human dumping ground.

It needs to be said that the local communities have displayed a commendable sense of solidarity and empathy. Lesvos, which over the past three years has seen the passage of some 650,000 refugees and migrants, deserves a special mention in this regard. The locals have done their utmost to help the incomers avoid the pitfalls created by the bureaucrats and the politicians. Yet understandably enough, both the patience and the compassion gradually ran out.

Throughout Samos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Lesvos – where the European and Greek authorities set up the infamous reception and identification centres (or ‘hot-spots’) – a great deal of anger and frustration is being voiced. One consequence is the strengthening of the far-right political movements, most notably the Nazi-tinged Golden Dawn.

“The refugees have been turned into a tool of the far right. In an age of populism, fake news, mental laziness and depleted attention spans, their work has never been easier. Serious reflection is a thing of the past,” comments Efi Latsoudi, a long time human rights activist who spoke to me at Nan, the activists’ restaurant in Mitilini, where the local waiters and the refugee chefs work side by side.

Latsoudi fears that both Europe and Greece are hurtling back to a dark place. The refugee crisis strikes her as “tailor-made” for the purposes of dismantling the very concepts of human rights and an open society. In spite of Europe’s slide towards the wrong end of history, she has somehow managed to hold on to her hopes. Lasudi has been helping out the new arrivals since 2008, when, all across the EU, the refugees were still considered as a rather quaint and exotic phenomenon. But even then, a decade ago, a quick scan of the Aegean islands would reveal the shape of the things to come on the horizon.

Latsoudi is, in her own words, devoting all her energies to fighting for what should be the simplest thing in the world: for all people being treated as people. Still, even this redoubtable humanitarian from Lesvos, whom I have been meeting up with for a number of years, can no longer hide her profound exhaustion.

“Fear is a dangerous thing,” Latsoudi picks up our conversation. “The hatred is spreading like brushfire. At the same time, humanitarian work is becoming criminalised. I am concerned this may be nothing short of an epidemic, further weakening the social fabric with each passing day.”

She goes on to relate how she is still haunted by the memories of last spring, when the local neo-Nazis launched a savage assault on the Kurdish refugees, who had fled the violence of the former members of extremist Sunni Arab militias at Moria and resorted to sleeping in the parks. Even two years ago, Latsoudi informs me, she would have never expected such a thing on Lesvos, one of the great historical entry points for migrants.

“After all this time, I still feel as if we are living in a warzone. So many unforgivable things have happened. We have fallen because we failed to protect the people. The whole of Europe has fallen with us. What we are witnessing is an utter dehumanisation of the refugee problem,” she says. “The systemic violation of asylum rights is affecting the entire continent. Before long, we are all bound to experience the effects of this basic erosion of common decency. Here on Lesvos, we are still struggling to hold on to our sense of community and solidarity. On the other islands, that fight seems all but lost.”

____

As far back as 2012, a group of Lesvos volunteers began utilising the premises of a former summer camp on the outskirts of Mytilini to set up the PIKPA refugee settlement. Back then, there was no such thing as official refugee camps, so the incomers had to seek shelter on the beaches, in the parks and in the forests.

In 2015, when Lesvos was turned into one of the focal points of the Balkan refugee route, a single day could easily bring in as many as 10,000 new refugees. By then, the local activists had already restored the former campsite and started putting up wooden shacks. While Moria was being turned into a suffocating prison, PIKPA was there to provide the most vulnerable among the refugees with a place where they could take at least an occasional unfettered breath.

Today, the open refugee shelter is funded by donations and managed entirely by volunteers, who keep arriving from all over the world. On several occasions, the local authorities, spurred on by the local business community (especially hotel-owners), tried to shut the place down. One of the cases against PIKPA is still to be decided on by the local courts. Yet as if to spite their persecutors, the volunteers refused to shut down the operation for even a single day.

At the moment, the volunteer-managed camp provides sanctuary to a hundred refugees, who are living in the best conditions I have seen over the last few years. The shelter’s personnel picked them out among the most vulnerable members of the Moria camp. PIKPA is now providing shelter to a number of pregnant women, single mothers, orphaned children and some of the most profoundly traumatised casualties of war. At PIKPA, they are housed in neat small wooden structures and provided with basic medical and psychological assistance. They are also treated to the wildest of luxuries like regular meals, their own kindergarten service, courses in English and Greek, plus the option to start preparing their children for joining the Greek schooling system. Work therapy is also provided for any who might benefit from it.

____

After the savage downpour is spent, a couple of tiny Syrian girls start dragging a plastic boat each over the humongous puddles covering the PIKPA basketball court. After a few moments, the girls let out a festive laugh. For a few moments at least, the trauma of war and of the subsequent desperate flight is overpowered by the sheer joy of being young and playing outside.

“If I hadn’t made it here, I would have lost my mind. They saved my life. They also managed to salvage my basic humanity,” says Muhammad Z, a 27-year-old man from the Syrian coastal town of Latakia.

Muhammad joins me for a long stroll around the PIKPA compound. He reached Lesvos in august 2016, a little less than six months after the Balkan refugee route was shut down. He left Latakia, one of Bashar al Assad’s main strongholds, because he decided he could not participate in the murdering of his friends, relatives and other compatriots, who had ended up on the other side of his country’s chaotic and unimaginably violent divide.

Muhammad managed to avoid being mobilised, but knew very well what lay in store for him following his decision. Even before that, he had been jailed by the regime for no apparent reason. They beat him up savagely and also tortured him in a number of other ways, only to release him after a month, which was nothing short of a miracle. A number of his friends were not so lucky.

Muhammad struck out for Europe accompanied by his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, and their two children. Upon reaching Lesvos, the entire group applied for asylum. After months of waiting, the bureaucrats decided to split up the family, turning down Muhammad and his mother’s applications without an explanation. Twice in a row, their appeals got overruled as well. Under the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal, the pair of them should have long been returned to Turkey.

“In Moria, I was really starting to lose it,” the timid and friendly young man continues in fluent English. “Everything was wrong. The fights, the chaos, the awful food, the unbelievable crowdedness. The fires. The protests. I simply wanted to stop breathing. It was easier back home, even with the war. When the bomb hits, you die, and that’s it. Over here, the suffering just never ends. My mother was suffering terribly. She would cry all the time. Fortunately, the activists came to our aid. We have been living here at PIKPA for a year now. The volunteers helped me to remain a human being, one still capable of hoping and believing. They respect me here, and this has done wonders to restore my dignity.”

After a while, Muhammad opens up some more and tells me he lives and breathes for the weekly football matches between the refugees and the volunteers. This is hardly surprising, since back home in Latakia, he had just signed his first professional contract with a local premier division team, while also working as a trained optician.

“I used to have a great life,” Muhammad shakes his head. “I was hoping for a serious football career. I was doing quite well. But then the war broke out, and everything stopped in its tracks. My team fell apart. Very soon after, my father was killed by a bomb. After my first arrest, I realised I needed to leave. My mother insisted on going with me. The two of us, we’re very connected. Without her, I would have long reached Germany or Sweden … But it is my duty to remain by her side.”

It is quite impossible to convey the hope in this young man’s eyes when he relates how a team of volunteer lawyers promised to help reopen both his and his mother’s cases. “I only rarely dare to venture outside PIKPA,” he winces, “Because I’m too afraid they might arrest me and send me back to Turkey.”

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“Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

In the two years since the EU’s inhumane deal with Turkey, the plight of traumatised refugees arriving on the Greek islands has worsened significantly. Instead of refuge, they are being offered prison.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Sunday 18 March 2018

It has been seven years since the conflict in Syria erupted and two years since the Balkan refugee route was shut down and the EU-Turkey deal to return refugees arriving in Greece to Turkey was set in motion, which have led to a severe worsening of the plight of refugees and migrants. Last August, when the Greek authorities succumbed to pressure from Brussels and took on a number of duties previously performed by various NGOs and solidarity initiatives, the conditions on the ground have reached new lows. As things stand, some 13,000 people remain trapped on the Aegean Islands, mostly in what used to be called ‘hotspots‘ but have now been euphemistically re-branded to become ‘reception centres’. A further 30,000 are still stranded on the mainland, many of them for two years or longer.

The Greek authorities have been efficient at guzzling up the European funds pouring in as payment for having turned the country into a buffer against all comers. But when it comes to the actual aid received by the refugees and the migrants, Greece has distinguished itself as slow, sloppy and often completely unresponsive.

The fate of tens of thousands has, thus, been handed over to an incompetent bureaucratic machine, whose main purpose seems to be stalling things to a standstill. Its second objective is to repel the ‘invaders’ massing at the borders. But the refugees and migrants keep pushing in. Owing to the horrendously escalated situation in Syria and the Turkish crackdown on Kurds in Afrin, a substantial mass of people is again making its way to the Aegean Islands. As for Turkey … Well, that destination is currently safe only for the loyal supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his authoritarian policies.

***

“If you’re waiting to die, you can just as safely do that in Syria,” Majd Tabhet, 24, said with a rueful grin. At a glance, it was clear that the articulate and urbane young man had grown highly adept at masking his pain.

After a few hours of conversation – actually a monologue – I was left with the burning question: how was it possible for this young man, who had undergone all the dehumanising savagery of European anti-refugee policies, to retain his basic sanity? And how could he still bear to look into anyone’s eyes without lashing out?

Majd, from Damascus, left his homeland in the wake of the first year of war. On receiving his conscription notice, he realised he that he was absolutely against taking up arms. He preferred to risk everything than to start butchering his friends, colleagues and neighbours, yet he still could not quite bring himself to believe the country had degenerated into all-out war.

“You see, my life was barely starting,” he shrugged helplessly, during our conversation at a social centre on Samos run by volunteers from all over the globe.

Prior to the escalation, Majd had been following the developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. He had been listening in on his elders’ talk, and many of them had been foretelling the tragedy. It seemed obvious to Majd that pent-up hatred was boiling on every doorstep. Unfortunately, the regime had been prepared for the ensuing wave of protests. And Bashar al-Assad proved highly skilled at learning from his fellow tyrants’ missteps.

Majd’s conscription into the state military was followed by a very similar ‘invitation’ to join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Fortunately, the young man had already applied for the post of a steward with a Saudi charter jet company. He hadn’t exactly held high hopes of getting the job, but his perfect English and his innate resourcefulness and charm had apparently made an impression on his future employers.

Instead of to the barracks and the frontline, he was relocated high above to the Asian sky.

“I was so relieved. I managed to avoid the slaughter. And it was a good job, you know. But I simply couldn’t adjust to life in Saudi Arabia. Being a moderate Muslim, I found pretty much all of it alien, intrusive, unnatural and just plain weird. Everything there revolves around faith and countless ‘special rules’ one never heard of in Syria. I must confess it had a very repelling effect on me. My ideas about Islam were beginning to crumble. I was tumbling into an identity crisis. My personality was beginning to split,” Majd recalled.

As had been the case with thousands of his fellow refugees, his asylum application had been twice rejected by the Greek authorities. His current fate was to await deportation to Turkey, according to the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Majd has spent most of his stay on the island at the infamous Vathy refugee camp, where the living standards are even worse than those at the similar hot-spots on Lesbos and Chios. On the day we met, two days of incessant rain had finally let up. For a long while now, no journalists had been allowed into these hellholes of human misery. But I managed to enter Vathy with the help of a group of residents, who didn’t need much to persuade me of the outrageousness of their situation.

The camp itself had been set up on a slope above the island’s capital. A muddy creek was running down the steep incline forming the ground floor, with drying laundry hanging off the ubiquitous barbed wire. A thin, knock-kneed boy was sitting in the mud and eating what remained of his breakfast. Suddenly, a rat shot by.

It was a far from uncommon sight. The camp was riddled with vermin. But for the most part, this was the least of the refugees’ concerns. On some days, the camp’s residents needed to queue for up to two hours to get fed. Their tents were so thin they were only suited for warm and dry summer nights. In the camp’s upper section, where the unaccompanied children were being housed, the ground was strewn with broken glass and all possible kinds of refuse. The boys and the young men were simply left to fend for themselves. A gag-inducing reek was blowing in from what could only charitably be described as toilet facilities. Many of the families here were spending most of their time hiding inside the containers. The campsite was simply not safe, especially for women.

