Category Archives: Greece

Welcome to Pakistan

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It had been a very long day. Actually, it had been almost two days. I looked to my left and across the aisle I could see the twilight spreading across Multan below our airplane. It’s that hazy blue and orange, the light scattering from the dust in the air to create soft edges on everything, even the light itself. I don’t know if this dusk exists in other places too. I saw thousands of these dusks and never gave them a second thought until I couldn’t watch them on a whim any more.

An hour later, we’d arrived. The plane bumped onto the tarmac in the city where Alexander the Great is said to have met his fate with a poisoned arrow, and I turn to my kids who were prodding at the inflight entertainment screens and said “Welcome to Pakistan!”

The plan had come together spontaneously as most good plans do. I realised that my kids were now old enough for them to remember this trip, which happened at a time when I was getting really fed up with the kind of things I heard about Pakistan from the average Greek who had formed their opinions on the country based entirely on hysterical news reports and Europe’s growing Islamophobia.

Part of me wondered if it was me who was crazy and if I should go back and double check that the country really was so awful and I just didn’t know it. Faced with thoughtless comments about Pakistanis which were sometimes made in the presence of my children, I realised no matter what my own slightly confused relationship was with Pakistan, I alone was responsible for helping my children become acquainted with the other half of their heritage. “We’ll be gone for a couple of weeks,” I told my youngest son’s nursery teacher. “We’re going to Pakistan.”

She looked at me in alarm. Of course she would, Pakistan never makes it into Greek news unless something terrible happens there.

But she didn’t know about the winter evenings nestled under thick cotton blankets eating pine nuts still hot from the vendor’s cart, or the taste of sour village butter, or my hometown on the edge of a desert, the capital of a once-princely state ruled by nawabs, or the sticky, hot curls of jalebis that you couldn’t wait to taste as you peeled them off folds of newspaper.

It’s strange, because I’m not overly sentimental about the place I grew up. When my parents said we were moving to the UK, I was the only one of my sisters who was thrilled. I’ve moved countries twice now and don’t really feel like I belong anywhere, but having children and watching them reach an age where they ask their father about the places he went as a child and the things he did made me want to do the same. I found myself thinking of showing my own children the street where I used to play and the school I went to, so when the opportunity presented itself to take my kids to Pakistan, I took it.

What follows are some of the things we saw, experienced and tasted, because beyond the terrorism and the frightening geopolitics there is a country where people still live, where the people who knew me as a little girl now wait to see that little girl’s children, people who I remember as towering giants are now shorter than me. They clasp their hands and exclaim “Mashallah!” that the stubborn little girl who told everyone who would listen that she would become a journalist actually went through with her childhood plan, and is still just as stubborn.

A place where everything has changed and still nothing has changed. The hand-painted signs have been replaced with LED lights, but the hot jalebis still taste as good.

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Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

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There’s a game I sometimes like to play when people ask me where I’m from. I’ll challenge them to guess, and shake my head at all their wrong answers. Egypt? Brazil? Israel? Spain? Lebanon? Mexico? Barbados? No, no and no. So far, no one has ever got it right, and I’ve been playing this game for over a decade now. I really should start bringing money into the equation.

I don’t look like enough of any one thing to be easily placed. I don’t look like enough of an ethnic minority. Dressing the way I do and acting the way I do automatically excludes me from almost every narrative of muslim women that the mainstream media uses. You won’t find me with a national flag wrapped around my head like a hijab when out protesting. Even though I still lose sleep over the same issues that affect immigrant women everywhere, I don’t make a powerful front-page photograph.

I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, by which, of course, I do not mean to criticise those who choose to express their religion in a more obvious way. I see and feel all the fallout from the rising tide of anti-muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, but those dialogues rarely see me because I choose not to make myself seen.

When the current US President signed his executive order banning entry t the US from seven predominantly muslim countries, it hurt me in a way I didn’t think it would. I am not a hijab wearing woman being constantly targeted because of her religion. I am not from one of the seven banned countries. I’m not even American. Why did I find it so distressing?

Because the mere fact that one person in power could reduce whole populations to just one aspect of who they are upset me to the point that I lost sleep over it. I’m a woman – I know what it feels like to be stripped of every aspect of who you are until you’re regarded as just one thing. All women know this feeling. It’s our deeply unpleasant initiation into womanhood, often before we’re even the age where we’d be considered women. I didn’t need to be American, or a hijab wearing muslim woman to appreciate some of the deep pain that this executive order caused. It’s easy to feel the hatred of anti-muslim sentiments when it manifests in actions like these, and it’s easy to start taking it personally.

“But you don’t look muslim” is something I hear all the time, as if there is only one particular way of being anything. The hijab has become such an iconic image and such a flashpoint for debate that the narrative around it has unknowingly managed to exclude every other type of muslim woman. It’s become shorthand for a group that’s pitied and reviled in equal measure.

Since I live in Greece, my frame of reference for my experience as an immigrant and muslim woman is going to be Greek society, but practically all of what I have experienced could apply to any country in Europe right now.

As a rough estimate, I’d say over half of the people I interact with who don’t know I’m a foreigner or muslim will have an anti-immigrant or anti-muslim statement to make. It normally starts quite innocently – I’ll be sat in the back of a taxi, quietly trying to gauge the nature of the taxi driver. Do I see religious icons adorning the dashboard? What radio station is he listening to? This being Greece, even on the shortest drive we’ll usually pass a church. If the driver doesn’t cross himself three times, Orthodox fashion, it usually means I don’t have to brace myself for prying questions about my faith, or lack thereof.

If the driver crosses himself, I get ready for what is most likely to follow. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity – Greeks are in general very friendly, talkative and curious by nature. Usually we’ll have a nice, interactive chat about our parts of the world, their differences, problems and the things they have in common. Other times, it’s either a lecture on all the damage that Islam has caused the world, or questions about why groups like ISIS do what they do in the name of Islam. If I knew the answer to that, I would have shipped out my knowledge to the highest bidder years ago. It’s like thinking that listening to a couple of U2 songs when I was a teenager is supposed to make me have an answer as to why Bono has turned out the way he has.

Sometimes revealing my religion and status as an immigrant makes the other person demand answers from me. Why is there so much crime where immigrants go (not the good type of immigrants, the expats from the north, the bad type with dark skin)? Why do Pakistanis attack foreign women? Why don’t they respect women? And why don’t your women respect themselves? Why the hijab? But this is your religion and your culture, surely you must have an answer to all these aspects which are not in your control? It’s startling the ease with which people make such sweeping statements about peoples and cultures, when in most cases I’m sure I’m the first muslim or the demonised type of immigrant they actually had a face to face conversation with.

We’re living in a Europe where people have latched on to quick fixes and easy answers, and a Europe which is decisively swinging to the right. Brexit and the fact that Golden Dawn still remain Greece’s third most popular party are some examples of that. I’ve been in conversations with people who make casually racist statements about Pakistanis without realising my origins, then look taken aback and say “But you don’t look Pakistani.” I don’t know whether it’s the light or something else, because I sure looked Pakistani enough in the UK to have racist slurs yelled at me in the street a few times.

