From the beginning of this project we had set as our goal to show the human side of the refugee crisis and not ignore, but leave in the background the politics involved.
For weeks, I had been asking City Plaza to give us a person from their legal support services to clarify for us the framework of the laws protecting the refugees. On our last day of principal photography the message arrived, with contact information for a very prominent lawyer. When I called, that lawyer was busy that day and she referred us to her partner. The partner turned out to be Vassilis Papadopoulos, former General Secretary of the Ministry of Immigration and after checking our blog he agreed to talk to us. It would be our last interview in this stage of the project.
A lot of what follows hinges on the EU-Turkey statement. Here’s some info about that statement, which was implemented on the 20 of March of 2016 and which crucially states in its first point “All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.”
Up until our interview with Vassilis Papadopoulos we had talked to two people who were very critical about the EU-Turkey statement and who linked the statement to the terrible conditions in the camps, but they were activists. We felt we needed a less ideological analysis to either support or refute these critiques.
Then came Mr Papadopoulos, who was just such a source. As a former government official dealing closely with the fallout from the EU-Turkey statement, he was fully qualified to offer the analysis we needed. We were all somewhat surprised when he largely validated what the two previous persons had told us.
Beyond that, he explained to us in detail the rights of refugees under the Geneva Convention and the implications of the geographical limitation imposed by Turkey on its unwillingness to abide by this convention. It turns out there is a good reason Turkey is not considered a safe country by many refugees. Basically Turkey gives refugee status only to people coming from Europe, the rest have none of the legal protection envisioned by the Geneva Convention for all persons, regardless of origin.
The Greek government has imposed the restriction of movement inside the first entry islands as a way to stop the flow. The bad conditions in the Greek islands, are not due simply to a lack of resources or poor planning, but it is a policy of the Greek state in order to stop the flow.
Towards the end of our interview Mr Papadopoulos talked about the ongoing fight that goes on in Europe and the rest of the world, over the just application of human rights, and how the current refugee crisis is triggering conflicts and discussions that will determine the future of Europe as a democratic region.
The idea that comes to my mind is that the rise of fascism is dictating the policy of the European Community. The extreme right is using the fear of refugees to appeal to their electorate and gain votes. Their success makes the rest of the parties uneasy and is slowly but surely forcing them to adopt the same rhetoric and finally the same policies.
There is fight going on in the whole world, a fight over the distribution of wealth. Migration is a part of this fight, as are those who are for it and those who are against it. People that support migration think of it as a re-distribution of wealth between the rich European countries, USA, Canada and Australia, and the poor countries of Asia and Africa, and they fight for it as part of a global vision of justice and equality.
How do you feel when you are lifting your child onto a desperately overloaded, leaky, half-deflated rubber raft with a sputtering motor, with everything you had built in the life behind you destroyed forever and the very real possibility that some or all of you may drown in the coming hours?
This question came up with my colleague and co-translator, Manar, while reviewing one of the Arabic-language interviews from last month’s shoot in Greece, where our interviewee was describing just such a moment. Refugees from Syria themselves, Manar and her family have faced this moment also. I asked her what she felt as she passed her children across a sea of people into the raft that was supposed to take them from Turkey to Greece – a 12-mile journey that has cost the lives of hundreds of desperate people in the last few years.
Manar answered without hesitating, an Arabic phrase that caught me up short then and kept coming back to me in the days after I left Greece and joined my son for a bike ride in Switzerland and France. I’d look at him, pedaling next to me, and think about what I’d have done in Manar’s situation – or that of thousands of other parents who have stood on the same shore and made the same enormous gamble with destiny.
Refugees arrive on Lesvos, 2015 (photo: Zaphiris Epaminondas)
What Manar told me was, ‘We stood there, and I felt we were ” بين موتين” – between two deaths. Behind us was death, and everything we had was gone. And in front of us was death. I knew that we might all die, or – much worse – that only some of us would get to the other side. But we had no choice. This was our only road.”
I still think about this often. I think about it from the point of view of any parent who has spent years shepherding children along the path to adulthood, protecting them from danger when necessary. I also think about the political dimension. Why have so many thousands of people found themselves forced to cross in dangerous, unseaworthy boats, having paid enormous sums to criminal operations run by smugglers, and often after physical mistreatment and abuse? Why have so many died, so many been injured, so many been left for days drifting at sea? Why were there no ferries – the very same ferries that already exist to transport tourists between the Greek islands and the Turkish mainland? At the height of the crisis, tourists from the US and Europe would often be the ones to spot these refugee rafts from the safety of their deck chairs. It is true that the crisis ramped up very suddenly. Nevertheless, months and now years have passed and no such provisions have been made – why is that? It certainly would not require unusual efforts and vision to put such a policy in place.
