All the places we have visited so far have been quite humane and impressive to us, in terms of the compassionate staff and the conditions. We have heard that the government camps are less inviting, especially the ones on the islands. Since February, we have been seeking permission to visit a camp and now, at the end of our trip, we are being allowed inside Eleona camp in an industrial neighborhood of Athens. Our permission was only granted at the last minute, so just to be safe, we visited Skaramagkas (pronounced Skaramangas, with the accent on the last syllable.) It is located in a naval base outside Athens, near the port of Piraeus.
We knew that we wouldn’t be allowed in the camp, but went planning to talk with residents as they entered or left the camp and we found three willing to talk with us. Here’s a little on Danesh, a Kurd from northern Iraq.
Danesh made the trip with his wife and children and is quite the entrepreneur. Unsatisfied with the food in the camp, he set up his own restaurant inside the camp, offering a wide variety of middle eastern food. The camp has a five star review and shows up on Google Maps!
Here are some photos of Danesh and his children and the flag he is holding is the flag of Kurdistan, which I believe was made in the camp, as the flag normally has a sun with rays, his version has a circle.
Danesh has applied for relocation, has been interviewed and accepted and is waiting for his tickets. When applying for relocation, refugees are asked for their first choice (which is in no way guaranteed, they must accept any country they are accepted by.) The authorities must have been surprised when he chose Estonia (which has accepted him and his family.) He explains his reasoning here.
Danesh from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
We visited Welcommon, a shelter in the middle of Athens run by an NGO catering to refugees. Welcommon refurbished a large public health clinic that had been shuttered due to the economic crisis. Guests are selected by the UNCHR in its relocation program with priority given to vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, families with children, and the elderly. Here is their website.
We visited Welcommon with George Moschos, who was there in his capacity as Ombudsman for Children’s Rights. We spoke with Nikos Chrysogelos, the head of the shelter and two of the residents. In this post, I’d like to talk about Sayam.
Sayam is an Iraqi Kurd in her mid-twenties who was unique among the refugees we have met. First of all, she did not flee war, or sectarian violence, per se. Growing up in a secular family, she always had support from her parents, which she describes movingly in the clip below. She left Iraq to escape pressure from uncles and the society at large to be a subservient woman. She felt that only in Europe could she achieve her dreams and escape the oppression that she felt. She travelled alone and made it to Greece where she made friends and was living in squats. She recently found out about Welcommon and applied and is now living there, repaying her housing and food by volunteering as a translator. As you can hear, her English is excellent and she conducted an interview in Arabic for us with another resident, which I hope to post soon. She is planning to stay in Greece and is now taking acting lessons in addition to pursuing which she describes in this clip.
Sayam from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
When we started thinking about who to interview for this project, Philippe Leclerc, United Nations High Commission for Refugees was near the top of our list. A lawyer by training, Mr. Leclerc has worked with UNHCR for over 25 years and assumed his position as representative in Greece in late 2015, so he has been involved in the refugee crisis here since the beginning and was able to give us important background info, as well as telling us about the current situation and practices. http://www.delphiforum.gr/speakers/philippe-leclerc
Mr. Leclerc was affable and had an impressive command of the entire landscape. His answer were thoughtful and complete. He gave us a lengthy and wide-ranging interview wherein we discussed refugees movements of the past century, the agreement reached by the E.U. the special issues involving unaccompanied minors, the responses of the Greek government and the Greek people and what our responsibilities are to refugees. Here is a small taste:
Philippe Leclerc from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
Much of the work we have seen has been supported and/or administered by UNHCR. All of it has come about during his tenure and he oversees all the programs.
