I arrived in Athens Saturday on my way home from Corfu. I lived in the city for several months in 2016 and 2017, helping refugees who were navigating the traumatic changes in their lives. The experience changed me, and I left with a deep feeling of connection to the city. This visit, I only had one full day and I planned to enjoy it as an anonymous tourist. That didn’t happen!
I started my day as any tourist might. I enjoyed a Greek breakfast of stuffed grape leaves and spanakopita overlooking the Acropolis on the roof of my hotel, and then set out walking in the direction of the National Gallery and the Benaki Art Museum. The weather was beautiful and the city felt oddly peaceful. After a few blocks, I realized I was approaching the neighborhood of Exarchia — known for its intellectuals and anarchists — where I’d stayed many times. Curious about whether the city had painted over the neighborhood’s signature graffiti, as its new mayor promised, I took a detour through its streets. Happily, I found more graffiti than ever. And an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.
At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to visit museums. I kept walking, following my nose — my heart, actually — through other familiar neighborhoods, once full of refugees living in abandoned buildings called “squats.” Every block I walked through was a reminder of a tearful conversation, or a joyful evening, or a little bit of crisis management. I saw the market where Mohammed and I shopped for truckloads of vegetables and sacks of rice and the treasured Middle Eastern seasoning called zaa’tar. I found Jasmine School, the squat where Ahmad and I taught English to children and young adults who were happy to have a little structure in their chaotic lives. Walking past a café where I first met Sayed, I remembered how many times I cried unexpectedly during those two years. And then I cried unexpectedly.
I never found any evidence of refugee communities during my visit, although I know thousands remain and more are arriving from the devastation in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq. The squats have been cleared by the police and Victoria Square was empty. Many are now living in the streets or in crowded, isolated camps.
All of this reminded me that my refugee friends were lucky to have made it out of Greece. Sayed and his family are living in a beautiful village outside of Berlin, where Sayed works for a large NGO. Hesham is in Paris, engaged to be married and working in an elementary school. Ahmad is in Holland, where he is finishing college and writing a memoir dedicated to his unborn child.
On the way back to my hotel, a young boy watched me give a few euros to a homeless woman with a baby, and then followed me for three blocks. “Paracalo!” he pleaded in Greek. I never give children money and I had nothing else to share, but I regretted walking away from him. He is one of many, I thought, who will grow up believing people like me could have made a difference in his life. Even knowing I couldn’t, I returned later in the day with a bag of food and found his mother. “The boy is asleep in our room,” she said, “But how are you?”
For more about my refugee experiences in Greece, here is a link to my book, A Country Within, and my blog postings: