The New Europeans — A Letter from Europe

Earlier this year I planned a trip to Europe, anchored by a family vacation in Austria. I added stops in a few other cities in order to document the local underground art scenes. I would start in Rome, meet my wife in Italy and my brothers and their families in Munich. After returning from Austria I would continue on to Copenhagen and, finally, to Athens. I looked forward to the trip, both as a photographer and as a naturalized German-American trying to decide whether I could one day call Europe home again. I wanted to find out what I might be missing after almost twenty years in the U.S.

At that time, most of the news about migrants was coming from places like Lampedusa and Ceuta, harrowing stories of thousands of lives lost at sea. The war in Syria displaced millions, but the vast majority found shelter in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, who received little credit or support for their efforts to take in these refugees. Reports from Lesbos and Kos, among the Greek islands closest to Turkey, became more frequent over the summer. Due in part to a lack of UN funding for Middle Eastern migrant camps and an utter lack of perspective for individuals and their families, an increasing number of Syrians both from the camps and from within Syria risked the expensive and dangerous trip in small rafts to Greece in order to escape the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. They hoped for a more secure future in Europe, particularly in Germany or Sweden.

The Dublin agreement, which requires that refugees apply for asylum in the European Union country in which they first arrive, was quickly undermined by the growing inflow of refugees, whose numbers overwhelmed the fragile Southern European economies. In early September, faced by a humanitarian crisis at the Hungarian border, German Chancellor Angela Merkel effectively suspended Dublin by declaring that any refugees who wanted to apply for asylum in Germany would be welcome there. It was an utterly astonishing development, and to me, as for many Germans, it represented a huge opportunity, morally and socially.

“We can do it!” Merkel famously declared, because we had no other choice. The refugees wouldn’t stop coming just because we made it less convenient for them. Merkel’s call was heard around the world, and Syrians were joined on the Balkan route by Afghans, Iraqis, economic migrants from Albania and other Balkan countries, and a hodgepodge of other nationalities. Since then, approximately five to ten thousand have been arriving in Germany day after day, currently via Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. Some continue to Sweden or a few other European countries, but most are distributed across Germany with the help of countless sleep-deprived volunteers, aid workers, police and local administrators.

As I followed the news from afar, aghast at the historic dimensions of the crisis, I realized that my trip would take me to some of the major hubs through which migrants pass on the way to their destinations in Europe. I was also shocked and repulsed by increasingly hateful comments from a very vocal minority online, both in the U.S. and in Germany. Many commenters spoke out of genuine concern, and many others out of naked fear and ignorance, as if they had never met a muslim in their lives, let alone a muslim refugee. Nevermind that Syrian refugees were fleeing from Islamist extremists — right-wing firebrands insisted that the demise of Western civilization was at hand. I decided that I would try to meet some of those who had come to Europe seeking a better future and to share what I saw and heard, in order to put faces, names and individual stories against the vast numbers and ideological fervor.


Rome’s Tiburtina tent camp viewed from inside the train station

The Tiburtina tent camp in Rome was nestled in an empty lot on the backside of the brand new train station by the same name, out of view of travelers and Roman commuters. It was initially meant as a temporary measure until more permanent accommodations could be found, but a steady flow of new arrivals kept the camp open. Staffed by a team of Red Cross workers, Doctors Without Borders physicians and local volunteers, the camp primarily housed migrants from Eritrea and a few other African countries as well as a handful of Syrians and Afghans. All of the migrants I talked to arrived in Italy after a highly dangerous Mediterranean crossing, and most had been there for only a week or two.

The Eritreans, mostly men, some of whom prominently wore crosses around their necks, were fleeing the brutal dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki. They relied on human traffickers to lead them from Eritrea into Sudan and from there to Libya, from where boats would take them across the sea. Each segment of the journey had cost them between one and two thousand dollars, and sometimes more. One of the men, Amaniel G., was held captive and tortured for a day by traffickers in Libya. He showed me a photo of his scarred back that he carries in a plastic pouch as evidence of his mistreatment. He also suffered a fracture in one of his legs; his left hand was still bandaged. He spoke to me in a calm, deliberate voice, but he was obviously very weak. Despite the added danger, Amaniel planned to go on to the UK, if necessary via the Eurorail tunnel. It was still better than life in Eritrea. Like many of them men, he feared for the safety of the family he had left behind and hoped to bring them to Europe eventually.

An Afghan, Ayub S., from Helmand province, told me that he was once a professor, but left Afghanistan nine years ago. His asylum application was rejected in the UK — he was told he should just go back to Kabul. But he saw no future in Afghanistan. His wife and kids were still in the country and he feared that the Taliban would hurt them on his account. He was determined to try applying for asylum again. His companion was a young man from the Kunduz area, Sher A., a proud youth with a steely glare whose story was representative of many young Afghans. His family counted on him to make it to Europe and to provide for them and he was afraid that if he was forced to return home, the Taliban would kill him.

Even without the threat of death, one could hardly blame young men like Sher for spearheading their families’ desperate attempt to gain a foothold in Europe, families who have very little to lose and who fall into the murky gray area between political and economic refugees. Unlike Syrian refugees, their future was at the mercy of political decision-makers in Europe. If their countries were deemed “safe,” a loose standard dependent more on political contingencies than actual circumstances, they might be sent straight back where they came from. Afghanistan and Turkey are on the improbable short list of countries that may well be declared safe, despite Taliban terrorism in the former and authoritarian repression of its Kurdish minority in the latter.

In contrast, the migrants from Ghana and Mali I encountered just wanted to live a better life. Like other economic refugees, they might be perfectly qualified to contribute to the economies of their destination countries. However, in the absence of more open and standardized European and national immigration policies, there was no way for them to legally apply for work visas in Europe. They might be deported or they might enter the class of those whose asylum applications have been rejected, but who haven’t yet been deported, living in a state of indefinite suspension and uncertainty.

Among some in Europe, economic migrants and, really, any muslim migrants, have stoked fears of job losses and cultural disintegration. Along with undisguised hatred online and at public protests there has been an increase in violent crime directed at asylum seekers, from arson to assault, particularly in Germany and Sweden, the countries with the most humane asylum policies. In Dresden, thousands of followers of the right-wing Pegida movement protest every Monday night, many mistaking calls for the hanging of the country’s political leaders and the silencing of the “lying media” for democratic rights. They represent what has come to be called the “Germany of darkness” against whom stands the “Germany of light,” the large number of volunteers, counter-protesters and leaders insisting on the democratically guaranteed right to asylum. Integration, insist those on the left, means the integration of everyone, not just of recent arrivals.

Nonetheless, there is a stark awareness of the social challenges posed by young men from paternalistic cultures, including some who were born in Germany. Tania Kambouri, a German policewoman of Greek descent, recently published a book in which she chronicles the aggression and lack of respect she experiences from young men with a “migration background,” an umbrella term used to describe non-ethnic Germans and immigrants alike. There is a keen awareness among the public and political leaders that Germany failed to properly integrate past generations of immigrants under the assumption that they would one day leave, and that we have to do better this time.

Some blatantly abuse asylum policies, including the process by which deportation notices can be challenged. After dinner with my family in Munich the first night, the conversation naturally turned to the refugee crisis. There was no question that Germany had a moral imperative to help. But a sister-in-law also shared what her brother, a policeman, had experienced. His recent stint of thirty days working in a camp for asylum seekers, she said, was the worst thing that had happened to him in his professional life. Many of the young men in the camp were straight-up criminals, in some instances walking into supermarkets in large groups and just taking as much as they could carry. It turned out that many of the asylum seekers in that particular camp were from Balkan countries, wayfarers who had latched onto the stream of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. There were also reports of rampaging bands of organized criminals from Georgia. But does that mean that we, conversely, had to turn away whole categories of migrants, neatly sorted by nationality? What of the Albanian parents who just want a better future for their children and who, like their Syrian or Afghan counterparts, will do whatever it takes to provide their children with that opportunity? On the other hand, how do we know that the young men arriving at our border won’t take advantage of us, that there aren’t criminals among them who cannot and will not be integrated, regardless of their nationality? The answer is, there will inevitably be a few rotten apples among the bunch, and we have laws in place to deal with them.

I only had a brief stopover in Munich and assumed that I could easily meet refugees at the city’s main train station. It was not too long ago that the news was filled with images of local residents applauding refugees arriving from Hungary by the trainload, holding up welcome signs and standing in line to donate warehouses full of blankets, clothes and toys. In a way it was not so different from events twenty-five years ago, when refugees from East Germany were first allowed to cross into the West and were warmly welcomed, until a quarter of the East German population had relocated to the West.

Welcome signs inside Munich’s main train station

The welcome signs at the train station were still there, along with a row of tents, food and first aid stations, but so was a sign informing local residents that volunteers and donations were no longer needed, since refugees no longer arrived at the station in large numbers. Over the past few weeks, a system had been put into place to distribute refugees, more or less fairly, directly to shelters in Bavaria (dozens of them in Munich alone) and other German states. The refugee crisis had become somewhat less visible, but no less urgent, with new arrivals still entering Germany from Austria at a steady clip.

Walking around Copenhagen it could come as a surprise that Denmark is led by a conservative government and has been reluctant to take in many refugees. The city’s relative wealth and diversity — walk down Nørrebrogade and you’ll feel like you are in the Shwarma capital of the world — are both readily apparent. Yet for the most part Denmark has been just another waystation for migrants on the way to Sweden, and there were few apparent signs of the presence of refugees, even temporary, in the central parts of Copenhagen.

One afternoon I took the train across the Øresund bridge to Malmö, Sweden, to visit a local artist. In my train car was a family that appeared to be of Middle Eastern in origin, the mother wearing a headscarf, a little girl scampering between seats and two teenage boys play-fighting in between bouts of attentive smartphone activity. In other words, they looked like a pretty ordinary family. It wasn’t until we arrived in Malmö and I saw them talking to policemen that I realized that it was a family of refugees, and that this was their moment of arrival.

A decal on the platform of Malmö’s train station

While there appeared to be no official acknowledgment of the presence of refugees in Denmark, in Sweden there were signs welcoming them and teams of police, aid workers and translators at hand to answer questions and guide arrivals to reception centers. A small group comprised of several adult men and a few women and children was talking to a volunteer in the main hall of the station when I came up from the platform. They, too, appeared to have just arrived.

Even though they were now closer than ever to their destination and to the possibility of resuming a normal life, their faces were full of worry and they asked rapid-fire questions, their voices filled with anxiety. Perhaps they were hoping to be sheltered near friends or relatives who were already in Sweden, and perhaps they already knew that instead they were likely to spend weeks or months in temporary accommodations. Or maybe this is what months and years of death, violence, greedy traffickers and unsympathetic authority figures will do to you, part of the ongoing human cost of war.

Greece is perhaps the most important transit country in Europe, since the Greek islands near Turkey serve as the entry point to Europe and the de-facto beginning of the Balkan route. The bottlenecks in sheltering, registering and transporting migrants that were first reported from Lesbos and Kos in the summer would later be duplicated along the route whenever a country found itself unable to cope with the onrush of thousands of migrants a day, as happened when Hungary closed its border and migrants were diverted through Croatia and Slovenia.

From the islands, migrants are shuttled to the port of Piraeus, less than a half-hour metro ride from the center of Athens. Upon arrival on the Greek mainland, the haves are quickly divided from the have-nots: Syrian refugees, more likely to have money, proceed immediately north, while others, especially Afghans, must wait for relatives to wire money in order to continue their journey.

I took the metro to Piraeus on a rainy Friday, but my timing was off. In order to find out when the next boat from Lesbos and Kos would arrive I inquired with two marginally polite ladies at the ticket office for Anek Lines, a shipping line from which the Greek government has been chartering a ferry. They said it was not due in port (at the gate furthest from the center of the harbor and the train station) until late in the evening. Tomorrow? No idea. Different times every day.

I wandered along the docks in the rain, feeling transported to a different age very foreign to our security-obsessed present in New York. There were no guards and few fences and anyone could walk or drive along the water where ships large and small were waiting to board passengers for their next trip. I passed the storefront of a travel agency that advertised trips to Macedonia on a handwritten sign on the street. Through the storefront window I could see a group of about a dozen migrants, several families with small children. As I walked by, a little boy of four or five years poked his head out and, pretending to be holding a gun, took aim at me. I don’t know what he saw in me, but when I turned to look back at the end of the block he was still shooting at me.

At the time of my visit, at the end of October, the Greek government had set up a camp in Eleonas, on the western outskirts of Athens, for those who were temporarily stuck. But unlike in any other city I had visited, here the refugees weren’t hard to find. Victoria Square, not far from the Larissa station, the city’s main train station, had become the informal gathering place for refugees.

One sunny afternoon, a few days after my trip to Piraeus, the square was filled with hundreds of them, sitting among piles of blankets and backpacks, sleeping close to each other stretched out on the ground while one or two kept watch or, if they could afford it, mixing with local Athenians in the cafes that ringed the plaza. Families with children tended to cluster in the middle of the square, while young men milled around the perimeter and wandered the surrounding streets. Often you could see groups of four or five wiry youth, no longer children but too young to grow beards, gathered around one who had a phone, talking in hushed voices or scrolling through news.

Refugees gathered at Victoria Square in Athens

There was no infrastructure in place to assist the migrants, not even portable toilets or emergency medical care. A few volunteers handed out bottles of water, and a handful of policemen and policewomen kept watch over the square. At any given time one could find a much greater police presence in Syntagma square, the main gathering place for political activism in Athens, just in case a protest should break out. Athenians already seemed to be used to the tired, poor, huddled masses in their midst.

Once an hour or so, a city bus would stop at the edge of the square, slowly fill up with migrants and leave, presumably for Eleonas. Two blocks west, unmarked white and silver travel buses, one or two at a time, picked up those who had been able to buy a ticket north. But no matter how many left, the square never seemed to get any emptier, as new arrivals emerged from the metro on the northbound side, coming from Piraeus, and replenished the ranks of the transients. It was an overwhelming and humbling sight, and I tried not to be caught staring while taking notes. The gears of war and conflict will not stop producing desperate survivors, and it will take years, perhaps a generation, until these new Europeans will be fully integrated in their new home countries, if things go well. And they have to.

Refugees waiting to board a bus near Victoria Square

I tried to strike up a conversation with one of the policemen, catching him on a smoking break. Like many Athenian smokers he puffed on a hand-rolled cigarette. It was cheaper than regular cigarettes. Was it like this every day, I wanted to know, motioning across Victoria Square? He responded with a look of tiredness and disinterest and confirmed in monosyllabic English that, yes, it was. There was no end in sight.

Most of the migrants I tried to talk to spoke very little English. I approached a small group gathered near a Western Union store and one of the boys eagerly responded, but all I could learn was that they were from Afghanistan, had been in Athens for five days and were waiting for their families to send them money to continue toward Germany. Around the corner in the middle of the square sat a family of four, a tired lot, yet grateful for a distraction. Where were they from? Afghanistan. Where did they want to go? The father’s eyes lit up. Germany! I could do nothing but wish them good luck.

Many families had among their pile of belongings a newly-bought tent, still wrapped tightly in a clean nylon bag. They would need it, but it might not be enough. As the seasons changed, firm ground would turn to slush and eventually rain would turn to snow and ice. In the coming weeks, many of the families and young men I saw in the square would face freezing nights, aching stomachs, sickness and perhaps worse, if they made it out of Athens at all. Already the specter of death lay over the Balkan route, with some warning that it would be only a matter of time until the first baby froze to death at a border crossing.

At night I watched German public television news and political talk shows. The refugees were always the leading topic. Amid the contentious debates — How do we limit the inflow of migrants? Do we establish “transit zones” to speed up deportations of economic refugees? How can we provide housing, education and employment as quickly as possible? Is it, finally, time for new immigration policies? — it struck me that even the most conservative politicians unequivocally agreed that we could not let refugees whither in the cold along the Balkan route and that Germany was not just going to close its border, despite online hate-mongering, attacks on shelters and pressure from the right. The chancellor might not have realized the full impact the selfies refugees took with her might have, but it happened, and there was no Off switch that would solve the problem. It would take hard work, billions of Euros, and countless more hours from volunteers, police, medical personnel, educators and administrators, but so far humanistic arguments prevailed in the public discussion.

I returned to my apartment on my last night in Athens with a feeling of mild despair, knowing that in a day I would be back in New York, far removed from the events in the continent that was still mine, after all these years. As I was about to unlock the front door to my apartment building, a group of young men approached me. Afghans, it seemed. One of them showed me the screen of an old cell phone, which spelled out a street address. It was the address of my building. In a moment of discombobulation, it occurred to me that they had come to find me, that somehow they knew that I would want to talk to them, that maybe there was something I could say or do to help. But in an instant that thought disappeared, as I realized that what they were looking for was a small, unassuming shop on the corner of the building with an “international money transfer” sign. I watched them shuffle into the shop. With any luck, a money transfer was waiting for them which would allow them to board a bus to Macedonia and lead them, after days or weeks of bus and train rides, night-time walks and indefinite waits at border crossings, to some kind of arrival in a new life.