Here, sexual violence has long become the norm. Alcohol, drugs and vicious brawls are abundant. Many of the camp’s traumatised and thoroughly humiliated inmates were finally beginning to lose their patience. Their anger was primarily directed at the continent of Europe, whose bureaucrats had seemingly solved the refugee problem by turning it into a life-sized Raft of the Medusa.

Anywhere but home

In 2015, three years after Majd arrived in Saudi Arabia, all the Syrian employees in Saudi companies were notified they were to return to their homeland. Syria and Saudi Arabia had severed all contact. Majd had ten days to decide on his next destination. All he knew for certain was that he would not be returning to Syria.

Had he been foolish enough to do so, he would have been jailed – either by the government or by the rebels. During his three-year stint abroad, both regime troops and rebel soldiers had repeatedly visited his family to look for him.

Given that Majd only possessed a Syrian passport, he was not exactly spoiled for choice. So he flew to Turkey. He had managed to save up some money, but he was painfully aware that he would be unable to go home for a long time. He rented a room in a house in Istanbul, where 22 other Syrians were already residing. Many of them had just recently arrived straight from the battlefield. They were exhausted and traumatised veteran soldiers. Many of them had also been thoroughly radicalised. Having already turned his back on Islam, Majd found their company exceedingly unpleasant. Since so few of them had work, they spent their empty hours preaching their religious and political doctrines to him.

“‘Leave me alone,'” I would tell them. ‘I don’t believe a word you say,'” Majd would tell them. “So they grew hostile. Had we been in Syria, I’m sure I would simply be murdered. Fortunately, they didn’t quite dare do that in Turkey. I was all alone and very exposed. But I refused to pretend and go along with them. It’s not in my nature. I lasted four months among them, then I was forced to leave.”

Through his connections he managed to land a well-paid job with a private company specialising in airplane rentals. During this period, bombs started crashing down on the section of Damascus where Majd’s family lived. Tanks were invading the outskirts of his neighbourhood.

It was the first half of 2015, when countless thousands of Syrian refugees had already struck off for the Aegean islands and beyond … hoping to reach Germany and northern Europe. Majd’s family – father, mother, brother, sister – decided to flee for Turkey. They arrived virtually penniless. For the period he remained in Turkey, it fell to Majd to support them. They were barely scraping by.

Throughout this period, the serious and introspective young man kept exploring Christianity and ‘seeking out a new way’. Following his visit to a small Orthodox church on the outskirts of Istanbul, a gang of young men beat him for being an ‘infidel’.

At the hospital where he was taken afterwards, he was questioned by the police. The Turkish policemen added a number of their own threats to the bargain. Majd no longer felt safe in Turkey. He knew he needed to push on to anywhere in the European Union, which he thought of as the Land of Freedom and Democracy – anywhere he could freely exercise his religious beliefs and address as many complex issues as he pleased.

“Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Europe,” he confessed 18 months after his arrival in Samos, speaking in a quiet, weary, all but defeated tone.

Monolithic migrant masses

“European refugee policy, and especially the conditions at the reception centres, is stripping the refugees of all dignity. They are being treated as a homogeneous mass, instead of as human beings, instead of as individuals with unique fates,” Aliki Meimaridou, the woman in charge of a Samos refugee mental-health support project run by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).

Meirmaidu had been working on the island since last November. In her assessment, the refugees’ living conditions are absolutely scandalous. “Housing them amid all the mud and the rats in these overcrowded camps is humiliating. It is also not safe, especially for the women. There is a great deal of stress, depression and self-harm,” she explains. “These people have lost all control over their lives. Here on Samos, all the international human-rights conventions are being violated on a daily basis. Everything is just wrong. The procedures for obtaining asylum status are slow and chaotic, and the bureaucrats can do pretty much as they please.”

But the hardships the inmates face do not end there. “Their mental health is getting progressively worse,” the Greek humanitarian worker was quick to add. “Severe new traumas are piling up onto the prior ones. Relief is almost non-existent. The local solidarity movement has done its utmost to help. But I have to tell you: our mission here ends in March, and we shall leave highly frustrated… It shouldn’t be our task to plug up the holes in the official refugee policies. It is an almost purely political problem. One has to wonder where all the money pouring into Greece is ending up.”

Aliki Meimaridou also explained how the so-called ‘hierarchy of vulnerability’ system has led some refugees harm themselves intentionally and even to a number of calculated pregnancies because they see how pregnant women are granted swifter passage through the hell of Samos. “All this is pure pathology. These poor, aggressively passivised people are afraid to confess to getting better. Why? Because they know it would surely rob them of any chance of obtaining the medical certificate enabling them to proceed to Athens.”

Too late for refuge

Majd Tabhet arrived in Greece on 11 October 2016, just over six months after the so-called Balkan refugee route was shut off. Although Majd knew he was too late, he crossed into Greece anyway because staying in Turkey was growing too dangerous.

After he undertook a perilous night voyage on an overcrowded rubber boat, the police threw him into a huge tent outside a refugee camp. It was raining, and everything was covered in mud. “There were so many people crowded into that tent. We were utterly devastated. Hungry. Filthy. They were treating us like common criminals. We were insulted and pushed around. I could not believe my eyes: this was how Europe was treating refugees? I couldn’t bear to remain in that tent. I escaped the very first night.”

And on that very first night, he was promptly caught and beaten by the island’s police. This left him thoroughly confused, which he remains to this day, in spite of all his subsequent dismal dealings with the Greek bureaucracy. His suffering, however, had gradually delivered him from all his illusions and expectations.

“I had fled slaughter and religious violence, but here they were treating me like a criminal, like a piece of garbage. I had to ask myself: why should I even apply for a Greek asylum? It was clear this was not a good place. And also not a safe place, at least not for me,” he said. “But what choice did I have? I put in my application and spent the next several months in that camp. Among the rats. In an atmosphere of barely contained violence. With absolutely terrible food and severe overcrowding. Amid all this human chaos.”

Majd tried to manage as best as he could. He co-operated with the local solidarity movement and the various NGOs. He put in many hours as a translator. He helped out the stream of refugees arriving at the island. He sought out a local orthodox priest and informed him of his plight. The priest lost little time initiating him into the faith.

Crisis of faith

For Majd, Islam was now firmly consigned to the past, and he started learning about the rituals and the basic tenets of the Orthodox church. Soon after, he was baptised. He arrived at his first asylum interview with a broken nose. The previous day, he had been roughed up by a band of refugees who saw him emerging from the church. After a five month wait, his application was turned down. A local lawyer helped him formulate an appeal. But it got turned down as well. Majd’s status as a single young male had stripped him of most of his chances. The first time he was turned down, Majd was shocked. The second time his entire world came crashing down.

“All I wanted was to be safe,” he told me with tears in his eyes. Majd had by then realised he was to be deported. He was sharing a tiny tent with two and sometimes three companions in a chaotic and very dangerous camp. The camp’s official capacity was 700 people, but it was currently housing at least 1,500. Last August and September, as many as 2,200 were crammed there in absolutely savage conditions. And fresh refugees were arriving all the time. Every other day, a fresh boatload of them was delivered to Samos. The situation on the other Aegean Islands was much the same.

The UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov confirms that recent months has seen a steady flow of vulnerable refugees into Greece: “Roughly 40% of those arriving in this last period are children. Many of them are parentless. There has also been an increase in invalids among the new arrivals. The situation is extremely sensitive.” Cheshirkov also drew the attention to the severe overcrowding and catastrophic conditions at the reception centres on the islands, especially on Lesbos and Samos. The most vulnerable refugees are being transferred to the mainland. “The reception centres have become a dangerous environment for women. There is very little oversight of what goes on. Sexual violence is on the rise. We at the UNHCR have recently pointed all this out in our official report,” he explains.

 

 

A hundreds days of destitution

To avoid deportation, Majd Tabhet accepted his Orthodox priest’s offer to move in to the monastery for a while. But he knew he would not be able to hide for long. After a few weeks, he was apprehended by the police. This was during last autumn. Majd was immediately put in a small detention cell at the local police station. Over the next few months, he was to share the cubicle with all sorts of criminals and a number of fellow refugees.

It marked the beginning of the worst hundred days of his life.

Several times, Majd was convinced he was losing his mind. It felt like he was constantly fending off demons. He refused to be put on antidepressants or any other kind of medicine. He was subjected to the vagaries of his various cellmates’ fates. Apart from them, he was completely cut off from the world. His lawyer could not – or would not – help. The humanitarian workers were powerless, as they themselves were exposed to increased regulation from Brussels and Athens.

For a hundred days, Majd did not see the light of day. There was no room to exercise in the overcrowded prison. Sleep was very hard to come by. Hygiene was horrendous, to put it mildly. The food was a disaster as well.

Twice, the Syrian convert was transported to a different location. At one of those two detention facilities, the cell he shared with three Algerian men was constantly illuminated by a bright red light. It was pure torture. Then, one morning, Majd simply collapsed. He was taken to a hospital to run some tests. Upon reading the results, the attending doctor announced that sugar levels in his blood were in the potentially lethal range. She gave the policeman who brought him a good talking to. Then she wrote a recommendation that Majd should be released immediately.

However, the Greek bureaucracy refused to give in without a fight. Majd’s release certificate took 12 days to arrive from Athens. In the meantime, the exhausted and severely ill young man nearly lost his mind. “I’ve been to many places, but they only jailed me in Europe,” Majd spat. “Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer.”

The words were pouring out of the young man along with his tears. “The whole system here is rotten, I simply can’t understand it. They had all the relevant information about me, but it didn’t seem to matter one bit. If I had lied or faked severe illness or lunacy, I would have long reached Germany. But I’m still stuck here. I’m not even on my way to Athens. I have fought, I have suffered … And now I’m completely lost, with no chance of continuing my journey. I’m trapped on this island, and sooner or later I’ll get deported to Turkey. It simply doesn’t make any sense.”

On any given day now, Majd runs the risk of being approached on the street by police officers who could either send him off to Turkey or imprison him again. By this point, he wouldn’t mind returning to Turkey that much, he admitted. The crestfallen refugee couldn’t find a single reason to sustain his faith in Europe. His life melting away, every day here seemed lost to him. Seeing that he was obviously running out of energy, it was little wonder his days were getting shorter and shorter. All he felt like doing was sleeping.

From talking to him, it was clear that the years of suffering had seriously hurt him. He knew very well he needed help. But there was none to be had, even from the God whom he had so feverishly sought out. “When you’re beaten to the ground, nobody will pick you up. Not even God. I managed to learn that much.”

From wedding planner to war photographer

Majida Ali, 41, hails from the vicinity of the besieged Eastern Ghouta. She spent years suffering in both regime and rebel prisons, where her body and soul were stolen from her. Utterly ruined, she eventually managed to flee to Greece through Turkey. Once she arrived, she was forced to face the entire spectrum of local bureaucratic savagery.

Before the war broke out, Majida was living some of the best years of her life. After completing her degree in economics and political science, she started a wedding planning company, which became a huge success in Damascus. For a time, Majida was able enjoy the finer things in life, turning herself into a minor celebrity in the process. That last part was to prove the engine of her undoing.

In the spring of 2011 war broke out. Majida had grown up in a military family: her late father had been a high-ranking officer in the Syrian army. Owing to her tremendous respect for the army, she refused to give credence to the reports of regime atrocities against protesters. She was also unable to believe the news of the sudden emergence of foreign fighters is some parts of Damascus.

No, she firmly told herself: such a thing was simply impossible in the Syria she knew.

So she took to the streets to establish what was actually going on. She took many pictures of the protests and the first tanks rolling through the streets of her home town. Frantically darting her way through the initial shoot-outs and bombings, she took in the first heaps of corpses.

It took a few weeks for the last of her illusions to crumble. What she found hardest to grasp was how perfectly ordinary people could overnight morph into cold-blooded killers… And how easily the old, repressed hatreds could be catalysed into outbreaks of collective lunacy.

Eight years later, no end to the lunacy is in sight.

Turning herself into a citizen-journalist, Majida set out to document the various forms of violence erupting around her. Then her friends and relatives started disappearing. After a few months, she was arrested by government soldiers. On account of the photographs found on her camera’s memory card, she was immediately jailed. For a month she was beaten and tortured. She became the victim of several sexual assaults. She could see people dying all around her from the wounds sustained through torture.

Majida eventually managed to secure her release from the government prison by drawing on her family’s connections. She knew very well she could not remain home. She wandered all over Syria: writing, taking photos and reinventing herself as she went along.

