Better Days for Moria was a makeshift refugee camp that hosted around 500 Pakistani refugee men with little hope for reaching their destination. Syrians and Afghans passed through quickly, Lord knows they had legitimate claims to being a "refugee." Pakistanis, however, are dubbed “economic migrants,” castaway from official camps with nowhere to go and no idea of how to move forward on their journey.

It's a strange distinction, as if Pakistanis did not "earn" the refugee moniker like some badge of accomplishment. Some person somewhere quantifies the amount of shit one must undergo before being let into the Western World as a refugee, and then writes it into law. Juries of people, never having been a refugee, then hear your life story, score it on a Rubric of Shitty Life Situations, and then make a final decision on if you've been through enough shit. Apparently, these Pakistani men had not been through enough shit.

Upon my arrival, I considered this a very unfortunate situation, but more or less logical due to the circumstances.

  • Europe is suffocating under the weight of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and there needs to be a system to prioritize them.

  • Syrians and Afghanis clearly need to take precedence - their situation is more dire.

  • Pakistanis don’t really fit into the legal definition of “refugee.” It’s a grim reality, but it’s just the way shit works.  

It was a realist's view, and the realist voice is hard to shake. It’s loud, skeptical, and rules from a throne somewhere in the recesses of our brains. On just the first day of working in camp, my own realist voice was cerebral royalty - waving a scepter, barking rationalizations through a megaphone, only stopping to swig wine from a chalice and adjust his crown.

Later that day, as this realist voice accompanied me on my tasks of moving tents around, there were shouts from below the lunch line. A crowd had formed, and it was one of those unmistakable moments where you know shit is about to get real.

Both refugee and volunteer leaders had abruptly called for a meeting for all Pakistanis, and judging from the whispers and confused looks in the crowd, this was not a standard occurrence. Initially, the meeting mimicked a neighbourhood block association, discussing rules on trash collection and cleanup. (This may seem a minute detail, but please take a moment to consider 500 transient men, young and old, taking pride in the upkeep of a temporary refugee camp. Then, consider, the frat house).

Every word of Urdu whispered in the crowd was smothered in nervous tension. Rumours had been flying. Were the Greek authorities coming? Are we getting deported? What can I do? There had always been rumours, but this time, the rumours held more weight. A recent EU-Turkey deal vowed to send "irregular migrants" back to Turkey. Trusting Turkey to uphold human rights for refugees is like trusting your dog not to eat the sandwich you just dropped on the floor after you leave the room. It just ain't gonna happen.

Needless to say, tensions were running very high. The lead volunteer spoke up to the crowd: Don’t take action on unfounded rumours and flee. Stay here, and trust the volunteers. The safest place for you is this camp. In other words, for as many questions as you have about your future, we still have no answers.  

After this heartfelt but hopeless, announcement, an older Pakistani man stepped to the front of the stage. The rain stopped. The birds flew away. All the men dutifully faced forward. Some hung their heads in despair, and others held them upright, perched on exhausted neck muscles.

Whichever deity was in possession of the remote control on that day hit the mute button.

It was a prayer unlike any other. 500 voices launched a petition skyward to an already overworked Allah. If Moses parted the Red Sea to escape Egyptians, these men could clear a path through the Mediterranean to avert a NATO fleet. All the energy of the world channeled into the leader’s voice like a Dragonball Z fight scene.

And at that moment, hundreds of men suddenly broke down in tears.

And these are not just any guys. These men are:

  • Brave explorers hardened by months-long journeys hiding in trucks, sleeping in barren hills, and praying in sinking rafts.

  • Dedicated fathers haunted by the idea that the Taliban demolishes parks where their children play back home.

  • Dutiful sons attempting to fulfill promises that they will chart a way for their families to find greener pastures in the West.

It was a sight to behold. The realist voice, that tyrant that had been reverberating in the echo chamber that was my cranium, became silent. He stopped barking orders, brought his chin to rest on his fist, and observed what was unfolding. His conclusion was:

Everyone knows a father, son, or brother* that would illegally traverse half a hemisphere at some small chance to improve their families’ lives. In some parallel universe, my father is in a camp in a a foreign land, and I would hope that universe treats him with more dignity sticking him in a tent patched together by bobby pins and trash bags with no way to leave.

There are legal issues and there are humanitarian issues. What I saw was a humanitarian issue trying to be solved legally.  

The botched attempts at mitigating the refugee crisis comes from overly realist voices determining solutions without connecting with a situation. The realist voice rules from a place of fear and likes to shout. A lot. It provides knee-jerk responses and oversimplified logic, and the Western world is currently filled with these voices. I await the day we, the Western world, actually engage with these issues, connect with refugees, and change the tone of the conversation.