(Edited with Alice Greenway)
My name is Melissa and I am writing to you from an apartment in Athens that I share with eleven other refugees. As I sit and brew a pot of tea full of herbal Asian spices, a daily ritual, I reflect that today I have no choice. Greece went into lockdown this morning March 24 because of Corona Virus and the cleaning agency where I work has laid me off from my hard-earned, low-paying job. To inspire myself, I try to think of how former South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela must have felt as he faced his prison cell on Reuben Island with nothing but hope that one day the dark cloud that hung above his fate would fade away, revealing the shining silver lining behind it.
Under house arrest, allowed only to go out for food, medicine or exercise, I am left to read and search the internet via my cell phone and to contemplate the circumstance that led me here – a Ugandan refugee in Greece. I worry about how this new Corona Virus pandemic will affect refugees worldwide and consider how both crises are interrelated and intertwined, exposing global “underlying conditions,” namely how we mistreat each other and our planet. For refugees, restriction of movement, uncertain medical care, distance from friends and family and social isolation are things we have been living with for many years. Yet here comes Covid-19, threatening to make things even worse.
How I ended up a refugee in Greece and what has happened to me is a story I would like to tell. I have no laptop and am writing this article on my phone.
BECOMING A REFUGEE
I am thirty-eight years old and arrived in Greece as a political refugee in September 2018. Truth be told, I never intended to become a refugee. I had attained my master’s degree in political science at Makerere University, the main state university in Kampala, and hoped to become a PhD and lecturer. At university, I met Robert Kyagulanyi, a.k.a. Bobbi Wine, now a member of parliament, and his wife, who was in my dorm. (You may recently have heard of Bobbi Wine as his reggae-beat Covid-19 song has become a hit on social media.) Wine started his People Power Movement in 2017 in opposition to President Museveni’s bid to amend the Ugandan constitution, a change that allows him to run for a sixth term in office. I became a devoted participant of this opposition and was beaten and hounded many times by the Ugandan police and their plainclothes thugs for my role in writing articles critical of the government, attending meetings, giving logistical support to PPM and for demonstrating and campaigning for human rights and LGBTQ rights.
In July 2018, I participated in a large demonstration against high tariffs on social media and mobile money, taxes designed to clamp down on protests. The next month, I was attending a workshop in Istanbul when a warrant was issued for my arrest. I had been accused of treason. The lawyer for the NGO I was representing warned me not to return home. He told me several of my friends and colleagues, who’d attended the demonstration, had been arrested. Alarmingly, three PPM activists fleeing to Turkey had “disappeared” at the Istanbul Ataturk airport. Believing it wasn’t safe for me to seek asylum in Turkey or I too might end up dead, presumably the fate of my colleagues, I decided the only way out for me was by boat to Greece.
The story of my journey follows the suit of so many others. I paid a Syrian smuggler six hundred U.S. dollars and was instructed to board a bus to Basmane station in Izmir. There I was taken to a house to lay low. A few days later about fifty of us, mostly Syrian and African, were packed into a truck hidden under a tarpaulin and driven toward the sea. Arriving in a hilly wood, we walked about five miles to reach the sea. We slept in the wood until about three in the morning, while the smugglers assembled and pumped up the rubber dinghy. We weren’t sure that dinghy would hold so many of us but we went aboard one by one. The engine was started and they pushed us out. As we headed toward the open sea, the smuggler captaining our boat jumped into the water and, shouting some advice in Arabic, bid us farewell. A refugee was forced to take the helm. We were lucky. Just as daylight was creeping in, after about three hours at sea, a helicopter flew over and alerted a Frontex rescue boat – the European Union coast guard and border agency, although none of us had heard of them. They pulled us up onto the boat by rope and gave us plenty of water. Thus I arrived on the island of Samos on September 5, 2018 at 8:30 in the morning.
We were taken to the Samos camp by Frontex personnel, who registered us before handing us over to the Greek authorities, who took our fingerprints, recorded our identities and asked each of us whether or not we were seeking asylum. We were each given a bag with toiletries, a towel, a sleeping bag, a blanket, a plastic mat to lay on the ground. I was assigned a bunk in one room of a metal cabin, along with a couple from Uganda and their small baby. That cabin was hot and full of bed bugs and other insects like centipedes and spiders.