It wasn’t long before she was apprehended by the members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). At first, she believed their intentions were honourable. But she was wrong. She was accused of collaborating with the regime and thrown into an improvised jail cell. There, the whole sordid tale of the regime prison repeated itself, until, as she puts it, the woman in her was eviscerated.

“During the five war years I spent in Syria,” she told me, “I spent about half that time in various prisons. It didn’t much matter if they were of the government, rebel or Islamist variety: the jailers’ approach was basically the same. Yet I also managed to learn so much. Some of the worst criminals had taught me a number of things. You know, I can turn myself into a regular Ali Baba.”

***

Before her final escape from the war-torn land, she was again imprisoned by the regime. This time, she was convinced she would not make it. The authorities had actually notified her family that she was dead. What remained of her relatives even held a symbolic funeral for her.

After all the violence and suffering, Majida finally lost the connection to her soul. Her connection with the outside world had been broken long ago. On 17 March 2016, she was released. The help of friends got her first to Turkey, and then two weeks later, here, to Greece. But she was too late. The Balkan corridor had been welded shut.

“When we arrived on Samos,” Majida Ali went on, “We were all put inside a closed camp. It was just one more prison. I can tell you I wasn’t myself at the time. I was profoundly traumatised. I even lost my memory for a while. I didn’t have a clear idea of who or what I was. I had no home left. I was so alone and vulnerable. I wasn’t at all familiar with my rights. I was in dire need of all kinds of assistance.”

Throughout our conversation, she kept flicking anxious glances at her cell phone. She was perpetually terrified of receiving a call from Eastern Ghouta and the Damascan quarters that had been bombed hard over the past few weeks. Ten days earlier, the regime bombardment had cost her another sister. Altogether, she had lost 45 relatives in the Syrian war.

Her three brothers were currently held in three different prisons. She had no clear confirmation they were even still alive. Her gravest fears concerned her mother, who, after the bombs had flattened the family home, had moved to a safer part of Damascus where she now spends her days preparing meals for four hundred people.

“My mother is my hero, you know,” Maida related, laughing and crying at the same time. “She is the only one I can trust. She tells me not to worry. She sometimes scolds me for giving in to panic – she says my time would be better spent improving my situation.”

Their refugee status is nothing new for Majida Ali’s family. Her grandfather had been a reputable Palestinian businessman. Fleeing Israeli violence, he left the country in 1949. He bought a large plot of land on the outskirts of Damascus and built housing for numerous Palestinian families.

“I don’t know, it seems being refugees is my family’s eternal fate. And the fate of thousands of other families from our country. Together, we are a mirror to the world. The mirror to all of us,” Majida observed. “Maybe that’s why I can’t bear to plan for the future. My very genes are aware that tomorrow my world could be turned upside down again.”

For five months Majida had been residing at Vathy, a 21st-century concentration camp and one of Europe’s human landfills. Once more utterly alone, she was again exposed to sexual harassment. It was her first contact with the continent of Europe: danger instead of safety, prison instead of aid, humiliation in place of dignity; bureaucracy masquerading as justice. It took 14 months after she filed her application for the first official interview to take place.

“It was a time of extreme hardship for me. I think it’s not that much of an exaggeration to say I didn’t exist at all. I made my bed here in the mud and tried to help the others. I got in touch with the local solidarity movement. I took it upon myself to organise a school for the women and children,” recalled the Syrian wedding planner, turned war photographer, turned prisoner of conscience, turned torture victim, turned refugee. “I tried to stay active. Every day, I work very hard to dam the flood of my poisonous thoughts. It is all I can do not to completely lose it. I’m fighting off my pain all the time, all the time… And I’m always steeling myself against the next loss.”

Integrating into the community

When we took a stroll around the island, Majida was cordially greeted by every other person we passed. During the two years she has spent on Samos, she has taken an active part in the local community, even if that community was so conservative it first refused to accept that Majida was still wearing a headscarf.

But things have changed. The derogatory remarks were much rarer now, and as for threats, they all but vanished. For the past few months, Majida had been employed at the Help Now NGO, where she specialises in helping refugees. The people here have got used to her, and she has grown accustomed to them.

When they ask her about the war and her own life story, she usually gives out very vague and generalised answers. She knows that very few people can comprehend what she has been through. And what she is still going through. She has learned to avoid a certain type of men. “I know those eyes,” she told me. “I know what they want.”

Her wish was simply to live, she added. But not on charity – never charity. She has consistently refused any form of monetary aid. Her aim is to live exclusively off her own labour. Until now, she has been successful at the task. Her driving force has become helping out her traumatised peers. She has no intention of returning to her homeland, now or ever. Her Syria no longer exists. Perhaps it never had. Perhaps it had all just been a big illusion, a sordid lie. In fact, this interpretation struck her as the most plausible. How could she otherwise explain that it all ended in such slaughter?

“When I was granted asylum, I decided to stay here on Samos. My friends and acquaintances weren’t sending me very good news of their stay in Europe,” she explains. “Many of them have been badly disappointed. Some of them have been broken by the experience. I, myself, decided to put an end to years of suffering. It was my choice: I decided to choose life.”

 

 

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The adventures of Rami and his magic violin

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Syrian Rami Basisah and his violin have been through hell and high water together. His childhood dream of becoming a world-famous musician is about to come true. But the trauma of losing is country means he cannot enjoy his success.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Tuesday 12 September 2017

A strong, refreshing breeze was caressing the mountains high above a prestigious Swiss holiday resort. At the height of summer, the soft and fragrant grasses could barely be greener. From the nearby glacier, flashes of white brilliance were glistening in the afternoon sun. A small cluster of mountain bikers were hurtling down a steep trail towards the valley below, while a number of hikers topped to marvel at their courage. Herds of cows were munching on the grass or staring off into space. But instead of the Swiss horns and accordion you might expect as mood music for this quintessential scene, the exuberant sound of a violin playing Arabic rhythms and the laughter of a boy who had survived echoed in the Alpine valley.

Rami Basisah, 22, a Syrian refugee from the countryside between Homs and Hama, was playing to chase away his demons. Applying the bow with a series of flourishes, he was doing what he could to fight off his strong emotions.

His violin is his best friend and trusted companion. It is both the core of his identity and his ticket to freedom, his passport to safety and perhaps even a modicum of prosperity. In his mind, the idyllic Swiss mountains all around us formed the perfect counter-point to the Syrian carnage. Yet a single glance would tell you Rami was present only in the most basic physical sense. This was clear from his every move and every word, spoken or unspoken. It was also embedded in every note of the music issuing from beneath his fingertips.

The sound of music

“I used to dream about this when I was a kid. Every day I used to dream of playing the violin before European audiences as the people clapped and cheered,” Rami told me as he put the instrument away. His violin was always with him. He never let it out of his sight. He knew very well what it had helped him overcome.

But the tragedy-ridden path to fulfilling Rami’s childhood dream has made it hard to enjoy the achievement. “I can’t really say I’m happy,” he confessed. “I’m confused. I’m not sure what is happening to me, or even where I am. I mean, yeah, things are great and I’m very grateful… But my thoughts are somewhere else. Above all, I really want to help my brother, who’s spent the past three years as a refugee in Lebanon. And I want my parents and my three sisters, who remained in Syria, to be safe.”

The dark-haired youth’s stare was a compelling one, powered by a mixture of hard questions and a resolution not often seen in one so young.

“The events are starting to overtake me,” he confided. “This is becoming so huge. Everybody wants something from me, and I’m not yet fully prepared. I don’t even know if I’m good enough, you see. What I want is a little peace and quiet, a true friend and some love. Yes, that’s right, all I want is a normal life… But everything around me has been the opposite of normal for such a long time. I can sometimes no longer tell what’s real and what’s not.”

Following a string of happy coincidences, Rami had been invited to the Swiss Alps as a special guest of the prestigious classical music festival in Klosters. Up here, the traumatised and very lonely Syrian musician was awarded the opportunity to play in front of one of the world’s most demanding audiences. The onlookers may have been knowledgeable and refined, verging on the blasé, but Rami still managed to take their breath away… and not just with his indisputable musical talent.

The border concerto

Rami performs ‘Ode to Joy’ Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

August 2015: darkness was slowly descending over the savannah-like border between Greece and Macedonia. Startled flocks of doves were sweeping over the wizened sunflower fields. A local hunter, dressed in an army shirt, was leading his three dogs through the brush. Tired yet relaxed-looking clusters of Syrian and Afghan refugees were lounging under the trees and near the deserted border guard facilities.

This was the heyday of the so-called Balkan refugee route, and the men and women were waiting for permission to move on. All the time, fresh groups of refugees and migrants kept rolling in from the Greek side of the border. At the nearby reception centre, Rami, who was 20 at the time, took out his violin from his travelling bag. Giving it a long, affectionate stroke, he went on to tune the strings. The bashful and introverted young man then stepped in front of a mass of his fellow refugees waiting to catch the next train to the Serbian border.

His friends were encouraging him to abandon himself to the moment and just start playing. But it still took Rami, a former student of music at Homs university, a while to work up his courage. The Macedonian police watched on in bewilderment, trading glances and wondering if they should possibly confiscate the instrument. Then one of them motioned to Rami that he was free to proceed.

The young man began playing, slowly at first, even somewhat timidly. A hush descended over the crowd of refugees, their lively chatter turning to primal awe. The police officers’ faces broke into a grin when they recognised the melody. The refugees’ warm response had a visibly relaxing effect on the young musician. He started playing with redoubled vigour, drawing in even the most apathetic ears. Rami was getting more and more in the zone. His stifling thoughts finally dispelled, he was guided by pure love. Yet he was far from being in a trance. He was all too aware of what was going on.

As he smiled, his face was suffused with a hard-boiled irony. The reception centre was ringing with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which the EU had adopted as its anthem. Was this indeed irony? Or more of an inspired prank? A spurt of brilliant political analysis? Improvised psychotherapy? Whatever it was, the police themselves were soon keeping time with their boots.

When he was finished, the audience clapped and urged Rami to play on. He paused for a few seconds. Then his violin gave birth to the profoundly mournful, yet also movingly proud tones of a Syrian patriotic song.

His friends – all of them from the vicinity of Homs, all of them educated and urban – began to sing along. Many of the others were happy to join in, men and women who had nearly forgotten dignity could occasionally be found in the world as well. Some of them were soon weeping openly. The women hugged their children a little tighter to themselves. For a few precious minutes, the ice of pain was melted by the fire of hope. Rami played on… And on. The new refugees kept rolling in. It was getting close to total darkness.

The astonishing concerto ended with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, both an obvious and spirited choice. There was plenty of applause. Rami gave a bashful bow. As soon as he put away his violin, his motions became stiff, and the contours of his face slid back into their default traumatised expression. His trance broken, anxiety was king once again.

“Forgive me,” he smiled, still catching his breath from his exertions. “I’ve made a number of mistakes. I was so very nervous.” Just before he was swallowed up by the crowd, we exchanged contact details and promised we would stay in touch.

A crescendo of memories

The superb acoustics at the St Jakob church in Klosters had helped it become one of the music festival’s main venues. Outside, the Swiss organisers were mingling with the guests. The heavy heat was something of a drag on the mood, along with the overdressed atmosphere and the often bizarrely refined manners.

Rami, a lad from a different world altogether, stepped out of the car. He was besieged by doubt and fear. Confused and still rather innocent of the European music scene, he was about to perform in front of David Whelton – the festival’s acoustics director, the long-time head of the British Philharmonia Orchestra and one of the most influential people in the world of classical music.

As we caught each other’s eye, it was as if the ground beneath both our feet gave a momentary shudder.

So here we were. Rami’s concert at the Macedonian-Greek border and the feature article I’d written about it had helped to turn his life upside down… And now, two years on in Switzerland, it seemed like a miracle.

“Wow! Hey! Oh my God, this can’t be happening.”

His words sounded about as shaky as he looked. Our embrace lasted a long time, our limbs heavy and joyously light at the same time.

“I didn’t think we’d ever get to see each other again. Everything is coming back to me now, everything… Well, how could I forget it? The war, the journey, the Macedonian performance, our meeting, and then the horrible journey to Germany,” Rami reminisced. 

Prior to our brief encounter at the Greek-Macedonian border, Rami had already spent 40 days in flight. Before that, he had been a refugee in his own homeland for two years. He now told me he wanted to continue with his studies at whichever European music academy would have him. Overall, he did not feel like talking too much about himself or the war.