In some ways my invisibility gives me a truer picture of what people are thinking right now – in the absence of a hijab, no one self-censors around me. If they don’t know me at all, the speak even more freely, sometimes looking at me for back up. “Am I right?” the barista might say after his little speech about how immigrants are ruining the country, even though you didn’t order your morning coffee with an extra shot of racist rhetoric. And I’ll sigh and feel myself deflate a little, because I know that once again I have to defend my position. I’ll admit there are times when it’s just too much trouble to do, and I’ll try to get them to drop the subject by saying “It’s a free country, you’re allowed to believe whatever you like.”

The last time this happened, I was at a pharmacy in Kavala in the firing line of a chain-smoking pharmacist, who, as she took her time to ring up the medication I was buying, began to ask the usual questions. Where was I from? Athens, I replied. No, where are you originally from, she asked.

So I told her. She shook her head and took a drag of her cigarette. “Muslims are terrible people. They are the worst people in the world. Everywhere they go, they cause trouble. You are lucky you married a Greek and escaped all that.”

This line of how lucky I am to have escaped whatever horrible life I would be living otherwise (commuting on the Tube and paying London rents under grey British skies, I assume, which okay, it does sound nightmarish) by marrying a Greek is one I’ve heard a couple of times now. I always correct the person with what a loving and progressive family I grew up with. I was brought up with my own set of wings, I didn’t need a man to come along and help me fly out of a cage I was never locked in in the first place. That’s often rejected if it doesn’t fit into the other person’s narrative.

I argued. She kept smoking, and kept going back to the same line of how terrible all muslims are. “If you walked around like you are now, with your head uncovered, don’t tell me they wouldn’t kill you in your home country.”

I looked at my jeans, trainers and baggy sweater dress. “They wouldn’t” I replied. “They would,” she insisted. She once more fell back to her line of how terrible muslims were. My words made no difference, so I threw my “it’s a free country” line at her, paid and left. I would go home to tell the story of the racist, chain-smoking pharmacist in Kavala, and she would probably go home to tell the story of the muslim woman who didn’t even know how oppressed she was.

My invisibility is most definitely a privilege, too. I don’t have the dramatic immigrant story to tell. I cross borders without problems thanks to that coveted dark red passport (soon to change back to black, I’m sure). I can sit within earshot of a xenophobic conversation and know that it’s not likely I’ll be dragged into it.

The flipside is that my invisibility is a problem for the other side of the argument too. I’m not muslim enough, so how could I understand the dilemma of the hijab-wearing muslim woman? I vanish on the streets, so how could I know what it feels like to be the Pakistani woman in traditional clothes being yelled at by the native shopkeeper for touching the vegetables on display? I’m not eastern enough for the east or the west, which leaves me in a kind of limbo.

I can do a disappearing act if I want to by just blending in, or declare my origins with how I dress, although this was something I stopped doing after Golden Dawn’s 2012 victory in Greece. Emboldened, people became openly racist, and I escaped into neutrality by just not wearing traditional clothes outside the house. I went back to wearing whatever I wanted two years ago, because allowing fascists to censor part of who I am is not a lesson I want to pass to my children, and there’s nothing better than Gul Ahmad lawn in a Greek summer.

So I’m left with quite an attractive option, which is to embrace the fluidity I possess, all the while being aware that I will not be able to stop defending aspects of who I am to people who insist on sticking me inside a narrative which suits them, and that includes the one of the successfully integrated immigrant, rather than just me being me. Nothing in this life comes for free.

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What Americans in Athens Think About These Elections

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American elections are always a global event, but this year, more so than ever. In the birthplace of democracy, elections are nothing new. But there’s one group of residents who will be watching these elections with particular interest. These are the Americans living in Athens, a long-established and vibrant community from across the Atlantic.

Americans have been arriving on these shores in a steady stream for decades, engaging in elaborate word of mouth games to root each other out in the days before social media, and dealing with the consequences of American policies which sometimes breed anti-American sentiments in Greece. They’ve learned to love loukoumades as much as donuts and eat their pumpkin pie savory instead of sweet.

And they’ve left their mark. There’s the private American Community School established in 1946, which currently occupies a sprawling space in Aghia Paraskevi and makes you feel like you’re looking at a school in California rather than Athens. Election fever saw them host their own mock presidential debates among students. Head to Kolonaki, and you’ll find the Hellenic American Union, established in 1957 while in Pagrati, there’s the Athens Centre, running since 1969, where you can enjoy culture, Greek lessons and more.

And there’s also IKEA. Yes, IKEA. I know it’s Swedish, but several Americans I spoke to said they go there when feeling a little homesick, because “IKEA looks the same everywhere!”

The Americans in Athens have been talking, debating, encouraging friends to vote and arranging election parties as they wait for November 8. Now when I speak to them, they find themselves in a quiet period, the eye of the storm so speak, as they prepare for what comes next.

“I feel like I won the lottery!”

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Marty Eisenstein is a guitar teacher from Boston who has been living in Athens since 1993 after following his wife here. He’s been teaching music lessons at one of the city’s private schools, Campion, for 23 years now, and has a daughter who just started state university.

Marty is a rare breed because he’s also Jewish and a guy! “There aren’t that many American guys here!” he says with a laugh. He’s hoping Hillary Clinton wins, but “I don’t want to jinx it.”

The difference between how Greeks and Americans view these elections is pretty distinct, according to him. He was in the US a few weeks ago, and says that while in America, people might call Hillary Clinton dishonest, in Greece they call her “a monster, a warmonger. That’s the first thing many Greeks say.”

He doesn’t think much will change to his day to day life, since he’s not had much hostility anyway. He does remember one moment of anti American sentiment so sudden and so strong that it made him cry. “The lowest moment in my 23 years was during the bombing of Serbia. My local bakery owner turned to me and said ‘We’re not the same, Greeks and Americans.’”

Whatever happens, he’ll still be here, teaching guitar the next day. “I lived in Israel for a few years and I think Greece appeals to that Mediterranean gene I have. In that sense I like it here, that’s what’s kept me here I think. I love the place in a lot of ways.

“If you think what Greeks have been through economically and politically, anywhere else, people would have taken guns on the streets already. It doesn’t happen in Greece. To me that’s an amazing thing. and now that my daughter is going to university for free, as an American I feel I won the lottery!”

“Trump? He’s a faflatas!”

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Stacey Harris-Papagioanou moved from Chicago to Greece in 1985 and divides her time between the glamorous island of Mykonos and Athens. Both sides of her family as Mykonian, which is why she can still afford to live on an island the rest of us can only dream about.

“The summer romance with my ex was the catalyst for moving here, but my real love was Greece.” she says.

She has two children, and has always cast her vote as an absentee. The moment she realized how important this was was during the Gore-Bush elections of 2000. “That election was so close. So not only did I make sure I was always registered to vote, but I made sure all my friends were too.”

