Tag Archives: europe

Are you there, European voters? It’s me, an immigrant

d2f3fbb254a014713f9220e39f5f7710Have you ever been talked about in a room while you were stood there in front of the people who were doing it? I can’t say I’ve had much experience of it, apart from the early days when I was still learning Greek and people didn’t know i could understand what they were saying. Not so long ago, it happened at a gathering of Pakistani women where a couple of the other women assumed I was Greek (I can’t win) and began talking about me in Urdu.

Now and then it happens on Greek twitter when trolls think that as a foreigner in Greece I couldn’t possibly have any working knowledge of Greek. Sometimes, I get nice Twitter messages in Greek too.

But if you combine being an immigrant with European elections and Twitter, prepare to be talked about as if you’re not there. A lot. 

The latest such election was that of Italy, where again, us immigrants got nice, thick lashings of why we’re to blame for everything.

Watching Twitter activity on the day of the election, I was not surprised to see nationalists from the UK and America jump on the Italian election bandwagon and urge Italians, who they’ve never met, and whose politically dynamics they are completely ignorant of, to “take back your country”. Let’s all take a short moment to remember how well nationalistic voting worked out for both those countries.

Even that well-known mutated offshoot of Trump, Katie Hopkins, grabbed the chance for a trip to Italy for some dolce vita and racism.

Us immigrants in Europe get talked about a lot. We are the go-to group of people to blame. Twitter trolls talk about us. Outright neonazis talk about us. Genuine concerned citizens worried about the direction of their country talk about us.

And political commentators talk about us, along with journalists, columnists and pretty much everyone else. By and large, except for a few notable exceptions, none of the people who like to talk about us and write about us are actually representative of our group.

In a political sphere, where immigrants have become the number one scapegoat, and where we’re apparently such a huge problem and a threat to everyone’s economy and existence, for some reason we rarely get asked to talk about it.

In the wake of the #Metoo movement, it has largely been women who have been writing and commenting about the everyday sexism which blights our lives. If the majority of editors allowed 80% of the coverage on this movement to originate from men, it would be nonsensical.

Not so when it comes to immigration.

What goes into the thought process of editors repeatedly commissioning pieces on immigrants in Europe to be written by non-immigrants in Europe? I’m not for a second suggesting that many of my peers don’t do an excellent job covering this issue, because they absolutely do. But, it would also be nice to get the chance to say “You’re all talking about me as if I’m not here. I come from this body of people you’re so terrified of. Do you want to perhaps hear what I have to say?” If you did, it might shock you that the economy, terrorism and integration issues are also topics that immigrants worry about as well.

It is the cheapest, nastiest type of populism that takes a minority group of people and marks it as responsible for the country’s ills. Our voices are not heard when we start to see this happening, and they are not heard when it is in full swing. We are not listened to when we see the growing danger, alter our way of talking or dressing to avoid confrontation and see people voicing a very dangerous rhetoric become ratified and established within parliaments as if their violence and bile was completely normal and valid. It is the normalisation of the abnormal, which began a few years ago in Europe and was given the seal of approval through the anomaly of the Trump presidency.

Taking the example of Golden Dawn, I and other observers were worried about them long before they gained any sort of real power. But immigrants were repeatedly told that they were no big deal, in a country where we around us could feel the hostility rising, and felt powerless because we don’t enjoy the right to vote. And since we can’t influence the vote, in Greece at least, political parties practically fell over each other to court the far-right voting pool into their own parties in their never-ending race to the very bottom. In doing so, they normalised racism to a degree that I had not seen before. “Yes, but” became standard fare in conversations with people who I knew, who knew me, and who still yes butted their way through discussions on immigration with me.  

Violence and the populism in Greece escalated hand in hand, and we know what happened next. With a neonazi group safely established in parliament, people still don’t believe us immigrants when we tell them about the racism we’ve experienced. I have been asked to list incidences of violence when talking about racism, as if being kicked, beaten, knifed or spat at is the only type of racism that counts.

One thing I’ve been told again and again is that racism is rising because “Greeks are tired of foreigners telling us what to do and bringing our country to its knees.”

There is no way to win that argument, and I’ve tried, because no matter how many times I point out that 30 years of bad governance by Greek politicians, not foreigners, destroyed the country’s economy, it will still circle back to the argument of the honourable Greek being humiliated by the rest of Europe.

In the case of Greece, the advent of the economic crisis brought about an escalation in nationalistic and plain old racist rhetoric. Politicians and the media talked about us all the time as if we couldn’t possibly follow their arguments or understand what they were saying. We were, and are, considered invisible to the point that all this can be said about us as if we’re too ignorant to understand the conversation.

I’ll admit that belonging to a group of people that gets demonised all the time is starting to get wearing. I now dread being asked where I’m from, because that once innocent question has become so loaded in the last few years. I’m tired of the elaborate process of constantly trying to reassure the other person that yes, I come from a country that Greeks lately throw around as shorthand for something grubby and unwanted, but don’t worry! Look! I fit in! I am a contributing member of society! Now please feel free to tell me your expert opinion on what my home country and its people are like, since I’m trapped in your taxi so it’s not like I would dare to contradict you anyway!

There will now be much commentary on the rise of populism in Europe, the danger that this type of nationalism poses and what can be done. To that I’ll say, us immigrants saw it all coming years ago, and we did raise our voices. We did try to warn about the danger, but we weren’t listened to or our fears were played down: it’s a non-party, Greeks/Brits/Americans/Italians are just angry, it’ll blow over, no one takes this seriously.

As immigrants, we have to be exceptionally good (doctors, scientists, token Muslim who saves someone during terrorist attack) or exceptionally bad (terrorists, criminals) for our narrative to ever make it into the press.

Beyond these two narrow frames, we are talked about very often, but hardly ever listened to. Economies and tax revenues to a degree function off the back of our labour contributions, and elections are fought and won on rhetorics that demonise us, but we as a group are otherwise ignored. And as long as we are working and contributing, all is well. Should we dare to claim something back (as if our right as taxpayers), we must again quietly listen to the hysteria about “immigrants claiming benefits”. It happened not so long ago in Greece, when it emerged that one in 10 of those who received a special payout from the government was a foreigner, sparking outrage, screaming TV debates and vicious online coverage. How very dare we work and pay our taxes fair and square, and then claim a benefit that we’re fully entitled to.

This will all be recycled and reproduced for the next round of elections. It’s happening already in Greece with the main opposition party, New Democracy, not feeling at all ashamed to court the extreme right, with the result that their position in the polls did not go up, but that of Golden Dawn did.

Too bad for New Democracy, and even worse for us immigrants.

It’s easy to buy into this simple explanation of immigrants being to blame for everything, of us being the reason for you being priced out of the market (rather than unscrupulous employers who won’t pay a reasonable wage), because it makes the native population feel safe, and seeking safety is a natural human instinct.

That too is a trap, because if anything the pattern of how the far right and populism in general operates has taught us is that their narratives work inwards from the outside, moving in circles and increasingly giving the people in the centre new groups of the population to be scared of or to dislike – the unemployed, the homeless, the disabled, LGBTQ individuals, women, single mothers, the list is literally endless.

So you might think you’re securing your own future by voting for such groups, but it’s very likely that you’re not. And the next time this all swings around again, remember that you too could probably benefit from talking to immigrants rather than talking about immigrants.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Greece, immigration

The long road to Eidomeni

IMG_8472

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.

12141648_10153702782767431_4084704045116959159_n

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Greece, refugees

The Waiting Game

I wish I was writing this on the triumphant cusp of an agreement. I wish I was writing it without calculating my route today based on how many ATMs I’ll pass, which ones might have the shortest queue and factoring in “Queue Time” in my schedule.