“I need to do everything I can to help my brother. He fled Homs two years ago and went to Lebanon. As he left, he promised he’d help me reach safety. He worked so hard over there in Lebanon. When he got enough money to fund my trip to Europe, he sent it to me right away,” Rami explained. “Now he’s lost his job. And so it is my duty to help him out somehow. I owe him my life.”

Instead of focusing on the moment and the incredibly important rehearsal ahead, Rami was swept under a barrage of memories. He was grasping for concentration, but the thoughts were simply coming on too strong. For a few minutes at least, the music became what it actually is: an ancillary, secondary thing. But then David Whelton determined that, at least for the moment, Rami’s heart would migrate to where the music was.

A brother’s sacrifice

Rami left his homeland on 30 July 2015. From the regime-controlled Al Bayadiya village, located between Homs and Hama, he took a taxi to Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast. Along with a number of fellow refugees, none of whom he had met before, he then took a bus to Beirut.

They first had to wait 15 hours to cross the Syria-Lebanon border. Rami had arranged a meeting with his older brother Faheed, a fellow musician who had fled to Lebanon a year before. At a time when the Balkan refugee route was still open and Germany was boasting an open-door refugee policy, Faheed summoned his younger brother to Lebanon and told him he would pay for his long trip to Europe.

In Beirut, Rami collected his plane ticket to Turkey. It was very difficult for him to say goodbye to his brother again, Faheed being something of a central figure in Rami’s life. Their farewell was extra hard on Rami since he knew his brother also wanted to reach Europe but was willing to sacrifice himself for his younger sibling on account of his exceptional musical talent.

And so Rami was sent on as a sort of vanguard force, one charged with the exceedingly important task of ‘making it’… Not only for his own sake, but for the sake of the entire family – father, mother and three sisters – staying behind in Syria.

Farewells and hard roads

“At the airport, I played a farewell song,” Rami Basisah recalled, as we strolled through the idyllic Swiss mountain village, which had been transformed into a temporary backdrop to the mad bruising toboggan his life had long become. “It was tough on both of us. I so wished he was on that plane with me. My brother saved my life.”

Rami flew to Izmir on the Mediterranean coast, where he was supposed to meet the people who would ‘manage’ his entry to Europe. But things didn’t work out as planned. So he first had to reach Istanbul to make the necessary arrangements. At the time, as many as 10,000 refugees were sailing to the Greek Aegean islands daily. The smuggling business was booming. The Turkish authorities were content to look the other way and leave the incomers at the complete mercy of the smuggling industry.

While Rami waited for the fateful call, he met a few of the local musicians in Istanbul, along with a number of very talented refugees. Together, they played a series of spontaneous concerts at Taksim square, in the heart of Istanbul, and were met with unexpected warmth from the passers-by.

When the call came, Rami and a group of 39 fellow refugees travelled back to Izmir, destined to become their jump-off point for Kos, Lesbos and other Eastern Aegean islands.

It took them no less than five attempts to reach Greece. On the first one, the water flooded their crowded rubber dinghy, causing it to start sinking a few hundred meters off the Turkish coast. Compulsively holding on to his violin, Rami managed to swim back to the shore. But the saltwater had done extensive damage to the sensitive instrument, especially to the strings.

The second time they tried to set out, the Turkish police chased them off the beach moments before they were to embark. And so Rami and his fellow refugees decided they would try their luck from Bodrum, Turkey’s second great launch point for the refugees’ heading for Greece.

The third attempt saw them trying to row off by themselves, but the coast guard again sent them back. They opted to regroup into a few smaller groups of eight. On the fourth try, three smaller boats cast off together. The one Rami was on was powered by an electrical battery. “We were going very slow,” he recalls. “Our boat was commanded by a man from Pakistan. When we reached the open sea, water started leaking in. The Pakistani wanted to push on. In the distance we could already see the lights from Kos. We would need about an hour to get there. But the other refugees decided to force our ‘captain’ – a few actual blows were necessary – to turn the boat back to Turkey.”

They somehow managed to reach the shore, where, in Rami’s colourful phrase, they were ‘met by the mob’. The criminals roughed up the Pakistani pretty badly, while making the other refugees pick up their boat and set off on a night-time march.

Even though the men were armed, Rami and one of his mates refused to go with them. They knew that the boat’s battery was empty and that the smugglers would be sending the group to their deaths. So they stayed on the coast and watched the sea filling up with refugee boats. Suddenly the police appeared and snatched them up. The two of them spent the day at the Bodrum police station. “They were pretty nice to us Syrian refugees over there,” Rami continued his tale. “But they beat the others, especially the Africans and the Pakistanis.”

When he and his mate were released, they had to fend for themselves. They eventually hooked up with another group of smugglers, who placed them with yet another group of refugees.

On the fifth attempt, luck finally smiled down on the by now all but exhausted and bankrupt Rami. Since it was a Turkish national holiday, most of the policemen had stayed home, and the sea was rather calm for a change.

“I was completely fed up,” he remembered. “I was prepared to take some major risks if necessary. I was on the verge of really losing it. Anyway, we were going very slow again, and then sometime near the halfway mark the electric battery went again. This time we didn’t turn back. We had two big paddles on the boat. I took hold of one of them, the other one went to a strong young guy from Latakia. As it was getting light, we sent our coordinates to the Greek coast guard. They came to pick us up. On their boat, I saw four dead refugees from my previous group.”

From there, it could have been a swift journey from Kos to the Ode to Joy concerto at the Macedonian-Greek border… But Rami decided to hang back in Athens for a while to wait for a friend, visit some relatives and get new strings for his violin. It was a decision destined to mark his life in completely unexpected and very profound ways.

Answered prayers

At the great concert hall in Klosters, the Swedish philharmonic orchestra from Malmö was playing Beethoven, whom, along with Vivaldi, is Rami’s favourite composer. It was raining heavily outside. At times, the downpour turned so heavy the sound of raindrops pounding the roof worked its way into the intensity of the music.

“This man – what music! What madness! Oh, the violent mood swings…. This is exactly how I feel. That’s why I feel so close to Beethoven,” Rami whispered to me during the concert.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

He still looked pretty lost in the Swiss setting. Even the well-wishers who came over to pay their respects succeeded in making him uncomfortable. This was simply not his world. After a few more minutes of listening to the music, his attention was shot and wandered off to who knew where. He suddenly became very tired. He nodded off, but his entire body gave a violent shudder that brought him to again. His first instinct was to cover the whole thing up, to pretend nothing had happened, that he had been listening all along… But to no avail.

Tears flowed from his eyes. “I would like to play on such a stage one day too, so I can help my family,” he whispered, avoiding the curiously appraising looks from the members of a high society still governed by strictly demarcated etiquette, much like in the times of the great European monarchies.

That same day, Rami spiced up the rather staid atmosphere at the festival sponsors’ lunch with a string of Arab melodies. A few hours later, he performed at a mountain lodge in front of NGO members of from all around the world. Rami’s musical performance was so brutally honest even this normally so garrulous and cocky crowd was left speechless.

One of the festival’s main sponsors, who wishes to remain anonymous, was grinning from ear to ear. Inviting Rami, despite his being somewhat lost in time and space, had proven a great success. Near the end of May, his CD Rami: My Journey (by Decca), recorded in collaboration with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, was presented on the legendary British Classic FM radio. Among the many listeners who had voted it Album of the Week was a retired businessman who went on to invite Rami to Switzerland. He decided the young Syrian violinist deserved all the help he could get.

Musical doors

That August, in 2015, when Rami crossed the Greek-Macedonian border, where my Jure Eržen took his iconic photo which would later be chosen by Classic FM radio as one of the 10 most iconic photographs of wartime music, the Balkan refugee route to Germany was still open… though it was increasingly strewn with obstacles and humiliations.

Rami ventured forth to Serbia and then on to Hungary, Austria and Germany. He was accompanied by two friends named Mohammed and Mudhar, both of whom he had met in Turkey. Amid the chaos reigning at the various borders they stuck together and helped each other out. In the Serbian town of Preševo the police broke them up. His two friends were allowed to continue, while Rami was taken into custody. After a six-hour wait at the station, one of the policemen asked him what was in his bag.

“It’s a violin,” Rami replied.

“Is it yours?” the policeman wanted to know. “Can you play?”

“Yes.”

“Well then, why don’t you play something for us?”

Rami knew exactly what to do. Relying on his tried-and-tested formula, he once again played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, this time in the south of Serbia. The policeman was so thrilled he called his wife on his mobile so she could partake in the ‘solo concert’. In a matter of minutes, Rami was issued with the papers enabling him to push on.

At Belgrade, where tens of thousands of refugees were waiting for the next stage of their journey to the promised lands, he bought a ticket for a train to Budapest… But this was a tactical mistake. At the time, the Hungarian government was finishing the building of the fence at the Serbian border and was turning its attention to the border with Croatia. Viktor Orban’s government was starting to implement a series of systematic anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies.

Rami and his two friends had to get off the train before they even reached the Hungarian border. They crossed the border via the classic route at the time, winding through the forests. “I was very afraid. I didn’t want to go on, but my friends convinced me otherwise. Mohammed was the one who carried my violin. We walked for a long time. Then we were arrested by the Hungarian police. The three of us got separated again. I was suddenly left without my violin and without my friends.”

Rami spent the next week at a small refugee camp. Even now, he didn’t feel much like dwelling on this period. He was almost devoured by various mites, he said, and his allergies were killing him. He was then relocated to a bigger camp, where he was finally able to sate his hunger, wash up and don a fresh set of clothes.

But all he cared about was resuming his journey. He escaped the camp during the changing of the guard and somehow found his way to Budapest. He reached the capital’s central railway station at a time when the authorities had halted the trains carrying refugees to Austria and then onward to Germany and northern Europe.

“Things were pretty crazy at the station… There were at least 20,000 of us. We were shouting that we wanted to go on to Germany. We talked to the press. A lot of good people came to see us, they brought food, drink, clothes and medicine,” Rami remembers.

Along with his fellow sufferers, our involuntarily intrepid violinist set off from Budapest to Austria. After a few hours’ walk, the Hungarian authorities backed down a little – at least enough to allow the refugees to use the buses. A number of perfect strangers from Austria and Germany drove over to pick them up and transport them north in their cars. Crowds of thousands were gathering at the German railway stations to greet the incomers. It was a time when it still seemed that European humaneness, however fragile and hard-won, might prevail. But this proved to be just one more in a series of tremendous illusions.

Like so many of his fellows, Rami was quick to grasp that Germany was not nearly ready to receive almost a million Syrian refugees: not politically, not logistically, not bureaucratically.

For several months, he was moved from one overcrowded camp to the next. At a camp near Aachen, a woman handed him a small violin and asked him to play something for her. Since he was happy to oblige, the woman made a recording of his performance and played it to the conductor of the local orchestra.

The man invited Rami to take part in two different concerts, while his story began to spread across Europe with the help of various newspaper and magazine articles. Soon a number of agents were calling to offer their services, while the maestro from Aachen offered him a permanent place in the band as well as accommodation. But Rami had to wait for his asylum request to be granted, and so his first serious chance at a better life eventually fell through.

The washing machines ft. Bach

An order was issued for his relocation to yet another camp, situated inside a basketball arena near the city of Lahr. “The place was crammed with people. We were sleeping virtually on top of each other. I was only able to play my violin outside or in the laundry room, where I had to compete with the rumble of the washing machines. So I mostly played Bach,” the young Syrian violinist recalls with a mischievous glint in his eye.

As rumours of his musical acumen spread, an old lady from one of the local churches came to visit at the camp. As a Christian himself, Rami had no problem complying with her request to come play at the church. The people in charge of it were also among those quick to recognise his indisputable talent, so they invited him to join their ranks. But Rami was still ‘in the waiting room’.

In March 2016, the German authorities finally granted him asylum. Teresia and Winfred Oelbe, an elderly couple from the village of Niederschopfheim, offered him a place to stay – a room and a bathroom, free of charge. The brunt of the young man’s ordeal had finally drawn to a close. A few weeks later he signed a deal with Decca, the British publishing house, whose executives learned both of his lengthy plight and his technical accomplishment. It wasn’t long before his CD was released, consisting of his own compositions and a few adaptations.

