The Anti-Racist Festival and “Our Sea”: The Mediterranean Offering Hope or a Tomb?
“Say NO to Racism,” urged a banner decorated with multi-colored handprints and a peace sign outside the People’s Peace and Friendship Park in Chania, next to another banner announcing the 9th Annual ΑΝΤΙΡΑΤΣΙΣΤΙΚΟ ΦΕΣΤΙΒΑΛ, or Anti-Racist Festival, with this year’s theme of “mare nostrum, η θάλασσά μας,” our sea. On the last Sunday in June, my Greek friend K and I entered the park, passing a well-attended interactive children’s theater activity on the grass under tall trees, with an open children’s chess tournament underway on tables and plastic chairs across from it. Seeking an overview of the festival, we walked past some of the scores of informational stalls before returning to talk with some of the volunteers staffing them. We passed stands selling sweets and drinks, struggled to hear people talk over loud music blaring from large speakers, and noticed alluring Middle Eastern food in a sort of outdoor food court equipped with dozens of tables and chairs. We passed tables filled with leftist books for the taking, others piled with photocopies about revolutionary theory, more with booklets and pamphlets about Doctors of the World, a group that helps addicts, and other topics, plus a few tables filled with free clothes, to which we added some clothing and children’s books.
We passed photo and art exhibits set up along the park’s pathways, with small paper boats related to the festival’s theme of “our sea”—the Mediterranean—strung up above the walkway, perhaps to emphasize the fragility of the vessels in which so many migrants travel to Greece. Some of the paper boats had turned on their sides and begun to come apart, as if to remind us that real migrants’ overloaded inflatable boats too often capsize, leading to either rescues or—in hundreds of cases just this year—drownings. One festival discussion focused on the Mediterranean Sea as the "watery tomb of refugees and chemical weapons," and while time and language constraints prevented me from following it, more easily translatable advance press releases include many of the points likely to have been made there. For example, the festival organizers partially echoed major human rights organizations in arguing that “Europe has turned into a fortress. Its policies keep the borders closed and fill the Mediterranean with sinking boats and dead immigrants, destroying any dreams for a decent life. The war in Syria is continuing and is sending refugees by the thousands. The chemical weapons used in the war and sold by Western governments, after killing thousands of innocent civilians, will now be hydrolyzed and dumped in our Seaillegal deportations, concentration camps, the Evros fence … [and] the bureaucratic maze for asylum seekers [which] constitute a continuing crime against human life and dignity
Imagine Fleeing Syria or Iraq
Imagine living in Syria or Iraq and fleeing your hometown with your children, leaving behind nearly everything you own, and everyone and everything you have ever known, trying to rescue your children from bombs and bullets, trying to reach a country where your children can survive, learn, and flourish. Imagine fleeing on foot, making your way to a smuggler of human beings who promises to take you to a safe country if you give him nearly all the money you could scrape together, at least a thousand euros. Imagine that the smuggler tells you and your children to walk and walk until you’re exhausted, crowds you all onto a packed bus, tells you to board a small, shabby boat, then packs more and more people in next to you, until you think the boat will sink. Imagine setting off into the Mediterranean Sea, which looks nothing like the postcards of Greek beaches, but more like the Atlantic Ocean, an endless sea of waves that threaten to engulf your overloaded boat and drown your children, as it may well do on a windy day. Imagine traveling on the boat for many hours, crowded in with your crying children and dozens of other worried people, terrified of the vast sea and the boat’s rocking, with too little food and water, no toilet, too little space. Imagine sighting land and being pushed off onto even smaller, more overloaded, less seaworthy inflatable boats and told to get to shore without a captain. (Here is a photo of such a boat--at the link, not below. Think about how well it would fare in high waves.)
Imagine seeing water rise up around the legs of your children, and fearing that the boat will sink before you reach land. Imagine seeing a Coast Guard boat like the one in the photo approaching, and calling for help, along with all the desperate men, women, and children on the boat. Imagine your relief if the Coast Guard tows your boat to Greek soil, instead of taking it back toward the coast you came from, as they sometimes have for people you’ve talked to. Imagine your surprise and terror if the Greek authorities handle you and your children roughly, demand to see your travel documents, and put you in a detention center if you couldn’t get any travel documents since your homeland was in chaos and your children’s lives were in danger. Imagine your confusion and fear if you can’t understand what they are saying, or why they have locked you up behind fences topped with barbed wire, when all you wanted was a safer life for your children. Imagine wondering how you can protect your children in an overcrowded detention center with inadequate medical care, food, space, and hygienic facilities—dirty clothes and beds, no soap, detergent, or medicine; overflowing toilets making bathrooms into open sewers; untreated illnesses spreading among inmates charged with no crime; no way of communicating with the outside world; uncertainty about your future. Imagine having your hope turn to despair and fear. (Here is more about detention centers, including some photos.)
