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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Immigrants in Greece, Part 3: Anti-Racist Grassroots Groups Helping Migrants; Trapped Syrians, and an Algerian’s View

A Summer Evening in Chania, the Immigrants’ Hangout, and Help for Syrian Asylum Seekers

In July, a week and a half after the Anti-Racist Festival I described in my July blog, my Greek friend K and I spent an unusual evening out without our families in a pleasant part of Chania featuring cafés, restaurants, shops, and new cobblestone streets. Next to an attractive little fair trade store called Terra Verde, we were disappointed to find Κοινωνικό Στέκι – Στέκι Μεταναστών (Koinoniko Steki – Steki Metanaston) closed, although we’d been told that it was generally open on Wednesday evenings in the summer (and much more often in the winter). I’d wanted to visit that Social Hangout and Hangout of Immigrants--Steki, or Hangout, for short—for some time. The door to Steki was ajar, so we were able to walk into the entrance hallway, with its shelves of brochures and booklets, and add my bag of used books to the bags of clothes that had been donated there. Some other women in makeup and colorful dresses went in to select the clothes they needed, as they were welcome to do. But I didn’t get to see the café space, so I had to content myself with taking photos of the outside of the attractive old, restored row house.

At Steki, migrants and the general public can relax and enjoy coffee or drinks at low prices. On Sundays, they are offered a free lunch; other days, they can take free language lessons in Greek, English, Arabic, and Spanish. Various groups and committees meet there, focusing on the needs of immigrants, the homeless, prisoners, fair trade, and single parents. A music and dance collective of Greeks and foreigners, Yar Aman (Turkish for “My Love”), practices there and gives free performances and concerts with traditional Greek, Turkish, Arab, and Mediterranean music and dances. (My father, an avid international folk dancer, would have joined them if he’d lived long enough to visit us here.) People at Steki participate in various activist events, for example helping to organize the Anti-Racist Festival, advocating the establishment of a homeless shelter in Chania, and assisting the 154 Syrian asylum seekers whom the Greek Coast Guard brought to Crete when their rusty old boat couldn’t make it to Italy from Egypt last spring.  

In that emergency assistance effort, Steki joined an impressive, unusually united front of other leftist grassroots organizations, local and regional government agencies, religious and medical institutions, the Red Cross, Doctors of the World, and other non-governmental and military organizations, who together provided food and medical care and arranged for clothing and a place to stay for the Syrians and the larger number of Egyptians who arrived with them. After several days, the Egyptians were taken away, with the adults likely to be deported and the one hundred and two unaccompanied minors sent to hostels in Athens and Thessaloniki, with the hope that at least some could be sent to relatives living legally in Europe. The five unaccompanied Syrian children were sent to the Center for Unaccompanied Underage Asylum Seekers in Anogia, Crete which I discussed in last month’s blog, expecting to join relatives in Germany later. The Syrian adults and families were divided between Rosa Nera (which Social Text calls “a squatted socialcenter”) above Chania’s Old Port, and a hotel in Nea Chora, Chania, where the government paid for a limited number of days of lodging. There was an attempt to evict the Syrians from the hotel once the government stopped paying the bill. However, no other solution was found for them, and they did not have permission to go where they wanted, so many apparently ended up staying in the hotel for months—some even remaining now--while others have been taken in by Syrians already established in Chania, and still others have left for other European countries using falsified documents, according to reporter George Konstas. The Syrian asylum seekers lacked food and clothing, but grassroots and nongovernmental organizations such as Steki and the Community Kitchen have attempted to provide those, for example joining the Chania Migrants’ Forum and the Rosa Nera group to collect food at a hip hop concert organized earlier this month for that purpose.  

The Community Kitchen 

That July night in Chania, K and I had better luck with our attempt to visit the Κοινωνική Κουζίνα (Koinoniki Kouzina) or Community Kitchen, a soup kitchen where K and my dentist’s assistant have helped out, than we did with Steki. It’s the only soup kitchen in Greece that’s unaffiliated with a church, yet open nightly year-round since it opened. Around 8:30, one Greek man and three immigrant men were getting ready to open for dinner, setting tables with knives, forks, napkins, cups, and bread, cutting up enough zucchini to fill an enormous tub to go with another huge tub of boiled potatoes and an immense pot half full of lentils. K greeted the Greek man I’ll call Stavros and the Moroccan I’ll call Hassan, whom she knew from her own volunteer work there, and we went inside, a few steep steps down from street level. We saw eight pairs of schoolroom tables with four chairs set up at each, a sink next to the steps, a bigger table at the far end of the long room, full of the huge tubs and pots of food, and a kitchen area behind the table with two donated ovens and two donated refrigerators. The walls were decorated with posters from anti-fascist festivals, quotations from famous people, and school children’s drawings and posters, plus a large mural I’d photographed at the Community Kitchen’s Anti-Racist Festival stall. K asked who’d painted that, and Hassan said he had. We complimented his work and learned that he could cook, too. K asked if he knew how to make couscous and falafel. She’d had limited luck with recipes she found online, but Hassan soon told her where she’d gone wrong. Then he resumed preparations for what turned out to be just 30 people’s dinner, since it was Ramadan, many of the Kitchen’s clients are Muslim, and they tend to break their daily fast at their mosque. Some men ate at the Community Kitchen, while others took food away to share with those at home, which is typical, since only a few women and children come there to eat.

We returned to speak with Hassan and Stavros around 9:30, when they were closing the Community Kitchen. We sat to talk (in Greek and English) over drinks and snacks we ordered at an outdoor café table across the street from the Kitchen, in the cool semi-darkness of streetlights. Later, the Greek volunteer I’ll call Eleni joined us. I learned that this soup kitchen had been started three and a half years ago, during the grassroots Indignados, or Indignants, grassroots citizens’ protest movement in the square in front of the indoor tourist market, or Agora, in downtown Chania. A young woman had realized that some people who joined the Indignants’ discussions were hungry, and she decided to bring them some food. After a few weeks, she disappeared, perhaps to get married and move away, but others continued what she’d started. Later, when temperatures dropped and the rains came in the winter, the Community Kitchen moved to its present location in a room off the back of a public junior high school. A true grassroots effort, it has continued to fill a clear need for free, healthy sustenance in these years of economic crisis in Greece, thanks to the dedication of many volunteers and the offerings of donors. Approximately thirty-five people cook for the kitchen in their homes; food can be reheated on the stoves in the Community Kitchen. Ten people, the majority possibly now migrants, form the core of helpers and organizers. They can always use more help and donations—especially right now. (Post a comment including your email address if you’d like to make a donation, and I’ll see how we can arrange it.)

When the Community Kitchen first opened, up to two hundred people (mostly migrant men) would line up outside to wait their turn to eat, disturbing shopkeepers nearby since their business was decreasing due to patrons’ discomfort with those crowds. The opening hour was pushed back to 9:00 p.m.—a reasonable supper time in Greece—for a while to accommodate the unhappy shopkeepers, who also involved the mayor and city council in trying to move the community kitchen out of its rent-free public space. I asked if churches couldn't offer space, but K said they have their own soup kitchens, which many undocumented migrants hesitate to use since churches require everyone who eats there to register with them and use an ID card. However, my wise friend K and another dedicated volunteer talked with all the businesspeople who had objected to the soup kitchen’s location near their shops. They listened carefully to the shopkeepers’ concerns, noting them down and responding so thoughtfully and calmly—a highly unusual occurrence between people with opposing ideas in Greece, where there’s no such thing as mediators or conflict resolution specialists, although the country desperately needs them--that the concerns melted away, along with the lines waiting in the street.