Collateral damage

When all his social and concert-related responsibilities at the mountain resort were dispensed with, the visibly exhausted young musician retired to his hotel room as soon as possible. He needed a bit of peace and quiet to reflect. These last few years of turmoil hadn’t exactly provided a lot of opportunity for that. Events, he told me, were again starting to overtake him. More than anything he needed someone he could confide in: a good listener, someone he could trust, someone who would neither expect nor demand anything of him, at least for the time being.

“I am very grateful to all these kind people. I know I’ve been very very fortunate. But more than anything I’m interested in how to best help my brother, without whom I would never have got this far. He sacrificed everything for me! You know, I’ve felt so alone much of my time here in Germany. I miss my family, my friends – I really miss my old life. I’m learning to speak both German and English over the internet while trying to get in touch with my acquaintances, who are scattered all over Germany. Let me tell you, it’s not easy,” he told me while absently fondling his violin in his hotel room.

He was quick to add he was keen to avoid being seen as a victim. Unlike hundreds of thousands of refugees and those who never even got the chance to get out of Syria, he was very lucky – and he was all too aware of the fact. “My friend Mudhar, for instance – he wasn’t half as lucky as I was. When he got to Germany, he started having these headaches. They kept getting worse and worse. And so they finally took him to a doctor, who eventually found a tumour in his brain. His condition rapidly deteriorated, and he soon died. I miss him very much.”

Rami buried his face into his hands, sinking down into his thoughts. His body was twitching uncontrollably. His head was between his knees in a sort of foetal spasm. He looked for all the world like a heavily wounded child. All of a sudden, he was unable to answer a single question, not even with a syllable.

The next day he told me he was sleeping poorly, very poorly indeed. His post-traumatic stress disorder felt all-pervasive, but nobody seemed to be addressing the issue. Instead, everyone was focusing on how hot Rami had suddenly become, how popular. His anxiety, even depression behind closed four walls was merely the collateral damage of success. Yet I am happy to report that a safety net has nonetheless started to form around him – an informal network of people not interested in him as a product but rather as a human being. People who had felt enough pain in their lives that they can understand and accept it when they see it in someone else.

So what was there to do? A long road still ahead of him, Rami picked up his beloved instrument to help him confront his stark realities.

Play on, Rami,” I whispered as we embraced in another temporary farewell. “Play on.”

And play on he has and he will, spectacularly. On Tuesday 19 September 2017, Rami is set to perform at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, and I will be there to watch him bring down the house.

 

 

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Greek island teaches Europe how to welcome refugees

 
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Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

The Greek island of Tilos has hosted more than seven times its population in refugees… and has done so with dignity, respect and with its own limited resource.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 15 August 2017

A tired middle-aged man, dressed for autumn even though it was a sweltering July afternoon, was quietly staring out at the clear blue sea. His old soldier’s face had a frozen, immutable aspect to it, but you could still sense he was awash with emotion. With the sun mercilessly beating down on the nape of his neck, he was stoically yet carefully monitoring his five children chase one another on the almost deserted beach. Every now and then a thought escaped his lips – usually no more than a word or two. In these conditions, it was hard to remain of sound mind if one didn’t have an occasional chat with oneself.

“I haven’t slept for five years,” the man eventually told me. “Five years! Can you even imagine what that means?”

Mohsen is a former high-ranking officer in the Syrian government forces. He hails from the northern city of Hasaqa where the Kurds form the majority of the population… A city where, from the war’s outbreak in the spring of 2011, the members of the Kurdish militia have often coordinated their manoeuvres with the officials in Damascus. This marriage of convenience somehow held out to the present day.

Mohsen used to command 400 men. For a long time, he had managed to hold on to his hope that all-out war could be avoided. His hopes withstood even the fact that after the first few weeks of the mostly peaceful demonstrations against the Bashar al Assad regime, his superiors ordered him to start jailing the protesters en masse.

The demonstrations in the Kurdish-majority region were not as intensive as those in other parts of Syria. About a year into the riots, when the country had already plummeted into the abyss of war, his superiors ordered Mohsen to relinquish his command to the Kurdish units.

It was not the first direct order this proud Syrian patriot refused to carry out. The crux of his argument was that Syria was Syrian, not Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish or Christian. Since he was very popular with his soldiers and revered by many of his superior officers, the authorities chose not to jail him. Instead, they transferred and demoted him. He knew what was coming next.

“I no longer have a future, but my children do”

Pressure was slowly put on Mohsen’s family. The mukhabarat, the country’s security and intelligence service, followed his every move and monitored his every word. Eventually, they imprisoned his brother. Then he was given another impossible order: his unit was to open fire on the protesters.

This was when the international fighters looking for a holy war had already started reaching Syria through the Turkish border. And with them, intelligence officers and arms dealers. Mohsen rounded up his soldiers and told them he was deserting. His men were free to either join him or comply with the orders from Damascus. Some of them decided to join him. At the end of 2012, he struck off for Iraqi Kurdistan, accompanied by his family and a number of his former troops.

He managed to get a job in Dohuk, but the Syrian intelligence was hot on his trail. He was considered a traitor, and the war soon splashed over the Syrian border to the north of Iraq.

In June 2014, after the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) took Mosul, the extremist Sunni militia began conquering the Kurdish territories. As ISIS neared Dohuk, the outlook became increasingly grim. Despite his dreams of the Syrian war ending, Mohsen finally resigned himself to a refugee’s fate.

He took his family to Turkey, where he knew he was not safe on account of his status as a ‘traitor’. Still, he spent more than two years in the vicinity of Izmir, after deciding not to register as a refugee. When the Balkan route opened up, it was generally seen as everyone’s golden chance to reach Europe. Yet Mohsen waited, hoping against hope the situation back home might still somehow improve.

When he learned that he had been stripped of all his assets in Hasaqa, he realised this was no longer an option.

After the EU and the Turkish government struck their bargain, things became much worse for the Syrian refugees in Turkey. Sadly, Mohsen was too late to strike off for Greece… Too late for his family to be granted permission to spend the rest of the war in Germany.

“I decided to try to reach Europe because of the children. I no longer have a future, but they do. It’s my duty to do everything I can to help them on their way. Forty days we waited for a boat, and then the smugglers boarded us onto a small ship. There were so many of us… And it was very very cold. The captain was taking the ship around in circles. I knew something was not right. Maybe he was drunk? We changed our course countless times, and then we hit a huge rock. Eventually, we were rescued and transported to Greece,” Mohsen says, describing the scenes from eight months earlier.

Mohsen was talking to me on the small Southern Aegean island of Tilos, which he now calls his home. “Here on Tilos all I wanted was to get some rest,” he smiles. “But now I would very much like to stay. These people have treated me like a human being. I had already forgotten what that even means. I feel welcome, safe and useful here – seeing how I can take care of the kids while my wife goes off to work… I can simply say that I’m living again. And I have begun to enjoy a good night’s sleep. After five years. I am so grateful for all that.”

Tilos Hospitality Centre

Along with his wife and five children Mohsen resides at the Tilos Hospitality Centre, a tidy refugee settlement in the seaside village of Livadia. This sleepy yet somehow still lively village is proof positive of what can be achieved when humanity triumphs over fear, prejudice, xenophobia, racism, and politics.

The centre, which is made up of 10 comfortable residential units housing 46 Syrian refugees, is decidedly not a refugee camp. It is an open, free and dignified residential area providing shelter for people whose lives have been completely wrecked by the war. It is a place of hope and – the importance of this cannot be overstated – of activity.

Many refugees, especially the women, had little trouble finding work on the island. At the time of our visit, coinciding with the height of the tourism season, not a soul on the island was unemployed. Quite the contrary: many of the locals are working 18-hour shifts.

Tourism is Tilos’ main source of income, so the summer months have to be milked for all their worth. The refugees are paid perfectly respectable wages in the hotels, restaurants, bistros and at the local bakery. Legal help has also been made available to them, while the Tilos Hospitality Centre is constantly visited by volunteers from all over Europe. The centre is both a study in the humane integration of war-torn souls and an antithesis to the sum of the EU’s (anti-)refugee and (anti-)immigrant policies.

This commendably complex approach is far from accidental; the islet of Tilos is a paragon of progressiveness in other respects as well. In a few months, Tilos is set to become the first Mediterranean island to boast energy self-sufficiency. One hundred percent of its power will be drawn from renewable sources like the sun and the wind. This warm green refuge has thus become the meeting place of two key issues affecting our present and future: migration and renewable energy. Most of the dominant Syrian-war narratives have proven all too oblivious to the fact that climate change has been a major factor contributing to the conflict’s escalation, especially by driving the impoverished rural masses to leave their drought-scarred land and move to the cities.

On Tilos, the local community is functioning like one giant cooperative: interdependent, highly responsible, free of ideology and propelled by humanism. Tilos was, in 2008, the location of the first gay marriage in Greece. From as far back as 1993, hunting has been completely outlawed on the island, which is in its entirety protected by the EU’s Natura 2000 programme.

Tilos is the future as it might have and could have been across Europe, had other places not succumbed to xenophobia and fear. Simplicity so complex it boggles the mind.

“Doing what is normal and what is right”

The island is located only 17km from the Turkish coast. Outside the tourist season, it is inhabited by only 823 people (and approximately 10,000 free-ranging goats). Between 2013 and 2016, more than 6,000 refugees landed here. Most of the incomers had been dumped by the smugglers on the smaller beaches – they had simply been left there to die, since the cliffs and the rocks made it impossible to leave.

The local activists, led by the mayor Maria Kamma-Alfieri, soon cracked the smugglers’ pattern. They started following the Tilos-bound boats to be able to gather the shocked, traumatised and often severely dehydrated refugees from the remote beaches. Nearly every resident of the island with a boat or a small ship had taken to the sea, saving hundreds and hundreds of lives.

At first, the rescued refugees were housed at the local orthodox church, only to be transferred to a deserted barracks. Almost no help was coming from outside, so the living conditions were rather poor, while the incomers only grew in number. Yet the people of Tilos refused to give up. They decided they would do everything in their power to help.

In the end, they managed to defeat both – the state and the EU bureaucrats. A year ago, the Tilos Hospitality Centre, housing exclusively Syrian families, opened its doors in Livadia. For the locals, this aim was self-explanatory, a product of their basic decency and genuine desire to help. For those of us who have spent the better part of a decade chronicling the refugees’ tragedy, it was a quite a shock. This alone tells a lot about how things stand.

“We’re simply doing what is normal and what is right,” shrugged Elena Pissa, a driving force behind the centre. “We are normal human beings. We know what to do, that’s all. But unfortunately, you’re also quite right: in this racist and selfish world, what we’ve done here on Tilos is unusual – exceptional even. And that’s a scary thought, isn’t it?”

I got talking to Elena over a cup of ice-cold cappuccino. I could sense she was a deeply tired woman. She had long forgotten what a holiday felt like.

From morning to late afternoon, she takes care of her wards. She helps refugees in every way possible: she takes care of the paperwork, calls up the relevant officials, arranges emergency medical appointments, forms legal strategies with lawyers, finds work, mediates in their family disputes, coaches her colleagues and keeps up everyone’s morale. When she is finished with her duties at the refugees’ settlement, she relocates to her tourist shop in the village, where she remains until 11 at night.

Her business is not exactly thriving. It has not been the best of seasons for Tilos, but Elena is holding on, having to provide for herself and her 11-year-old son. This activist with a degree in management from Athens hasn’t even been to the beach this year. By focusing so hard on the needs of others, she has been neglecting her own. Elena has little time for compromises. Now is simply not the time. Greece has found itself on the frontline of the battle for what remains of Europe’s basic human decency, and Elena is a crack commando of the grassroots’ special forces.

Wills and ways

So what’s so special about Tilos?” I asked the mayor; Maria Kamma-Aliferi, who had taken over the helm after the sudden death of her legendarily progressive predecessor Tasos Aliferi. Maria has been serving as the mayor for the last six years. She has never ran in an election. Around here, it is deemed enough that she has the people’s support and a college education.

The thing about Tilos it’s probably how the people here are keen to embrace innovation. Like renewable energy sources. On many other islands or even in the mainland cities, the reactions would have been mostly negative. But here we’re very serious about the environment. Its protection is our basic aim. If the community is an open one, free of prejudice and taboos, then everything is so much easier. I guess this is why we see our achievements as something completely normal. We are working towards our objectives step by step, carefully planning our moves in advance. The key is always focusing on the good of the community. You can’t just force on people something they do not want. Once they established the refugees were not a threat, they quickly opened up. In time, they realised the refugees’ presence could even prove beneficial to the future of our island. Much the same can be said of our renewable energy project.”

