A day with the newly arrived refugees at Athens city centre. Impressions, conversations, thoughts about them and about us.
Spending a day with refugees from war, poverty and discrimination should be a requirement for every citizen of a purportedly civilised democratic society. Much is made of the tens of thousands who arrive daily at the Italian and Greek island shores, those who drown in the process, those who make it to the F.Y.R.O.Macedonian borders to be met by teargas and policemen’s clubs, or amass behind barbed wire fences, at Hungarian railway stations, or at the port of Calais, or die in sardine-can lorries on Austrian roadsides. However horrific the stories one sees, watches, or reads in the media, they are not a patch on confronting the reality of uprooted, desperate people, face to face.
Armed with provisions and a camera I joined a group of Greek volunteers for a day as they distributed clothes, packets of biscuits, fruit and water to the withdrawn, disoriented figures, the most recent arrivals in the streets of Athens, confused, tired and thirsty. Cautiously crossing their gaze, I was struck by the haunted but dignified, determined look in the eyes that met me. Prematurely aged young faces hiding memories of sounds and images I could not begin to fathom. I knew immediately I would not be bold enough to take pictures. It would feel like taking advantage. Besides there have been too many pictures, but too little actual help.
Trying to overcome the sense of guilt and intimidation of the fleeting tourist, safely and gingerly stepping through a human tragedy, I carried on distributing water bottles for quite a while before I plucked up the courage to talk to two very quiet women, sitting by the roadside, on a low wall framing a statue. They were Afghani and one spoke pretty good English so I asked why they’d come here. “People think that women can have a life since the war with the Taliban”, she said. “It’s not true. Maybe in Kabul, some women are given positions for show. But you can get killed in most of Afghanistan if you are a woman and express an opinion publicly, and nobody bothers. I have a brain. I want to do things. I want to be free.” I asked if she felt free now. “Freer”, she said forcing a smile, “freer, safer, and I have hope now”. It turned out they’d travelled on foot for hundreds of miles, mostly at night, hiding during the day, right up to the shores of the Near East, paying Turkish boatmen every last coin they’d saved under their robes, to ferry them across to the nearest Greek island, then waited for weeks before making it to the capital. Where to next? They had no idea.
There are more and more purpose-refurbished shelters and converted empty government buildings in Athens nowadays being put into use for offering a decent roof over the heads of arriving migrants, but they are nowhere near enough for the ever-increasing numbers and the city centre is buzzing with people trying to find their bearings, make connections, seek some shade from the scorching heat, sleeping on benches, flowerbeds and in doorways, before working out what to do next. A young man, could have been Greek, approached me. He was Syrian. “I am not a beggar you know”, he said. “I am a dental technician. My street was bombed. I lost most of my family. My street, my home, my car, all flattened. There is no protection for Christian Syrians now, it’s much worse than before. I know I can work, wherever I end up. I am not afraid. I just want a chance”.
We hear of refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants, waves, border-defences, we get bombarded by numbers, quotas, strategies. It looks real on our screens, and yet it does not feel real. But these people ARE real. They are not an alien species invading. They are everyday people, like you and me, with everyday wants and everyday skills, and it is only the artificial labels we give to ourselves and to them that make them sound somehow different so we can justify keeping them outside “our patch” when all they want is to contribute, to share, to live among us like anyone and everyone should be entitled to. Our lands in Europe are not as crowded as some people make out. There is a place in the sun for everyone.
Image Credit: Flickr
Dr Vassiliki Koutrakou is the Director of CREST (Centre for Research in European Studies) University of East Anglia