Instructed to fear
An outsider’s experience encountering refugees reaching Europe
In August and September 2016, I spent a little over a month in Greece and the Balkan countries in Europe. With tourists crowding the most desirable travel destinations, my curiosity lead me to pursue a different path — to investigate, for my own benefit, refugees reaching Europe and document my findings. In the wake of President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the United States, and an ever growing narrative depicting them as a threat, I’m sharing my first-hand experiences learning about who refugees are and the journey they go on. While I’m not a professional journalist nor trained as one, I provide my observations, photographs, and insights from the perspective of an outsider dropping in unannounced.
My own journey began on the Greek island of Lesvos, where stories of frequent boat landings in the news have caused tourism rates to plummet. Contrary to the idea that the island is overrun with asylum seekers, particular effort was needed to see and meet those involved in the crisis.
The Northeast of Lesvos is about 6.5 miles (8.5 km) from the Turkish border, and has become one of many routes to Europe. For refugees fleeing war and instability, crossing this part of the Aegean sea is just one small part of an expensive and time consuming journey fraught with risks and challenges.
Every day, people pay smugglers to help them make it across the sea and into Greece. In the last two years, hundreds of thousands of people have reached Lesvos and other islands, many arriving with nothing but their phone. Off of an unmarked dirt road, near one of Lesvos’ most frequented landing spots, is something volunteers in the area call the life jacket graveyard. It’s a pile of abandoned life jackets and other items left or washed up at shore. This pile gives you a sense of scale for how many people have crossed to just this one island. Walking around it, it’s hard to know whether the jackets, bags, and other personal belongings represent success or failure, as one can only speculate where the people that carried them are now or what they’ve been through on the way.
Stories of abuse, sabotage and exploitation by people refugees encounter are widespread. For about 2.000€, they are given flimsy dinghies to pilot themselves and are often sent out during dangerous conditions that increase already heavy risks. An example of the kind of carelessness and abuse that occurs is smugglers giving unsuspecting refugees life jackets filled with packing rather than floatation material. These jackets create an illusion of safety while in practice absorb water and weigh wearers down. Left unsanctioned, lives are put at risk by the ulterior motives of people turning migration into a profit-making machine. It comes as no surprise that thousands of refugees have died while crossing waters in the Aegean and Mediterranean. 1
One story that struck me was of 28 year-old Ramy from Damascus. While crossing, his boat capsized in the night and forced him to swim the rest of the way. With many around him struggling to save themselves in the chaos, Ramy attempted to help a little girl make it across. While he ended up reaching shore alive, she and many others on the boat did not. Because of the trauma he faced during his crossing, he spoke of having more freedom and the potential to expedite his asylum papers when we met. His goal was to make it to Germany to see his father before losing him to cancer, but months have gone by and his stay in Lesvos goes on.
Following unsound instructions given by smugglers, a refugee in the group is asked to drive the boat and told to head toward the blinking lighthouse across the water. Located outside of the village of Skala Sikaminias, this is one of the most dangerous places to attempt landing. I spent the night at a lookout point directly above the lighthouse where MSF lookouts rotate in shifts to keep an eye out for incoming boats. During my visit, we experienced high winds and rough waters, and both lookouts I spent time with were convinced no one would send a boat in such dangerous conditions. Shorly after sunrise, to the surprise of everyone on-site at the 7:00 shift change, a boat was seen coming from the Turkish side. The MSF spotter notified nearby agencies via radio and we watched as a patrol and rescue boat converged on the small raft.
Those that are lucky enough to make it over halfway across the 2–3 hour journey without getting caught by Turkish authorities or capsizing are now commonly intercepted and towed by the EU border agency (Frontex) or a rescue boat. While this is much safer than attempting landing on their own, no strategy guarantees safety and there have, for example, been cases where Frontex guards have shot at refugee boats. 2
After seeing Frontex make contact with the boat, I drove to the village harbor to witness the landing. Among the 23 people from a range of countries including Syria, Afghanistan, even as far as Ghana, was a family traveling together from Iraq. The people that make it this far are thankful to be alive, but know the struggle is far from over. There is an initial sense of relief as volunteers and villagers provide care and support. But, this kind of welcome, and any excitement from making it across, begins to fade as refugees realize they have little knowledge for what will happen next.
The various authorities involved in holding refugees upon their entry into Europe focus on securing the border and are responsible for taking them through a process. Dramatically different experiences can be had based on who is present or in charge on any given day. Frontex is a shared resource made up of personnel contributed by different EU member states and there isn’t a consistent philosophy among all the nations or the specific personnel involved. While some approach their tasks aware of a humanitarian motivation, others see their role purely as protecting the border.
