There is a refugee crisis unfolding in Greece that no one wants to own. This is a European humanitarian crisis that Europe has turned its back on, one which even the UN has chastised everyone about while not putting boots on the ground in any adequate form. Already more than a Titanic’s worth of people have died trying to reach the safety of Europe, and it will only get worse.
For the longest time it’s been knocking on my door, asking for attention. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go to look, I didn’t know how to help, or I was afraid to ask, all of which came together to make sure I kept looking the other way. Until one day I ran out of excuses, and spurned on by an article which I delayed and delayed and delayed writing, I finally came face to face with the tragedy of our times. I hope you’ll read this to the end and I hope you’ll feel as outraged as I did.
At the doorway of the building that houses Melissa Network, one of its founders, Nadina Christopoulou groans as she steps over litter on the steps to unlock the door. Anyone else might not notice the small scraps of blood-stained tissue and the single dark red splatter on the white marble steps, but Nadina sees them and knows these are the leftovers of the previous night’s drug-taking activities. “It’s like this every single day” she says.
This is downtown Athens, Victoria to be precise, and the Melissa Network, an organisation that started out as a place to help migrant women network and empower themselves suddenly found a humanitarian crisis on its doorstep.
A few streets away is Pedion Areos, the park that became the de facto refugee camp for hundreds of refugees as they made their way to Greece to go onwards to other countries.
Nadina rushes around the room tidying things out of the way. They are expecting a few more journalists and visitors. Finding a tragedy unfolding on their doorstep and with the authorities not able, or not willing, to help, the organisation decided it was up to them to do something.
“As a mother, when you see this situation unfolding in front of you, you cannot rest. It eats away at you.” says Nadina. And so the women of the organisation, using their own resources, came up with the idea of providing homemade breakfasts every day to the children of Pedion Areos.
“The idea was for whatever we gave to be homemade, to provide a sense of home. The breakfasts for the children provided a symbolic meaning, a meal at the start of the day for these children who had to make such a perilous journey at the start of their lives.”
The operation was a 24 hour undertaking. Sourcing, preparing, packing and distributing the meals every day, they slowly gathered the backing of local businesses which pitched in to donate fruit and other ingredients. Operating on a shoestring budget, they roped in visiting journalists and photographers to help.
But, says Nadina, despite the enthusiasm, despite their merry spirits as they went each day to give out the breakfasts, the operation always left them feeling crestfallen afterwards that more wasn’t being done.
“When we went there, immediately afterwards there was a sense of sadness. We were all frustrated because we knew it wasn’t enough.” Nadina said “It’s a moment when you realise you really can’t solve the problems and you can’t address all the needs. But then we’d pull up our sleeves again and prepare for the next meal.”
“This situation exceeded us all. It should not be left to Greece alone to deal with . This is a global issue, it should be dealt with globally. If we as an organisation of migrant women can provide something, I’m sure a lot more people with greater capacity can provide a lot more.”
Now that the refugees have moved on, their focus is on dealing with the aftermath. The fact that so many refugees use Greece as a transit point has the potential to spark negative sentiments, Nadina explains. Her hope is that their advocacy work will help provide strong role models and reverse stereotypes. “We thought it’s high time that we try to reverse negative stereotypes and provide positive role models. Migrant women live here and are raising families here. They are integrators and multipliers. Whatever little you give them they will multiply in no time.”
Two more founding members, Debbie from the Phillipines, and Maria from Nigeria arrive. We chat together for a while about our common experiences, our lives in our countries of origin and how we sometimes feel like two dimensional caricatures. I joke with Maria about the ridiculous variety of needlecrafts we both know as a result of formative years spent in a world before the internet and where the movement of females was restricted.
By the time I leave, the women have already cleared away the leftovers of yesterday’s drug taking. It will no doubt be back again the next morning. I walk back to the metro station, taking a detour to look at Pedion Areos. There is almost no one there now. Only the portable toilets and grass that has been worn away to dust leave any hint of the previous residents.
A few days later, I meet Samar, a Palestinian student studying in Athens, who has offered to translate for me as I speak to refugees. As I wait for her outside Omonia station, I try to pick out who to talk to, and then I see them.
The scene playing out doesn’t immediately look out of place given the multicultural nature of the location. A few adults sit as two toddlers dressed in pink stomp around, their mothers chasing behind. They might be visiting family in the area, or taking a break on their way to somewhere else.
Then you realise that this is Omonia square, and the middle of a busy intersection is not normally where you see children playing. You realise the family is not moving on. As you get closer, you see the exhausted expressions of the adults, the dishevelled clothes and hair, and notice the grime on the babies which, in the constant mess of Omonia square, the parents have given up trying to clean, saving precious resources like baby wipes for when they’re really needed.
We approach and Samar politely explains what I’m doing and asks if they’ll talk to us. “No problem” they reply. I begin my questions, asking the usual article fodder – who they are, how they got here. Several of the adults talk at the same time, grabbing the chance to vent their frustration at how they’ve been treated, both in Turkey where one couple with their child were forbidden from even talking in their flat, to the children being made to sleep out in the open for four days in Kos. Samar jumps between them, translating as quickly as she can.
When I ask why so many from Syria are leaving this year compared to previous years, Samar doesn’t need to translate. “Daesh” several of the adults answer together – Islamic State.
Rashid Abdul is from Aleppo. He travelled to Kos from Izmir with his wife, one year old daughter and nine year old son. They have no money, and were given no further instructions about what to do once they got to Athens or where to go. “We don’t want to stay in Greece,” he says “We want to go to Germany or Denmark. We’ll walk if we have to.”