Do you find that hard to imagine? I do. I can imagine it happening to myself now, having read and heard the videotaped stories of a number of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who lived through a very similar journey, without ever believing that it really could happen to me (see e.g. Doctors Without Borders, and for some videos in English, not just about Greece, see the UN Refugee Agency Stories page). But I cannot even envision my children in such a situation; nor do I want to push myself far enough to try. I do not want to have nightmares about that. However, such a nightmare is the reality for thousands—if not millions--of refugees and migrants, many of them parents, all of them sons or daughters. While many are much luckier, others do not feel they have the option of protecting their children from such a horror story, since they face even greater threats in their homeland; they can think of no choice but to try to live through such a journey if they want to give their children a chance to survive and thrive.
The Reality for Refugees and Migrants in Greece
That is the true story of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who have fled Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Morocco, Algeria, and other countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in search of a safe European country where they can build a better life. Since the Greek government completed construction of a four-meter high, 12.5 km long barbed wire fence in the northeastern region of Evros in December 2012, the land border between Turkey and Greece which is not demarcated by the Evros River has been cut off as the major route into Europe. This has drastically reduced the number of migrants crossing into Greece at that point, but like any fence, it does not stop movement; it just slows it down or pushes it in a different direction. Now desperate migrants embark on a dangerous sea journey. Many have been turned back by the Greek coast guard while still at sea, while others have been saved by the coast guard or fishing vessels, although recent outcries over mass drownings in the Mediterranean may be turning the tide toward more strenuous rescue efforts and an end to pushbacks away from European soil. The Italian Navy’s major rescue effort, called “Mare Nostrum” like the Anti-Racist Festival’s theme, has set a more humanitarian example.
Both leftist and anti-racist organizations within Greece, and international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, and Doctors of the World, as well as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, have severely criticized the Greek and European governments for their inadequate responses to the needs of migrants, especially asylum seekers. They have been particularly critical of reported pushbacks of people sent away from Greek territory without an asylum hearing, and of horrific conditions in migrant detention camps. However, those who criticize the Greek authorities for seriously flawed laws, policies, implementation, and facilities for migrants and refugees—and certain Greeks for their racist and xenophobic words, acts, and voting--do not stop there. Acknowledging that the Greek economy, which is in its worst state of recession (or depression) ever in peacetime, with almost 27% unemployment, is ill suited to help needy people from other countries when it is failing millions of newly impoverished Greeks, rights groups call on the European Union (EU) to take on more responsibility for migrants entering Europe at its periphery.
So far, even the latest manifestation of the Dublin Regulation for refugees, Dublin III, continues to decree that asylum seekers entering Europe should have their requests processed by the European country they first enter. That obviously puts a greater burden on countries such as Greece which are closest to the lands from which many refugees flee--an unfair and unmanageable burden for a small, struggling country. EU budgets do not reflect this reality by providing adequate funding to help Greece treat migrants with humane sensitivity, although they do seem to reflect a desire to keep out as many needy migrants as they can by increasing coast guard and border patrols, building more walls, and pushing would-be migrants back where they came from, as Amnesty International and others report: “The EU Commission allocated €227,576,503 for Greece to keep refugees and migrants out from 2011 until the end of 2013; but only €19,950,000 to assist their reception during the same period” (Greece: Stop unlawful and shameful expulsion of refugees and migrants; see also Human Rights Watch’s Europe’s Spectacle of Compassion for Migrants). Meanwhile, Greece struggles with too many people from crisis points in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who are trying to escape to Europe. And Greece fails to provide a safe haven for them.