According to the mayor, Tilos has never suffered much from xenophobia. As recently as 15 years ago, the small island had been almost deserted, its young people moving away en masse. The local school used to be empty then, while it now takes care of the needs of 80 children… A number sure to experience a significant boost in the autumn, when the refugee youngsters are set to join in.

The island was close to being dead,” the mayor recalls. “But then our solidarity came to the fore. When the first refugees started coming in, our small community immediately accepted them in our midst. The first hospitality centre was built by the local volunteers. We made all of it ourselves.”

According to Maria Kamma-Aliferi, the most important thing was for the island’s residents to come face to face with the people, particularly the children, who had undergone unspeakable horrors. “When we looked into the little ones’ eyes, we could see naked fear. The smugglers simply dropped these poor boys and girls on a bunch of rocks. They were shaking like leaves. How can you remain neutral and unperturbed when you see a freezing crying baby no more than twenty days old? These people’s only crime is to have survived,” she notes.

The island may be facing numerous problems, mostly of the financial and infrastructural variety. But the locals are firmly set on pursuing their hospitable policies. They have long stopped counting on help from Athens – not only because of the state’s long stumble on  the brink of bankruptcy but also because of its traditional neglect of its more remote islands and regions.

The mayor seemed hopeful the Greek state might at least aid the islanders with respect to the refugees, since the island’s council is planning the opening of a dairy processing company as a joint venture between four local and four refugee families. The entire project is estimated at around €150,000, and any scrap of help from Athens would be welcome.

“Our problems need to be viewed as a challenge. We have made our choice, so there is no question of changing course. Regardless of how small the island is, we’ve already managed to take care of thousands of refugees. If only some of our larger [regions] could muster up the will – think of all that could be accomplished. I can only hope that some of them might yet be inspired by what’s happening here,” she urges.

Improvised fun

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

In the late morning heat, a huge and fairly slobbery mongrel dog was chasing a saggy punctured ball thrown by the refugee children. Little boys and girls were darting off all over the place, the dog was happily barking… But both sounds were drowned out by the sound of the cicadas.

Abu Kareem from Daraa, who was eight and bizarrely confident, picked up a guitar and started playing something remotely resembling a tune. His older sister Hiba gave him a pointed glance and quickly confiscated the instrument, taking it up herself to play a traditional Greek melody. An elderly Syrian refugee lady was hanging laundry. A delicious smell wafted over from a nearby kitchen. All over the clean and comfortable settlement, even those refugees who worked the night shift were slowly waking up.

As for the sleepyhead children, they were being roused from their slumber by a Belgian volunteer named Sofie De Bois. Summer school was about to kick off, providing Greek and English classes to the refugees and Arabic lessons to the activists. Sofie, a 24-year-old student, runs a series of fairly improvised psycho-therapeutic workshops. They consist of drawing classes, chess, guitar and electric piano lessons, some pretty wild looking yoga, something resembling a jazz ensemble – and a lot of happy noise-making needing no justification whatsoever. After finishing up, Sofie then spends her evenings and nights waiting tables in one of the cafeterias.

The local activists were seated around a huge wooden table in the shade. Most of them have been actively saving lives for the past few years. A number were currently employed by the Solidarity Now project financed by the UNHCR. Their contracts are good until the end of 2017. They are hoping they will get renewed, but lately they have started to worry.

Over the past two months, the Greek authorities – spurred on by the EU – have chased the NGOs from most of the islands. From 1 August 2017, the Greek government took over the control of the so-called refugee ‘hotspots‘, which are prisons in everything but name.

This, at least, is the official plan. For the migrants and refugees trapped in Greece, this is catastrophic news. The Greek authorities have neither the personnel nor the finances to take care of the country’s 50,000 refugees, most of whom got stuck here after the closing of the so-called Balkan refugee route, stranded between their destination somewhere in central or northern Europe and the increasingly unstable Turkey.

The ‘residential centres’ on the islands are currently holding more than 10,000 people. Most of them have been there for more than six months. An additional 2,200 can be found on the mainland. The state has turned this precarious situation into a business opportunity, as the funds Brussels used to allocate to the NGOs will now be rerouted straight to Athens. But for the Tilos Hospitality Centre, the pernicious new arrangement will not come into effect until the new year at least.

When the ground quakes

Maysoon al-Deri, 30, also comes from Daraa – a city in the southeast of Syria, where the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad was first sparked. It was a spark that soon triggered a civil war, which then exploded into a global conflict of sorts, given how many countries are currently involved in the conflict.

The war didn’t need long to claim the home of this mother of five young children, ranging from the ages of two to ten. In spite of her house being destroyed, Maysoon remained in the war-torn city until 20 February 2016, when she set off for the Turkish border. A large portion of her journey was through ISIS-controlled territory. For the first time in her life, Maysoon put on a burqa – purely for safety reasons. She didn’t take it off for almost two months. This is how long she, her husband and their children had to wait to cross the Syrian-Turkish border. When they finally reached Turkey, the pathway to Europe had already been welded shut. After the deal involving €6 billion had been struck, the Turkish authorities began to implement heightened security measures to restrict the refugees’ movements. They also cracked down on some of the smuggling ‘ networks.

The family managed to contact a smuggler who, on second attempt, got them to the Greek island of Lesbos. For the first time, actual shots were fired at them – not by ISIS but by the Turkish coast guard. They then spent four months in the infamous residential centre of Moria, in essence the modern version of a concentration camp. “It was a very warlike experience,” Maysoon recounts of her experience there. “We have horrible memories! The situation there was inhumane, simply inhumane!”

Last September, when the UNHCR authorised the family to relocate to Tilos, a glimmer of hope returned to their lives.

“When we got here, I was ill and absolutely exhausted. It took a long while before I regained some of my strength. The people here were helping me on every step of the way. I’ll always be grateful,” she told us at the Hospitality Centre on the morning after a forceful earthquake had shaken Greece, including Tilos. Maysoon’s head was covered with a headscarf, and it seemed she still hadn’t completely woken up. She had slept straight through the earthquake, being rather used to heavy turbulence. Yet some of the refugees had been given quite a jolt. Many of the children were terrified that the war had caught up with them again.

Maysoon has spent the last 10 months here on Tilos. The small Aegean island has become her temporary home. Until the war in Syria simmers down, she refuses to budge. She is especially proud of having found work waiting tables at one of the local restaurants. Come autumn, the older contingent of her kids is set to enter school here. Her husband has also managed to find a semblance of peace.

“I’ve stopped dreaming of Germany or other European countries,” she smiled. “I know it’s hard for refugees anywhere you go. Here, we have everything we need. We won’t have it better anywhere else. The people here are so helpful, they took us in… things are very nice and warm and peaceful.” Maysoon told me she still sometimes catches herself gazing at the sea, wondering how it was possible all her children had survived the journey. “So many – so many have drowned,” she remarked. Just last year, some 5,500 people perished in the Mediterranean sea trying to reach Europe. This year, the tally currently stands at 2,500, making the death toll more than 30,000 since the turn of the millennium.

“I didn’t think I could ever get rid of the fear… For a long time, I was so afraid someone might come after us. It’s such a relief to be able to take a walk at one in the morning, after I’ve finished up at the restaurant… I walk along the beach and think, ‘It is so peaceful and quiet there by the sea. People respect me here,'” reflects Maysoon.

Maysoon’s train of thought was broken by a burst of hysterical crying from her two-year-old son. A toy car made of steel got stuck to his lip. The problem was quickly solved, but the toddler’s tears kept flowing. “He tries to eat everything he can get his hands on, everything,” the boy’s mother smiles.

Before she came to Tilos, Maysoon al-Deri never had a job. “I’m so happy to be able to work here. This way I can feel free, strong and self-dependent. True, I get tired quite a lot, but it’s a good feeling. I hope it lasts.”

The fact that many of the women have found employment while the men stay at home to tend to the children is a revolution in its own right. At first, there were some problems, Elena Pissa recalls, since it was necessary to break down the cultural barriers. But a little tenacity went a long way. In just a few months, integration fell into step with emancipation.

“For the first time in my life, I have a job! I’m cleaning apartments and preparing breakfast. It’s not particularly hard work, and I’m having a good time doing it,” Waala al-Hariri smiled bashfully.

A whole new circle of hell

Waala, 28, is a mother of two. She reached Tilos last November after spending close to eight hard months on Lesbos. Along with her husband and two children she had fled the war, only to face a whole new circle of hell over here in Europe.

For a long time, she was simply unable to comprehend it. “There were 80 of us on the boat I arrived on. The smuggler was laughing, telling us we were taking a trip with the Death Tourist Agency. It was so horrible. Every time I think back on the journey, I start crying.”

As she was telling me this, Waala’s sharp green eyes were cutting through me like twin laser beams. In Syria, she had to quit school just before graduation on account of getting married. Her ambition is to continue with her education and one day open a beauty salon. But not on Tilos, not here in Greece. Like many of the local refugees she and her family wish to push on towards Germany. The relatively ideal living conditions on Tilos are not enough to keep them here, since many of them are desperate to reunite with family members located somewhere to the north.

“To be frank,” Waala says, “what I really want is to return home… But the war is not going to be over for a long time. Our house was badly damaged in a bombing raid. All Syrians should be on their way back to rebuild their country, but I know this won’t be possible for a long, long time.”

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Trapped inside Fortress Europe

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO, Chios

The plight of the 63,000 refugees and migrants still marooned in Greece should give Europeans pause for thought.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Wednesday 31 January 2017

In a cave below the remains of a mile-long city wall, a small band of freezing and utterly exhausted men had manged to get a fire going. Outside, the wind was turning vicious. It felt like even the ocean was exasperated, splashing onto the cliffs as if trying to smash through the huddling men’s final illusions. Seeing how these fantasies were already so few and far between, it seemed a rather daunting task, even for an ocean.

Dusk was descending over the damp stone cave in Greece. True, it was somewhat less cold inside, but the men were still shaking like leaves. All of them were Algerian migrants placed at the bottom rung of the food chain here on the modern-day Medusa raft set afloat by the European anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies.

In the moments of relative calm before the wind picked up again, no one much felt like talking. These men had long lost their flair for chatting, and most of their hope had been buried back in the Sahara, in Turkey and somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The rest of the metaphorical mortgage on their future had been foreclosed by the European bureaucrats. By now, the refugees’ stories had become etched on their faces, especially around the eyes. Gazing back at me were the hopeless, worn-down eyes of men who had played the game and lost so horribly they could no longer afford to admit it.

At the moment, some 63,000 refugees and migrants are marooned in Greece, unable to either forge on to the promised land or return to their respective conflict zones.

For months, thousands have been waiting for their first interview after applying for asylum. Many have already had their application turned down. In reaching that decision, the local bureaucrats had decided that Turkey – a country teetering on the brink of war – is a safe country for the refugees.

The bureaucratic apparatus is excruciatingly slow to act. Its members, almost without exception, are ‘only fulfilling their duties’ and ‘obeying the law’. Their collective actions form a perfect algorithm for the banality of evil that has already led to the birth of a new Europe, a morally bankrupt continent stripped of its last vestiges of shame and empathy.

Slogging through humiliation

The Eastern Aegean island of Chios has been described as the “magical Greek island which cures all wanderlust”. It is also one of the frontlines of Europe’s war against refugees and migrants.

For a long time, the local population on Chios distinguished itself with its exemplary and at times heroic care for the incoming refugees. Then last spring, after the EU-Turkey deal on refugees was struck and the Balkan route shut down, the Greek authorities under Brussels patronage set up the infamous “VIAL hotspot“. The first of many, the VIAL was a mix of prison and latter-day concentration camp – vile like its acronym.

In no time at all, similar facilities sprung up on many Aegean islands located near the Turkish coast. Some hotspots have also been set up on the mainland. Like the Moria camp on the Lesbos island, quite singular in its combination of inhuman living conditions and police brutality, the VIAL is by far the most notorious.

On my first visit last April, the entire camp seemed poised on the brink of an explosion. A hunger strike was underway, and the authorities were struggling to quiet things down by relocating hundreds of people to the Souda camp. The improvised camp was located by the sea and close to Chios town. It was run by a coalition of NGOs, whose activists brought food to the refugees and helped them with the horrendously intricate paperwork.

