Fleeing Bombs, Facing the Waves, Fearing the Future
Mahmoud was not happy to be staying in a beachfront hotel on a Greek island. He hated the beach and the sea. For migrants like him who fled the war in Syria, life in Greece is no vacation. He and 152 other refugees from Syria were brought to the island of Crete (where I live) against their will last spring, when their rusty, overloaded smugglers’ boat could not make it to Italy, which many refugees view as a gateway to the countries in Europe that are most hospitable to them.
I spoke with Mahmoud, Adeeb, Abed, Samir, and several other Syrian and Palestinian refugees here in Chania, Crete three times recently, once after taking them a carload of food that families at my children’s Greek public school had gathered for the refugee families (thirty-five or forty people, including fifteen to twenty children) who are still here. These refugees have been stuck here since the Greek Coast Guard brought them to the island on March 31. I think that’s their boat in the photo from The Guardian linked here; the caption certainly seems to refer to them.
I can turn away from the cell phone video taken on the twenty-four-meter boat carrying over four hundred migrants from Egypt and Syria when the rough waters of the Mediterranean make the boat rock so much that it upsets my stomach just to watch the video. I don’t have to stay on the boat for ten days to escape falling bombs and buildings that crash down on top of men, women, children, and babies. I can turn away from the crumpled photo of Hanan, the Syrian mother of seven whose right arm was so severely burned when a bomb struck her Damascus home that most of the skin is red and raw, and metal instruments are poking into it. I don’t have to feel the terror or the pain of the burn; I don’t have to live with the scar or fear that my arm may be amputated. I can turn away from the video of some men torturing another man with a knife, and then stabbing him, which I was told came from somewhere in Syria. I am in little danger of torture or stabbing here on a Greek island. But when I pull the smart phone showing the video away from four year old Joad, the fathers from Syria who showed it to me tell me that I don’t need to protect their children from a mere video, since they have already seen a hundred real dead bodies.
And they could not simply turn away from them. Struggling to protect their children from real dangers, the refugees attempted a risky voyage on a small, overloaded boat where the food ran out after six days, and water was rationed for another four, before it began to take on water, and a rescue became necessary. I can barely imagine tolerating ten days like that myself, let alone with my children hungry, thirsty, and exhausted beside me. And then the terror of sinking into the waves.
An End to Life as They Knew It: “The War Is Eating Everything”
The Syrians and Egyptians on that boat, and the Palestinians who had lived in Syria, did tolerate it. Even so, they did not reach their intended destination; they were brought to Crete in Greece, leaving many separated from mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, or brothers. The seriously injured Hanan’s husband Samir ended up in Crete. Hanan and four of their children, ages 1 ½, 7, 14, and 23, were on another boat that began to sink, and they were taken to Malta. Samir told me his wife was informed that she and her sick toddler could only receive hospital care there if they first applied for asylum in the tiny island nation, where they have no desire to stay. (Is that not a human rights violation? I have asked someone at the UNHCR.) They want to go to Sweden or some other country with a good program to help refugees, a country that would allow surgery on her arm to save it from the amputation they fear could be necessary without prompt treatment. But Hanan and the children are stuck on one island, and Samir is stuck on another. Their married children are in Syria, Turkey, and Jordan. They don’t know what to do.
Adeeb, here with his delicate, bashful 9-year old daughter Jode, told me that in Syria he had money, a home, a job—a comfortable life. He traveled to Italy, India, and the USA. But that is all in the past. His four-story building was destroyed by a bomb. He said, “The war is eating everything … my home, my car, everything.” Jode has not been to school in three years; none of these children have, aside from a month now in the local Greek school with a language foreign to them. Adeeb’s wife, 17-year-old daughter, and 22-year-old son are in Egypt. Three other grown children and two grandchildren were living in Duma, Syria (near Damascus) when he last heard from them two years ago, but he recently decided that they must have been killed in the war. He learned on the internet that his wife’s sister, husband, and family died in Duma in mid September when their building was bombed, falling on top of them and killing twenty-one people.