I considered witnessing my first boat landing an emotional experience, but my thoughts and impressions were even further stirred when I spoke to two of the presiding border guards on the beach. They belonged to Poland’s border force, and because I speak Polish, I was curious to hear their perspectives. Their professional attitude dissolved quickly as they began to divulge thoughts on their three month assignment. One described the situation as simple: mostly men leave their families behind and flock to Europe illegally to take advantage of social programs. He was convinced that when authorities and press are gone, refugees fight and murder each other. His colleague didn’t disagree or have much to add but did point out that refugees have better phones than he does. When I mentioned some of the things I had seen on my visit, like the fake life jackets, they simply shrugged it off. The more outspoken guard admitted that we had digressed and followed with a conclusion:
We are forced by government to help these people, so we’re here. We’ve been here too long and we’re sick of it. They have the camps and they have free meals every day.
After our conversation, I wondered where their information and opinions came from. I figured that being so close to such events would lead to at least some empathy, but it was almost as though they had built a mental barrier to keep it from developing. I was surprised that we could see the same things happening around us yet interpret them so differently.
After being processed, refugees are put on police busses and taken to a camp where they’ll spend the foreseeable future. To those arriving to Greece, much is unknown about where they will be sent, for how long, and what the conditions will be like. No one wants to stay on Lesvos, where refugees describe their lives as “wasting time” and there are little productive activities to engage in. Leaving the island for the mainland, however, does not offer much better. While there was previously more movement up North at the beginning of the war in Syria, the Balkan states have since locked down their borders and left people in a state of indefinite waiting in Greece. Most of the people I spoke to are hoping to get to places like Germany or Italy eventually, where they perceive being welcomed, but in the meantime spend their days in refugee camps. Conceptually, the camps are solutions to people’s basic needs for shelter, food, and medical treatment. They’ve also given locals the sense that refugees are being cared for. In reality, the conditions at these camps are bleak.
On the outskirts of the port city of Mytilini, Moria is the main camp where most refugees start their stay on Lesvos. I was told getting access to the camp, especially inside, was a challenge but its location was well known. Between the barbed wire fences and concrete walls, I immediately recognized an Iraqi from the boat landing I witnessed the day before. As we spoke, he described his 24-hour impressions of the place as a kind of hell. Before I could ask about details, two Greek police officers approached me and instructed me to follow them to the police station for a talk — to my surprise, that would take me inside the camp.
As I walked through Moria, my cameras had to remain off but I was struck by defeated faces I won’t soon forget. Apart from a UNHCR presence visible in the form of a few tents and aid workers, the place seemed indistinguishable from a prison. At the police station, the officer in charge reviewed images from my 3 cameras, confirmed that I had not photographed anything in or around the camp, and gave me firm instructions to leave and not come back. After being escorted out, I did manage to get a few pictures of the area directly around the camp but it continues to be a challenge to document conditions at camps like this one. Since my visit, things have become even worse at Moria; a fire broke out in November, killing two people and causing serious damage. 3
There were themes to the stories refugees told of camp life. There are long lines for food that is low grade, repetitive, and out of date. People are able to see a doctor but almost all complaints result in a dose of painkillers until there is a major emergency. There are also few preparations for changes in weather; a lot of issues result from the heat, the cold, or flooding. On top of that, people have little information about what is or will happen to them, leading to a lot of speculation and misinformation spread in rumors.
Another refugee in Lesvos, an English instructor from Iran, showed me his pictures from inside Moria. He wants locals and the international community to see the true conditions of the place but fears getting caught taking them. Among the lack of clear information, he spoke of rising pressure among people at the camp as they are increasingly frustrated by their temporary stay becoming more and more permanent.
Another factor that makes life at these camps a challenge is that they are often located far from urban areas. This discourages job-seeking, moves people away from the public eye, and also has the effect of creating greater dependence on the camps for survival. When the resources at the camp are also lacking, it leaves the residents with a truly bleak outlook. On Greece’s mainland, I visited the Cherso camp. It’s about a one hour’s drive from the city of Thessaloniki and is located in a remote agricultural area. Being run by the military with little invovlement from other organizations, this camp was lacking vital resources. I was able to enter by blending in with some Spanish volunteers visiting on behalf of an NGO.
