It has been more than two years since I first arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos where overloaded boats brought refugees to the island’s windy beaches. The people in the boats were mostly young and many were children — wet, cold and hungry, escaping war and persecution in their home countries. On Lesvos, I joined hundreds of Greeks and international volunteers who supported the refugees on their journey to mainland Europe. https://kimmie53.com/2016/01/06/dyo-varkes-two-boats/#more-5081 https://kimmie53.com/2016/01/01/philotimo/#more-4864
And then I went to Athens, where thousands of refugees lived in abandoned buildings and on the streets without reliable access to food, medicine or safe shelter. There, I met a group of young people who had arrived in Greece from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Hopeful and generous in spirit, they became part of my extended family. https://kimmie53.com/2016/09/03/my-big-fat-greekish-family/ https://kimmie53.com/2016/05/08/sayed/#more-6060
Being a part of these small communities changed me in ways I still don’t really understand. I am so grateful that the feelings and some of the people are and will always be a part of my life.
So what has happened in the past two years? There is a little good news and a lot of bad news.
Although Europe originally welcomed the refugees through 2015, changes in attitudes and policy in Europe have made it difficult for refugees to get to Europe or remain there. Since early 2016, the EU and Turkey have been patrolling the Aegean Sea and the Turkish coastline to keep the boats from crossing into Greece. The borders closed from Greece to the northern countries, so most refugees who made it to Greece since early 2016 have been stuck in Greece, which does not have the jobs or the infrastructure to support them.
Lesvos has become a kind of prison for thousands of refugees who are not permitted to leave the island for the mainland. Most live in conditions that have been repeatedly described as inhumane in the camp called Moria. They have lived through freezing winters in $10 tents without adequate sanitation, food or medical care, desperate and all but forgotten.
My family in Athens? The young people who lost their families at home have since lost their ad hoc family in Athens, having been sent to different places in Europe. Some have hopeful futures but mostly their futures are uncertain.
Hesham is the school teacher from Syria who lost most of his family in the war and was himself imprisoned and tortured by the Syrian government. In 2017, the EU gave Hesham a plane ticket to France where he was granted asylum. Since he arrived in June, Hesham has developed some community and has learned to speak conversational French. Hesham believes he will be able to find work and live a meaningful life in France.
Fahim, a teenager from Afghanistan, was sent to Germany in October 2017 to reunite with his mother, who lives near Frankfurt. Unfortunately, in the 20 months
the Greek government took to reunite this minor with his mother, Fahim became an adult so he is not permitted to live with his mother even though she is disabled. He lives in an austere camp, a 3 hour bus trip from his mother’s house. Fahim’s application for asylum in Europe was summarily denied because an immigration judge did not give Fahim an opportunity to present his supporting documentation to the court. Fahim is now awaiting a decision on appeal. If he is denied asylum, he will be sent back to Afghanistan where he was persecuted by the Taliban for his notoriety as a professional soccer player.
Sayed from Afghanistan still lives in Athens with his wife, Nahid, and their three young sons. He has a good job with a large international organization, has learned Greek and takes advantage of every kind of training he can get. Sayed doesn’t think he will ever be happy in Athens but Europe will not allow Afghans to live in other EU countries (except in cases like Fahim’s, where family members are reunited). Sayed’s asylum claim was denied in early 2016 on the basis of false logic, and he is awaiting a decision on his appeal. If Sayed’s claim is denied, he and his family will be deported to Afghanistan, where Sayed was tortured and threatened by the Taliban for his work with the west’s war effort and his role in a television show.
Boats of refugees are arriving again on the island of Lesvos and from Africa into Italy as well. The refugees know Europe will not welcome them and they don’t know how they will survive. But they are the lucky ones among the 26 million people in the world who have been displaced by war, persecution and environmental disasters. Any life in Europe, no matter how difficult, may be better than what they may face at home.
These people are part of our global family, not guilty of anything, looking for peace and a way to have a meaningful life. They are following the paths of our own ancestors and we need to keep reminding ourselves that they could be our own children.