Abed was the only father I spoke with who was here with his whole family--his pregnant wife and their four children--at the beginning of the month. But during our most recent conversation, he told me that his wife had gone to London. She has a problem with a foot that was deformed in a childhood accident and needs an operation she could not get here, and they think she may give birth to twins in a few months. Abed is considering selling one of his organs because he needs money. In Syria, he owned a restaurant; he showed me a photo of it on his cell phone, with a huge amount of meat for a gyro on a spit. But in Syria, he says, he could die. His family was in Gota Alsharkea (beside Damascus), where his restaurant was bombed. He told me, with Mahmoud translating, that while he was still in Syria 1 ½ years ago, he was trying to give some people food and money and take them to the hospital, but the Assad government wanted to imprison him for that. He escaped to Egypt, but the government caught his two brothers. One was killed and the other put in prison. He showed me the videos and photos taken on the boat and in Syria.
Mahmoud, a Palestinian refugee who had been living in Damascus, also ended up in Crete with three of his children (11, 15, and 17 years old) and one nephew (11) whose parents and siblings are in Egypt. His married daughter is in Sweden with her husband and 5 year old son; his wife and adorable baby have managed to reach Germany, where they receive two hundred euros every ten days for living expenses. (I saw their photos.) Mahmoud hasn’t seen them for six months, but he wants to take his other children to Germany, too, because he views it as a country with a good program for refugees, unlike Greece with its 26% unemployment, where he can’t even get the job he wants very much in order to support his family and offer them a good future. Desperate for a way to do this and lacking legal options, he admitted that he tried to use forged passports to leave Greece with two of the children. But the authorities stopped him at the airport. “If you don’t want me, want to help me, why catch me?” he asks. “I want my future,” he says, and, even more, he wants a future for his children. He was a merchant, but he lost his home, office, everything.
Unfinished Business: The State Has Still Not Paid for the Refugees’ Hotel Stay
Ioannis (Yannis) Volikakis, owner of the Elena Beach Hotel in Nea Chora, Chania, where the Syrians have been staying for nearly seven months, has done far more than anyone should expect a private individual to do, providing these refugees with rooms, as well as meals for four months--until the government said to stop giving the refugees food, and let them find it where they can. Kyrios (Mr.) Yannis, as the Syrians call him, provided for 140 individuals in the first months, with forty or so staying there even now. Yet he says he has not been paid a single euro for all the electricity, water, and laundering of linens, plus three meals a day, although he also lost all the money he should have earned at the hotel during the summer tourist season, as well as a great deal of revenue from his café and restaurant there. Kyrios Yannis told me the government tossed the refugees into his hotel and said goodbye, without sending anyone to check on the children or paying any of the expenses he incurred during their stay, in spite of a verbal agreement for such payment and his repeated appeals to the regional and federal governments. Apparently the 10,000 euros the EU contributed for the care of the refugees was given to the exhibition center where they stayed for just their first few days on Crete—but nothing for the hotel owner who says he has lost hundreds of thousands of euros and has now missed three loan payments. What does the government think he is, he wonders, “the bank of Chania”? He said the police tried to evict the refugees at one point, but the Syrians refused to leave, and Yannis told me they were right: where were they to go, without another place to house their children?
Why Are They Stuck? Trouble with Smugglers and Laws
We are looking for [a] COUNTRY! SYRIA IS GONE. We dream to live in safety please. You saved us from the sea, now help us to leave!!
These messages appeared on posters held by some of the Syrian children last spring. Why do they want to leave? The fathers who told me about the death, destruction, and separation their families had endured during Syria’s war are looking for a country that could offer refugees more help finding safe homes, healthy food, and good schools for their children, a country where they could find jobs and rebuild their lives. Publications by the UN HCR and non-governmental organizations offer support for the Syrians’ belief that Greece is not such a country. It is struggling to support its own citizens and the immigrants and refugees already here, given the recession that has increased social and political unrest, racism, and xenophobia in the face of more than 26% unemployment, a health care crisis, a 33% decrease in household incomes since 2010, increased taxes many cannot afford to pay, and 164 billion euros (about 90% of the Greek gross domestic product) in bad debts. So the men I spoke with have not applied for asylum or official refugee status here. (I apply the term “refugees” to them as the word is commonly, rather than officially, understood, since they have fled a war-torn nation.) Mahmoud emphasized that he felt a “need to leave Greece,” because he had seen little governmental support for refugees here. In countries that offer better refugee support programs, he said, “you are a free man”—but in his view they “just stay here like animals.”
