Between Two Deaths – بين موتين

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:

 

More Rovies

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.

Manar’s Story

WARNING: This may be the longest and most convoluted blog post you will ever encounter. It talks about a particular family’s journey from Syria to Europe, but it also lays out the complex and opaque rules and procedures that govern their lives after they land on European soil. Because of its length, I’ve decided to try to bring some order by using sub headings from time to time.


INTRO

In Rovies last week we met Manar. Meeting her, we discovered that being well-educated, multi-lingual and cosmopolitan is no guarantee of success when you’re a refugee knocking on Europe’s doors. Manar, her husband and her three children are from Syria. I’m going to leave out many personal details because of their fears for family members still in Syria. What I can talk about is what they faced when they arrived in Greece and how the clumsy system that has been put in place and tasked with integrating the refugees into Europe has enormous consequences for thousands of lives. What happened to Manar’s family after they fell within the purview of that system is just one example.

Manar teaching the morning English class at Hotel Rovies

Manar and her husband are both university-educated professionals. Their life in Syria was comfortable and quiet, until they ran afoul of the Assad government. I can’t go into details, but I can say that the reasons behind this were both principled and courageous. Any country, learning their story, should have seen in them ideal candidates to become future citizens.

When things turned dangerous for them, it happened very quickly, and they had to pack up their children and flee immediately with what they could carry. To avoid detection, they split up on their journey out of Syria. Until they met again in Turkey, they had no news of each other’s fate.

In the months after their departure they learned that their house had been destroyed by government shelling, after which everything of any value had been pillaged by rival militia groups. They literally have nothing left to return to in the country that was their home.

They arrived in Greece after a difficult and dangerous journey and discovered, as have so many refugees, that the northern border had been closed with barbed wire and that leaving Greece was now, in practical terms, impossible. They now had three options available to them.

ASYLUM, RE-UNIFICATION AND RELOCATION

Under the current regulations adopted by the EU as a result of a continuing and rancorous debate over how to deal with the refugees, all refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in. Of course, even now many don’t. Refugees arriving in Greece, in particular, quickly discover – if they didn’t already know – that the austerity regime imposed on Greece by the EU has plunged the country into a 7-year economic depression by many measures worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment is at record levels, economic activity has been decimated, pensions have been cut, and old people are reduced to begging while the young flee the country – economic refugees themselves. Many refugees, particularly young men, find ways to leave Greece illegally, over the northern hills or clinging to the undersides of trucks leaving the port of Patras for Italy.

The EU has established two programs under which refugees can apply to move elsewhere from their country of arrival: relocation and family reunification. One of us will be discussing family reunification in another post. Since Manar and her family didn’t have close family members in Europe, their only option to leave Greece became the relocation program.

Under this program, refugees can apply to emigrate from their country of arrival to another EU country. In practice, this process is completely opaque to the applicants. First, a refugee – or family – must apply to enter the relocation program. If accepted, their file will be forwarded to one of the participating EU countries, generally without the applicants being informed of which country has been chosen for them. The chosen country then vets the application and makes a decision, with little or no input from the applicants. If the country refuses, grounds for refusal are not disclosed to the applicants, and they have no opportunity to address any deficiencies or concerns that may have led to their refusal. Finally, and most importantly, there is no provision to allow them to apply to other countries; a refusal by any country is considered a refusal by all.

ENCOUNTER WITH THE SYSTEM

This sequence of events played out almost exactly in Manar and her family’s case. First, the family had to apply for relocation via Skype. This involved waiting for days with the whole family in front of a cellphone in their tent until someone was available at the other end. They were then photographed remotely and told their file would be forwarded to a participating country. (Not all members of the EU participate. Most of the former Soviet bloc countries, in fact, are currently refusing to accept refugees.)

Some time later, Manar’s family received a notice to travel to the French embassy for an interview. The family took a 6-hour bus ride from northern Greece to Athens, where they waited several more hours due to a scheduling mistake at the embassy. The interview finally took place and they were told to expect a reply within a month. A month and a half later they were contacted and told to report to the Greek asylum authorities to hear the decision. There, they were told that France had refused them, that the grounds for refusal were secret and that – to their bewilderment – they had no option to apply to another country. Here’s Manar reflecting on the moment when they received the decision.

Manar on relocation rejection from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

When I first heard Manar’s account I was sure that something was wrong – that they’d been given incorrect information, that someone had taken a dislike to them, or that they’d misunderstood the options available to them. In fact, Manar’s experience sounded so Kafkaesque that we decided to do more research before blogging about it. Since then, we’ve verified Manar’s description with a variety of sources, including people doing legal support for refugees, the office of the Greek Ombudsman for Children, and even the head of UNHCR in Greece. This completely opaque and top-down system is being encountered by thousands of refugees every year; people who have already lost their former lives, their possessions and their loved ones arrive in Europe to be confronted with a bureaucracy that disempowers them and determines their future at the stroke of a pen.

Ironically, this system, largely designed for security, seems to fail even at that task: numerous refugees have recounted to us watching North Africans with fake Syrian passports and even self-declared IS members pass through the system and leave for other countries.

