BY: IOANA TODOSIA
It’s impossible to not have preconceptions about the refugee crisis.
I arrived in Greece prepared to work with Syrian refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, and I prepared myself for what I was expecting to experience accordingly. Upon our arrival to Lesvos, we all quickly realized those preconceptions were just pieces of a much larger, more complicated puzzle. It became evident very quickly that this refugee crisis is so much more complex, and spans way further than solely the Syrian conflict.
While manning the queue outside of the clothing distribution tent our first night at Better Days for Moria camp, a man caught my attention asking where I was from with crystal clear English.
“Ah, Canadians are very nice,” he said. “I worked with many Canadians in Afghanistan. Do you know Mercy Corps? I was a regional Program Director for Mercy Corps in Afghanistan.”
He said it so matter-of-factly that the absurd irony of his situation almost failed to land with me. To add more absurdity onto the situation, Katalina had also over-heard our conversation and after engaging with the man quickly realized that they even knew some of the same people within the organization.
It inevitably led us to ask the question every refugee answers a million times. The answer is never short of gut-wrenching.
“Why are you here!?”.
He seemed unbothered by our naiveté, and described how the situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated severely following the withdrawal of US-led NATO troops. Violence and strife within the country dates back decades to the Cold War. Recently though, those who had worked on aid projects or in any way supported the government that had been democratically elected, were now being violently targeted by the Taliban and more recently Daesh (ISIS).
Refugees are not as disconnected from us as we think.
Mercy Corps, one of the largest NGO’s in the world, provided transitional support to Afghanistan as a result of the war. They were active on Lesvos, now providing aid to refugees arriving to the island. Though we did not see their presence, here I was speaking to one of its former employees standing in line as a refugee in a camp, waiting patiently for some clean clothing. That evening he was to continue his journey to Athens and towards what would hopefully be a better, safer and more dignified life than what he was forced to leave behind in Afghanistan.
We do not know where his journey has brought him, though the likelihood is high that he remains stranded somewhere on mainland Greece, like tens of thousands of others.
Until 2014, Afghans were the largest global refugee population at 2.6 billion people. That’s almost 10% of Afghanistan’s entire population. Today, they are ranked as the second largest group (after Syrians). Yet because this man is Afghan, he is not recognized as a legitimate refugee in Europe. This is regardless of the fact that if he were to return to Afghanistan, he would be violently targeted by the Taliban and/or Daesh. Afghans are only considered economic migrants, and are not eligible to receive refugee status in Europe.
Whatever preconceived notions I brought with me about who these refugees were evaporated immediately. It’s just one of thousands of stories that never make their way to Western media but encapsulate the complexity and absurdity of the refugee crisis.
After Lesvos and surrounding hotspot islands were cleared out by the authorities, we decided that our efforts would be put to the best use if we headed back to the mainland to the Port of Piraeus outside of Athens. The port was taken over by makeshift tents, warehouses, and thousands of wandering refugees who were ferried here from the islands and escorted off with no information on what their next steps could be. Piraeus now sits as one of the main hubs of activity in the crisis.
Needless to say, the situation was dire - many refugees had already been living in the port for over a month, with no showers, access to running water, electricity, or clean clothes, and with limited daily provisions.
One would think that with such a crisis, there would be a large NGO or government presence for both security and humanitarian reasons. The Port of Piraeus is the largest seaport in Greece, and one of the main ports in the world - think Baltimore, New York, Halifax or Vancouver being open to anybody. Again, our assumptions were proven wrong. As we opened the doors to a dimly lit warehouse, we were greeted by two long-term Greek volunteers, Dora and Apostolis, and mountains of donations scattered across the floor. No instructions, no rules, and no details. No leaders, no police, or security personnel.
We collectively agreed that it would be best to enlist the help of those that knew most about the situation: the refugees themselves. In mere minutes, a group of young Afghan men strolled into the stone warehouse to help us fold clothing and organize the warehouse for distribution.
"Breaking the ice” with refugees is awkward. Small talk seems ridiculous, but jumping into meaningful conversation seems intrusive all the same. I started my conversations with the most innocuous questions I knew:
“Where are you from?”
“Afghanistan,” proudly responded all the young men, who focused attentively on folding the clothes and organizing them perfectly. Their number one concern in that very moment was making damn sure that the boys and girls baby clothes went into their appropriate piles. They were so concerned that the right items should get to the right people.
Three of the young men shared their stories with me. Their ages were 17, 19 and 24. Each had their own version with the same horrific themes – The Taliban or Daesh required them to fight with them or be killed. Two of their fathers were killed as a sign of what would come next for refusing to allow their young sons to be taken away by these violent criminal gangs. The oldest's father was targeted and murdered in a car bombing for working as a driver for the government. Their families went into hiding and the boys fled.
It’s no longer surprising why so many people choose to pay $10,000 to smugglers to traverse through the Middle East for 2-3 months, only to land in a rat-infested warehouse. The only other option is infinitely worse.
At one point, one of them showed his frustration at the situation they found themselves in, asking nobody in particular, “Why is the whole world coming to save the lives of the Syrians, who have been at war for only 4 years? But no one cares about us from Afghanistan? My whole life has been war. We just want a future, that's it.“
When asked where they wanted to go and why, the answer was almost always the same.
"Germany. I want to go to Germany, so I can go to school and study."
During our time volunteering in the port, I kept noticing many girls and young women with what looked like burn marks on their faces. I asked one of the Afghan volunteers what they were from. Acid attacks.
"They're crazy" he told me, referring to the terrorist groups, "they throw acid at girls' faces for going to school. They poison the water."
In 2015, there were over 185 documented attacks on schools and hospitals in Afghanistan. Terrorist groups opposed to girl's education claimed responsibility for the majority of them.
Now, circle back to the young Afghan boys and their motivations for taking this long, dangerous, and financially crippling journey to Europe. To go to school. To learn. To have a future.
When we tried to give them a little extra from the supply warehouse as a thank you for helping us, they vehemently refused, making it clear to us that it wouldn't be fair to the others outside.
Again, my preconceived notions of refugees were challenged. Refugees are not a homogenous group of people. Most notably is that they do not want to be recipients of charity, as many in the media would have you believe, as if they were arriving on the shores of Europe to take advantage of the situation. The refugees we met were motivated, filled with hustle and resilience, and wanted to be active in securing a better future for themselves and for others. They were proud, ambitious and community-driven.