Nine months ago, the fresh arrivals to the island were still filled with hope, enthusiasm and the will to thrive. They had somehow managed to survive both the devastation of their respective homelands and the infinitely treacherous journey to what they thought was the civilised world. Slogging through endless humiliations while grappling with the fact their entire past had been erased, they whole-heartedly gave themselves up to the present to find a semblance of a future.

Today, with Fortress Europe closed off and most of its lustre as the land of refuge and opportunity trampled in the dirt, things are very different.

True, many of the refugees managed to strike on to Athens, and some of them even further on. But on Chios, hundreds of people have been trapped in such shocking conditions for months.

The depression epidemic

The mornings in front of the Souda camp see dozens of refugees come out to kill some time. The camp is situated right by the sea, beside a long canal along the ancient city walls.

The men are conversing quietly and without much enthusiasm. Most of them don’t even seem angry anymore. The muddy and bitterly cold camp has been ransacked by the flu. But even worse has been the epidemic of depression – the collective form of the disease, in firm alliance with the symptoms of what is so clearly post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nine months ago, one could still discern much empathy among the locals, even though the refugee crisis had already deprived them of their tourist-based income. But since then, things have taken a sinister turn. Both empathy and hospitality have a limited shelf-life, at least when not actively cultivated. The masks of political correctness have now fallen, and long-dormant Nazi sleeper cells are stirring back to life.

As ever, the weak and the downtrodden are bearing the brunt of it. Less than two months ago, rocks and Molotov cocktails rained down on the refugee camp. The message couldn’t have been clearer: the island is no longer safe for the refugees and the migrants.

In the nine months following his arrival at Chios, Mustafa E became one of the most recognisable faces on the island. His excellent English and distinct flair for companionship have made him the favourite both of his fellow sufferers and many foreign activists. Yet the robust 42-year-old’s fixed smile cannot fully conceal his pain.

After losing his wife and two children in an Aleppo air raid, Mustafa hasn’t really stopped moving. Even here, in the Souda camp, where he lives in one of the huge tents bearing the UNHCR logo, he gets frequent flashes of paranoia. He literally can’t keep still. When he tries to do so, he gets utterly crushed under the weight of his loss. His family is the one thing he refuses to talk about. Everything else he is all too eager to discuss in an often unstoppable and obsessive fashion.

Apart from flashes of his war-torn land, he is also haunted by the future. For what future can there be for one of tens of thousands of faceless refugees here? And in Greece, of all places – a country once again sacrificed on the altar of Europe’s opportunist agenda, conscripted to serve as the continent’s human waste dump?

The answer, Mustafa feels, is all to apparent.

“Nine months of humiliation was enough. I feel I am about to lose my mind. Everything here is wrong and stupid, everything. What a farce – we are worse off here than dogs without a master. We definitely get treated worse,” he asserts. “Enough already, enough! I will do everything in my power to get away from here. Where will I go? Anywhere, I don’t care. But it is now clear I won’t be allowed to do so legally.”

I was talking to Mustafa in his very poorly heated tent. The words kept pouring out of him like a feverish litany. This man so clearly and so badly needed to state his case.

Before the ground opened up beneath him and swallowed his entire existence, Mustafa Alkhtyibe was the head of a successful marketing firm in Aleppo. But as soon as he started describing his life back then, he all but fell apart with despair. From then on, all he could manage were short, sometimes almost completely unrelated sentences detailing his plight.

His most immediate problem right now was that the Greek authorities had denied his application for asylum. He had already appealed the decision, and had lost the appeal. After all, the European and Greek bureaucrats happen to feel Turkey is perfectly capable of providing safe haven. In Mustafa’s case, being single proved a further factor against him. The fact that the war robbed him of his entire family had made him even more undesirable than he would have otherwise been. And the local paper-shufflers were equally unswayed by the fact that his beloved city of Aleppo had been razed to the ground.

“It seems almost impossible now,” Mustafa winced as he recalled the not-so-distant past. “But before the trouble started, I was totally convinced that Aleppo would be spared most of the fighting. And let me tell you, I quickly lost all faith in the revolution! Why? Because all the smart people soon got arrested or escaped abroad, and were quickly replaced by extremists, criminals and idiots.”

Alternative routes

Mustafa patiently explained to me how he was always looking for alternative routes. “Each day, at least five of my mates here move on to Athens – totally illegally, of course. But the trucks, the traffickers, the false papers, all of that costs money… And I don’t have much left,” he explained. “I’m also counting on some help from my friends. I’m one of the few here ready to stay in Greece, no matter how horrible the situation. I have many skills; I know I can trust myself to survive. But first I need to get out of this awful place.”

Mustafa was serious about getting out. Every day I spent with him served up its own plan, each one more fantastical than the last.

One morning it struck him that his best chance for smuggling himself onto a ferry for Athens would be to bring a small dog. All the attention would be diverted to the dog, Mustafa reasoned, while he himself might go completely unnoticed.

When confronted with the fact that even dogs need their own passports to travel across the European Union, he was completely shattered. “Oh my God, oh my God… What I want more than anything is to go to Luxembourg. Ali Baba-style, of course, there is no other way. They have so few refugees there and so much money… But to get there you need at least €4,500, and I don’t have anywhere near that.”

Mustafa also told me the traffickers have an actual menu. Business is booming, and one can get anywhere one wants, as long as one provides the currency. Canada – €9,000, Germany – €3,500, France – €5,000, Great Britain, €7,000.

With a violent sneeze, Mustafa poured himself another coffee. It was possibly his tenth that day.

The problem is that he doesn’t get much sleep at night, so he broods and scours the internet for possible solutions. In the morning, he would give anything not to get out of bed. “As soon as I get up, I start losing money,” he winces and finishes the coffee.

“I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

A large crowd had gathered in front of the Souda camp. The men were lining up for food, focused on getting their daily rations and bringing them to the women and children waiting somewhere further back. These mealtime conflagrations have long become the emotional fulcrum of camp life, offering the only solace to a radically impoverished existence.

“I am trying not to lose my soul,” said Omar al Salem, 28, from the Syrian town of Deir er Zur. “I’m staying away from conflict. I follow the rules. I don’t stick my neck out for any reason. But it is no good. I’m never going to get out of here this way.”

Omar has been held in the island fort the past five months. What seems like a lifetime ago, he had been lucky enough to get into college just before the war started. He studied economics in the city of Latakia, a regime bastion and, therefore, untouched by most of the war. “Life was good,” Omar remembers. “If always a bit dangerous, since war-profiteering thugs had long taken over control.”

Omar was kept busy with his studies and with his job waiting tables at a restaurant. His greatest hope was for the war to end before he completed his university education. That would free him from the ever-looming prospect of getting conscripted into the army, where he would have to kill friends and neighbours in the vilest armed conflict of our generation. But it was not to be. When Omar graduated, the carnage had only just begun in earnest.

As a Sunni in a Shiia-dominated town, he felt much too exposed to even think about staying. He certainly didn’t feel like helping a thoroughly discredited regime butcher tens of thousands of its own citizens. His other option – to throw his lot with the extremist-controlled Islamic militias – seemed just as unappealing.

So he struck out for Quamishli, a Kurdish town next to the Turkish and Iraqi border. Even though his parents had been residing there for a while, the town wasn’t safe for him. The members of the YPG Kurdish militia, which controls a large part of northern Syria, weren’t exactly welcoming to a fighting-fit Sunni Arab. And so Omar opted to follow the lead of his two brothers who, eighteen months ago, had braved the gauntlet of the Balkan refugee route to reach Germany.

The expensive help of the local smugglers got him through the heavily guarded border, where dozens of refugees had recently been gunned down by the Turkish border patrols. Omar didn’t have enough money to purchase ‘the classic’ on the smugglers’ menu. So he was forced to make do. The smugglers got him a free place on one of the outgoing boats, but in exchange he was tasked with steering it himself all the way to Greece.

Little did he know that his assent could very easily have landed him in jail as a sub-contractor for the smugglers.

It was equally likely he could have proven unequal to the task of navigating the motor boat. He had never before attempted anything like it in his life. For the boat’s 35 passengers, the consequences could have proved fatal.

“We were about half an hour out. Suddenly, I noticed a Turkish coast guard vessel heading straight for us. The sea had turned restless, water was leaking into the boat, so I revved the engine to the max. No, I didn’t feel any fear. I was running on pure instinct. The Turkish boat chose not to follow. It was only after the sea started settling down that it occurred to me how easily we could all have died.”

Omar, too, is one of those dejected souls whose application for asylum has already been turned down by the Greek authorities. He is now awaiting the decision on his appeal, but the most likely outcome by far is that he, too, will soon be deported back to Turkey. This is all part and parcel of the EU-Turkish deal. Yet in the gathering dusk over the bitterly cold refugee camp, he told me he still refuses to lie down and accept defeat.

He had already risked too much to do so. He informed me he was the only person on his boat who had not yet managed to leave Chios. He takes this as proof that it is still possible to reach at least Athens if not the actual promised land. But reaching the Greek capital would set him back €500, and he has no money left. His parents are unable to help him. Perhaps the two brothers will be able to chip in if and when they make any money. Omar proudly informed me they had both been granted asylum in Germany and were doing very well.

Omar is convinced that once he reaches Athens, things are bound to get easier. “I tried several times to get myself to an Athens-bound ferry, but I always got caught. I once bleached my hair so they wouldn’t recognise me. But I still didn’t make it. The last time around, the policemen only gave me a kind smile and redirected me back to the camp. But I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

More than anything else, this young Syrian seemed terrified of losing hope. Hope, after all, is the chief driving force for the traumatised survivors in camps like these all over the Greek coastline. Small wonder then that the European bureaucracy has long been waging a monstrous campaign to confiscate every last shred of hope and rob the incomers of the will to press on.

Second-class refugees

“I could never have imagined I would witness such horrible things – such utter degradation of human life,” says Sharif Alimi, 28, an Afghan Hazara from the Gazni province. I got talking to him as he was boarding the ancient bus regularly transferring the refugees and the migrants between the VIAL hot spot and the Souda camp.

For the previous five years, Sharif had been living in Sweden. But in November he decided to return to Greece, which had served as the first European port of call on his long and arduous path to freedom. The reason for his recent return? Two months ago, his parents arrived to Chios after spending the last years as refugees in Quetta, one of the most dangerous cities in the world for the brutally persecuted Hazara people.

This forced Sharif’s hand. “I simply had to act. I had no choice but to come here and help my parents. I knew what they would be facing. I was imprisoned in many European countries – all told, they put me in jail 17 times. And without a single conviction. The worst of it was in Slovakia, where I was imprisoned for six months. Trust me, I saw very well what Europe had become. How it chooses to treat our people.”

When he got word his parents had arrived in Chios, Sharif managed to put his good job in Sweden on hold and immediately departed for Greece.

After hearing less than half of it, I was convinced Sharif’s story was worth a trilogy of both books and movies. During the 11 years of being Europe’s plaything, he was deported to Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece and twice to Iran. Giving up was not an option. He was treated to an insider’s view of the various flavours of Slavic policemen, the savageness of life on the Italian streets and the recent build-up of French racism. He was only accepted by Sweden a little over five years ago, and he says the Scandinavian country has been very kind to him. He was quick to get a job, which enabled him to get the rest of his life in order.

Today, this would no longer be possible. As reported, Europe is now repatriating Afghan refugees daily, declaring them safe in a land which has scarcely seen any respite from butchery for the past 40 years.

“See You In Sweden”

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

“I couldn’t let my parents share my fate,” Sharif nodded heavily. “So I came down here to help get them to Sweden. So far we have not been successful, but I have no doubt that we soon will be.”

Foregoing the option to sleep in a hotel, this dutiful son has been spending his nights with his parents inside the VIAL hotspot. Every single day he has to crawl in through a hole in the fence that is the best-kept secret around these parts. The VIAL hotspot is otherwise heavily guarded, but once Sharif manages to slip inside, no one finds him particularly suspicious.

Talking to him, it soon became clear he has little interest in comfort and is totally committed to his goal. He had been through everything and more; his pain threshold has been raised to a previously unimaginable level. Once you get to know him, you can so clearly see it written in his face, the scarred and grizzled visage of a true survivor.