Given the contrast with the desperate refugees fleeing on foot to overcrowded apartments or tents in camps just over the Syrian or Iraqi border, this may seem hard to believe, and I think that’s why I have been unable to interest the American Embassy, the New York Times, and the Guardian in these families’ stories. Yes, they have a roof over their heads—at the moment. Yes, they are in a fairly safe land with a fairly mild climate. Yes, they are managing to find at least some food for their children, and people are giving them second-hand clothes. But think about it. How would you feel in their shoes? Relieved to escape bombings, murderers, and drowning, yes, but then what? As far as I can tell, the people who manage to get this far from Syria tend to be the ones who were better off financially and better educated, those who enjoyed a lifestyle that must have been comparable in some ways to that of middle class Americans. These parents and I have similar aspirations for our children. These fathers do not want to sit around, unemployed, in a hotel from which they could be ejected at any time, and ask for food at churches and soup kitchens. They want to get jobs to support their families, live in their own homes, educate their children in a country where they can envision a good future for them. (I have not learned what the mothers want, since none of them speak Greek or English, and I do not speak Arabic or know anyone here who does.)
Ideally, the United Nations and the wealthy countries of the world should provide far more resources to bring peace and overcome the humanitarian crises in the war-torn, poverty-stricken, and famine and disease-ridden nations so many human beings are fleeing in search of safer lives—and some are doing that now, most notably in the fight against Ebola. Obviously, the root causes of migration need to be addressed in order to eliminate people’s need to leave their countries, but that is an enormous undertaking. On a more limited level, I want to focus on two problems now.
One is smugglers, their methods, and the reasons they are used. The costly Evros and Melilla fences in Greece and Spain do not stop migrants as intended, but rather make attempts to escape the problems in Africa and the Middle East more dangerous, especially when ruthless smugglers provide unsafe boats, urge migrants to puncture inflatable boats before reaching shore to inspire rescue efforts, or even murder their clients by sinking boats, as in the case of five hundred men, women, and children who were killed in mid September, including one of Mahmoud’s friends, along with his wife and two daughters. (Of the ten survivors, six, including a seventeen-month old child who was doing astonishingly well a month ago, were brought to hospitals in Crete for care.) Mahmoud has heard of hundreds of migrants who were “swallowed by the sea,” and in fact thousands draw out coast guard, military, and commercial boats for expensive rescue attempts which fail too often.
The refugees I spoke with emphasized the dangerous nature of the sea voyage from Egypt to Italy. Usually, Mahmoud suggested, there are fifty, sixty, or one hundred people on one of those small boats, not four or five hundred, which is far too dangerous, as in his case and the case of the recent murderous tragedy. Some of the Syrians and Palestinians here say they paid smugglers $3,000 to $3,500 per adult, with some children free, and others half price. Yet, to my surprise, none of them complained about the smugglers; they complained more about the Greek government and the Assad government, about having too little good food, too little help, and being unable to go where they feel they need to go. I wonder if this is because the smuggling and the boat trip are in the past now, while they’re focusing on their present problems. Or maybe it’s that the smugglers at least got them somewhere far from Syria, while the Greek government is getting them nowhere. In any case, the smugglers did not get them where they had agreed to take them, and a number of the would-be refugees remain in a stateless limbo.
The other problem I want to discuss here arises from the Dublin Regulation, which generally requires those who seek asylum in Europe to do so in the first European country they enter, like it or not—except in certain cases of family reunification--and thus concentrates refugees on the struggling outer perimeter of the EU, putting immense pressure on Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, and Greece and limiting the legal choices of the asylum seekers. That’s why the Syrians and Palestinians have been stuck in Greece: now that they are here, the law requires them to apply for asylum here if they want asylum in Europe. Many have heard that Greece is having a hard time taking care of its own, and that human rights organizations have sharply criticized the prevalence of racist violence here, as well as the conditions in some of its migrant detention centers. So many migrants try to bypass Greece, even if it’s closer to their starting point, to reach Italy. Those “aided” by smugglers thus increase their risk of drowning by lengthening their trips in unseaworthy boats in order to avoid getting stuck in a country with little to offer refugees. If they do get stuck here, they don’t always agree to apply for asylum, since doing so would end their chances of obtaining asylum in other European countries they still hope to reach, although they are not allowed to enter them legally.
Solutions for the Syrians and Other Refugees?