The Community Kitchen offers migrants more than nightly meals, collecting clothes for them, sponsoring free concerts, and occasionally sending an unofficial advocate to support, negotiate, or intervene if a migrant they know is arrested, to vouch for those they know as peaceable members of the community. Greek social scientist Dr. Irene Sotiropoulou tells me that she and some of the other volunteers attempt to raise awareness about various cultures, for example by presenting free viewings of movies from different countries in different languages, with subtitles in Greek and sometimes English, to help Greeks and different migrants (Bulgarians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, etc.) understand each other better. Every few months, musicians or puppeteers donate their time, and others donate their cakes, to raise funds at concerts where donations are requested and refreshments are available for sale. Businesses, farmers, hotels, and restaurants provide leftover food, and some individuals offer money, but as economic conditions have gotten worse in Greece, donations have come in more slowly.

Scapegoating: Racist Attacks on Migrants, Roundups, and Detention

In July, I was told that there were not as many migrants around compared with previous years, because many have tried to leave Greece during the economic crisis due to a lack of work or, in some cases, because of racist attacks. During the past year, Eleni said, there’s probably been an average of 120 or so eating at the Community Kitchen nightly—as opposed to the earlier average of 200—although it varies widely, with more coming during olive-collecting season. And 250 appeared on at least one recent August night, Irene Sotiropoulou told me, probably including some of the Syrian refugees who arrived in the spring, whom the Kitchen has consistently attempted to feed as needed, challenging as it has been to find enough food for everyone. On the other hand, Hassan said there were many more Moroccans in Chania three years ago; many of them have left. He also knew one Algerian whose arm had been cut badly, after which he left Greece, and he mentioned an Egyptian whose kidney had been crushed by a huge stone, after which he also departed. Now, there aren’t any more racist attacks in the part of downtown Chania where we were sitting, because there are so many immigrant-friendly groups there that a few phone calls would swiftly summon 300 people to a migrant’s defense. I’ve heard that a member of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was even thrown into the harbor. But in other parts of Chania, such as Halepa, where there aren’t as many of their friends around to provide support, it’s apparently more dangerous for migrants. And that’s even truer in Athens, where the Syrian refugees feared to go; they resisted an effort to send them there earlier this month.

I’ve read newspaper accounts and human rights groups’ descriptions of violent attacks on Egyptian, Bangladeshi, Algerian, Pakistani, Kenyan, Iraqi, Nigerian, Albanian, Afghan, Sudanese, and Congolese migrants in Greece, many of them allegedly carried out by members or supporters of Golden Dawn, which won 9.4% of the Greek vote in European Parliament elections in May. Scapegoating of dark-skinned and undocumented migrants is increasingly common for Greeks frustrated by social and economic hardship, since many blame impoverished foreigners for worsening the mess the country is in, for stealing, and for taking their jobs—although most migrants are very willing to work at jobs (such as construction, yard work, road work, farm labor, cleaning, and elder care) which most Greeks prefer not to do. Dr. Irene Sotiropoulou points out that racist views enable easier exploitation of people who are “different,” which provides economic benefits for the exploiter (for example, via low payment or no payment for work). She says many feel a need to “create a community out of hatred–which is wrong, of course.” Now immigrants are an easy target (personal interview, Chania, June 3, 2014). Informal initiatives by grassroots anti-fascist activists in groups such as ΚΕΕΡΦΑ (ΚΕΕRFA), the Movement Against Racism and Fascism, seek to prevent attacks and raise awareness in communities throughout Greece, and volunteers at such places as the Community Kitchen and Steki do what they can to help, but there is a great deal of work to do before racist and xenophobic views will be overcome.

Meanwhile, migrants have been attacked and beaten, and sometimes murdered, with fists, knives, and guns; their belongings have been scattered, smashed, and burnt. They are discouraged from reporting attacks to the police, both because they fear detention and deportation if they lack legal residence documents, and because they are often charged 100 euros to file a complaint, which police also say is unlikely to lead to an arrest if victims can’t identify their attackers (What About Really Tackling Racist Violence in Greece?). Human Rights Watch’s Eva Cossé cautions that the government’s attempts to win back conservative voters who have shifted toward Golden Dawn by cracking down on immigrants has worsened the situation by appearing to legitimize “Golden Dawn’s rhetoric, which in turn has helped to push the government to adopt further policies targeting immigrants” (Greece: The Story Behind Golden Dawn’s Success). Many human rights groups and activists have castigated the government for inadequate responses to racist and xenophobic violence and for the often harsh treatment of migrants by police, for example in the ongoing “Xenios Zeus” roundup of people who appear foreign (including some African Americans) that started in August 2012, in which almost 124,000 foreigners were arrested, but only 6,910 (5.6%) were found to be undocumented migrants, through June 2013 (the period for which the government has provided statistics, as far as I know). The undocumented migrants are often imprisoned in overcrowded, substandard jails or detention centers; even many who are here legally are subject to abusive searches and at least brief detainment even without any criminal charges (see, for example, “Dispatches: Greece – Two Years of Abusive Police Sweeps”).

Some migrants who went from Crete to Athens to try to leave Greece for other parts of Europe instead ended up in the detention centers which Hassan calls “filaki,” or jail, and Irene Sotiropoulou and other activists call “concentration camps.” (See my July blog and the links in it for more about those centers.) Hassan and Eleni agree that the detention centers are no better than jails, since no one is allowed to leave them for eighteen months or more. He knows someone who was released from one after eighteen months due to good behavior, but he’s heard that those who are viewed as troublemakers in the detention centers may be stuck in them for two or three years, in spite of a law against such long-term detention. And last spring the Greek State Legal Council decreed that migrants could be detained beyond the previous limit of eighteen months if they refuse to agree to “voluntary” repatriation, although all the reports I see about the conditions in most migrant detention centers remain horrifying (Greek State Legal Council justifies detention pending removal beyond 18-month limit set by EU Return Directive).

A new Greek law went into effect on June 1 which stated that undocumented migrants may leave Greece, but it does not seem to guarantee that impoverished migrants may go anywhere safe, or to insist that detention center gates be opened. The law seems likely to benefit middle-class and wealthy migrants rather than those who most need help. We will see if it has any effect on the Yazidi refugees fleeing the threat of murder by the Islamic State in Iraq. It is unclear whether it has helped the migrants from war-torn Syria, who were clearly eligible to apply for asylum as refugees in Greece (yet initially prevented from doing even that), but not so clearly eligible to apply in the other countries in Europe where they actually wanted to go, given the problematic Dublin Regulation I discussed last month. They were apparently given permission to remain in Greece for six months, presumably while applications for asylum were considered (although such applications often take years to process), but they could not even submit such applications while trapped (as another blogger put it) in Crete. In any case, the Syrians did not want to stay in Greece; they’d been bound for Italy initially, with many aiming to join relatives in other European countries. What were they supposed to do? They were afraid of being sent to Athens, where life would have been more dangerous for them, or to a migrant detention center, where they could have been stuck indefinitely in dreadful conditions; and they were not told they were free to go where they wished to go, to a safer land where they would be free to build a new life.

Still? Better Wages in Greece than Algeria

On the other hand, “Hakim,” an Algerian in his thirties, managed to build a satisfactory new life in Crete, his chosen destination, ten years ago. Able to speak Arabic, French, Greek, and a bit of English, he responded to my questionnaire in a conversation with my friend K. Born in Algiers, he has lived in Chania for ten years, but his family is still in Algeria. He first came to Crete after his father died, leaving him responsible for the support of his mother and three younger brothers. With wages very low in Algeria, and much higher in Greece ten years ago, as he heard from many friends who had come here, he thought he’d have a better life here. So he left home with only the clothes he was wearing and embarked on a difficult, expensive journey, traveling by land (often by bus) across North Africa and then through Turkey, like all the migrants he knows from Algeria, making his way without a smuggler or bribes. I was surprised to learn that he has been to Algeria and back a few times since moving here. He was stopped by the Greek authorities many times, but when the computer databases revealed no criminal record, he was simply sent back to Algeria. When he came over the border at night, he managed to stay.