The Build Up:

When the referendum was called, I was still in the UK for Hermes’ appointments. It brought home what an information vacuum that the circumstances we are living in in Greece today have been defined by. Information in the UK was scarce, and what was available was panicked.

I had no idea what to do. I called my husband “Should I leave the kids here? How bad is it going to get?” He reassured me that it would be fine to come back. And rightly so. Back in Athens, there was no unrest, no riots, no disintegration of the social fabric.

I spent the week before the referendum feeling the momentum build. Athens turned into a city with a one track mind. From old people to teenagers, there was one sole topic of conversation: the referendum.

I spent Friday evening playing with my children at a playground in my neighbourhood and wondering if I should go downtown. Both No and Yes camps were holding rallies within walking distance of each other. I was already feeling these circumstances, the ATM queues, the worried friends, starting to wear me down. As a freelancer, there isn’t always an outlet for my coverage to go to, so the trip downtown wasn’t going to be worth my while in money terms. Couldn’t I just stay and play with my kids for a while?

Eventually I decided the rallies were too important to miss and headed off. I was sure I’d missed them, but when I got there around 10pm, the streets around Syntagma were bursting with people. The atmosphere was electric. You couldn’t move. I became stranded in a small island near a souvlaki seller. Rallies (and riots) being something of a national sport, fast food vendors often pop up where they think they can do business. When I managed to slide out of the crush, I walked through the National Gardens to Kallimarmaro, wafting barbecue smells behind me.

Even in the darkened park, riot police who had been assembled but luckily had nothing to do, were sitting in groups of three and four and talking about the referendum. As I made my way to Kallimarmaro, the Yes camp appeared empty. This was interesting. I took a few pictures and doubled back to see if the No camp was still going strong. They were. The gathering had turned into a concert. There were too many people to get a good shot, so I climbed some scaffolding to get my pictures.

The Big Day:

By an incredible stroke of good luck, referendum day dawned with me running around Athens with a video journalist from the Guardian. Around Athens, talking to people, the same message played out.

In a taxi, the driver said “We want to be in Europe. We want to be a part of Europe. But not a Europe like this, not a Europe that’s always telling us what to do.”

Frank Sinatra’s Summer Wind came on the radio. How ironic I thought, listening to the lyrics. We listened in silence. “I’ve met Sinatra, you know” said the taxi driver finally. “I was a footballer for Olympiacos. I’ve met him in California.”

In Pireaus, the poor twin city of Athens where the port is based, and where Greece’s main production industry was based until it went bust, the mood was in favour of No with a few Yes’s scattered around.

At a kafeneio, old men joked and laughed with each other. In Greece, nearly all the media outlets, print and broadcast, are owned by oligarchs that push their own agenda. The impression we had been given in the run up to the referendum was of a society falling apart, deeply divided along socioeconomic lines.

Wherever I went, there was no sign of that. Two men joked with each other. I asked them if they’d been able to get their pensions. One of them, a Yes voter, said he had. “Ask this guy!” he said, pointing to his buddy “He didn’t take out any of his money from the banks!” His friend, a No voter, retorted “As if I have any!” They both roared with laughter at this.

The level of anger people felt became increasingly apparent during the day. Over and over again they told me the same thing: We chose already, we voted in January, Syriza knows what we want, why are they asking us to choose again? Forced to choose once more, they would do so, this time using the vote to send a message to Europe and say no more, we’ve had enough, we can’t bear it, it’s literally killing us.

During a break, I called my husband and dared to make a guess, “I think it’s going to go to No, and by a big margin.”

I had come down to Zappeion press centre with a dress for the evening and left straight for a good friend’s wedding after changing in the women’s toilets. As the sun set and the bride walked up the church steps in the golden light, tears pricked my eyes. I had been steeped in economic talk for weeks now, listening to young people in their early 20s who had lost all hope for their future. It was such a relief to have something so joyful to be a part of.