The cost of the Dublin Regulation and the fences is too high in euros and, especially, lives. It is unrealistic to expect that the Melilla and Evros fences will be pulled down after millions of euros were spent building them, but it should be easier to dismantle a misguided agreement. I concur with human rights organizations such as the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and Pro Asyl that the European Union should abolish or “fundamentally reform” the Dublin Regulation. If asylum seekers were allowed to choose the country where they wished to submit their application and legally go there directly, there would be a less overwhelming number of people needing housing, food, clothing, education, and processing of asylum requests in the perimeter countries that are currently struggling, and in many cases failing, to provide humane treatment and prompt processing. While there is now some provision for family reunions, asylum seekers should also be allowed to head to countries where they have cultural or linguistic ties or reasonable expectations of employment or financial support, thus facilitating their integration into new communities.
The New York Times Editorial Board recently suggested setting up application centers for asylum seekers in Egypt and Libya. I would add Turkey, both because of the tens of thousands of people fleeing to that country from Syria recently, and since it is another starting point for migration to Europe. Application centers could be useful if prosperous nations would offer asylum to more of the refugees who are fleeing life-threatening situations in their homelands, and settle them in communities where they could find jobs. Some criticize this idea because of the problems migrants already face in these countries, but I urge the UNHCR, perhaps with the help of a respected international NGO—but not the troubled national governments of Egypt and Libya--to consider trying to administer such a program at an international level. If more desperate people are offered hope of a better life by legal means, fewer are likely to turn to smugglers. The thousands of dollars per person that desperate migrants are paying smugglers could be put to better use to buy tickets for safe, legal transportation, saving lives and decreasing the need for expensive rescue missions. I ask the most prosperous countries of the world to help more of these struggling parents and children resettle in nations that can offer them the safety, health, education, and jobs they seek, and I ask the international community to try to work out a way for the refugees to resettle without turning to smugglers.
Michael Kimmelman’s July article about the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, which turned into “an informal city: a sudden, do-it-yourself metropolis of roughly 85,000,” raises another possibility, especially given the enormous numbers of refugees now fleeing Syria, Iraq, and other nations. Perhaps more permanent refugee “camps” that become cities could present a viable option for those without the means to travel. I realize that this is not an ideal solution, given serious problems with violence, abuse of women, and criminality in such city-camps. But if these new cities could be transformed into largely self-sustaining, productive, safe, healthy entities that could contribute to the larger economy rather than being a drain on it, this idea could be promising.
When a country fails to take care of all its residents, it is understandable if citizens fail to see how their nation could offer refuge to more impoverished people. The tragedy of unemployed, impoverished Greeks committing suicide in order to avoid burdening their families or dying because they can no longer afford adequate medical care is just as horrible as the tragedy of Syrians and Iraqis being killed in wars or migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. But with thousands and thousands of human beings dying in Syria, in Iraq, and in the Mediterranean Sea—as well as in Central America, Africa, and elsewhere--think about how you’d feel if your children or grandchildren were in danger of being killed by gangs, extremists, or war. Wouldn’t you want to take them to a place where they could be safe? Mahmoud, Adeeb, and their friend Mohammed did, and Samir told me they recently set off for northern Greece, planning to take their daughters and nephew on foot from there to Germany, where Mahmoud’s wife and baby are now.
Far from most of my family and old friends due to my own chosen migration, although in comfortable circumstances among people I love, I believe refugees also long for those who share their past and their memories. Having lost my father and my mother to heart attacks, I expect that the refugees feel a similar strong, deep pain, regret, and emptiness after the loss of loved ones to war. As one of Nea TV’s videos about the Syrians in Chania asks in a message like those that pop up on the computer, “Are you sure you want to delete all feelings?” If not, advocate more assistance for refugees. There are more of them than there have been since World War II, with no sign that their problems will be solved any time soon. I urge empathy, or at least sympathy, for all human beings in need.
Many thanks once again to the Syrian and Palestinian refugees as well as Ioannis Volikakis for discussing their situations with me.
For more about the Syrian and Palestinian refugees, see my last two blog entries and two videos produced by a local television station. Note, June 2015: another update is coming soon.
Immigrants in Greece, Part 3: Anti-Racist Grassroots Groups Helping Migrants; Trapped Syrians, and an Algerian’s View (August blog entry)
Syrians, September, and School in Crete, and the Contradictions of Athens in the Summer (September blog entry)
Προσφυγόπουλα από τη Συρία (Refugee children from Syria), a Nea TV show on the Θερινή ’Ωρα (Summer Time) program, in Greek and English. (The commentator speaks Greek to the audience, but she speaks English with the Syrians, as the Syrian doctor and his daughter do.)