Humanitarian Responses to Human Needs
One of the humanitarian organizations trying to alleviate the problems of both migrants and impoverished Greeks is Medecins du Monde Greece, or Doctors of the World, which I learned is separate from Doctors Without Borders, with its local branches tending to be more autonomous, but similar in providing free medical care and medicine to those who cannot afford them, as well as advocating for human rights and fighting against racist and xenophobic actions alongside the Greek Council for Refugees. Back at the Anti-Racist Festival, I had a very informative discussion (in English) with a Lebanese agricultural engineer who volunteers with Medecins du Monde Greece. He told me that when its Chania branch was founded eight years ago, it helped 5 to 8 people without health insurance or money to pay for doctors or medicines each month, but now it helps up to 30 per day. Initially, the clients were not Greek. Now, 35% of those seeking help are Greek, since more and more Greeks have become impoverished during the economic crisis here, the state welfare system no longer provides adequate aid to the needy (including the unemployed), copays for insured medications have increased from 10% to 25-50%, and in some cases even more, far beyond what reduced pensions enable impoverished seniors to afford, if they even have health insurance. Many of the foreign-born clients are Bulgarians, Moroccans, and Albanians (groups that together, says the agricultural engineer, make up about 80% of the non-Greeks in Chania now); others are Algerians, Tunisians, Egyptians, and Central Africans. Medecins du Monde helps as many as they can, but they have no sponsorship from big companies, banks, or the government now; relying on individual donations and fundraisers, they can’t afford too much, and they prioritize purchases of children’s vaccines, since those are never donated, while other medications are.
In Medecins du Monde – Greece’s National Report on Racist Violence, published in April of this year, Psychiatry Professor Nikos Tzavaras emphasizes the importance of combating “xenophobic prejudice” which often leads to “the demonization of the [so-called] dangerous race” and “violence and aggressiveness” against people viewed as different. He suggests that we start by fostering “the understanding of problems and of cultural particularities of the immigrants in Greece, mainly in order to highlight the similarities between them and the local population. The persistent effort to identify with them enhances the solidarity toward them and assists the effort of various organisations involved in the assistance of immigrant population[s]” (33, 36). This is what I am trying to do here: to emphasize the shared humanity, the similar basic needs and desires, of everyone I’m writing about, even in the face of drastically different situations. This is also what I’m learning about this summer in more detail than ever before.
A Haven for Unaccompanied Refugee Boys
At the Anti-Racist Festival—where I learned a lot--I was impressed by a group of posters bearing colorfully handwritten, sometimes illustrated poems by refugee boys living at the Ξενώνας ανήλικων προσφύγων Ανωγείων, the Center for Unaccompanied Underaged Asylum Seekers in Anogia, near Rethymno in Crete. The poems had been written in several languages and alphabets, including Arabic, French and Farsi, with some also translated into Greek, but aside from the languages, they remind me of similar projects completed in American grade schools, where written self-expression was (in my experience) encouraged. These poems seem to express love for people who are far away. One of the boys had written his name in Greek on both the original and the translation, and proudly circled it. Some of the boys were waiting to sing their native songs at the Festival. Since the refugees were minors, K and I had turned to their teacher and director for information, but before we left I commented to one of the boys that I was sure he knew better Greek than I did, and his teacher assured me that he’d picked it up in just three months. (Ah, the minds of the young!) I was not the first American they’d met; I was surprised to meet two of the psychology or social work students from Drexel University in the U. S. who come to the center each year as part of a 6-month internship at the refugee center.
The teacher and director of the center told K and me (in English and Greek) that the center houses 25 boys from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Congo, Nigeria, and Syria who left their homeland without their parents or were separated from them after leaving, and have applied for asylum in Greece. Since 2000, this center has housed 400 boys, including some as young as 9 years old, with many around 12 or 13 on arrival. Accepted based on their own claims of refugee status, the boys live at the center until they’re 18. They are generally political or war refugees, often from areas with civil war or violence by the Taliban, some fleeing in order to avoid being forced to become child soldiers. They enter Greece through Turkey, on foot or by boat or plane. The police bring them to the center from all over Crete (since it’s the only one of its kind on the island). There are several centers in other parts of Greece (funded by the Greek Labor Ministry and—mostly--the European Refugee Fund), but there’s not enough room for all the boys who could use them, and many end up on the streets or in detention centers or jails. The Anogia center provides legal, social, and psychological services, as well as lessons in the Greek language and culture, drama, and other subjects. Some of the boys attend the regular Greek school in the village after they learn some Greek, but many didn’t go to school in their home country and can’t read or write in their native language, so they are not all prepared for Greek school.