CONDITIONS ON THE GREEK ISLAND OF SAMOS
Conditions at the camps on the Greek islands are truly terrible and always getting worse. In 2018 when I arrived there were 4,600 refugees surviving in a camp built for 640. Today there are more than 7,000. The majority of refugees live on the hilly olive groves surrounding the camp’s perimeter with no electricity, no toilets and no running water. One of the survival skills I soon learned was how to pee in a bucket. Taking a shower in the camp meant throwing some stones in first so you could stand on them to keep your feet out of the effluence and dirty water that sloshed across the floor from the toilets next door.
Our lives often became lost in an endless cycle of queuing, waiting and uncertainty. For example, we queued for up to four house to get our meals, which at times ran out. We queued from midnight, some people taking turns sleeping in the cold, to get our identity cards renewed each month, often to find they weren’t ready. We queued again in long, endless lines to get health care and medication, which sometimes backfired causing more harm to your body than good. We queued for clothes, which soon became to too big as people lost so much weight in those conditions. Most stress-provoking of all, however, was the endless wait for any news of our asylum cases.
All this queuing and uncertainty led to tension and frustration, which brewed into fierce, heated fights both toward our Greek hosts and between ourselves. Fights and scuffles often grew from racial prejudices, especially against Africans. I remember one time, as we queued for food, a group of Arab and Afghan women marched to the front of the line, ordering the African ladies who were already waiting to queue behind. One lady, who spoke English, had the audacity to tell us that we Africans “have always been slaves and we will always be slaves no matter where we go.” Oh, I remember how terribly that statement rubbed, so that it actually ticked off something in us just like a time bomb. Both Anglophone and Francophone Africans turned on those women. Knowing exactly what to do to disgrace them, we grabbed them by their hair and pulled off their headscarves and veils. We threw these on the ground and stepped on them. One French-speaking lady lamented “Le respect est réciproque.” Another spoke loudly in Turkish saying “hepimis yabanciyiz” meaning we are all foreigners and we are all equal here as refugees. Another woman from Cameroon asked these women why they didn’t seek asylum in Saudi Arabia where such anti-black feelings are tolerated and where they shared the same religion and where everyone wore headscarves.
I know this was not a nice thing to do but remember, we acted from impulse and from the belief that we needed to prove a point, to teach them to respect us and one another. In Turkey, we in the black African community are ostracized and called racist names like “Zenji”, which means “filthy Negro.” In Greece too, Arabs and Afghans were keen to rub these racist sentiments in our faces. Our Greek hosts exacerbated racial tensions by giving preferential treatment to fair-skinned refugees, assigning them the best spots and often neglecting Africans, even vulnerable people and women with children. Believe it or not, after this scuffle, we, at least those who were there at the time, started to give more respect to each other and after that queued in order of who came first. Meanwhile, the Greek police just stood by and watched. I presume they’d witnessed so many such scuffles and had had enough of them.
When it came to the men’s food line, there was a particular group of Arab men who got preferential treatment and were known to be untouchable. It was said this was because they acted as pimps for the policeman and would find young Arab girls who would be sold to them as prostitutes at night behind the Samos Hotel. Some of these girls were introduced into this trade by their own close relatives in a bid to attain a good amount of money, a sum total of 150 Euros a session. This was not the only case of prostitution. I also knew of African ladies trading their bodies in and out of the camp to other refugees for as little as three Euros per session. Their explicit dressing was a signal to market their business. A sad part of this business was that there wasn’t enough sexual reproductive health knowledge or access to contraceptives as a protective measure against STD, Aids or pregnancy.
Despite this suffering and these conditions, I experienced many awakening calls in Samos that made me grateful to my creator above for all that he’d endowed in me. I knew I was so much better off than my fellow refugees who are illiterate, uneducated and who can’t speak any English. One of the things that kept me going was the volunteer work I was able to find teaching English at a refugee center run by at the NGO Samos Volunteers. This work gave me a way to spend my days and also helped me integrate into the camp as I got to know so many other refugees from different communities, whereas in camp we tended to stick with those in our own communities.
Strange that when I look back on Samos, I am sometimes nostalgic because of the important lessons I learned there. The most important being empathy toward one another in our new, multicultural environment. I remember the little ways we tried to make ourselves laugh and be happy there with the very little we had. Some moments of joy arose when fellow refugees were issued “open” identity cards that allowed them to leave the island for what we hoped were better destinations in Greece. On these occasions, we’d gather to cook meals and to buy some wine, which got some of our colleagues drunk especially among the African communities. Thereafter, we would come up with songs insulting the police and camp manager Maria-Dimitra, who recently stepped down after her appalling reign. Just as the Greek police called us “malakas’ – meaning “the fucked-up ones” – so some of my counterparts took advantage of such opportunities to throw back these words. One stubborn fellow from Congo often got drunk and would sing right outside the police post in a bid to get the police to chase him as a way of creating drama and making us all laugh. “You Mudira, you Malaka. You police, you Malaka,” he sang. This really worked as planned because as this chase went on all over the camp, we were entertained.
There was a Congolese guy who sang a catchy tune every kid in the camp knew by heart. The song combined English, Turkish, French and Swahilli and went something like this:
Open card. Kaç para? (How much money?)
Can I go? Yok. (No.)
Sikili git. Sikili git. (Get bored. Get bored)
Today no chicken, macaroni.
Yesterday we ate your haricots (beans)
They made us pieu pieu (fart)
Getting an Open Card meant you were transferred the following day to some unknown place on the mainland. The day of departure was filled with drama as we’d carry pots and pans, which we used as drums as we sang and danced along to say farewell. What made me happy was that, despite any former differences, everyone would partake in the dancing irrespective of race and nationality. The children danced the best and danced together as they often played together and would teach each other their languages. They really related well with one another, better than we adults.
I remember asking one of my Iraqi friend’s children to sing me a song from their former home. As they sung, they made gestures like they were praying. Owning to the fact that I speak Swahili, which is a mixture of African bantu dialects and Arabic, I could comprehend some of what my little friends were singing to me. The word “barak,” which means blessing, was a refrain. But what was most touching and even made me cry later, was the innocent way they sang it. These four kids reminded me of myself at their age and of my little daughters, whom I’d left back home. So after volunteering at an NGO each day, I wouldn’t go home without first coming to see and play with them. Before they left the island, they looked for me to bid me farewell. I felt a very strong connection to those kids, so that when they left the camp, there was a void in me owing to the friendly bond we’d shared despite not speaking the same language.
There were two marriages while I was on Samos. One between an Iraqi couple, where everyone from every community in the camp came. It was a very beautiful multicultural wedding. The other was a couple from Somalia, who got married by the waterfront. My goodness, the weddings in the camp were the best. We had small speakers and played music and the bride and groom danced. It was very simple. They went to the bakery and got a small cake and sweets. Technically marriage is illegal while you are seeking asylum but considering how long we were confined to the island, people were bound to get together. These joyful occasions helped bridge the differences between us and gradually, we started to understand each other.
PROBLEMS WITH THE GREEK ASYLUM SYSTEM
The Greek asylum system moves at a snail’s pace and exacerbates anti-social problems like prostitution, theft and drug abuse. Many refugees feel redundant and useless as they are left with nothing to do day in and day out. Left neglected and in limbo as to our asylum claims and owing to high stress levels, many become depressed and lose the urge and will, the zeal to push forward in life. For some, the only escape is to abuse drugs in a bid to make themselves feel better. Even those who initially arrive, innocent and green, end up in bad situations because of the company around them and the lack of useful employment. This happens even to people with skills and some formal education attained from their former countries of origins.
As an old Chinese proverb, sometimes attributed to Confucius, says “You give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for life.” In Greece, UNHCR gives each refugee a cash card, allowing them to access 95 Euros a month. This monthly income is a lifesaver as people struggle to get essentials such as healthy food, sanitary pads, diapers and baby food. However, in other ways, it’s a curse and leads to dependency syndrome. I say this because I have witnessed women and young girls getting unwanted pregnancies, solely in order to use their babies as money-making machines or because they believe getting pregnant will help their chances for asylum. One of the Syrian men who smuggled me into Greece expressed surprise that I was single and not pregnant like so many other women refugees. And several African refugees along my journey insinuated that I sleep with them so I could get pregnant. If we could register as a family, they said, that was the surest way to get asylum. More than once or twice, I’ve had to verbally, rudely and physically defend myself, reminding these men that having unwanted babies can have great adverse effects on one’s life.
I have also witnessed heads of families, mostly fathers, get frustrated and stressed after their asylum cases are granted. Most refugees in Greece find it hard to believe that this aid will stop. But after receiving residents’ permits and refugee passports, refugees are then expected to stand on their own two feet and to find employment to support themselves. I have seen families forcibly removed from the camp after being given their papers because they didn’t know how to survive. I have seen heads of families get so stressed that they hatch plans to go to other European countries in order to seek asylum all over again in order to get access to this financial aid.
In truth, I can’t blame refugees who become dependent on financial aid as so many who come to Greece are illiterate and have never acquired any basic hand skills nor attended school, nor worked in any formal capacity. When I volunteered teaching English, I met so many who hardly knew how to read, write or even spell their names. Some women also sold me that their faith had prohibited them from working outside the home.
But another reality of the camp is the number of people like myself, with academic degrees and professional skills. I saw Aero-Engineers, Civil Engineers, Lawyers, Doctors and, of course, many highly skilled tailors and seamstresses all wasting away at the Samos camp. I urge the European Union to look into this issue of job training and placement as the key that would help we refugees integrate into the various new societies in which they place us. Those of us with skills should be provided with seminars and workshops on how to put our training to use in Europe. Such an effort would motivate refugees and help us regain the self respect that arises from the human urge to be able to realize one’s own potential. It would make us proud, useful citizens who contribute to society and free us from depressing feeling of being looked on as a burden. Permit me to say that the problem of refugees for our host countries could also be greatly alleviated if we were trained and encouraged to work and contribute to our new societies. Financial aid should not stand as an alternative to helping people find work.
THE DIFFICULTY OF FINDING WORK
Up to now, the challenges refugees find in Greece when trying to find employment is insurmountable for most. The first hurdle we face is the language barrier. If you can’t speak Greek or English, getting employment is near to impossible. The fallout from the terrible Greek economic crisis means jobs are scarce. And if you do find one, you have to have the tenacity and stamina to navigate the strenuous, lengthy, bureaucratic paperwork. As well as the wherewithal to battle against the negative impression Greeks have about refugees. To rub salt in the wound, the Greek government that came into power in 2019 initially announced that it would no longer grant health insurance to refugees, a decision that was later reversed. To apply for a job in Greece, you need a health insurance document (AMKA), a tax number (AFAMI), and proof of residence, (EKA). These can take months.
I was lucky in regards to these papers. In summer, nine months after I arrived on Samos, I managed to get a job as a kitchen assistant in a restaurant. Because my employers knew people in the municipal offices, they were able to procure papers in one day. Even so, the job proved so demoralizing I finally had to quit.
My working days were close to thirteen hours, seven days a week with no break for food. I remember one time I sat down to have a snack, I was reprimanded by the owner’s daughter who informed her mother. My boss called me back in a rude and commanding way. More discouraging and wearing were the constant remarks about how I dressed “too African,” or that my dangling earrings made me look “too African.” or that my “chocolate African complexion” was damaging to the restaurant. This despite the fact that as a kitchen worker who cleaned dishes, washed floors and made salads, I never came out to wait on customers. According to my own professional standards, I am comfortable with being who I am, and I believe that conscientiously performing one’s job, not the color of one’s skin, should be what counts. At stressful times, my boss warned me that if I failed to keep up, I’d be told to go back to the camp. As if I cared. By that time, I was used to the camp. I had lived there nine months, while still waiting for my asylum interview.
All these factors made me fall sick and depressed so that after two months, I left the job without even collecting my last paycheck. I went straight to the free refugee medical clinic where they gave me some medicine and told me to rest. When I left the restaurant, I returned to the small house I had by then built in the “jungle” outside the camp.
REFUGEE HOUSING ON SAMOS
Let me here tell you a little about my house. The cabin where I was first assigned to live with a Ugandan family was ridden with bedbugs and mosquitoes and the shared toilet was filthy. Also the wife of the small family I shared a room with was pregnant and did not treat me well. Eventually, my skin was covered in bites and my mood was so worn down, I could stand it no longer and decided to buy a tent from one of the shops in town. An African woman, acting as a landlord, was charging 80 Euros for tent sites just outside the camp gates. Although this was extortion, I felt safe at that spot because it was just across from the police post at the gate to the camp. So I arranged to get some money from relatives in Uganda and organized myself. I bought a 35 Euro tent and the first thing I did was fumigate my few belongings: spraying the tent, my sleeping bag, blanket and clothes in a mix of petrol and camphor. This was a great fire hazard, especially as there were kerosene burners and many people who smoked, but I was so desperate to be rid of my bug bites. Winter was coming. I found a plastic sheet to cover my tent. A friend gave me a blanket. I bought a small kettle to make tea.
At that time, both hillside surrounding the camp and every empty space inside the fences were packed with tents. There were tarpaulins and wool blankets strung between them for shade and privacy. During Samos’ very first winter storm, many of these tents blew down and the tarpaulins filled with water. Neither the Greek authorities, nor UNHCR, could provide us with proper shelter. Instead, an enterprising young Nigerian named Sunday Michael and a few Palestinian men started designing and constructing watertight box-like houses. They advised me that they could build me a house for 220 Euros just near camp fence and that I could pay in installments.
Sunday Michael and a Palestinian named Yusef worked hand in hand, each procuring different materials. First they dug a hole and leveled the ground. They used a wooden pallet for the floor and built a plywood structure on top, which they then wrapped very tightly with blue plastic tarpaulin. Inside, they lined the walls with old blankets and finally cut a window and doors into the structure. For the first time, I had a key to my house – a box like structure of about eight by six feet but tall enough to stand up in. Thousands of people like me are living this way on the outskirts of the camp without any electricity or running water.
All this time, I was still waiting for my interview, which was originally scheduled for June 2019 but was then postponed. Finally, I had my first part of my interview in August, the second part in September.
FIRES IN THE CAMP AND TRANSFER TO MAINLAND GREECE
Mid October 2019, a month or so after I left my kitchen job, two fires broke out in the Samos camp. The first resulted from a fight between Syrian Palestinians and Palestinians from Gaza. Three houses belonging to these groups were burned as a result. The second fire was much bigger. It resulted from a fight between Afghans and Arabs which took place after an Arab minor had disrespected an Afghan girl. The fight kept escalating as both parties called in other forces to join. Until finally one Afghan man threw a gas cylinder into a house cabin and a group of tents. These tents were near a big tree. It was very dry as it was the end of summer. There had been no rain and the tree caught fire very nicely. It was about 400 meters from my house.
That night I happened to be watching a Korean soap opera on my cell phone with a small speaker I had procured. I heard the commotion but I thought, this fire doesn’t concern me, I just want to finish this episode. Then I looked outside! I put the speaker and a few other things in a bag believing I could come back later to get the rest. But everything in my house and the surrounding neighborhood where I once lived burned down to ashes. All the things I had found and all the things I had done to make that little space a home were destroyed.
TRANSFER TO MAINLAND GREECE
That fire was a wake up call to the authorities, who suddenly panicked and remembered that there were people like me, who’d been waiting for our asylum decision for more than a year. Two weeks later, I got my own Open Card and, although my asylum case was still pending, was told I would be transferred the very next morning to a new camp in Corinth. So I left the island of Samos just like I had arrived, with virtually no clothing and just a small bag of toiletries, because everything I had was burned in the fire.
Oh, I was excited though. I was very happy! I remember going on the ferry with some friends and their kids, a family from Iraq and another from Palestine. There was a kid named Basim and he was shouting, “Athena! Athena! Athena!” And I said “You Basim, me, go Athena.” And he said, Athena, my friend, Athena!” When we reached the port of Piraeus, ten UNHCR buses were waiting to take us to different destinations.
When I arrived at the new camp in Corinth, and I was shocked, very shocked. I wouldn’t like to say it was out of the frying pan and into the fire. That is not quite true. There were tents at least and I didn’t have to make a bed for myself. There were new sheets and blankets and bunk beds and we were given solar lamps and sanitary things like soap and washing soap. I was lucky too because I was placed with a lady and her daughter from Congo and she welcomed me very nicely. But the camp was crowded and noisy with big tents divided into rooms from which we could all hear each other. There were power blackouts and it was very cold. The showers and toilets and places to cook wash were about five minutes walk from the tents so at night, we still had to use a bucket. The food was the same horrible food. And there was nothing to do. I soon got sick and there was no access to a doctor. We each were given a key to our doors but the keys were all the same.
More than that, it was a camp. I was fed up with being tossed from one camp to another, and asked myself how long I could survive this way? Am I going to remain a dependent all my life, I asked? I want to work. At least that way, I could save something. I didn’t think this was what life should be like for an adult. Naturally, I don’t like sitting back and doing nothing but receiving U.N. handouts. I need to do things with my hands, to be active, to make use of myself, my body, my mind and spirit. I want to live an exemplary life. After talking to some overseas friends, who offered a few hundred euros to help, I started thinking about how I might leave the camp and move to Athens.