We had glimpses of a disturbing answer from several of our interviews. At the beginning, because our interviewees were not involved in making policy, we saw them as allegations, not necessarily true. As we began to interview policy-makers we found more and more evidence that the lack of a creative response to the dangerous water crossings, like so many others having to do with the refugees, is not the result of a well-meaning but inadequate effort: it is the result of a clear – although rarely public – policy of the European Union. We interviewed Vassilis Papadopoulos, former General Secretary for Migration Policy, and asked him about how the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016 represented the policy of the EU towards the refugees and determined the conditions of their entrance onto European soil. His answer cast a lot of light on my questions:
City Plaza is a squat that houses refugees. They don’t accept funding from governments or NGOs and they are entirely supported by donations and volunteers in solidarity, from Greece and around the world.
It’s a seven-story building in the middle of Athens that used to be a hotel. It houses 400 people from 7 different countries. By contrast, most official centers are located either on the outskirts of towns or in rural or industrial areas.
People have privacy in their rooms, they live with dignity and City Plaza operates more like a hotel. Because it is located in a thriving urban environment, the residents live as close as possible to a “normal” life, with access to shopping, services and even work opportunities. They have three meals a day that they cook themselves, and have access to basic needs, language courses, basic health care and legal help.
To deal with EU bureaucracy you definitely need help especially if you don’t speak Greek or English. Refugees and volunteers live and work together taking shifts in the kitchen and cleaning the premises. All decisions are made in group meetings.
“We live together – solidarity will win” is the motto of City Plaza. The hotel demonstrates every day that even in a situation of crisis and poverty it is possible to welcome people with open arms and to create dignified living conditions for all.
The atmosphere of the place grabs you when you first walk in. It’s quite a contrast to the depression you see in the camps. Residents say that “City Plaza is the best hotel in Europe”.
We spent time with Behfar, 24, who left Iran with his parents and younger brother. After their long journey to Greece, they found City Plaza and rested for 4 months. Their goal was to make it to northern Europe, but they got stuck in Serbia and then Hungary. After seven months on the road they returned to Athens and City Plaza. It felt like home and they decided to stay in Greece. Behfar had one more reason to come back. He has fallen in love with an Italian volunteer, “the most beautiful girl in the world”. He is starting a job as a translator this week and goes to school every day. He runs the open air cinema that operates on the roof of the building.
In this clip Behfar talks about his decision to stay in Greece.
On June 7th a rumor ran through the refugee community that the order was given to evacuate squats that operate in the city. Later in the day City Plaza published a defiant letter to everyone vowing to resist any attempt to evacuate the building.
There’s another, disarmingly simple way into the austerity story. Yesterday, walking up one of the neighborhood’s main commercial streets, I noticed I’d just passed several empty storefronts in succession. Empty storefronts aren’t unusual, but three or four in a row caught my attention. I realized that I’d been walking by these places for the last three weeks without understanding their significance. I decided to walk the immediate neighborhood and try to get a sense of how many places were out of business.
What I discovered astounded me. It’s easy, in the bustle of a street full of pedestrians, with Athens’ crazy traffic and 6″ wide sidewalks, to never notice what you’re passing. When you look more carefully, what you find is stunning.
Zafiri’s neighborhood, Xalandri, is among the wealthiest areas of Athens. Proportionally, it has suffered far less than most from the effects of austerity. Yet, even in Xalandri, the effects are enormous. Here are some photographs that encompass an area equivalent to about 3 or 4 U.S. city blocks:
Austerity in Greece is hundreds of thousands or millions of people with no hope for today and no expectation of a better tomorrow. It is towns and cities with shuttered, empty businesses on every block. Greece has always been a nation of small shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. Other than the big shipping empires, it has almost no big industry, no multinational headquarters, no vast industrial zones. Austerity has preferentially killed these small economic engines, reduced their owners to penury, and, in doing so, hollowed out the Greek economy from inside. The shell still glitters, but the hopes of millions of families for a better future – the hopes that underpinned the whole thing – have been dashed.
I’m not an economist, but to me this defies common sense. It seems intuitively obvious to me that reducing a country to poverty is not a policy likely to ensure the repayment of debts. Destituting a large part of a country’s population, the vast majority of whom have had no connection with the economic problems that led to the crisis, looks to me like a form of economic warfare with untold numbers of innocent casualties.
When I arrived in Greece three weeks ago I couldn’t really find the signs of austerity. Three weeks later, they’re inescapable.
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:
At first glance, not like much. If you’re a casual observer, just arrived in Athens and looking for a place to eat, austerity can look like this:
Or even this:
The streets are lively and verdant, and the Mediterranean sun still makes everything look just a bit better, especially if you’ve just arrived from 6 months of Portland rain.
In case you’re not sure what I mean by ‘austerity’, I’m referring to the economic stranglehold placed on Greece by the European Union. Essentially, Greece has been forced by the EU to declare bankruptcy. A large part of Greece’s national assets have been privatized and/or turned over to the EU, and severe economic controls have been imposed. Greece no longer makes its own economic policy: entire ministries are no longer even run by Greeks. A large contributing factor to the situation the Greeks are in was the 2008 real estate crash in the U.S. So, in a very real sense, the Greeks are being asked to pay for the sins of the American banksters who also brought the U.S. economy to the brink of ruin.
I’d done quite a bit of research on all this before coming. I knew a lot of facts and figures: unemployment numbers (astronomical), suicides among suddenly destitute pensioners (thousands), the vast amount of debt that the EU has imposed on the Greek people in order to keep Europe’s banking system afloat (and, not coincidentally, shake a warning finger at Italy, Spain and France). But for days I didn’t see those facts and figures as I looked around me. We’d pass tourist buses emptying their vacation-goers onto the sidewalks and I’d think how easily one could come here and not notice anything amiss. I, myself, was having trouble finding the cracks in the façade.
Then I met Kyria Eleni – Helen, as she introduced herself to me in South African English.
Helen sits on a wall beside the church, dressed as my old Swiss aunts used to dress, very dignified, very proper. On closer inspection, her clothes are threadbare. They were bought in another era, when she could afford quality. She holds a plastic cup, but she keeps it half covered. She could easily be resting and having a cool drink by the church. She speaks to passers-by, but in such a quiet, timorous voice that most pass by in the bustle and never notice.
I’ve spent some time getting to know Helen. Her perfect English has made the task much easier. In getting to know her, I’ve found a window into what austerity has done to Greece.
Helen was born and spent her childhood on one of the Greek islands. From her description, her family was upper middle class. In her youth, the entire family emigrated to the thriving Greek community in Cape Town, South Africa, where she lived for another three decades. In South Africa, the family owned a string of shops, and prospered. Over the years, they sent money back to family members in Greece to establish shops in the Athens area. Helen finished her schooling in Cape Town, married and had a son.
In the mid-eighties, she and her husband returned to Greece, where they took over the family businesses that had been set up with the money sent from South Africa. For about 15 years, things went well. Again, the busineses prospered and the family lived a secure, predictable life.
Not all of their subsequent problems were the result of austerity. It would be fairer to say that austerity sealed their fate, pushed them over the final cliff. A few years before the austerity regime was imposed on Greece, Helen and husband began to experience competition from larger supermarket chains that were moving into Athens neighborhoods. They were forced to close several of their shops, and tighten their belts economically. At the same time, their customers were also falling on hard times. They started allowing long-time customers to buy on account, but were in turn forced to take loans as their revenues sagged.
Then Helen’s husband passed away suddenly. In Helen’s view, the stress of business was what killed him. Helen and her son were left to try to save the family business, and they might have succeeded, were it not for the EU and austerity. When austerity came, suddenly no one had any money. Pensions were cut drastically, bank withdrawal controls were imposed, credit was impossible to find, and shops and businesses began to fail by the thousands. Almost overnight, all their options disappeared, all their loans came due, everything that had been put aside vanished, and in short order they lost their business and their home and found themselves on the street.
John went through a divorce at about the same time, and now he and his mother share a small apartment with no furniture, no water and no electricity. He explained to us how his education, his business experience and, above all, his age, made his prospects for finding a job even worse.
Meeting Helen had an interesting effect on my ability to see things around me. Where before I hardly noticed them, now I see the beggars in every square and neighborhood. Mostly old people and often, like Helen, in clothes that used to advertise their solid, normal lives and now, worn and threadbare, illustrate their complete destitution.
Coda – 3 July 2017
On my last day in Athens I walked up to the Xalandri square to say my goodbyes to Helen – and John, as he happened to be there with his Mom. We chatted for a few moments about my plans to bike in the Alps with my son, Kiran, and to spend some time in Italy. Then Helen suddenly exclaimed, ‘I was forgetting, I brought something to show you.’ She reached into a pocket and brought out a photograph and handed it to me, saying, ‘this is me back before all this happened. This is how we were, how we lived. This is how far we’ve fallen.’ Here’s the photo she showed me: