Lives interrupted: impossible choices for Afghans in Greece

We saw the mob move towards us in the dimly lit night: twenty agitated men clutching sticks and stones. I grabbed Afsana’s hand and pulled her forwards, running down the railway track towards the police hut. We found the police watching TV. I pleaded for protection, willing them to accompany us to the tent where her children lay sleeping. But they refused. The camp in Idomeni had descended into chaos.

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I might have left Afsana to fend for herself, but I couldn’t. Following the light of my torch we hurried along a lesser-known path through the camp, climbing through the fence to reach her ‘home’. Pulling herself up onto the old station platform, Afsana shuffled from tent-to-tent calling out the names of her children. Hassan, her 13 year-old son, was still not there.

I signaled to Afsana that I was going to leave. She fixed me with her sad eyes, opened her arms wide and pulled me into a warm embrace. Although our circumstances were miles apart – I would sleep in a hotel room while she had just a tent – that moment created a bond between us.

Early next morning I returned to find Afsana. Hassan was back unscathed, having been sheltered from the violence by a Syrian family. While I was visibly shaken, the family appeared nonplussed by yet another brush with danger.

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Afsana is mother and father to six children – two girls and four boys aged 7 to 17. Her eldest son Abdul explained why they left Afghanistan five months earlier: ‘My father was head of the Afghan police in our town’ Abdul began, beaming with pride. ‘Things became very bad in Kunduz, and my father was warned that the Taliban was coming for him. He knew we were in danger so he sent us to hide with friends in a nearby village. We stayed there until we heard he had been killed, and then we fled Afghanistan.’

Afsana and I met one year ago, almost exactly to the day. We have never exchanged a word in a language that the other understands, but this doesn’t affect the depth of our friendship. Our paths crossed in Idomeni, a quiet hamlet through which refugees passed on their way north from Greece to Macedonia. Except when I arrived they closed the border, creating a bottleneck where 14,000 people braved torrential rain and minimal food and shelter, waiting for European governments to decide their fate. In such uncertain circumstances exasperation reigned and violence broke out all to often, exacerbating the desperation of the majority to move on.

Today, Afsana and her children are still in Greece and I visit them when possible. The kids have almost given up hope that the authorities will allow them to start school. They tell me they want only to continue their journey and that smugglers present the only way out. Afsana has said many tearful goodbyes as her young boys attempt ferry crossings to Italy hidden under trucks.

Afsana is one of many mothers faced with impossible choices, all of which present risks to their children. Do you let the months pass by while your son goes without the schooling he needs to turn his life around? Or do you entrust his safety to unscrupulous people smugglers? Do you try to travel on alone, knowing it might be years before you see your children again? Or should you keep your family united but living in limbo?

The decisions are endless, but what choice does she have?

 

The names of all individuals in this piece have been changed.

The forgotten war

‘I can tell you’re Afghan’, explained the volunteer, ‘because you have Chinese eyes, like this’, she demonstrated, stretching the skin either side of her eyes with her index fingers. I stared, horrified by this un-PC behaviour, but Ramazan roared with laughter.

Ramazan and I were friends for a week, or maybe ten days. It isn’t long, as friendships go, but I find I think of him often. Ramazan has an infectious smile, eyes that convey both shyness and confidence, a small but strong frame for his 20 years and reddish brown hair. I only wish I knew where he was.

When I think of Afghanistan I think of the most gracious people I’ve ever met. People who shake your hand and then touch their heart. When I first saw Ramazan I felt a wave of joy and relief. We were not in his country, nor in mine, but in a field in the hills of northern Greece in Europe’s fastest-growing refugee camp.

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I had been in Idomeni just a few hours when I learnt that Afghans were often jostled out of food lines. I asked a Greek policeman to protect them and he replied: ‘This is a camp for refugees not Afghans. Show me where they are and I’ll arrest them.’

We decided to bring supplies directly to them. Laden with see-through bags of bread, milk and biscuits I found myself tailed by Syrian children as I strode through the camp looking for Afghans. ‘No Syrians, it’s for Afghans’, said a fellow volunteer – words that no child should ever hear. In Idomeni there was no time to train people in the dos and don’ts of aid distribution, but I learnt my lesson fast. Mortified, I hurried on until I saw the unmistakably Afghan face of Ramazan. ‘Thank Christ for that,’ I breathed a sigh of relief, ‘I’ll drop the food with that guy and make a hasty exit.’

‘This is a camp for refugees not Afghans. Show me where they are and I’ll arrest them.’

Over the next days we brought clothes, food and sanitary kits to Ramazan and his group of friends. We mastered subtle ways to smuggle aid around the camp under the cover of darkness. ‘We like fruit,’ explained the old man in their party, ‘I especially like bananas’.