They talk to Samar and she turns to me. “They’re asking if you’re just going to write about them or if you can help.” I’m more than glad to and hoist one of the babies onto my hip as we head to a nearby supermarket. Samar tells me the mothers are asking who I represent “No one,” I say “Just tell them I have kids too.”
The mothers buy milk and fruit for the children. I call Nadina. She explains they should go to Elaionas camp and sends me the number of an Arabic speaking doctor there.
Back in the square, we tell the rest of the group this information. Samar writes the name and number of the doctor onto a piece of paper for them. But they are hesitant. They’re waiting for some more people they say. How about just the mothers and children, then? They still won’t go. They tell us their friends will be there in an hour, so I decide to use the time to get some groceries from Menandrou street.
We decamp to my favourite Pakistani restaurant for a cup of tea. I read the back of a henna packet I bought for my hair. “What do you put in it?” Samar asks. I tell her. It turns out her mother’s recipe is exactly the same as mine – lemon, water, egg and olive oil. We talk about the refugees and wonder why they won’t take up the offer of going to the camp.
When we get back to the square, at first I think I’ve lost the family, but we spot them again. The young couple’s baby, dressed in stained pink clothes, is crying. “This is a boy” the baby’s mother says. His father points to the applique teddy bear on the baby’s clothes. “I used to run a factory that makes these.” he says. They are Syrian kurds. His wife used to be an accountant.
“For three years, we tried to be patient that maybe things will get better. Now we see that nothing is happening and we decided to leave.” they say. They are the couple who were banned from speaking in their flat in Turkey. Their baby is fussing, so I pick him up and rock him like I do with my own children, and he falls asleep. His mother slaps her leg and starts talking and I know before Samar says anything that this is the international body language of a mother whose child just did something for a stranger that they won’t do for their parents. “He hasn’t slept in days.” she says. “Now look!”
“Which way do we need to go to reach Macedonia?” someone else asks. I have no idea who told them they can walk all the way to the northern border. Samar tries again to get them to go to the camp but no matter what we say, they are adamant they won’t go. It takes another two hours for the reason to come out – they say that while they were on Kos, they were each asked to pay EUR 10 to get on a bus they were told would take them to a camp with facilities. The bus was for 25 people, around 50 were squeezed in and taken to the middle of nowhere. I haven’t been able to verify this claim.
I’m not sure what else to do, and the baby boy is crying again so I buy the two babies a chunky komboloi each from a one euro shop. I give them to the babies and start to fold up the plastic bag when one of the father gestures to have it. In this life in transit, absolutely nothing must go to waste.
A local Syrian who has been in Greece for ten years turns up. “I come here every day to help.” he says, but who is helping and who is exploiting are often impossible to separate. Sometimes they’re doing both. The local Syrian keeps telling us about a travel agency he works for. He might genuinely want to help, or he might just be trying to drum up business for the company.
After another half hour, it’s time for me to go home. I can’t think of what else I can do to help as I look at the little child asleep in my arms, mouth open, dark eyelashes fluttering as he dreams. His nose is sunburned. I feel so completely impotent as I hand the baby back to his mother. The other baby, the girl carried to the supermarket and who chatted away to me as if I could understand her, must have sought shade somewhere else with her own mother. I don’t see either of them. I wish everyone luck and head to the metro, feeling wretched.
These people have been exploited at every turn. Even I was only there because I wanted something from them, even if it was just their story.
I come home and drink a cup of hot tea to try and stop the pain in my stomach. It doesn’t work. As the sun shifts westward, I wonder about the family and where they must be. Night falls and the wind blows. It’s not cold, but it’s not warm either for a baby out in the open. My children are asleep in their beds. Is the baby I held sleeping? Is he awake? Is he hungry?
Where are they now? Did they get on a bus to the northern border? Will they make it across? Are people being kind to them? I don’t know. They have my number. I don’t have theirs. For a thin sliver of time, our paths crossed. Most possibly I will never find out where they went next and what lives they will lead.
Not that many years ago, these people were as ordinary as you or me. Their houses were probably tidier than yours, their children clean and bathed. No one, and I can tell you as a mother, no parent wakes up one day and decides that the life of a refugee sounds good. Try to imagine if you can the courage it took for these parents to decide to put their children on a boat that could very possibly sink in the middle of the night in a cold, dark sea. You can’t imagine, neither can I, because we are lucky enough never to have had to make that choice. Imagine that that choice was still better than the alternatives they faced.
These are intelligent people who have pride and who would much rather be in a place that’s familiar, speaking a language they know, eating food they grew up with. Just like you and me.
Nothing more than a random series of events separates our lives from theirs. We are just on the right side of the sea or on the right side of the border. Refugee crises are not new to Europe – inspect your own family tree and you might be surprised at what you find. I know in my own case, my grandfather was a refugee from India to Pakistan in 1947. Had it not been for the kindness of random strangers, I wouldn’t be here today either.
The refugees coming to Europe put themselves at our mercy. You don’t need a translator to understand when you are unwelcome. Contempt is a universal language.
But so is kindness.
Winter is coming. The seas will get rough and cold, the crossings more dangerous and the conditions harder. Tourists and journalists will stop coming to the islands. This is what all the volunteers fear. If you would like to help by sending supplies to Greece, a list of solidarity groups can be located here. Follow the #RefugeesGr hashtag on twitter to track who needs what, as well as Eric Kempson in Lesvos and Teacher Dude in Thessaloniki. A wishlist of badly needed items has been created here by Eric Kempson.
And if you can’t help through material items, you can help by changing your mind about Europe’s refugee crisis and not permitting your politicians to use this tragedy as a way of gaining votes or frightening you into thinking that they are so very different from you.
(If you belong to an organisation that needs donations please let me know so I can add you too)