At the end of our interview we asked Manar to reflect upon her family’s journey, upon the upheaval and danger they have been through, and upon the disappointments that have accompanied their arrival in Europe. I listened to her words with mounting respect for her ability to accept and surmount adversity.

Manar on acceptance from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Back to Rovies

Evia is Greece’s second largest island, after Crete. Because it lies just east of the Greek mainland, many people don’t even realize that it’s an island. After filming in Thermopyles, our next destination was Hotel Rovies, on Evia.

We left Athens in the afternoon, driving 150km north on the main highway to Arkitsa to take the 45-minute ferry that crosses Evoiko bay to the harbor at Aidipso. From there, Rovies is a 20 minute drive. Waiting for the ferry, a rainstorm broke out, proving my decision to use this way instead of the winding mountainous road through Evia.

When we arrived at Hotel Rovies at ten o’clock at night, we were welcomed by Andrea and Antoni. I was happy to meet Andrea Vasiliou again, the owner of the hotel who responded to a call by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, for Greek hotels to host refugees as part of an accommodation program funded by the European Commission.

Hotel Rovies is a special place. It’s in the village of Rovies, a seaside resort with a population of about 1000 during the winter.

Andreas’ hotel has become a temporary home for asylum-seekers, largely from Syria, about half of whom are children who make noise all the time. The racket is a sign that these kids feel safe and happy.

Vasiliou and his staff, along with Antoni Grigorako and his team of 10 locals that are hired by SolidarityNow, a Greek NGO, help the refugees to rest on their long journey in a safe and friendly environment. Andreas and Antonis  both live in the hotel and they are available on a 24 hour basis, creating a collective  environment where refugees can eat, work and live all together – and learn from each other.

Most refugees staying here are among those who may eventually find new homes elsewhere in Europe under the reunification and relocation program. Two groups have already left and the ones remaining wait for their departure, as the accommodation program in hotels is about to end and the UNHCR is oriented towards renting apartments. However, not all have permission to leave Greece and I wonder what will happen to them.

In the morning, Manar, a Syrian refugee herself, has created three classes teaching English to the little ones in the reception hall. Children attend classes in German, English and French, taught by the Solidarity Now teachers in a nearby shop that has been turned into a classroom. On my initial research into this place I found some reports of big opposition by the locals to the presence of the refugees. Whatever the case, it seems resistance was smoothed out when the refugee children cleaned the 1 kilometer of beach in front of the village, along with creating mural paintings on the wall of the local school and other activities.

We spent four days at Hotel Rovies, getting to know the residents and the staff, and letting them get to know us.
We met Salam, a 10 year old girl, who takes care of her 25 year old blind brother and her 23 year old developmentally disabled sister, on their long journey to reunite with their mother in Sweden.

Manar and Andreas discuss Salam’s papers from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Malak is Syrian Kurd who fled his home with his wife and his six children. A non-citizen in Syria due to his Kurdish origins, he was “offered” an ID in return for joining the Syrian Army and Assad’s war against the rebels. He refused, which meant almost certain retribution, making it impossible for him and his family to stay in Syria. He is a handyman who, in the course of a difficult life has acquired many skills, and works every day in various jobs in the hotel and the village. On several occasions he baked delicious Middle Eastern pastries.

Manar and her family were rejected for asylum by France and she and her husband and their three children are now stuck in Greece, probably for good. According to the refugees, when somebody is rejected by any country they no longer have the right to apply to another country and are dropped from the asylum program. They then are officially blocked in Greece and normally have to move to a refugee camp. In talking to the refugees, we realized that we need to explore and better understand the details of these procedures, which we will be doing now that we are back in Athens. In the case of Manar’s family, Andreas stepped in and helped them find work and housed them. Manar is working as a translator and teacher for SolidarityNow and her husband works as a doctor, while their children attend the village public school. Amazingly, the children already speak fluent Greek. In some ways, their story is a success story, despite the upheaval, the danger and the disappointments, and in our interview with her Manar spoke eloquently about the importance of acceptance.

On our last day in Rovies we met two brothers, Khalid, 19 years old and Ali, who is 17 years old. Their family is scattered in four countries. The father is still in Syria, due to age and infirmity, while their mother and a younger sibling are stuck in a Turkish refugee camp because the family didn’t have enough money to pay smugglers for all of them to pass. At the other end, in Germany they have an older brother and an uncle, and the plan was to reunite the family in Germany. However, Ali, the younger one, was rejected by Germany, and Khalid won’t leave without him, so they are now faced with the possibility of never being reunited with any of the rest of their family. They spoke to us in their humble room as the light was fading, Khalid recounting their story in a soft shy voice, made the Arabic sound like a prayer.

Later we played clips from our Rovies footage on the TV in the reception hall, including footage of the refugee women cooking their traditional meals in the bustling collective kitchen and it was a big success.

There is a saying that if the head of a fish stinks, the entire fish stinks. The other side applies, as well. The goodness that exists in Rovies begins with Andrea.

Andreas from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.