I arrived in Greece with hopes, trepidation, and curiosity. I looked forward to interacting with as many people as I could – both to provide support and to be educated by them. In the course of my time there, I learned more than I had even anticipated.
After my first day, I spent a lot of time following children around, attempting to engage them in conversations through drawings, smiles, and games. I also made sure they had plenty to eat. With a couple of other volunteers, I bought diapers and baby wipes at the local store and brought them back to one of the refugee centers. I kept saying to myself that all children — no matter what migration status, origin, or religion – have a right to a safe and happy childhood.
But I met many amazing adults as well – individuals who educated me about the refugee situation through both words and deeds. I think of many as true heroes, who made difficult choices for the sake of their families and their future.
Javid. When I first arrived in Athens, I went to the Notara Refugee Solidarity Center. There I met Javid, an Afghani who shared with me that nobody wants to leave his or her country or family. Afghans aren’t fleeing by choice or making a reflective decision to come to Europe.
The reasons for Javid’s leaving quickly become clear. “The Taliban, for instance, kills its opponents, takes them off buses, cuts their heads off, and leaves them in the streets,” he explained to me, using both hands to gesture in a beheading motion. “Winter may slow down the amount of Afghans coming to Europe, but if there is war, then people will keep coming.”
Javid added that he hopes his family will return home to Afghanistan one day. He sadly shared with me, “We miss our relatives and our home a lot – we never wanted to leave.”
Mohsen. Mohsen arrived here from Iran. I met him as I was cleaning out the showers. (As I never do this at home, I can’t vouch for the quality of my work.) Mohsen was looking for shower slippers, as he had just arrived in Athens that morning. I asked the person in charge for assistance, and she said that after lunch she would attempt to find some for him. I then followed up and learned that they had no slippers left. I was told that Mohsen should just be happy they let him in.
Unfortunately, these words demonstrated an attitude that I saw quite a bit with the Greeks in the refugee camps. I want to believe that they were overtired and just had blunt personalities, but even so, I was very disturbed. Many of the workers failed to treat their “guests” with the dignity or compassion. At times they seemed to treat them more like criminals.
As for Mohsen, he spoke English fairly well – the best I had yet heard from a refugee. We began a question and answer session. He asked where I was from, and I told him I was from the USA. At that, he replied, “Oh, Iran and America aren’t friends. Iran is friends with everyone except America and Israel.” Well, my thought was: you’re probably speaking to the wrong person, then! But inside I felt a strong urge to help him. Most of all, I wanted to make him smile.
Mohsen and I walked around the nearby soccer field several times. As the conversation warmed, he showed me photos of the 6-month-old daughter he had left behind in Iran with his wife. I asked him of his plans, and he told me he was planning to leave within a couple of days and head north, cross the border, and make his way to Germany. He was just waiting for a German friend to wire him some more money.
Mohsen asked me how old I thought he looked. While he looked close to 60, I was afraid I might insult him, so I said “40.” He replied that this is what happened to him in Iran – that was why he had to get out. He said that everyone in Iran ages quickly because of what’s there. He said I’m 32.
Then he shared that he doesn’t really think that America and Israel are the true enemies. As I made this trip totally “being from the USA,” I agreed with him that I also knew many nice people from Israel and that they contribute so much to the world! He gave a small reaffirming nod.
Later, I went to the store and bought Mohsen some slippers and other goods, wishing I could have bought enough for all, and I told him I would see him the next day. All night, I thought about him and developed a list of additional questions that I really wanted to ask him the next day.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Mohsen the next morning, and none of the other Iranians seemed to know where he was. I hope and pray that he is safely on his way to Germany and his dreamed-of new life.
So many people, so many stories. In my next post, I’ll introduce you to a few more individuals. I think they speak to the current situation more than any quoting of facts and figures ever could.