Stacey is a very active member of Democrats Abroad, and when we speak, she’s just spent the week calling everyone to make sure they are ready to vote.

There is a big buzz around this particular election. “Everyone is saying vote, whatever you do, go and vote, and a huge percentage have already taken part in early voting and absentee voting.”

She’s only ever experienced anti-American sentiment twice, once during 9/11 when she heard people saying that America had it coming, and now when Greeks ask her “What’s wrong with the people in that country? How can anyone vote for Trump?”

“Trump, there’s a Greek word that describes him perfectly. He’s faflatas (someone who talks a lot but does little)! The difference between the candidates is night and day, and what that means for the rest of us will be night and day.” she says.

In stark contrast to the Greek way of doing things, Stacey says Americans have gone quiet and avoid political discussion as the election nears. “People don’t talk too much so as not to fight, unlike the Greeks that are very passionate and don’t mind telling their opinion to anyone. Americans a bit more reticent in that respect.”

And when she wants to get a flavor of America in Athens, she goes to the usual places one might suspect – the Hard Rock Cafe in Monastiraki, TGI Friday’s in Kolonaki and Applebee’s when it was still open. “Or a coffee with members of the American Women of Greece, of which I’m a member. We can talk about home, or where to find ingredients. We used to make tacos from scratch when I first came here, now you can just buy them in the supermarket! It’s so much easier for the new girls!”

“I was called a spy!”

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Christine Jackson has been here since 1972 after coming to Greece with her husband and arrived right in the middle of the Junta. “I was working at Deree college when the polytechneio events took place. I wasn’t there that day but colleagues heard the tanks go in.”

Christine is one of the longest established members of the American community in Athens. “Once I was called a spy! That was during the Cyprus crisis. It was totally unprovoked, I was on the street and my accent must have been wrong and a man called me an American spy.” She has one daughter, who played a caryatid in the Athens 2004 opening ceremony.

After working at the Deree college – “which I discovered wasn’t actually American,” she worked for the next few decades at the Fulbright Commission, advising Greek students who didn’t have scholarships but wanted to study abroad. “It’s an addictive job. I still do it.”

When she wants to get her American fix, she heads to the Athens Centre in Pagrati for cultural events and poetry readings. It’s a place where she’s met and become friends with other Americans in Athens over the years.

A fellow American who she very much admires is the former ambassador to Greece, Brady Kiesling, who resigned after America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, becoming the first of three US foreign service officers to resign in protest. “That’s such a rare thing for a person to be that principled.” she says.

Christine says she’s very concerned about the outcome of these elections. “I think it will be a tipping point if Trump wins.”

“You can love your country and see that it needs improvements. Greeks certainly do that with their country. Patriotism is hollow if it doesn’t embrace the fact that you want the country that you love to be its best self not its worst self.” she says.

“If you can’t beat them, join them”

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Anna Goritsa came to Athens nearly 20 years ago to marry her Greek husband. She has two sons who are going through the Greek public education system. As an event travel consultant, she works with US companies based in Greece, so she’s around other Americans frequently, along with charity work and embassy events which keep her in touch with the community.

This for her is an election that’s turned the status quo on its head. “We are living in trying times and I believe that many of us who live in Greece are insecure on what the outcome will be. I’m very concerned. I believe that many US citizens will not exercise their right to vote during these elections.”

“When I am able to watch the elections with my fellow US citizens here in Greece, regardless of their affiliations, it’s more fun because we know why we are arguing. And yes we try to avoid prickly topics because we respect each other’s opinions. When watching with my Greek friends who have never lived or stepped foot in the US we argue for the sake of arguing.” she says.

As for anti-American sentiment, she’s experienced it a few times, but that changed with Greece’s economic crisis. “Greeks are experiencing anti-Greek sentiments all over Europe and have realized that the citizens of a country should not be judged for the policies of one’s government.”

Despite the downs, there have been some funny moments too. Back in 1997, Anna says she couldn’t find good-quality deodorant in Greece and so would have family and visitors bring stocks of American deodorant for years!

The American community in Athens has been a vibrant and well-established one. They’ve been through a lot together. But, Anna says, it’s very different for the new generation. “They’re not surviving because their potential and options are very limited and many are moving elsewhere. The same challenges exist today as 20 years ago for the newcomers. The number one survival quote when you move ANYWHERE in the world is “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

“I can’t wait till it’s over”

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Nick Barnets, a freelance journalist, has been coming to Greece all his life. He spent his summers in a village in Halkidiki but moved to Athens full time in 2014 to strengthen his career as a journalist.

For him, the elections are not just a political event. As a journalist, they affect his livelihood too. His job involves covering international affairs, and that will be affected by whoever is the next president. “Since I cover Greece, and occasionally Cyprus and other parts of Europe, the way the next president’s policies affect these areas will definitely affect what I’ll be reporting on and where for sure.”

Like everyone I spoke too, he’s anxious about these elections and the way they have polarized politics in the US. “I fear regardless of the outcome, there will be now more than ever in recent history, lots of hate and anger. If Donald Trump wins, there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for him. If Hillary Clinton wins there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for her.”

He’s finding watching these elections less intense that the last ones, because the last time around he was working as an election researcher for CBS News. This time, he can take a back seat and observe.

“This is the first time I’ve watched a presidential election from across the Atlantic, but it’s not as distant an observance as I thought it would be. Of course I’m also a political junkie, so I’m keeping up with it vigorously despite how upsetting this election has been.”

Anti-American sentiment is not something he’s experienced, especially not since Obama’s presidency and Greece’s recent turmoils which have meant that Germany has taken the place of America for disgruntled Greek sentiment.

Nick says his Greek friends are terrified of Donald Trump becoming president and are disappointed that Hillary Clinton is his main opponent in these elections. “She’s never really been popular here herself. They just can’t believe that we could end up in a world with Donald Trump as President of the world’s most powerful country.”

Perhaps it’s because of his job, perhaps because of the relentless, vitriolic and divisive nature of these elections, but Nick has had his fill. The sooner it’s all over, the better, as far as he’s concerned. “I can’t wait till it’s over, November 8th can’t get here soon enough for me because on the one hand I am always excited for watching the election results but also want this particular election to just be over with so we can move on.”

As one of the new generation of Americans in Athens, Nick doesn’t feel the same pull as the previous generation for getting a piece of America in the city when he’s homesick. That’s partly thanks to social media which keeps him well-connected with Americans friends and family. “But I do feel like I’m right back in the US whenever I’m at The Mall, because despite the stores being different and everybody speaking Greek, it really feels more America than Greece there.”

“I haven’t voted in a while”

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I’d easily call Rhea my favourite American in Athens, since she’s the first one I ever met. It was in her bohemian dance studio, festooned with belly dance costumes and off-the wall souvenirs she’d picked up over the decades that I learned two important things: how to dance first with my heart and then with my body, and how to stop taking life so seriously. It was there that I made my first Greek friends with my patchy, faltering Greek. She’s been somewhat of a mother to me, having seen me grow from a new student shrinking into the back of the room, through motherhood, miserable life events and the crisis which meant I couldn’t afford dance classes any more, and she lost nearly all of her students.