My New “Minority” Status and Broadened Horizons
Over the last few years, I’ve learned about the centers for unaccompanied underage asylum seekers in Greece, as well as educating myself about the problems facing impoverished migrants and refugees who seek a better life in or beyond Greece (via news articles, discussions with Greeks, human rights organizations’ reports, and interviews with migrants in Greece). This knowledge has changed the way I think about unaccompanied minors entering the southwestern U. S. from Central America, hoping for a better life in a country with less crime, hoping for more leniency from the U. S. government as children in need. Of course I knew that Latin Americans migrate to the U. S., some of them without legal documentation, but since I’ve become an immigrant myself and learned about other migrants’ situations, the American situation looks different. I think I can better understand what’s going on, at least when I hear of certain American citizens, mayors, and churches providing compassionate support for exhausted migrants, although I don’t understand how other Americans can seriously argue that the humane thing to do is to return Central American children to countries full of gang violence and murder. Being a minority—even one of the most privileged, least visible ones with the same color skin and not such different hair or features from the majority—can be an educational experience for someone born to a life of middle-class, white American privilege. I certainly don’t claim to fully understand what other minorities experience, or what it’s like to be a victim of racism due to the color of one’s skin or classism due to one’s socioeconomic background or even, totally, ethnocentrism due to the accident of one’s ancestry. But I think my cultural differences from Greeks, and especially my (daily, continuing) realization of how it feels to struggle to communicate in a language foreign to me, have enabled a deeper sort of learning about some of that.
For example, my experiences here have made it crystal clear to me that someone’s inability to speak well in a language foreign to her does not prove that she is stupid or less deserving of respect than anyone else. I know I often sound stupid to Greeks when I try to speak their language, and I know that those who are not open to getting to know me will not really understand much about me, and are less likely to respect me, if they do not speak English. I feel the impatient dismissal of certain salespeople and public servants, albeit far less frequently than many migrants. On the other hand, those who are willing to take the time and trouble to understand me—my children’s friends’ mothers, neighbors, and some friends of friends, for example—can begin to do so, and let me get to know them, if they are very patient with my still-elementary Greek language skills. (This is the kind of patient compassion more of the world needs to extend to more of the world.) I am becoming too ashamed to say I’ve been living here for 11 ½ years without learning proper Greek and have resolved to resume the language studies I abandoned in frustration at my slow progress years ago. (Yes, I know; it’s about time.)
However, even now, many Greeks go beyond patience with my lack of fluency; some treat me, in my privileged state as the wife of a Greek professor, like family. My landlady washed my car for me after it rained mud and invited me to harvest spearmint and greens from her garden any time. A friend’s grandmother made my daughter the 1970s-style skirt she needed for their end-of-school program and refused any money for her work. A friend gave me some little basil plants, for the second time this year. The neighbors, teachers, mail carrier, organic store owner, toy store clerk, and grocery clerks take time to chat with me about the everyday things I am able to discuss in Greek. I’m part of the community here—more than I’ve ever been since I left my childhood neighborhood in Pennsylvania. If I end up leaving Greece, I will have mixed feelings about my new uprooting. There are good things and bad things everywhere, as I tell everyone who asks how I like it here. While some less fortunate migrants have suffered more intensely than I can imagine from the bad, including the racism and xenophobia, here, others have told me they also feel much as I do—part of the community (more or less).
One of the good things here is the extent of the effort to overcome prejudice and hatred, and to help the less fortunate—as many Americans also do. The Anti-Racist Festival was actually much more than its name implies: it was also leftist, ecologist, humanitarian, pacifist, and more, with music, art, dance, photography, documentary films, lectures, and more than 60 information stands related to (for example) homelessness, addiction, desertification, water rights, the hydrolization of chemical weapons in the Mediterranean, recycling, and refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Congo, Philippines, Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, and elsewhere. I noticed a clever slogan on a banner: ΑΝ ΤΟ ΠΕΡΙΒΑΛΛΟΝ ΗΤΑΝ ΤΡΑΠΕΖΑ ΘΑ ΤΟ ΕΙΧΑΝ ΗΔΗ ΣΩΣΕΙ, or IF THE ENVIRONMENT WERE A BANK, THEY WOULD HAVE ALREADY SAVED IT. And an idealist’s hope: ΕΞΩ Ο ΠΟΛΕΜΟΣ ΑΠΟ ΤΗΝ ΙΣΤΟΡΙΑ, or TAKE THE WAR OUT OF HISTORY. This major event had attracted 2000 visitors the previous day without any corporate or government funding, and while a Greek World Cup game probably decreased the turnout that Sunday night, more people were arriving, Greek fashion, as darkness began to approach and the air cooled down. Even in a conservative/ centrist Greek paper, journalist and editor Nikos Konstandaras reminds us, “In this day and age…. Every conflict can reach us, whether we are spectators at the Boston marathon, whether we are flying 10 kilometers above ground, whether we hear about the plight of refugees and choose to forget that until recently they lived lives like ours. Every war is now our war. And every refugee is one of us (Death on MH17 and our global war
African migrants face 'impossible' life in Greece
Greece: Human Rights Watch Submission to the United Nations Committee against Torture
The Human Rights Watch page on Greece