By the time the couple reemerged from the church in a shower of rice, the referendum results were out. No had won. On the way to the venue, the streets of Athens were deserted. Long queues began forming outside ATMs. My husband stopped and filled the car. At the wedding party, a plague of little flying beetles had descended on the venue. “Look at this,” I joked “Where’s the world’s media? We voted no and the plague has immediately started.”

Imagine, getting married on referendum day and arriving to see your guests constantly flicking little bugs off their clothes and hair. Luckily, the insects had dispersed by the time the bride and groom arrived. Across the city, No voters partied until dawn in Syntagma square.

The Day After:

The morning after the No vote, both yes and no camps were wondering what it all meant. If the No voters thought Europe would soften its stance, that didn’t happen. But if the rest of the world thought Greece would implode into chaos, that hasn’t happened either.

I spent another day as fixer for a really great team from the Guardian, speaking to many people in the central markets. At one point, we met a butcher from Pakistan and got chatting. He invited us all back to his little flat in Metaxourgeio. “The Greeks are good. If they can solve their problems, this will be the best country in the world.” he said.

“You’re my sister now” he said. He’s been here eight years and can’t get his papers, not from the Greeks and not from the Pakistan Embassy who I’ve been told more than once are utterly useless when it comes to helping their own citizens.

“It’s nice here,” he said. “Peaceful. You’ll come again, right? You must come again. Bring your family, sister. Did I know when I left home this morning that I’d meet my sister today? I didn’t. This was destiny.” he said. His eyes were sad. The more we talked the more he revealed about his life. He’d left Pakistan suddenly after his brother was killed in a bus accident.

“I couldn’t bear the pain. So I left. I had a big shop there, more than one shop. But it hurt too much to stay. When his son was born, he looked just like him. I couldn’t take that.”

He hasn’t been back since. He can’t leave. When he started talking about his mother, his Urdu slipped into Punjabi and I knew the topic must be really painful for him.

A story within another story. “Sister, promise me you’ll come again with your family.” he said as we left. I will, because I must.

The butchers in the meat district, the man in the fabric shop where I bought the fine white net to make a friend’s wedding veil and fabric for the flowing, luxurious belly dance trousers I used to make when I had the time. These are streets I’ve walked in before, shops I’ve shopped from, people who know me and who I know too.

Both living and reporting this story has come to feel very tiring. There is no off switch. I was fortunate that I was working with such a compassionate team, what they were seeing and hearing bothered them. Still, at times, I felt as if I was pulling the team along in a boat behind me, myself waist deep in the water.

What I mean to say is, at the end of the day, a journalist outside this story goes home and puts this story away in a little box. They stay dry. I went the same route as them, but I go home soaked through with the stories I’ve been told that day, the sadness, the frustration, added to my own constant worry about what’s going to happen to me and my family.

What Now?

Over and over, from my kids’ nursery teachers to the policeman in Syntagma police station, Greeks ask me the same thing: “You’re a journalist? So tell me what’s happening. You must know more than I do.”

Everyone is convinced that as a journalist I have access to some source of information that they don’t. Before, on and after referendum day, I got asked that same question. And again and again, I’ve had to answer that I know as much as they do.

We have no answers. Despite being in the centre of Europe’s biggest story, information is slim, and changes lightening fast. My hands are aching as I type this, too much has happened over the last few days. I did a telephone report for a Canadian TV channel. By the time I hung up, what I had just told them minutes ago had changed again.

On the streets of Athens, the public are starting to realise that the referendum didn’t actually mean anything. The new deal being proposed contains even more bailout money – the very thing the No camp opposed. Once again they’ve been ignored, once again they’ll be the ones that pay for everyone’s mistakes.

Greeks have gone into survival mode. We are living in an economic war zone. We live for today with no idea what will happen tomorrow. No one dares to guess. The public is shaking its head in disappointment, and topics of conversation have moved on to other things. This is a population so exhausted, so worn down, that they are protecting their very last asset, their hope, by not engaging any more in this political circus. They are carrying on as they did before, taking each day one day at a time. I can tell you, it’s a very tiring way to live for over five years.