She then did something which I felt at the time was the equivalent of a cancer patient cutting all their hair off before it falls out. She stripped her studio bare. Today, all the costumes have been given away, the zebra-skin wall hanging is gone, the swords and coin belts have disappeared. My heart sank the first time I visited her after she carried out this purge.

Rhea arrived in Athens in 1975, and of all the Americans I spoke to, she is the only one who had absolutely no connection to Greece. As a professional belly dancer in California, she had a dream that she was dancing under the Acropolis. So she upped and left, and has been here ever since. Her tales of life in Athens, including the time she chased down an aggressive driver and attacked his car with her dance sword are endless, hilarious and sometimes sad.

Is she voting? “No. I haven’t voted in a while. I’m not going to go to the American Embassy and lose an entire morning or afternoon. I hate to say it… but no actually I don’t hate to say it. I never talk about politics. I’m telling you because you asked me. We’re not going to hell in a hand basket. The world will go on as it is.”

Athens’ 12-foot American

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My final American is tall and stoic, clutching a scroll in one hand and staring quietly at the traffic and offices opposite him.

He doesn’t say a word to me, but I don’t mind. You see, he’s a statue. The statue of President Truman to be precise. This rendition of the 33rd American president, a known philhellene, is a lightening rod for anti-American sentiment. Since it was erected in 1963, it’s been rammed with a car, bombed, toppled over and splashed with paint.

On the day I meet him, with hours to go until polls open, Mr Truman is looking pretty good, but a closer inspection reveals little specks of red paint clinging to the bronze and larger splashes generously flecked on the surrounding ground.

In an election campaign where both sides paraded childish statues of each other, at least this statue of an American leader retains some dignity, even when he’s brightly decorated with pink and red paint. It could be worse. He could be a statue of Donald Trump.

A condensed version if this article appears in Greece Is. 

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A year since Aylan Kurdi’s death, Europe has gone back to not caring

web-refugee-crisis-7-twitterIt was one year ago today when an image raced around the globe, an image which broke hearts and enraged sentiments. It was an image that made us question ourselves as human beings and wonder with how much shame we’d look back on 2015 and the way in which we failed the child in the picture, and so many like him.

A picture of a little boy whose name meant ‘exalted’, lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish beach. In the early hours of 2 September 2015, three year old Aylan Kurdi lost his life. His picture shook many of us to the core, and like so many mothers, I saw my children in him. I saw the curve of my younger son’s cheek, the way he sleeps with his bottom raised in the air. I saw his little shirt, his shorts and his shoes, and I thought about the mother who had dressed him before they got onto that boat.

Were the clothes warm enough? Should he wear open or closed shoes? Would he need socks? Maybe not. But what if the wind picked up? Finally she must have decided no socks, it was a warm night. How do you even decide what to dress your child in for a journey like that, I kept wondering as I looked at the little shoes that were supposed to have stepped onto the shores of Greece, but never did.

I saw in my mind’s eye the sleepy child protesting against being lifted from his rest by his frightened parents, nestling in his mother’s arms and starting to fret as water splashed against him. And then the rest. The screams, the shock of the cold water, the eyes squeezed shut, the little mouth calling for his mother in complete terror and answered only with the salty water of the Aegean.

By early morning, it was all over. By an act of pure luck, a photographer at the right place at the right time, Aylan Kurdi escaped the anonymous fate of so many thousands like him, people whose names and stories we’ll never know. The name his parents had thoughtfully picked for him, smiling joyfully at their younger son as they held him for the first time, was now on everyone’s lips.

For those of us who had been following the refugee crisis in Greece, our timelines and inboxes filled with such stories and images of countless small children washed up dead on beaches, their nappies swollen with sea water, the wave of outrage that Aylan Kurdi’s death brought a tiny glimmer at hope that maybe now the rest of the world would feel the sense of urgency we did. Something had to change, didn’t it? For a little while, this did happen. But it didn’t last. It rarely does.

After a brief period of hand-wringing, Europe went right back to business as usual. They built fences and continued their swing to the right. They shut their doors and hearts. When Greece’s northern border shut, tens of thousands became trapped in Greece, and the flow stopped. In Greece, people who had been through indignity after indignity found themselves squelching through the mud and filth of Idomeni, wondering why Europe was working so hard to keep them out.

Keeping refugees out (or benefit-scrounging migrants, as some have labelled all of them) became such a political flash point that the UK decided to leave the European Union altogether thanks in part to this one point. If those voters only knew the full horror of what these people go through before they even get on those boats, they would change their minds in an instant.

A completely fractured European Union was unable to find a solution to the refugee crisis (helpful hint: safe passage would be a good start, as would reasonably speedy relocation) involved Turkey in their deal and as borders closed and numbers fell, everyone congratulated themselves on a job well done.

I think it’s time we can stop pretending the Europe has achieved anything meaningful when it comes to this crisis. The relocation programme is so slow it might as well not exist. The asylum process has been split into two steps, which rather than streamlining the process, has confused a lot of people who think the first step is the only one they need to complete.

“You’re a journalist? Do you know how long it will take? Is there any news from Europe?” are questions I get asked all the time from the women stuck in Greece trying to reach husbands, fathers and brothers who made the journey to Europe ahead of them. And I have nothing to tell them.

A year on from Aylan Kurdi’s death, people are still coming and they are dying in record numbers. Last week, the Italian coastguard reported its busiest day in years off the Libyan coast when they rescued 6,500 people.

In Greece, mayors on the front line islands have spent the summer making increasingly desperate pleas to the Greek government and Europe to speed up the asylum and relocation processes as their islands continue to see refugee flows, especially after the failed Turkish coup in July.

For the time being, we seem content with doing nothing in the face of a situation that is in my mind one of the most shameful in Europe’s history. The shame we should be feeling is something that doesn’t seem to bother us any more. We’ve grown immune to it. In 20 years’ time, when the pain from the refugee crisis has begun to fade, I don’t know how I will answer my children when they ask me “What did you do about it?”. Few of us do, and even fewer of us are bothered by this fact.

A fickle media and a public suffering from compassion fatigue went in search of the next story. They found Omran Daqneesh and once more hands were wrung. How awful! We must stop all this!

But be honest, we won’t. We’ll click a few links, share a few posts and think that’s enough, just like we did with Aylan Kurdi, and just like we’ll carry on doing, until we decide once and for all that the thousands risking the Mediterranean this year are human beings like you and me, with the same dreams and ambitions, and that they deserve a bit of dignity. Right now, I really don’t know what can make that happen.

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Why I love the Olympic Games

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The Olympic flame is lit at Ancient Olympia (source: Getty Images)

My very first impression of Greece, my very first thought as my plane came in to land on a hot August day in 2004 was this: “They have mountains!”