In the days we spent together, Sharif and his Swedish girlfriend Zara did everything in their power to relocate the parents to a hotel. Omar was set on providing his mother and father with at least a modicum of comfort and dignity, even if it meant running the risk of himself being jailed again. He was both dignified and fearless in fighting off the policemen and fellow migrants out to humiliate his parents. Without his Swedish passport, Sharif would be quickly and literally vanished from the continent. As things stand, he could clutch this tiny piece of paper and keep fighting for that elusive and infinitely fragile thing called human rights.

“I have made my decision: we are all going to live in Sweden, and that is how it’s going to be,” Sharif told me as we got ready to part ways. “We Afghans, we’re second-class refugees, you know. Absolutely no one here has any time for us, and this goes doubly for the Hazara people. I mean, even in our own country we are mostly seen as foreigners. But what are you going to do? I know nothing can stop us now. So I guess I’ll see you in Sweden, huh?”

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Lesbos: “No matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Despite the massive efforts of volunteer lifeguards, refugees are losing their lives in the Mediterranean. Europe must act… and out of compassion.

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives. Photo: ©Elio Germani

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

 

Thursday 28 January 2016

Still shivering with the cold even in the golden foil they’d been wrapped in, two young Afghan girls were having a lively chat. Their mother was gazing out to the sea, mostly back towards Turkey, which they had departed two hours earlier on a grey dinghy.

Some 20km from the shores of Lesbos, the grey rubber boat’s engine had given out. The boat started rapidly filling up with water, but fortunately the passengers were spotted by the staffof the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms. All of its members are experienced lifeguards, veterans of Catalonian and Basque beaches. Almost routinely, they set out and made sure the three rubber boats reached the small port in the picturesque village of Skala Skaminies, where at least 20 lifeguards from all over the world are currently stationed.

“It is cold, but I’m very relieved. We were getting desperate, but now we’re finally safe. I am so grateful to the people who came to rescue us,” smiled a black-garbed elderly lady from Douma, one of the quarters in Damascus hit hardest by the war. Madam S has lost both her sons to the conflict. On her long journey to Lesbos, she was accompanied by her grandchildren and the widow of her eldest son. They had seen and experienced it all. They were visibly exhausted and not up to a long conversation.

“We just want to get safe. We’re hoping Europe will take us in,” shrugged the younger of the two boys while fiddling with a pile of fake life-jackets. Most of these deadly fakes, it should be noted, had actually been made by Syrian children in garage factories all along the Turkish coast. Right now, the Syrian children are the ones who can provide the dirt-cheapest labour to be found.

Proactively saving lives

"The worst part is when you have to decide who you're going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.” Photo: ©Elio Germani

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On Lesbos, countless NGOs and volunteers are toiling without pause to contain the tidal wave of human tragedy. But no matter how hard they try, it is never enough. The migrants and refugees keep dying on a massive scale.

“We’re all trying to the best of our abilities,” a thickly bearded man named Joaquim Acedo told me as we stood out in the cold winter sun. “Most mornings, we are already at sea by six when the first boats start coming in. Our first and only objective is to save lives. As for politics, it is not something I care to think about. I’ve got no time for that.”

But Acedo added an important afterthought. “Reaching Lesbos from Turkey by regular ferry costs €10 and is absolutely safe. Getting here by rubber boat costs €1,200 and can easily cost you your life.”

Acedo is the co-ordinator of the hi-tech Spanish rescue team. Proactiva Open Arms has certainly risen to the occasion.  “There’s quite a lot of us: Sea-Watch, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Portuguese coast guard, the Greek coast guard, Frontex, the American,” the tired young man explained. “We’re co-ordinating our efforts as best we can and pushing our limits every day. But we really can use all the help we can get. Especially now, with the weather improving and more and more people pouring in every day.”

This was Joaquim Acedo’s second tour on Lesbos since Proactiva joined the action in September. Each team normally serves for 15 days, then its members go home utterly exhausted. All of them are participating on a purely voluntary basis, which means that the ones with regular jobs have to use up their vacation in order to be allowed to save lives.

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown,” Acedo added somberly. »Sometimes there are 40 people in the water, all of them screaming for their lives. And no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”

No compassion without direct action

Last year alone, almost 450,000 people entered the EU through Lesbos – almost half of everyone who reached the Greek Islands through Turkey. Lesbos, one needs to keep in mind, is an island with some 90,000 residents and an exceptionally weak humanitarian infrastructure. Despite all that, it is now the EU’s key entry point for migrants and refugees.

As things stand, there is almost no EU presence on the island, if we discount Frontex, the EU agency for securing the union’s external borders. In the months to come, the Frontex personnel’s jurisdiction is sure to widen considerably. The EU’s main “strategic” answer to the humanitarian tragedy is to strengthen its outer border, especially the border with Turkey. A part of this “solution” was the recent deal with the Turkish authorities to take on most of the responsibility for the incoming migrants and refugees. The sum handed over to Ankara by the European Union was €3 billion.

Last year, around 350 people drowned on the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece – enough of them so that a new location for a graveyard had to be found in Mytilini since there was no more room in the old one. This year, 70 souls have already been lost to the journey. This particular crime against humanity is only getting worse.

On the day I visited their venerable operation, the Spanish lifeguards saved more than 50 lives – lives that the European political elites and European public opinion increasingly perceive as a threat to their Christian way of life.

“But how can this be? Such a view is absolutely unacceptable to a Christian,” exclaimed Father Christophoris, an Orthodox priest who I sat down with in a smoke-filled café in the nearby mountain village of Sikaminia. Almost 14 years ago, Kristoforis himself had made the long journey here all the way from California. This is why he now considers helping the migrants and the refugees to be the focus of his life’s mission as a priest.

“The refugees have been coming here to Lesbos for 15 years now,” he explained to me over a steaming cup of coffee. “First from Afghanistan, then from Iraq, and now from Syria. Our duty is to help them as much as we can. All of us could be in their place but for the grace of God. This is our chance to choose between being good and being evil – it is as simple and straightforward as that. There is nothing more Christian than helping out a fellow human being. It is a sacred duty of each and every one of us. And it is also at the core of this great humanistic culture the EU is founded on, at least in principle.”

This remarkable blond-haired holy man is now at the heart of refugee relief co-ordination on the northern part of the island. The last time there was such an influx of desperate souls in these parts was in 1921 and 1922, when many Greeks were on the run from Turkey. They, too, had been very much a burden to the locals.

“There is no compassion without direct action,” father Christophoris informed me with a wistful smile. “And that is why the contribution of all the volunteers and the locals here has been priceless. They have come here from Greece and from all around the world, and they replaced the state. They clearly demonstrated precisely what needs to be done. They have done what was humanly possible to preserve the face of civilisation.”

The warmth of a cold reception

Cold in Moria. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Cold in Moria.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Most of the people at the Moria refugee camp were shivering, some of them uncontrollably. On this day, the entire heart of the Mediterranean was wretchedly cold. The nearby mountain peaks had recently been whitened with snow, making the refugees’ journey even more ardous.

Wrapped in swathes of golden foil and blueish blankets, the refugees were very grateful for each cup of hot tea handed out by the volunteers. The children kept clinging to each other as the women wrapped themselves tight in their shawls and headscarfs. The men were seeking out what information they could get on how to continue with their journey. Most of them were disheartened to find out that, owing to a shipworkers strike, all the ferries to Piraeus had been cancelled. For a while, all they could do was stare at their cellphones while trying to come up with a plan B.

I was approached by a man named Said, hailing from the greater Aleppo region. “We’re so cold,” he told me. “How much longer will we have to stay here? Is it true that Germany has already closed its borders to the refugees?”

Said had reached Lesbos early that morning, accompanied by his wife, six sons and three daughters. The eleven of them formed a close huddle. Freezing half to death, most of them did not much feel like talking. They’d had to wait nine days to cross from Turkey to Greece. They borrowed most of the money they needed to reach Europe from their relatives. They have no idea how they will be able to repay them.

“We are running for our lives. We were hoping to remain in Syria, but it was not possible. Things get worse there every day. I had to protect my children,” Said explained his predicament. Unlike many of his fellow refugees aiming for Germany or Sweden, this hollow-cheeked man with an understandably distracted look in his eyes didn’t really care where his flight would deliver him. “All we want is to be safe. We simply want to find a place where we will not be bombed every day.”

Closing the borders

“I spent a great deal of this summer connected to the internet and watching footage of our people being warmly greeted in Germany,” Farouk confided. “And so I eventually decided to set out myself. I knew that if I remained in Syria, I would almost certainly be murdered. I don’t have any powerful friends on either side. I’ve also been against the war from the beginning. But I couldn’t leave my parents, could I? They were the ones who suggested I should join one of the refugee groups headed for Turkey.”

I was talking to Farouk under a metal awning in Mytilini, where he and some comrades had sought shelter from the icy rain. The men were sifting through their options. They had no money to sleep in a hotel, and the combination of the rain, the cold and their utter exhaustion was preventing them from walking back the 15km to the refugee camp.

After a while, a few stray dogs entered our grimy resting place. The Syrian youths twitched in something quite akin to panic, so the freezing animals took flight and retreated under a nearby staircase.

The distance between the comfort zone and the bottom of the food chain is so often a matter of geographical and temporal coincidence.

Farouk proved exceptionally well-informed about every aspect of the so-called Balkan refugee route. On leaving home, he knew that his chances of securing a new life in Europe were much slimmer than they would have been a few months ago. But staying put would have meant a much graver risk. The fact that Farouk hailed from Syria certainly increases his chances of breaking through to where he wants to go. But the chances of him actually being granted asylum are slim to none.

The European (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies are degenerating by the hour. Within EU territory, several hundred thousand refugees have been waiting for months to enter the job market. Even Germany, having set an example by opening its doors wide open, eventually decided to reach for the handbrake.

In many ways, it is little wonder. The Merkel administration is facing ever-more bitter opposition from within the ranks of its own party. The German open-door policy is irrevocably over. As a consequence, the Balkan refugee route is closing down.

Last Tuesday, the Austrian authorities decided only 37,500 people would be allowed to apply for asylum this year. The regime at the Austrian-Slovenian border, where for the past three months the Schengen arrangements have become but a wistful memory, is sure to get even stricter than it is today.

In the weeks and months to come, the Germans will start returning thousands of people to Austria, while the Austrians are bound to start funneling them off to the small barricaded country of Slovenia. At the same time, the Macedonian authorities have temporarily closed their Greek border at Gevgelija. As early as last autumn, the Macedonians at the border with Greece had begun to turn back the refugees who were not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

According to our information, there is a rather substantial chance of them soon sealing the border entirely. The way things stand, the most likely scenario is that the brunt of the burden will once again fall on the economically ransacked Greece. Brussels, which recently sold its share of responsibility for the refugees to increasingly unstable Turkey, is about to re-sacrifice Greece at the altair of its own short-sighted interests.

From here to the final rise of the neo-Nazi movements like the Golden Dawn is but a short step. The anti-refugee sentiment has become the European state of mind. This is true both at the level of the increasingly xenophobic public opinion and at the level of the political elites, which have finally been freed from wearing the masks of political correctness. This not only pertains to the former communist parts of Europe, but also to countries like Switzerland and Denmark, where on arrival the refugees are now stripped of a part of their assets.

“We will never go back”

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Last Friday night, several thousand people were waiting in the icy wind at the Mytilini port to get a ferry to Pireaus and Kavala. Due to a long shipworker strike, some 3,800 refugees were stranded on the island. Around 65% of them were women and children.

All over the port, the refugees were seeking relief from the savage cold. Very few of them were appropriately dressed for such arctic conditions. Some of them were forced to wait out in the cold for five hours or more. Almost none of them felt like talking. The only thing they were interested in was the hour when the two ferries were scheduled to leave.

Three Afghan youths had managed to set fire to a garbage heap and were now standing beside it to keep warm. They had been on the road for 30 days. “We will never go back. All three of us have borrowed money to get here. We first have to work hard to pay it back – only then can we start taking care of ourselves and our families. I want to work in the computing industry,” said 19-year-old Reza from Kabul.

The half a dozen Greek policemen in charge ordered the great mass of freezing refugees to form three long columns. The two enormous ships were not set to leave for another two hours.

By the time the refugees were finally allowed to board, most of them were so tired and cold they were unable to feel any joy. It was as if they were all too aware of what awaited them on the remainder of their Balkan journey.

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