Moving to Athens on my own, as a single woman was a big risk. Although I had the necessary documents to work and although I had learned a little Greek and had excellent command of English – still I had to learn very fast to be street smart. Everyone in Athens is seeking to get money from you, despite the fact that you don’t have any. The first time I tried to find a job, I got scammed out of 100 Euros paying a man upfront, who everyone later told me had the reputation of eating people’s money. In Athens, there are self-acclaimed “house brokers” and “job brokers.” Most are from Nigeria and have lived in Greece close to twenty years. These brokers all look at you like the country mouse while they are the town mice, a.k.a. the “big shots,” owing to the fact they know the town in and out. If you are too much a country mouse, you end up getting robbed.
Luckily, I found a more honest broker named Good Luck who led me to a cleaning agency called Techni Clean, with whom I got work cleaning a bookstore and a supermarket. The agreement with Good Luck was to pay 50 euros upfront, in order for him to set me up with an interview, and 50 euros afterward if I got the job. Because I had my papers from Samos and a C.V., I was accepted and told to start work in two days’ time. Like most most blue collar jobs in Athens offered to foreigners, which are low-pay, my salary was three Euros an hour and I could only get six-hour workdays. Nevertheless, I was truly grateful for the simple fact that, along with the UNHCR allowance, this income helped me buy food, pay my rent and bills and buy some basic sanitary items. I am truly grateful to my God and blessed in comparison to most of my colleagues, who don’t have papers or CVs or good English and, who, failing to acquire all the paperwork and unable to pay broker fees, finally get frustrated and depressed with no option left but to give up and rely on aid.
Still, there was one last hurdle, which was that my boss needed to pay my salary into a bank account. To get a bank account, I needed a house contract to prove residency but the house where I was staying had too many people already on the contract. For this, I had to pay another 200 Euros to the broker to get my name on another house contract and also to take me to the tax office, where there are so many people and the pace is very slow, where I needed to officially change my residency papers from Samos to Athens. Once you open an account, the bank sends your card to the address on file. So I had to finish that payment before I could get my card.
Truth be told, there are people in Athens you can pay to do anything. If you have the money, you can try to pay for your residency permit. You can pay 300,000 Euros for an arranged marriage in order to get a Greek passport. You can pay 300 Euros to get fake foreign I.D. cards that might help you escape to another country. There are people who will find pimps for girls who want to do prostitution. And, I’ve been told, if you can’t pay in cash for a broker’s services, you can pay in kind. In Athens, there’s a guy they call Baba Mayor, who knows the basics of everything. And all the brokers, who work out of African shops, say they have contact with him. You have to know the big guys in town who know the big guys who know the big guys who have connections. Everyone here is asking for money. They even say, I can show you a hospital that is cheap but pay me. You are paying for their knowledge. You’ve seen the movie Oliver Twist? It’s like that.
Finding a place to live was equally tricky. The first apartment I saw, I was about to settle for when I was lucky enough to meet a woman from Cameroon who warned me that this would be the worst decision of my life. The girls in that place were all in the sex trade and she told me of the terrifying and horrific experiences they faced. The broker then led me to a second house where a family, again from Nigeria, had a room. I believed I would be safe living with a family. But it turned out the owner of that apartment owned a nightclub. His sisters-in-law tried to entice me to the club. They said working there saying it was a nice job, with flexible hours. All I’d have to do is meet with clients. But I knew this was exploitation as the nightclub girls are not paid and are only there to entice men to buy drinks and to give them money. I found multiple excuses to avoid going with them, like I had asthma or I was so cold or I didn’t like to go out at night, while I looked for another place.
For the month of January, I lived as a “companion” to a Greek woman, who only charged utilities. But she was very strange. When I came home, I found she had rifled through my things. She also ate my food, for which I was carefully budgeting. The building, which she owned, was full of refugees and the conditions were very dirty. Sometimes, we had to switch off the power in our apartment, so the people upstairs could use it. There were short circuits and no hot water, even though she then tried to charge me 100 euros for the water bill. Finally, I met a group of friends who’d also moved to Athens from Samos and who had a large house with a bedroom about to be vacated by a Afghan man who was moving to a shelter because he could no longer afford the rent. I took up the offer and this is where I find myself now in a large room partitioned in two rooms by a curtain. My room has a wooden floor, high ceiling and a glass doors to a balcony over the street. I have a second-hand mattress on the floor, two shelves for my things and a suitcase where I keep my clothes. The latest addition to my belonging are my face mask, which I sterilize every day and rubber gloves. Athens is very much of a hustle. If you work and live within your means, you can manage staying in Athens but you have to budget carefully.