If, at this point, you’re imagining what an imbecile I was, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. My first glimpse of Greece had happened thanks to a series of events which I could never have imagined, and since Greece was not at that time anywhere on my list of places to visit, I had done no research whatsoever about the country I was arriving in. Looking out of an airplane window, I had no idea then that I was getting the first look at the country that would one day be my home, the country that I fell in love with, by way of falling in love with one of its children, the soil where my own children would take their first steps.

What I was doing when I first stepped off that plane was that I was making my way, at my own expense and in my own time, to volunteer at Athens 2004. Ordinary Greeks I would later meet on my trips to and from the Marcopolo shooting centre were very curious about this. Why, if I had absolutely no connection to Greece, had I shelled out for a high-season plane ticket to come all this way and ensure the smooth running of the Games which I had no personal connection to?

“They pay your hotel though, right?” Nope. We got no expenses covered, apart from free food and drink at our venues and free travel in the city. I was lucky enough to stay with a friend from university (she’s now the godmother of my younger son). And my answer to the bewildered question of why was this: Because I love the Olympics.

I’ve always loved the Olympics. Seoul 1988 are the first games I remember. The Games were a big deal in my house. Both my parents had been athletic but somehow gave birth to four couch potatoes. They never missed watching the Olympics. After that it was Barcelona in 1992, where that summer my cousins and I would give each other stirring renditions of Freddie Mercury’s (“Indian!” my Indian mother proudly pointed out) Barcelona sung into hairbrushes, sometimes with paper mustaches stuck on our faces.

Then came Atlanta in 1996, when I was old enough to appreciate the significance of Muhammad Ali lighting the torch. What a moment. I watched the opening ceremony of Sydney 2000 at my parent’s house, and the closing ceremony sitting on the carpet of a family friend’s house in Cardiff, days before I started university, because in typical Asian parent style, my parents were horrified that I had applied for university at a non commutable distance from home and so had immediately located someone they knew in the city.

Sandwiched in between it all was sporting greatness. I knew I would never reach those heights, for a start, I was much too lazy and unathletic. So the next best thing was to go to the Olympics. I dreamed of going to the opening ceremony, any opening ceremony, thinking of the years of Olympic opening and closing ceremonies I had watched, envious of the noise and the crowds and the people lucky enough to be there, and I would think “One day, I’ll be there too.”

And so, at the end of a bad 2003, I went online to look for tickets to attend Athens 2004. The Olympics were finally swinging close enough to home to make attending them something that wouldn’t bankrupt me entirely, and I wanted to go. But then, once on the site, something else caught my eye.

A big button, emblazoned with the word “Volunteer”.

I had no idea you could do that. That sounded amazing! I’d get to be inside the Games without needing any athletic prowess whatsoever! And so I applied. And that’s how I ended up stepping off a plane into the blinding heat of August 2004, to mixed reactions of Athenians who told me what a bad idea the games were, to others who were more enthusiastic.

But none of it mattered as I sat in the stalls during the final dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony, which my Greek friend had wrangled for me after hours of belligerence on various telephone lines, her argument being that a foreigner who comes all that way to support the Greek games deserves a ticket to the final dress rehearsal. I was so overcome at fulfilling a lifelong ambition that I spent much of the ceremony wiping away my tears of happiness. In fact, I still cry whenever I watch the Athens 2004 opening ceremony, because I still consider it the best of them all.

As for me, nothing could dampen my spirit. Apart from the friends I made during those days, my destiny was set on a course I could never have dreamed of. The shooting centre venue manager ended up becoming my husband, and here I am today, 12 years later, now calling Athens my home.

Perhaps it’s because, in spite of the world we live in, I really want to believe that it’s not such a terrible place. Every Olympic year, we get blanket coverage of how terrible it all is, that the games are a waste of money, a beacon of corruption and so overflowing with drugs that it would make Colombian cocaine baron blush. The host city receives such scrutiny and, often, derision, that the Olympics now face a new problem in that no one really wants to host them any more. To this end, it’s been argued that Greece should host them permanently, and I would love that.

In Athens, the coverage was about how the country was not ready. And, even if you put aside what an economic disaster they turned out to be, Athens was not ready. On our first training day, we toured the shooting centre in tight-jawed shock as our superiors waved us around what was supposed to be the shooting centre in two days’ times. It wasn’t finished. Workers welded and hammered around us and we gulped in polite terror – shooting was going to happen here? But when we rolled up for the first shift two days later, it was all ready.

For Beijing, coverage circled around the awful air quality, the corruption and violation of rights and poor water quality of the open swimming venues. Sound familiar? Brazil has been put through the same battery of misery mongering – they’re not ready, bad water, it’s not safe, gentrification etc. London was about how the games had cost way too much and caused the gentrification of East London, making it unaffordable to those who used to live there.

I’m not going to argue with any of that coverage, because the fact is that it’s true. But there’s also another aspect that gets ignored. I know because I was there, I was part of that face of the Olympics which so few wrote about. The human side of the games is the ultimate feel-good story.

The Olympics, stripped of the misery and scandal, are the ultimate gathering of the tribes of the world. They are the place where hope triumphs over adversity (and, sometimes hope triumphs over the reality that you’re so bad you’re good). The Olympics are where people from around the world travel to one point at their own expense for no other reason than that they love the games. Lifelong friendships are formed and, sometimes as in my case, lifelong partnerships.

I know what it felt like to be inside the Olympics, and I’ll never forget that feeling. When I recall that feeling, I don’t feel any of the negativity which persistently surrounds the Olympics, the world’s media bah-humbugging their way to the opening ceremony and then gleefully recording every failure. I just feel the glory and the magic, shaking hands with people who were the best in the world at what they did and hoping that some of their brilliance rubbed off onto you. I remember high-fiving friends from all around the world and sharing stories with other volunteers who had previous games under their belt. I remember happiness and the sense of wonder that got to be a part of something so big.

I loved the Olympics long before they permanently changed the course of my life, and I continue to love for the original reasons I loved them. For the human element, the winning athlete running their nation’s flag around the track, the message of hope they bring in the form of a flame lit in Ancient Olympia (again, in Greece this ceremony is widely mocked, though I love it, and would love to see it live one day), the volunteer who goes home proudly wearing their uniform on the flight, and now that Greece is home, the pride I feel when Greece leads the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony. It’s the story I’ll bore my own grandkids with: I was there. I felt the Olympic magic. It’s something you can’t capture or explain unless you’ve felt it yourself. That’s why I will always love the Olympics.

Rio 2016, good luck!

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Where the dream of Europe ends

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Macedonia has shut its borders to all but three nationalities and the backlog has been returned to Athens where they wonder what to do next.

Idomeni, the small Greek village that represents the final Greek frontier and the doorway to Europe for refugees fleeing war and poverty in their countries, was strangely empty on Wednesday night.

After days of a stalemate when Macedonia closed its border to everyone except refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, Greek authorities took measures to transport around 2,000 refugees back to Athens where they will be accommodated at Elaionas camp and, most recently, the Tae Kwon Do stadium, built for when Athens hosted the Olympic games in 2004 and converted into a temporary shelter.