Ramazan is from Helmand in southern Afghanistan. He saw me simply as myself, yet I could not separate my own identity from my country’s role in the war he was fleeing. My guilt was stoked by his kindness. Europe has grown tired of the Afghan war. ‘I was an interpreter for the British’, said a man in their group, fishing papers out of his tent. ‘The Taliban say I’m a collaborator, if I stayed they would kill me’. How could I tell him this would not guarantee asylum in the UK?

I was becoming nervous at the prospect of saying goodbye to my friend. I went to his tent, ‘Ramazan has gone,’ said a girl, ‘he left this morning.’

The barber of Aleppo

‘Take a seat!’ said Mohammad, peering at my eyebrows. The enterprising barber from Aleppo welcomed me to his roadside salon. I had assumed the long queue was for soup, coffee, cigarettes or some such precious commodity. Stationed at the entrance of the refugee camp, Mohammad and his thread took me entirely by surprise.

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I wouldn’t have thought a stylist could contribute much in the life of a refugee camp. A doctor – yes; a lawyer; carpenter; linguist; teacher – all these people could make a real difference. But hairstyling and eyebrow threading are luxuries of an ordered world.

Refugees need food and shelter, clothes, medicines – the bare necessities that I had travelled to Idomeni to provide. And yet, how wrong I was.

People in Idomeni slept in fields that make Glastonbury look dry. They had no showers, no clean toilets, cast-off clothes, ill-fitting trousers held up by belts or rope. Little boys wore pink. Remove all choice over what you eat, where you live, where you go, who your neighbours are, what your future holds, whether you can protect your family.

People in Idomeni slept in fields that make Glastonbury look dry

Nobody really smiled when I gave them something they needed to survive. But faces lit up when a group of clowns performed tricks alongside food lines, when children were given balloons to play with. Kids riding bicycles yelled with delight – even when the bikes had no tyres. Teenagers cheered on breakdancers. Music, of any kind, lifted spirits.

Mohammad left Aleppo with the essentials of his trade – scissors, clippers, combs, thread and gel. When we met he’d arranged two chairs in a five-foot gap between a German radio truck and a parked car. On either side people living in camping tents hung out their rain-soaked blankets to dry, lit fires with anything that would burn and set about making breakfast. Mohammad charged a small fee. He was one of few people able to make honest money at the camp.

In a place where people were humiliated daily, I watched the pride creep back into his customers faces and the spring in their step as they strutted back into the camp. Mohammad restored a semblance of dignity. I declined his offer to thread my eyebrows, but slightly wish I hadn’t.

One emergency too many

‘There’s an old women on the floor of the tent over there and I think she’s dead’, I said, trying to steady my voice and relay my message coherently. ‘Well if she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’ ‘Well,’ I mumbled, ‘I mean I’m not sure if she’s dead or not, she’s either dead or really ill. I’m not a doctor – I don’t know what she is but I think you should come.’ The doctor inhaled slowly, taking in the line of mothers clutching coughing children desperate to get his attention. ‘If you think it’s important, I’ll come.’

It wasn’t the first time I felt I was playing god with precious resources in Idomeni. I’d found myself deciding on the night shift which family got the last tent, and – after days of torrential rain – which man the last pair of shoes. Fewer than 50 doctors served the needs of 14,000 refugees: calling a medic to an emergency meant taking them away from another patient.

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The camp on the Greece-Macedonia border was set up to provide refugees heading north with basic aid: water, jam sandwiches and a communal tent for shelter. Shortly after I arrived they closed the border, yet people kept coming and the camp continued to swell.

‘If she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’

 

 

The old woman had the face of an old master painting – like the wizened figure in Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes but without the compelling expression. Unsure of whether my medical companion was a fan of the arts, I kept this thought to myself, adding only ‘She’s lying on the floor of a crammed tent with kids jumping and shouting around her.’ The doctor took the opportunity to smoke a cigarette and set an unbearably slow pace as we dodged children playing along the only path that wasn’t up to their knees in mud. I resisted the temptation to hurry him on.

His attitude seemed callous at first. I was new to aid work, it was only my second time in a refugee camp. Only later did I learn that you need to take care of yourself first, before you can help others. My medic had been closeted in a small tent for hours treating case after case with limited supplies.

The old woman was sitting upright when we got there. I found myself in the singular position of being slightly embarrassed that she wasn’t dead after all, almost wishing that she might lie down again to justify my urgency. The medic gave me a sideways glance; he didn’t mind, I’d allowed him to snatch 10 minutes of relative peace.

I couldn’t tell you what happened to the woman. Hurrying towards another emergency I didn’t give her a second thought.