As the owner of a souvenir shop told me yesterday, “How are things? Things are the same as they were before, except without money.” I stepped back onto the streets that, despite what you may have heard, were still buzzing with tourists. Business as normal, it’s just that our normality seems to change constantly.

Greece’s new, actual final, totally unchangeable, end of the line deadline is this Sunday. Today, they have to deliver a viable proposal to their furious European counterparts. As for what happens next, who knows. A friend of mine received the best answer to this question. “What happens after Sunday?” she asked.

The reply says it all “After Sunday comes Monday.”

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The patient on the table.

About 10 years ago, there was a famous case involving a routine procedure that went horribly wrong. A mother of two went into hospital to have a simple nasal procedure. Moments after the anaesthetic was administered, doctors discovered they were unable to establish an airway.

We’ve all seen this procedure in television medical dramas. It’s supposed to take just a few minutes. In this case, a very rare complication arose and the patient’s airway was obstructed. No matter how hard they tried, the doctors failed repeatedly to intubate her and get vital oxygen flowing to her organs again.

As the minutes ticked by, it was clear that panic had set in. There were three doctors in the room, and despite obvious alternatives, they were so focused on this one technique, on succeeding in getting the intubation done that they could not see past that one approach even when it was clearly not working.

Three experienced nurses who were also in the room, however, soon recognised that something was badly wrong. One of the nurses fetched a tracheotomy kit and let the doctors know that it was available. She stood by with the kit as they ignored her repeated attempts to announce it as a suitable alternative. The kit was never used, and the airway was never successfully established.

The patient suffered severe brain damage due to the lack of oxygen over 20 minutes and her life support was switched off several days later.

This tragic story illustrates what happens when those in charge doggedly focus on one approach when it’s clear that it’s not working instead of thinking of alternative solutions, or listening to better suggestions. When panic sets in, it can make even rational people act in bizarre ways that lead to disastrous consequences.

So too is the case with Greece and the country’s bailout programme. Last week, Greece’s debt to GDP ratio hit an all-time high of 177.1%. The bailout programme that was supposed to save the Greek economy has obliterated it, and austerity has caused the debt to go up rather than down.

It’s time to state the obvious and say that austerity has not worked. Five years in, it is an approach that has created a horrendous social disaster, ruined the Greek economy and continues to stretch off far into the horizon with no end in sight.

Despite obvious proof that austerity has failed spectacularly, it’s surprising then that no one has come up with any sort of viable alternative, and this is the only solution still being pushed on Greece by its creditors.

Let’s break it down in simple terms. When you borrow money, you are rightly expected to pay it back. Greece is not saying they refuse to pay. But at what point does a debt become completely unsustainable? When people get into severe debt, they either have to declare bankruptcy (default on their loan) or are given help in restructuring their loan against their available resources to create a viable repayment plan. We’re still waiting for that in Greece.

After an abysmal Eurogroup session in Riga last week, where the country’s finance minister allegedly received a verbal battering from his European counterpart, Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras removed Yanis Varoufakis from the Eurogroup negotiation team when he reshuffled it.

Varoufakis has rubbed up his counterparts the wrong way with his repeated opposition to the austerity programme and as patience ran out with Greece, a sacrifice had to be made. The markets immediately reacted in a positive way to this news. However, this move amounts to not much more than shooting the messenger. Whoever represents Greece at the next Eurogroup still has to carry the Syriza government’s message.

And so on and so forth in this economic mess and its even messier handling. The mouthpiece has been changed, but the message will most likely be the same. Why is it that five years later, all we have on the table is Europe’s “austerity or nothing” and Syriza’s “a little bit of austerity or nothing”? It’s important to ask this, because whatever the treatment, it’s the patient, the Greek public that bears the brunt of it, and right now the patient’s vital signs are looking critical.