Most refugees arriving in Greece want to move onward, heading through Macedonia mainly towards the promised lands of Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden. When the border shut, a backlog of desperate people became stranded at Idomeni in freezing conditions and with little food and water.

These were people mainly from Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan and other countries deemed non eligible by the Macedonian authorities. Back in Athens, their time is running out.

At Victoria Square in central Athens, brothers Saif Ali, 18 and Ali 15 from Lahore in Pakistan were pondering their next move after reluctantly returning to Athens the previous day. Having wasted their money on an unsuccessful trip to Idomeni, they are currently staying at Elaionas camp, which is now full.

“We knew when we paid to take a bus to Idomeni that the border was closed, but we decided to take the risk. They didn’t let us pass, they beat us with sticks. They sent us back. Our money got wasted.

“We were stuck there for five days, it was so cold.” said Saif Ali. “We tried to pass through with everyone else, they check your papers one by one. People had fake papers, and I saw some people borrow the papers of Afghanis, show them to the guards and then slip them back to the owners.”

Nearby, a group of Pakistanis from the Balochistan region had also just come back from the border after failing to cross. Whereas Syrians receive permission to remain in Greece for six months, their papers are only good for one month. Finding themselves stuck, they put the word out to an extended network of friends and families until remote connections were found who were willing to put them up in Athens until they worked out what to do.

None of the group wished to be named, and all told a similar story. “I came to Greece a week ago, and I was going to go to Idomeni, but looking at the state of these guys I’ve changed my mind.” said one of them, with medical qualifications he hopes to put to use wherever he eventually ends up. His brother was taken away by the Pakistani authorities in January 2015 and has not been heard from since. Official channels through the high court and human rights courts drew no leads, only threats that he too would be taken if he didn’t let the issue drop.

“They take people away without any charge, just to break them. I don’t know if my brother is alive or dead. I have seven brothers, we used to all live together at home. Now, we fear for our lives so we scattered. I came to Europe.” he said.

Human Rights Watch has been calling for action over the extensive human rights abuses including enforced disappearances, executions and torture in the Baloch region, allegedly by the Pakistani government and intelligence agencies. Amnesty International has also been documenting the abuses.

The group’s phones contain their own evidence of mutilated corpses of the disappeared and raids by government authorities. “No one wants to leave their homeland,” said another “But it’s too dangerous for us to stay there. Four of my cousins have been disappeared by the authorities. Please tell the world what’s happening in Balochistan.”

Despite the cold, poor conditions and threat of the border closing completely to all nationalities as it did a few days ago, Fariba Faeezi, 42 from Afghanistan, was preparing to catch a bus to Idomeni. She travelled to Greece with her 16 year old son and her husband who is a writer and a poet. “His name is Abdul Ghafoor Fayed Yousfi. He lost all his books on the boat to Greece.” she says.

“I want to go to Germany as soon as possible. We went from Afghanistan to Iran, but the government would not let us work there. In Iran, one of my sons went missing eight years ago when he was 16 and we never heard from him again. I am an engineer. I hope the German government lets me work.”

“I’m not afraid, I will try to go.” she says.

Others are less sure. Mohammad, 35,  from Morocco had just arrived in Athens from Chios that morning and had no idea what his next move should be. “I don’t know what I will do. I just got to Athens from Chios. But the border is closed, so now I’m not sure whether I should go, stay here or go to a camp.”

The EU said that this year it received at least one million asylum applications. Recent events such as the Paris terrorist attacks have caused a major political swing to the right in several countries, and Europe’s once open borders are closing one by one.

Meanwhile in Athens, the Olympic stadiums built to showcase Athens at the height of its glory are filling up with people turned away from the border with nowhere else to go, in search of a Europe that no longer seems to exist.  

***

This article was commissioned by n-tv.de. Their German translation of the English version appears here.

When I was done interviewing Fariba Faeezi, she took her hand and placed it on her belly, smiling. She was a few months pregnant. The teenage boy in the group translating for me hadn’t translated that part – he’d mentioned a pain in her belly while crossing the sea because she was scared. She then asked me to take a picture with her. Here it is:

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Fariba is one of so many refugees who I have met who want to go somewhere safe and make a contribution. She talked very animatedly and for a long time. You don’t need to imagine the odds she had to overcome as a woman in Afghanistan to get her qualifications as an engineer. Her hope that she would make it to Germany and be allowed to work as an engineer with single-minded and tangible.

As she spoke of her children, she used the word gumshudah, which is the same word in Urdu for “missing”.

Her husband later wrote out the names of the whole family in Farsi for me, and again next to the name of their son Javed Yousfi who went missing aged 16 in Iran, eight years ago now, he wrote that same word – gumshudah. I looked at this smiling woman, her short, humble husband who was so happy at how I reacted when I found out he was a poet and I had nothing but admiration for these people who survived patriarchy in Afghanistan, war, being refugees in Iran where they could not work, surviving the journey across the sea and, as parents, somehow surviving the word gumshudah next to the name of one of their children.

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The long road to Eidomeni

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A few weeks ago on a Wednesday afternoon I found myself outside a cafe in downtown Athens, just a few blocks from Victoria Square. I was taking a bus to the north, Eidomeni to be precise, and I’d heard this was the place to arrange such a trip.

I was sitting sitting outside the shisha cafe, my hair and clothes steadily becoming infused with shisha smoke. Keemo, a burly Egyptian with long curly hair and broken Greek asked for a photocopy of my passport, so I went to the PC centre right next door to get one. “Four copies please” I said.

“Two euros.”

Fifty cents a piece for photocopying? I don’t know why it even surprised me, by now I know well enough that anything connected to the refugee situation carries a price tag that it normally never would. Bottles of water for one euro, chocolate bars for 1.50, photocopies for 50 cents.

As we waited to board, people on the table next to me gestured to me. They asked me something in Arabic. “No Arabic,” I said sadly, though for the record that’s set to change soon.

They explained with a mix of English and Greek. This is Ahmad, he’s 15. He’s travelling alone. Could I keep an eye out for him? Unaccompanied minors are everywhere on this refugee trail. I couldn’t imagine making the terrifying journey he undertook at 15 at my age right now. In fact, I was incredibly grateful that I had company with me in the form of Nikos, a documentary maker, on this bus trip.

We were supposed to leave at 8pm. At around 8.30pm a coach pulled up and we started getting on. By 9pm, the bus had been crammed full to its last seat. Behind me, a few mothers sat with their small children, among them eight month old Missam, whose name means flower. Spyros, the bus driver, poked and prodded various parts of the bus. One passenger complained that his seat was broken. “This damn thing is falling apart.” he grumbled. A few more preparations and we began to slowly roll our way out of central Athens to head north.

The mood was a happy one. As the night ran on, I got chatting to some of my fellow passengers. Sitting down at the front was 32 year old Yahyah from Syria. Before the war, he used to work in a cosmetics’ distribution company.