Since arriving in Crete, Hakim has worked in fields and at an olive oil press in Kissamos; now he’s used to life here and prefers it. As another one of the countries bordering the Mediterranean, Greece doesn’t seem that different to him from the country where he grew up. This reminds me of what Anti-Racist Festival organizers said about the festival theme of “mare nostrum,” our sea, the Mediterranean:Let’s go forward, towards a sea that unites, not a tomb that separates and divides; towards a sea that nurtures freedom, dignity and creation, rather than wars, exploitation and poverty.” Ten years ago, Hakim found it easy to find a decent job to pay his rent and send money to his family in Algeria, although he could not get social insurance, since it was very difficult to obtain legal papers in Greece, even then. He heard from a friend who went to France because of the Greek economic crisis that it was easier there, since after a number of years a boss or landlord could intercede with the authorities to legalize an immigrant—unlike here. In Greece, the only way he knew to obtain legal residence and work permits was to marry a European woman—which some Greek and Bulgarian women would agree to, for one or two thousand euros, followed by divorce. That is no longer possible, since immigrants who wish to marry need a temporary residence permit called a red card, which is very hard to get.  

Hassan, on the other hand, said that after living in Greece for ten years, if one has proof of entry ten years ago (e.g. from a hospital visit or the police), one can obtain documents necessary to remain here legally. Irene Sotiropoulou adds that there is an entire industry devoted to legalizing immigrants who can afford to pay lawyers, government fees, and translators; they are required to apply through a lawyer, and it all becomes quite expensive. (But it is legal to require immigrants to pay thousands of euros a year for this.) She suggests that decisions about who is granted citizenship seem to be rather arbitrary, so applicants don’t know whether they’ll be denied, after paying substantial fees and going through the whole process. Renewal of residence papers is based on evidence of social security contributions, which many employers don’t pay. Apparently, many employers call the police to report illegal immigrants instead of paying them what they are due for their work. Indeed, Hakim says the only person in Greece who treated him badly was one boss in Kissamos who didn’t pay him on time or pay the full amount he was due. Rather than protest—a risky business for a migrant--Hakim simply went to work for someone else. Now life is harder here in Crete, and Hakim and his friends can only find work in the fields. Still, he does not complain. His Algerian friend points out that there are good and bad people everywhere, both immigrants and natives. Good or bad, many Greeks say the poorest are the most hospitable. K mentioned that she liked couscous, and Hakim offered to make her some. 

Cross-Cultural and Multicultural Hope and Tolerance?

Although I chose to come here with my Greek husband, and although I’m not completely sure if we’ll stay here or move back to the U. S. with our kids, I consider myself an immigrant. I live here; I’ve lived here for over eleven years; this is my home now, where my children were born and are growing up. But I am one of the most privileged immigrants, well educated, here by choice, with legal documents and far more of everything than I need for myself and my children, with friends who are Greek-Canadian, Canadian, Scottish, and American, most of us privileged enough to be called “expatriates” instead of “immigrants” according to the customary geographically-based, class-based hierarchy, as I was surprised to learn this summer. Our education, class, family, friends, and contacts help bring us acceptance and prosperity here.

Irene Sotiropoulou suggests that in the region of Thraki, or Thrace, in northeastern Greece, near Turkey, Turkish, Greek, Romanian, Roma, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish people mix harmoniously in what may be Greece’s most multicultural and most tolerant region. People don’t ask about ethnic or social origin or political beliefs; they respect differences, try to avoid reproducing discrimination, and defend their neighbors. If only that were true in more of the country and more of the world. Chania offers some multicultural, tolerant hope, with its synagogue, minarets and churches, its Jews, Muslims, and Christians, its many immigrant-friendly organizations, and its annual Anti-Racist Festival. Here, I can buy a small, dark-skinned stranger an ice cream cone, make a donation to Doctors of the World and the Community Kitchen, put nonperishable food in the bins for the needy at the supermarket, and leave some used clothes and books at Steki, but how can we stop the wars, conflicts, epidemics, inequality and poverty that lead desperate people to seek work and refuge far from their homelands? I can write about a few of the migrants and about the racism that leads to intolerance and violence against so many people viewed as “different,” hoping to increase people’s understanding of our common humanity, but then what can we do next to really make progress?


As I said earlier this summer, I am grateful to all the Greeks and foreigners who helped me gather information for this blog. They know who they are. All migrants’ names, and most Greeks’ names, have been changed to help protect their privacy. Comments from Dr. Irene Sotiropoulou come from a personal interview in Chania, June 3, 2014, as well as subsequent online communication. Journalist George Konstas (who wrote many of the articles about the Syrian migrants for the local paper) was kind enough to answer my question about Syrians still in Chania in a recent email, following his last published article on the subject earlier in August.

For More About the Syrian Asylum Seekers Brought to Crete Last Spring:
Trapped (from a blog full of citations) 
Apokoronas Friends of the Chania Red Cross 

The blog entry “Trapped” used the following Greek-language sources from the local paper Haniotika Nea, among others (which can be very roughly translated using Google’s translation tool, for example): 

Conference in the Region about Hosting Migrants
Shelter for 345 Migrants (video) 
For the Rescue and Hosting of 345 Immigrants: Unprecedented mobilization  
In the Case of 345 Immigrants: Six arrests for trafficking in human beings
Forward to Hostels: The end of the adventure of underage refugees 

For links to additional information about immigrants in Greece, see my June and July blog entries.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Immigrants in Greece, Part 2: The 9th Anti-Racist Festival in Chania, Refugees Fleeing Across the Mediterranean, and the Reception of Migrants in Greece

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 Sea." The authorities deny that any remains of chemical weapons will end up in the Mediterranean, and I can only hope that is true, and hope no accident will allow any leaks or spills, since this is where my children swim, along with millions of other people. However, no one denies that many migrants and refugees drown as they attempt to reach safety in Europe, and human rights groups protest what festival organizers describe as “illegal deportations, concentration camps, the Evros fence … [and] the bureaucratic maze for asylum seekers [which] constitute a continuing crime against human life and dignity." If you had come from Syria or Iraq, you’d know what they’re talking about.

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). They’re one of us: they’re human, too. We can’t just push them back, lock them up, send them and their children away to suffer or die in places we’d never take our own children. Yes, we have our own problems in our own countries, we have native-born people struggling to make ends meet, but what religion, what human being, could condone such locking up or sending away? Think about it.


Many thanks to the Greeks and migrants who helped me gather information for this blog, including the volunteers who put so much time into an impressive Anti-Racist Festival, and to the Americans who commented on a draft of part of this text. 



This February article suggests some improvement in the processing of applications for asylum, especially for refugees from Syria and Somalia.


UNHCR Tracks 
The UN Refugee Agency has produced videos and reported on interviews with Syrian refugees in Greece, as well as others.  


Greece: Stop unlawful and shameful expulsion of refugees and migrants 
Amnesty International strongly condemns the common practice of “pushbacks” by Greek officials, the illegal and inhumane expulsion of migrants before they can enter the country to request asylum.


Greek State Legal Council justifies detention pending removal beyond 18-month limit set by EU Return Directive  


African migrants face 'impossible' life in Greece  
This is a very upsetting overview of a horrible, impossible situation for dark-skinned immigrants in Athens in 2012, where they faced discrimination, racial slurs, beatings, and imprisonment but were not allowed to head to different parts of Europe.  

Against Racism   


Greece: Human Rights Watch Submission to the United Nations Committee against Torture   

The Human Rights Watch page on Greece