I was in Athens in August, talking to ordinary people in the streets and documenting their hopes and fears in the midst of the unending economic crisis that has hit that country. But on the streets of Athens I could feel another crisis swelling, a crisis that in the following weeks would become bigger than any economic negotiations by Greece in Brussels boardrooms.
Everywhere there were refugees, sleeping on benches, in parks. Mostly they were young men, just out of their teens, but with them also there were many children, and older women, heads wrapped in headscarves. They came, I learnt, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, where long-running wars and the emergence of a new terror in the form of Da’esh (the local name for ISIS) had driven many to flee, searching for peace and hope in Europe. When I asked them where they were going they told me Germany, Sweden, Finland.
In Pedion Tou Areos in Central Athens, a sprawling park of dry and thirsty grass, there are now tents under the trees, lines of clothes between the branches, blankets strewn on the ground. The park has become a makeshift refugee camp in the heart of Athens – people sit in the shade under the thin trees, stand and talk in huddled clumps, queue for the food and clothes doled out by various organizations and activists. I talked to some of the refugees there, to learn about their journeys and why they had fled.
Ali and Abdullah
Ali is 24 years old. He is from Parwan Province in Afghanistan. “It is dangerous there, he tells us, the Taliban are there, and Da’esh.”
His friend, Abdullah, is standing with him among a group of others. He is sixteen. He tells us he is Afghani. “I was born in Iran, and I live in Iran, but my parents are from Afghanistan.” It is too expensive to study in Iran. He wants to go to England, to study Business Management.
“We paid $1,500 dollars each to the” – Ali searches for the word – “smugglers, to go on a small boat that took us from Turkey to Greece, with forty people in each boat. The same two or three nights that we were getting ready to go across, two boats sank, and they could only rescue twenty people. Lots of people died. The smugglers don’t care if it’s dangerous or not. They just steal our money.”
And do you talk to your parents? “Yes”, he says, “I call them, use viber, whatsapp. Every day.”
Were they not worried about you?
“Of course they were worried. When we were going in the boat, they called me and said – ‘Don’t go. Come back. It’s too dangerous.’ They were afraid.”
Did you experience racism, here, or in Turkey?
“No”, Abdullah says, “no, Turkey is good, is not racist. Iran is racist against Afghanis. I had to pay money to go to school in Iran because my parents are Afghani, because I am Afghani. School is free for an Iranian citizen. In Iran the police shot at the refugees with their guns.”
Ali speaks then, clearly moved. – “Look around you” – he gestures with his hand and the makeshift camp, at the women cradling young children in their arms – “You can see our situation. They will have to walk across the borders with their children. We have passed three borders already to come here. The Europeans know our situation. So I hope they will not reject us. If our situation was good we would not come.”
“We hope when we go to Europe that they will accept us.”
“I am an IT engineer”, Mohammed says. He is 20 years old. He was studying in Syria when war broke out, but now it is too dangerous to stay – the government is conscripting all men aged between 18 and 25. The military is a dangerous prospect for these young men. If Da’esh (the local term for ISIS) catch them, they will kill them, Mohammed says, maybe cut off their heads.
He and the friends he now travels with came from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos on a ferry. An illegal human trafficking service, it advertises openly online and on facebook. The crossing costs each migrant $1000. “People sell their cars, their homes, to afford it.”
Mohammed’s family is still in Damascus. “It is safer there than in the countryside”, he tells us. The heaviest fighting is in the countryside. “The danger is not so great for older people. The army don’t take them to make them be soldiers.”
“Before”, he says, “it was very nice living in Syria. I had a respectable life, my family had a respectable life. Now it is all changed.”
They are not from the areas controlled by Da’esh but they know friends from Raqqa. “They ran away when ISIS was coming.” Raqqa is now capital of Da’esh’s territories.
How does the government there function – are there schools? hospitals? “Yes”, he says, “Da’esh built hospitals.” He pauses, corrects himself. “Not built, stole.”
“The society there is working, like this one”, he gestures at the Athens’ streets. “But there there is no playing around. No kidding.” People are killed for minor transgressions.
“We are Muslims”, he says, speaking up again. “Look at us. We are normal. Da’esh has made a bad reputation for Islam in the West. But we are Muslim too, and Da’esh don’t care. If we are in the army and Da’esh catch us, they will kill us anyway.”
Abuza recognizes my accent. He lives in Galway, in Ireland, and has a Spanish passport. His life now, working in a restaurant on Ireland’s West Coast is far from that of refugees sleeping in parks, of Civil War in his homeland. But here he is, because his family – mother, sisters, brothers – are among these refugees making the long and dangerous journey to a Europe that he has already become a citizen of. And he has chosen to walk the way with them.
They are going to Germany. “Asylum in Ireland is very difficult, the regulations are very restrictive.”
I ask him what he thinks of the people here in Greece. “Listen”, he says. “We are going on from here today. We just want to forget about it.” He pauses. “Really it wasn’t the Greek people, it was the police. The people here are good.” He points at a shop behind him. “Two times the people in that shop brought us water. They just came out, said nothing, and gave us water and went away.”
“But the police are racist, and it’s because the press are racist. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s how it is.”
A woman speaks to him in her own language. She is sitting on a blanket on the pavement and her face is pale. Her name is Sama. Three days ago she landed in Greece with her husband and her children. The police came and arrested all the people coming off the boat. “But her children were frightened, Abuza translates for her, and they ran away.”
“She was shouting for them, begging to the police, but she was taken away, sent back to Turkey.” She is pregnant, hasn’t seen her children since that day. She has gotten a visa back into Greece for a medical appointment, but no authorization to travel to find her children. But now they have heard news from a refugee camp north of Thessaloniki, where the refugees stop on their way North headed for Macedonia and Europe beyond it. Her children are there, with other refugees. But she has no authorization to go to them. And the refugees with them are going on, moving North. “The situation in Hungary is getting worse every day.” There is no time to spend waiting.
So every day the children and the contact number for their mother are passed from one group of migrants to the next, as each group hurries onto the next step of their journey.
Does he fear violence from the authorities in Hungary? “When we get to the border we hope to get a quick taxi and get away from there straightaway.” The police are fingerprinting people and detaining them, stopping them from continuing their journey into Europe. He says they do this to get money from the EU – which grants member states money for each migrant they take in – money that never reaches the migrants. And then, after six months, he has heard, they dump the migrants back over the border in Serbia. “But look. Maybe the police will beat us. But they will not kill us. It is safer than Syria.”
Liliane is travelling with her family – her mother, her brothers and sisters and nephews, all the women wearing a headscarf. She wants to study in Europe – “maybe computers, IT.”
And then she tells us that her husband was killed by Da’esh. He was one of the protestors in the early days of the Syrian revolt against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. “He and the other revolutionaries were looking for a better life, they wanted to replace the dictatorship with a democracy.”
They believed that their revolution, like the budding rebellions in Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, would be successful. “Back then, the revolution was peaceful, before it became a civil war.” An endless and violent civil war, the same war that has birthed Da’esh.
Like many of the protestors and revolutionaries arrested by the regime, she says, he was handed over by the government to Da’esh. It was a way for the government to get rid of the rebels without getting their hands dirty, to let ISIS kill them and feign innocence.
America gave those early revolutionaries money, and then Russia sold them guns for that money, and that peaceful revolt became a violent and interminable war. “Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Da’esh is the product of Western money and guns.”
So now Liliane and her family are going to Europe. In Syria it is the government against the revolutionaries. “The government killed our family, killed my husband, so I cannot be with the government.”
Photography Credit is to Georgia Lalor for all photos
Names have been pseudonymised