Now, he said, there is nothing in Syria “Only the devil.” He said “Syria was the best country in the world. It was ruined by terrorists. I love Bashar Al Assad, he is the best. But I cannot live in my country because of terrorists” He had his sights set on Norway, a country he has loved since he was a child. “The UAE is not helping. They are not our brothers. Our brothers are Germany, Norway, Holland. Saudi Arabia is supporting terrorists in my country. Why?”

He ticked off where the rest of his family was – seven brothers spread around Europe, one of them in Dubai and one of them still in Syria in the army. One sister and two parents still in Syria.

As we chatted, he seemed surprised that he had found himself where he was, a refugee from a country that up until recently was doing well. “Life was good in Syria” he said, staring out into the dark road in front of us and going quiet for a few moments. I asked him the most obvious question, which is starting to feel stupid to even ask by now: what was the boat journey like? Yahyah explained they had arrived late at night, it had been dark and cold. “The women and children were crying” he said. He searched for the right word, “How is this?” he asked, making a curve in front of his belly with his hand. “Pregnant.” I replied “Pregnant women” he said, shaking his head “They were crying a lot.” Who arranged for the boat? “The Turkish mafia” he said, his eyes widening “The worst people.” I asked him if he ever thought he’d go back to Syria one day. “No” he said firmly “I will never go back.”

Just behind me sat 25 year old Ahmad from Syria via Lebanon. He was upbeat and smiled constantly. He was so happy at reaching Lesvos that he swam the final 50 metres. He then spent 27 hours straight queuing at Moria camp for his papers to make the onward journey.

He flicked through pictures on his smartphone of monkeys in Lebanon, kittens in Turkey and poses with the volunteers who met his boat on the island. The only topic that makes him fall silent is Islamic State. “I don’t like to talk about it” he said.

Buses arriving in Eidomeni

Buses arriving in Eidomeni

The buses are more or less an illegal operation. Certain cafes near Victoria Square sell the tickets for cash, no receipts, and the trip that should take five and a half hours ends up taking nine because of various meandering detours to avoid rumoured police checkpoints. We make several stops during the night. Service stations have bumped up their prices to cash in on this unexpected windfall. At one, hot meals carried a starting price of EUR 8, an extortionate amount for crisis era Greece. Me and Nikos, both hungry after a few hours of travelling, sat down here to grab something to eat. We both complained and joked about the price of the food, and realised no one else was eating, because nearly everyone else was a refugee from one of the handful of buses that had stopped there. They had more important things to do with eight euros.

I tried unsuccessfully to grab a little sleep. Several more hours passed and at last we turned off at a battered and fading road sign that said Eidomeni. We had reached. As we crawled along the road, I could see large white tents glowing out of the darkness.

Eidomeni is a small village sitting within comfortable walking distance of Greece’s border with FYROM/Macedonia. The 2011 census put its population at just 154 inhabitants. The locals themselves tell you there is nothing remarkable about the place, except for the stream of refugees flocking to this outpost to cross into Macedonia. We chatted to Spyros, the bus driver as our bus was held in a queue, asking how long it would take. “We’ve arrived as the police shift is changing. It might take a while. The other day with the heavy rain we were here for six hours sitting in this bus before we were let off.”

The time was 5.23 am. The bus groaned forward across some train tracks and stopped just outside the camp. We got off into the crisp cold air and the thin drizzle as a local volunteer tried to explain what would happen next. We formed two lines and were ushered towards a table for food, water and sanitary items. I wrapped my scarf around my head to try and stay warm in the drizzle – I was already losing my voice by this point – and went off to gauge the situation.

The volunteers told me this wait was unusual. After months of chaos and violent scenes at the border this summer the operation at the border has now fallen into an efficient routine that works “most of the time”, Greek authorities say.

The border with Macedonia opens every 15 minutes to accept a group of 50-80 people. When the buses finally arrive at Eidoumeni, they offload passengers at a rate relevant to the pace of the crossings. Greek police issue each bus load with a number for their group which represents the order in which they will cross. They estimate that on an average day around 5,000 people make the crossing.

Kostas, a local social worker from Kylkis said he wasn’t sure why it was taking so long that particular morning. Either way, there wasn’t much to do except wait it out. I went back to our group and found Yahyah again. I pointed to his shoes, open slippers. “You’ll be very cold with those in Norway” I said. “No, I love the cold!” he replied.

And this is basically what we did for the rest of the day. We waited. The drizzle finally stopped as dawn broke, but all day the sun refused to shine. The hours passed and I said to Nikos “Listen to that. Look how many children are here, and none of them are crying.” My own children by now would have turned themselves inside out from crying and complaining about all the waiting and uncomfortable conditions. Here, the small children had gone into autopilot. I heard almost no crying, and saw very little fussing. The only times I heard children really crying was when a few of them got separated from their parents. It was chaos for a few seconds and people tried various languages – Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish – to get the hysterical child to tell them who they were with.

Children draw at an activity tent. That's Missam smiling

Children draw at an activity tent. That’s Missam smiling

The tents at the camp are a recent development. Before they appeared, people were forced to wait out in the rain and cold for hours with no shelter, and earlier still, people smugglers made them hide in the fields for hours until they crossed. This summer, Macedonia closed the border and there were clashes and tear gas as people tried to push through.

Me and Nikos tried to find a way to kill time, so we wandered around exploring. Behind the large tents are rows of showers and chemical toilets. A volunteer trying to keep the chemical toilets clean was at his wit’s end because of the endless numbers passing through. “I don’t know what they do in their own countries but here you can’t imagine the mess. I’m sick of it! We can never keep it clean even though we don’t stop” He quickly shooed away a child heading for the portable shower. “Shower!” he yelled “Shower! No toilet! This is not a toilet! Toilet over there! I’m cleaning shit out of these showers every day. Why can’t they understand.”

Inside one of the UNHCR tents

Inside one of the UNHCR tents

I went to sit inside one of the large tents. Exhausted people were sleeping everywhere on the grimy floor. The outside air is cool, so the inside is full of houseflies who are taking advantage of how the volume of people in each tent heats it up. Groups of refugees seeing me with my camera asked for their picture to be taken. I wished I had a Polaroid so that I could give the pictures to them. A man noticed me with my camera and notebook and came up to me. His name was Tahir Adrees  and he was with his wife Nida and sons Umar, 9 and Shamal, 3. They decided to leave when a bomb exploded very close to their house. “My younger son was normal. He was a happy boy. Now he screams all the time. I think the bomb changed his brain.” The little boy sitting in his mother’s arms looks around, dazed. I haven’t been to a war zone, but this moving war zone gives some idea of what a shell shocked person looks like. Through his father, Umar describes the nightmares he sees of a man entering their house to kill them. When he grows up, Umar wants to be a teacher.

Sandwiched between two tents, a group was waiting to make the crossing into Macedonia. I noticed a man who stands out because he was smartly dressed and carried a brief case. I started chatting to him and several younger men nearby as Nikos filmed some general shots. They looked agitated. “Please, don’t film us” they ask, so we stop.