It has taken me over a week to write this post, as I was so moved my our time in Rovies. Rovies broke my heart. By that I mean it grew several sizes in sensitivity and empathy. Rovies is a wonderful place, as perfect as could be imagined. It is run by dedicated, smart, compassionate people. It’s a warm and loving environment, set in a small, lovely and welcoming community, sea on one side and mountains behind. And yet, in its very existence, it cannot succeed and cannot truly nourish people. It simply should not exist. It’s just not natural to have a holding place for people. Everyone is in limbo. No one wants to be there, they want to be on to the next step in their lives. Much better than any camp, whether a camp of tents or containers, the hotel is safe and welcoming, with numerous programs and services, yet it is still just a stop along the journey for its tenants.
The refugees who are in Greece at this moment fall into three categories:
1- People who are part of a reunification program. These are refugees who have relatives in other European countries and that is their ticket to a new home. They must apply for acceptance and the process can take up to several years (they can also be refused, there is no guarantee of acceptance.) These refugees have no interest in staying in Greece, in learning the language, even in having their children in school in Greece. Aside from food and medical services, they are only interested in English or German lessons.
2- People who are part of the relocation program. These people have applied for asylum in other European countries. Refugees from conflict areas are essentially the only ones eligible and if you’re not Syrian or Iraqi, you might as well forget it. This leaves out Afghans, Pakistanis, anyone from Africa.
3-Those who do not qualify for either of these categories are forced to take asylum in Greece or are deported. The asylum process takes a long time, as well.
The point I’m trying to make is that Rovies, as wonderful as it is (continue reading) is just a stop on the way for the refugees, a place to rest, a place to heal and to learn some of what they need, but they are they are paralyzed, unable to move back and uncertain about moving forward.
So, what’s so great about Rovies? First of all, Andreas, the owner of the hotel, who had to convince his family to allow the hotel to be filled with refugees, three meals a day and board for 17 euro/day (paid by the UN High Commission for Refugees through a Greek NGO called Solidarity Now that brings in services, like language teachers and administers the camp by hiring locals.) Zaphiris has a clip of Andreas at the end of his post that tells a lot about who he is.
Here Andreas tells why he thinks Rovies has worked as well as it has:
Andreas on Rovies location from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
I would love to share some of the stories of the refugees whom we met, but it’s been a struggle to translate their Arabic, there just aren’t enough hours in the day, so those clips will have to wait until we are done filming. In the meantime, here is a clip from Manar, the mother in a refugee family who has actually made the transition to living in Greece with her husband and three boys. Her husband is working in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, she is working as a teacher and translator in the hotel and their boys are enrolled in the Greek school in the village. They were living in the hotel and now have their own home in Rovies. Michel talks about their story in detail in his blog Manar’s Story. You can hear her explain why they left Syria in this clip:
Manar on why they left from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
You can’t talk about Hotel Rovies without mentioning the children. They are everywhere and they are having fun. Zaphiris mentions that they make a racket. He is being kind. Sometimes the noise is overwhelming and that is because they are comfortable and having fun. I would estimate that there are 50 or more children at the hotel including babies. We often struggled to find a place to interview our subjects because the lobby and the front courtyard (beautifully shaded by a canopy of mulberry trees) we so active and loud. The African saying of it takes a village to raise a child applies to Greece and to the countries where the refugees come from. The children are free to do as they will because everyone is always paying attention, including the hotel staff. Whenever the staff wasn’t elsewhere doing their jobs, they would be in the lobby and courtyard watching and interacting with the children. This clip of Antonis, manager of the hotel for Solidarity Now, the NGO funded by the UNHCR to provide services being greeted at the door by children. With him is Katerina, one of the locally hired teachers (she grew up and lives in Rovies.)
Antonis and Katerina with children from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Hotel Rovies is the staff. Every employee goes way beyond the duties of their job, especially in terms of taking care of the children. Throughout the day you see the staff playing with the children, minding them, comforting them and taking care of them as if they were their own. Whenever he’s not cooking in the kitchen below ground, Alexandros the chef is up in the lobby or in the front courtyard with the children, as is Athina, the chambermaid.
Of all the staff, Athina, the maid stood out to me and we did a long interview with her, down in the laundry room. She spoke openly and movingly of her life and how difficult the recent years have been for her, as she struggled to keep her family together in the economic crisis. She is the type of person who has been hit the most by the austerity measures and the lack of opportunity. A former police officer, she has had to scramble to take any job, all below her training and abilities. In order to keep her family in their hometown, where there are few jobs, she has taken seasonal work on faraway islands in hotels. She is grateful for this job that allows her to be home. When you see how hard she works and listening to how difficult her life has been, you realize that this is the life of most mothers throughout the world. She shared some of her thoughts in this clip.
Athina Voulgaropoulou from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
The saddest thing about Hotel Rovies is that this loving, safe haven might be at the end of its time. The UNHCR is moving away from housing refugees in hotels and transitioning people into apartments. The contract is ending soon and it looks as if it won’t be renewed. The staff will be let go and there will be one less safe place.
At this point, with our journey half over (but barely a quarter so in the blog, at this point, we have yet to report on the profound experience we had in Rovies) we are taking stock, figuring out what we still need, and massaging our schedule to make room for new stories and opportunities as they come rushing at us.
It’s a good time to assess how we’re working together and to fine tune our process. In short, I cannot be happier with the quality of the work we are getting or with how we are interacting with each other and with the people we meet.
In The Republic, Plato says that “The beginning is the most important part of the work” and certainly decisions we made early on have proven to be the right ones and have carried us along with fair weather and helpful winds.
First off, none of us would be here if it weren’t for my wife Judy, whose idea this was. Her support throughout the project, as well as through our long marriage is humbling. Judy knew how important this subject is to me and pointed out that Zaphiris and I are in a unique position to tell these stories. In addition to having a long and fruitful working relationship covering three continents, we are the closest of friends and there is no one better for this project. His attention to detail and his commitment to making the greatest images counteract my tendency to go with the flow. His empathy for all people comes through at all times and without exception, he has managed to create trust with the people we are working with.
In case it hasn’t been clear, our project thus far is entirely self-funded. That has happily forced us into making early decisions that turned out to be very good ones. I’ve filmed many documentaries, under many different circumstances and have learned that especially when travel is involved, less is more. The smaller the crew, the more intimate the relationship with our subjects and less of a circus atmosphere. Three is the perfect number. We don’t overwhelm our subjects and become the main event, with three sympathetic witnesses, the focus remains on them.
With three comes another possibility, that of traveling in one vehicle (leaving room for our gear.) Adding another vehicle adds so much more confusion and communication issues. A number of worthy people offered to come and work with us for free as we told friends about the project, but right from the start we had to say no as a larger crew would add headaches in every area.
So, who would be the lucky third member of our team? Only one person came to mind, and that was Michel. We knew that we wanted to be able to speak with refugees in their native tongue and for Syrians and Iraqis, that is Arabic. Michel’s experience of living in Lebanon and teaching in Arabic as well as his years as a journalist specializing in the Middle East made him the obvious choice.
Long before I met Michel 30 years ago, I had heard of him. A young lady I was seeing back in the 70s kept telling me about her REAL boyfriend, this larger than life guy named Michel, who was living in Greece and Lebanon. When I finally met him and in the years since, he has certainly lived up to the hype. Capable in so many areas, even-tempered and eternally curious, he has been a pleasure to be with evevry moment. His day job for years has been as an IT specialist and computer consultant. If you like the functionality and layout of the blog, as well as some of its content, all glory goes to him. He spent hours wrangling it into the shape it is in.
It goes without saying that his contributions in terms of understanding of the culture of the refugees have been invaluable.
Back in the states, I had substantial pre-production support from Alan Barker and Scott B in terms of getting the most out of our primary cameras. Johhny Ahdout was very generous in guiding me in the VR world. Simon Fanthorpe graciously lent us a camera as our B camera and Alex Naufel lent us a GoPro.
To all, thank you for making this such a wonderful experience!