The last time I inquired about my asylum case was at Christmas when I was told it was still pending and nothing had come up yet. A Greek lawyer who I asked to check on my case could not locate my files and told me they may have been lost in another fire at the Samos camp in which the Greek asylum computers were destroyed. Perhaps my file disappeared in this kind of scuffle. I don’t even want to think about that, as I don’t know whether there was any back-up. Although I am lucky to have a transcript from my first interview.
HOW WILL COVID-19 AFFECT REFUGEES AND WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
As I sit in my Athens apartment under lockdown and write to you, I am listening to the Covid-19 song of my People Power M.P. Bobbi Wine. His lyrics educate people to wash their hands, sanitize, keep social distance and quarantine, be discipled, maintain personal hygiene and report symptoms because “prevention is better than cure.” All this is now possible for me in my room in Athens. But when I think back to Samos and consider the cramped conditions and the need to queue for everything and the lack of water to wash, I wonder how the refugees there will be able to prevent themselves from contracting Covid or any other disease. I worry then that the ultimate sacrifice of life will be made in exchange for the freedom refugees sought and deserve.
This afternoon I went out to walk around my Athens neighborhood of Platea Koliatu. It was a ghost town but I saw the Western Union and the Pakistani food shops are still open. Once again, I feel lucky to have my papers as so many of my fellow refugees in Athens are here illegally and are scared now to go out as police are stopping people on the streets. How will they get food?
I worry that the asylum process, already so inefficient, will be put on hold. No-one can visit the asylum office and our asylum cases will be delayed. In April, the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum issued a statement announcing the suspension of all administrative services including registrations, interview and appeals until May 15. Honestly, this might put us way back, even by several years. On the other hand, because of the recent influx of refugees from Turkey before the pandemic, it’s possible the officials may want to hurry our residency permits through so that they can cut off aid.
In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama says that “A disciplined mind leads to happiness and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.” It seems to me, as I sit here and reflect on the suffering of refugees and what is happening now with the current Covid-19 pandemic, that both crises arise from a result of indiscipline on a global scale. The world has failed to listen to the problems of refugees just as it has failed to respect nature and the environment in which we thrive. In our greed and thirst to want more, in our excavation and deforestation, we invaded the natural habitats of many animals. Instead of protecting endangered animals as we should, we captured them for food and medicine, transporting them hundreds of miles in cages to Asian and sub-Saharan markets where they develop and transmit pathogens. The transmission of pathogens from animals to humans is responsible for a litany of diseases including Ebola, Bird Flu, MERS, Rift Valley Fever, SARS and now Covid-19. Even beyond these deadly diseases, nature is sending out SOS messages in the form of catastrophes like the bush fires in Australia, the terrible locust invasions in Africa and broken heat records everywhere.
As we battle this pathogen that does not not respect species’ boundaries, it’s vital to remember that we as humans have also failed to respect each other’s boundaries and rights. Just as we ignore our planet’s ills, we inhumanely and selfishly turn a deaf ear to the plights of our fellow humans beings. Conflict and war, injustice, brutality, as well as climate change, has produced the migration of humans away from their own natural habitats in search of a better way of life.
As we are forced into this shared time of confinement and solitude as a result of Covid-19 quarantine, many are saying it is a chance to reflect on our ways and actions before we take the next steps. This time our focus should be on how we can mitigate and reverse the damage we’ve inflicted on humanity and on our environment. It’s my belief that many of the world’s problems would disappear if we talked to each other instead of about each other. Running away from problems or turning a blind eye, as the world has done to both to its refugees and to climate change, only increases those problems. Conversely, the easiest way to escape from a problem is to solve it. Migration has its advantages and disadvantages. But if properly looked after and integrated, refugees can help in the development of our new host countries.
As Bobbi Wine sings to me, here in Athens and far from home: “The bad news is that everyone is a potential victim. But the good news is that everyone is a potential solution.” Like it or not, as this virus has shown, we are all intimately connected. This should be a thing to celebrate.