They refused to give their names, scared for the family they have left behind in Syria. “We will go anywhere,” said one, pointing to his group “We want to finish studying, I was studying economics, so was he, and this guy was a mechanical engineer.” I thanked them for their time and assured them we wouldn’t use the film we just shot. They asked me again and again – don’t show it, please, don’t show the film. The man I originally started to interview is especially agitated, so I went back to him with my card.

He took it and leaned in to very quietly tell me he used to be a lawyer in Syria. He stressed repeatedly that I must not use his image or any identifying details about him, and then told me, “There were no terrorists in my town. I left because of the regime. Anyone who tells you they support the regime is lying, they only say that because they are so scared of the consequences for their families in Syria.” I promised again. They have had to put their trust in strangers repeatedly, and no matter how much I promised them they didn’t look entirely convinced as they wandered away to cross the border.

I find Ahmad from our group and gave him my number. “Don’t go to the border without me!” I said. “Come with us to Germany!” he said. We chatted for a while and I showed him how I spell my name in Arabic. He took my pen and notepad and wrote an alternative. “This is correct.” he insisted. We jokingly argue over this for a while. “You must be very tired.” I said. “No, I can’t feel my legs now any way.” he answered. Nikos began rolling a cigarette and Ahmad whipped out his smartphone to make a video so that he could learn too.

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Ahmad recording Nikos roll a cigarette

I walked off to poke around the area some more and a little before 1 pm, I got a call from Ahmad to come back to the camp. They would be crossing soon. As we crossed down the embankment to wait, Ahmad started to hum a song. I asked him if he would sing it for me, and he did along with a friend. It was a happy song “A Syrian song” he said. His friend said something to him and Ahmad translates. “He likes your shoes!” he said. I offer to swap and we compare sizes. “No good” said Ahmad. “You have baby feet.”

Trying to swap shoes. Ahmad's friend on the left, Ahmad in the middle, my 'baby feet' on the right.

Trying to swap shoes. Ahmad’s friend on the left, Ahmad in the middle, my ‘baby feet’ on the right.

We walk down past volunteers giving goody bags to the children, to the fencing that is crushed and broken from where the summer’s outbursts took place and then suddenly they cross. I wave goodbye – the Greek police told me I couldn’t go up to Gevgelija station with them as I’d planned. I watched them as they turned off and then they’re gone from my sight. I’m glad they made it, but I stood for a few moments watching the empty space in the thicket where they vanished, wondering what lies ahead, worrying about little Missam and the other children in the group. Would they be safe tonight? Would people be kind to them? My eyes welled up with tears, and I’ve learnt that the way to get past that is to get busy again, so I start taking pictures of the border.

Me and Nikos walked through the silence towards Eidomeni’s settlement. Along the way, I picked up various little things I found at the side of the road, plastic prayer beads, discarded ferry tickets for three adults and one child. At the village’s solitary taverna, the owner tells me his specials. “The other day we had a journalist from the CNN. She ate every single scrap.” he said proudly.

Nearby sat 70 year old Ilias Konstantindis. I asked to interview him and he said “Look, Eidoumeni is not a pretty place, but the whole world knows us now because of this mess. We help them, we offer what we can, but I don’t think they’re all refugees. I worry about what could happen if Muslim fanatics get into Greece.”

His friend sitting at the same table and steadily getting drunk on the local spirits said “Well if you behave yourself nothing will happen to you.”

“I’ve been a migrant myself to Sweden and Germany. I have no issue with migrants. There has been a war in Syria for years, why are they coming now? This is all happening because of the government’s immigration policy.”

“Alexis Tsipras will be in power until you die so don’t die any time soon.” the friend replied, laughing at his own joke.

We make a pit stop at Thessaloniki and then head to the airport to take a flight back to Athens. By now my voice had almost completely gone. I felt exhausted. My bright idea of booking the final flight of the day back to Athens, leaving at nearly midnight doesn’t feel so bright any more.

Back in Athens, I take the airport bus down to Syntagma. It was now 1 am on Friday. I hadn’t slept since getting up at 7 am on Wednesday. At Syntagma, I tried to get into the first taxi I saw. “There’s a rank over there.” the driver told me, so I grumbled as I went to the next taxi and was beaten to it by a little old lady. There was no driver in the third taxi, and the fourth one wouldn’t let me take his taxi because the taxi rank rules say the taxi before him gets me as a customer. I was beyond tired by this point and slammed the door, swearing and complaining loudly to no one about how exhausted I was as I waited by my taxi for the driver. It’s a small taste of how lack of sleep can change your behaviour and something to consider when seeing images of irate refugees losing it as borders close. I just wanted to get home. They have been suspended in a repeat of my journey for weeks on end.

The driver appeared, and we were off. He began chatting. I sank into my seat, silently wishing he would shut up. I was in absolutely no mood to make conversation. He asked me where I was coming from. “Eidomeni” I muttered, explaining about my story. “Eidomeni, eh? Write this down.” he said. Great, I thought. Here comes another racist conspiracy theory. And then he told me a story that really got my attention.

“A few days ago I picked a group of people up outside Athens airport. They had several Louis Vuitton suitcases with them and they were incredibly well dressed. The women were covered in jewellery and wore Rolex watches. They asked me to drive them to Eidomeni. I took them to the registration centre first, because they couldn’t travel without papers. They knew a number to call so when we got there the gates just opened right away even though so many other people were waiting.”

I had heard from various people about more well off Syrians taking taxis directly to Eidomeni, but apart from walking up and down a taxi rank and asking if this had happened at the risk of someone making up a story to get their name in print, I had no way of confirming it. Now, the confirmation had fallen right into my lap.

His name was Yiannis Panagiotopoulos. “All things considered, tolls, petrol, the hours of driving there and back I asked for EUR 1,000 expecting them to protest, and they immediately paid me in cash. Just like that, took out his wallet and peeled off two EUR 500 notes. The were coptic Christians and said Saudi Arabia is giving each non Muslim USD 2,000 and a smartphone to leave because they want Syria for Muslims only.”

“This is my taxi, I own it. You can have my name and take my number too. I’m not making any of this up.” With whatever voice I had left I squeaked my thanks and disembarked outside my home. It was 2:00 am by the time I got to bed.

****

Since then, I have kept track of Ahmad who I met on the bus via social media and WhatsApp. A few days ago, he said he was going to Calais. I begged him not to try to get to the UK, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt so far about the refugees is that they are resilient and determined like nothing I’ve ever seen. Calais’s Jungle camp is a hell hole. Many have died trying to get to the UK, but Ahmad is sure he won’t be one of them, although a few days ago he was downcast in his messages, saying it was very cold and he might go back to Germany after all. I hope he does.

This is the article I wrote from my trip.

Nikos Dayandas who accompanied me on the trip is an award-winning documentary maker. Some of his work can be found here. 

And this is the song Ahmad sang for me before he crossed the border into Macedonia.

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