Zein is a law school student from Tartus, Syria. He spoke of his decision to flee from home when he realized the government was going to make him fight and kill his own people. Now, he’s living in the Cherso camp, a place he describes as the middle of nowhere. His main concern was a lack of confidence in the infrastructure and resources available to people in the camp. He spoke of examples like drinking water out of ground taps for six months only to have an organization come and say it isn’t fit for consumption or washing food. He mentioned frequent sightings of snakes and scorpions inside tents and worried for children there.
Refugees are able to leave the camps in favor of a less prescribed environment, but they are the only official places to access food, shelter, and other resources. Some turn to living on the streets to get away from the negative experiences they have had in camps. In places like Mytilini, volunteers and self-organized refugees work together to create their own shelters and share resources in places like a No Border Camp that I visited. While I noticed a strong sense of community there, the refugees complained of having to constantly take apart and move their tents and other structures to comply with local police orders.
Further North into the journey through Europe, conditions are no better. In Belgrade, there is not enough space in organized camps, and many refugees that have made it all the way to Serbia are living as vagrants in parking lots and city parks. I also sensed a greater distrust of refugees among locals I spoke with. There are some special places available for families, children, women, or people with medical issues, but they are not able to offer housing. I visited one such location run by an NGO that was providing food, water, and medical attention during the day. Now, in 2017, there’s a good chance a new policy will go into place making it possible for refugees who have made it as far as Germany to be sent back to Greece, which continues to struggle with creating adequate conditions. 4
The theme that brings all the refugees I met together is the place they call home becoming too unsafe or unviable to continue life there. On my visit I sat down with a number of people on the island of Lesvos, Greece’s mainland, and in the city of Belgrade, Serbia. Among them are savvy business owners, professionals, educators, artists and others whose lives were completely transformed or interrupted by warfare or instability. Among them are also children, injured people, people with health conditions, students, and others either displaced or unable to find a path forward.
Many refugees speak of lives they didn’t want to or plan to leave behind. Before war started affecting their lives, they could have had established, comfortable lives and considered themselves successful. Others may have been suffering for years or even their whole lives from government persecution or lack of opportunity. Refugees today have seen how quickly life is put at risk, assets become valueless, and the systems we rely on crumble or fail to support them. The journey they go on is known by them to be incredibly uncomfortable and unsafe and is often the result of having no other option.
I met Mohamed walking around the Cherso camp. Mohamed, an Arab, has been in the camp since February with his wife and mother in law, who are Kurds. In Aleppo, they ran a successful business together before the war broke out. As they made me a cup of Nescafé, we spoke in broken English and he showed me pictures of a beautiful home, a Porsche Cayenne, and other signs of a previous life lost. On their journey, there was only so much they could bring along, and now, the money has run out. In October, he contacted me to say that he’s run out of options and doesn’t know where to turn.
Earlier, I spoke of Ramy’s tragic boat crossing, but his backstory is a good example of the kind of modern and stable lives people had in cities like Damascus. Before fighting started, Ramy was a 3D animator working in a fun, creative office environment. He described himself an atheist and spoke of a family practice of helping the poor in their community before the war broke out. Once soldiers and bombings reached his neighborhood, it wasn’t long before the office he worked at was destroyed and all access to water and electricity became scarce. After his cousin was shot at a bus stop, his family decided it was time to go. Germany was chosen because his father needed special medical care, but due to the complexities of the asylum seeking process, the whole family would end up traveling separately. Ramy attempted traditional way of getting to Europe, but was kept from accepting job offers due to visa restrictions on Syrians. 5
In recent weeks, Ramy has been acting as an interpreter on Lesvos to assist other refugees that are struggling to communicate their health and wellness needs. In spite of all the emotional turmoil he’s gone through, he maintains a sense of humor and is known for his jokes both in person and on Facebook.
There is an overwhelming sense of resiliency, strength, and emerging community amongst the people I encountered. In their time at the camps and on the island, I saw refugees holding English classes for each other, serving as interpreters to support each other’s needs, and coming together to seek better conditions. With so little support from governments and the international community, I was impressed by people’s ability to remain hopeful. Of course, not everyone is able to cope the same way — there were certainly mentions of rising tensions as well as depression and suicide rates.
Volunteers fill massive gaps in safety, health, information, and basic resource needs that would otherwise be unserved. Volunteers come from all over the world and give their time and energy to care for people they’ve never met. The ones I interacted with were driven by their abilty to put themselves in the shoes of refugees and a desire to balance out the decision making of governments with their support. I was surprised how easy it was to help in diverse ways and see an immediate impact from those contributions.