Maybe someone somewhere should listen carefully and give a voice to the equivalent of the nurse standing in a corner with an alternative solution.

This article was published in the Khaleej TImes and Athens Views.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economy, Greece, thoughts

Local Elections in Athens – Round 1

Greeks vote in local elections starting tomorrow

Tomorrow, the first round of local elections take place in Greece. Up for grabs are positions in Greece’s 325 municipalities in 13 regions.

We always know when local elections are coming up in Greece. The local mayor goes around smashing up his municipality’s paving and replacing it with new pavements, or gets a couple of buildings and public schools hastily painted, and we are all supposed to be impressed.

Elections are a frustrating time for me in Greece. As a foreigner, I have no right to vote in them, and therefore no right to influence the issues that are important to me. For example, those lovely new pavements I mentioned. My older son has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. More than a few times, I have come home from a walk with him in his pushchair, crying tears of frustration because in Athens, pavements come in the most un-mobility friendly design you can possibly imagine. It’s like they have a dedicated person sitting in an office somewhere, looking at street plans and toiling late into the night to work out how precisely he can make the pavements as hostile to people with mobility issues as humanly possible.

So we get two choices to pick from. Either pavements that are broken, cracked and have chunks missing from them, making them ripe ground for children and old people to trip and fall, or pavements that are built with trees planted right in the middle of them, making them impossible to actually use if you are in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller and forcing you into the road. Both selections come with an ample choice of cars parked across them, making them almost completely inaccessible at the best of times.

If there is a stupider design for pavements, I have yet to come across it. We recently had a fantastic new metro station open just down the road from us when the red line was extended. Alimos station is a really beautiful, airy metro station and has connected my neighbourhood to the centre with a mere 20 minute metro ride. The area leading up to it was all newly built too. And what did we get for pavements? A brand new, impossible to navigate with a pushchair, tree-sprouting pavement.

There was no excuse for this, this was a completely new project. I think into the future, my son’s future which for now, with no current cure, definitely includes a wheelchair, and  I feel dizzy from the anger I feel. I feel like going around with a golf club in the baby bag to smash up the cars I see parked across the precious few mobility ramps these ridiculous pavements have.

One excuse is there is no money. I find this hard to believe. In the run up to the local elections, our mayor in Elliniko-Argiroupolis has blown who knows how many Euros building a nice little square on a scrap of wasteland between a main road, Vouliagmenis Avenue, and  an electronics store. They’ve even put down grass, which in Athenian summers costs a small fortune to keep alive. We also got shiny new benches on this nonsensical square, because God damn it, my dream was always to have somewhere to sit while I watched the traffic during rush hour on Vouliagmenis, with an ugly electronics store behind me, and now my dream is a reality.

I have gone off on a tangent. The biggest prize up for grabs in these elections is the seat of mayor of the municipality of Athens proper, and there are five main candidates running. The English version of Eleftherotypia provides an excellent summary of these candidates here.

The candidates are an interesting mix. They are a reminder of how much has happened in Greek politics in recent years. We are faced for the first time with the hideous prospect of having a neo-nazi in the most important municipal post in the country.

There are lots of crisis-driven, crowd pleasing strategies going on that lean to the right, disturbingly towards the realm of Golden Dawn. For example, Aris Spiliotopoulos, the New Democracy candidate, made a big show of officially leaving his party to pursue the mayoral seat and opposes the building of an official mosque in Votanikos, no doubt in a bid to get himself some of those Golden Dawn votes.

The centre right government earlier this year passed a law that banned second-generation immigrants from voting in elections, effectively silencing the voices that would have used their vote to reduce the stronghold of Golden Dawn. It all makes for such depressing reading it’s often easy to forget that this is the birthplace of democracy we’re talking about.

As central Athens bears the brunt of the country’s enormous, badly handled illegal immigrant issue, who knows which way these elections will go.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economy, Greece, thoughts, Uncategorized