One of the organizations I visited was Lighthouse Relief who has a location at Skala Sikaminias in Lesvos. The volunteers dramatically improve the experience refugees have during boat landings: they bring fresh clothes, snacks, hot water bottles, tea, heat blankets and tend to people before authorities take them away. Afterwards, they also clean beaches and have recently started upcycling ruined boat and life jacket material into new products to address the waste created by so many boat crossings.
Yannis is a local who lives outside of a small village near the Skala Sikaminias lighthouse. He is one of a few MSF volunteers stationed around the clock to spot for boats coming from Turkey. Lookouts like him serve an important role because when boats go unnoticed, refugees can be left fending for themselves in dangerous, rocky areas and hypothermic conditions far away from any help or resources. Like many of the locals on Lesvos, he feels particularly passionate about the crisis because it reminds him of his own family’s history and their struggle to venture across the same waters to escape persecution.
As I sat with him during his 5-hour night shift, we watched for changes across the water as he shared stories of recent situations in and around the area. Yannis feels like all people are transient at one point and he can’t live his life idly as people struggle right in his backyard.
Back in Mytilini, volunteer and NGO run camps are emerging to provide better conditions for refugees or address people with specific needs.
Francisco volunteers in a camp called Pipka which focuses on the most vulnerable refugees. I met Francisco as he was giving a gardening lesson to a child who reached the island alone. You could see the boy’s excitement as the plot they’ve been working on together was beginning to sprout. In cases like this, the children may have to stay in such facilities until they become adults; volunteers are needed to help them develop skills and interests.
Visiting from Spain, Francisco feels as though governments are giving newcomers a bad impression of Europe and his home country. He is motivated by a goal to represent Spain well and show refugees and others in the world that he and others in Europe care about them and what they are going through.
It seems as though the world and the systems we trust are more fragile than we think. The things I saw, and the conversations I had, led me to think comparatively to my own life, the experiences I’ve had with movement and relocation, but also the structures and stability I’m used to where I live. What would I do if all my savings or assets disappeared or became worthless? What would I do if the army started shooting people in the streets? What would I do if my family members started being killed? That won’t happen to me, right?
But even removing the most life threatening scenarios, I can find other ways to relate. I moved to San Francisco because the career path I envisioned for myself did not seem realistic in many other parts of the country or the world. Among a professional audience, that kind of migration is often glorified. My parents came to the United States without jobs, money, or much of a plan. That kind of migration is often seen as an ambitious path to greater opportunity. What would my life be like today if my parents were rejected along the way? What would I do if I moved to another country and locals resented and campaigned against my presence there as a newcomer? In my experience, I seem to be given some kind of benefit of the doubt while refugees are not.
Finally, there is a great disconnect between the kind of black or white news stories people hear at home and the highly nuanced realities you experience as a witness. While it only takes a couple stories about criminal or undesirable behavior to discredit an entire population, drive-by shootings, robberies, and assaults happen in my San Francisco neighborhood regularly and that’s well accepted as normal—the work of a small proportion of people. Certainly that does not mean those offenses should go un-policed, but what interest do I have in discrediting someone on no other basis than where they are from? When you talk and engage with people caught in the refugee crisis, you realize not just that you have things in common, but that who they are and what they’re going through is defined by so many individual differences that are not captured in a broad narrative coming from politicians and media.
My perspective has been heavily influenced by this trip and the experiences I had speaking with and getting to know people. All of the refugees I engaged with are now subject to President Trump’s ban, including Syrians, who are banned indefinitely. 6
The United States government has sent a clear message that the people I met and others in situations like them are not welcome, that their struggles are not important, and that letting them in is a definite risk to security. While no population or influx of people are incapable of causing problems or creating challenges that need to be addressed, I cannot disagree more with an outright rejection which assumes people are bad no matter who they are.
In the absence of certainty, I will not let institutionalized fear tarnish all trust. When suffering is so evident, I will not turn my back because there may or may not be a threat.
Thank you to all the people that showed such respect to my unplanned visit and spent the time to share their stories with me.
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “Refugees/Migrants Response — Mediterranean.” UNHCR, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
- Campbell, Zach. “Coast Guard Fired at Migrant Boats, European Border Agency Documents Show.” The Intercept. N.p., 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
- “Fire Breaks out at Moria Migrant Camp on Greek Island of Lesbos.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 24 Nov. 2016. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
- Strickland, Patrick. “Concern over EU Plans to Send Refugees Back to Greece.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 16 Jan. 2017. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
- Germain, Brian F. “Ramy’s Odyssey, Part I: Escape from Syria.” The Lyceum. N.p., 14 Aug. 2016. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
- Stack, Liam. “Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration: What We Know and What We Don’t.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Jan. 2017. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.