By Trinh Truong
"It takes so little, so infinitely little, for someone to find himself on the other side of the border, where everything—love, convictions, faith, history—no longer has meaning. The whole mystery of human life resides on the fact that it is spent in the immediate proximity of, and even in direct contact with, that border, that it is separated from it not by kilometers but by barely a millimeter."
–Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
LESVOS, GREECE. OCTOBER, 2018
Hotel Orfeas is a homely hotel in the heart of the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesvos, operated by an older Greek man named Babi. Despite its location on a steep hill, cars are impossibly parallel-parked on both sides of the street in front, revealing it to be a popular accommodation choice for tourists and officials in town for business.
Greece has a rich history of refugee resettlement. It was a cause the Athenian king Demophon almost fought a civil war over. For the modern Greeks, it isn't new, either. In 1922, during the Greco-Turkish War, the Turkish Army began massacring ethnic Greeks and Armenians, prompting thousands to flee in rubber boats. The locals of Lesvos took them in, an event so proudly remembered that it is commemorated by a statue of a woman cradling a child. The statue sits on the sidewalk lining the island's coastline, dwarfed only by a grandiose imitation of the Statue of Liberty overlooking the city, welcoming all ships into the island's port.
Almost a century later, oceanic crossings to Lesvos are a phenomenon occurring once more as Afghans, Syrians, and people from a mélange of places spanning Morocco, Iran, and Somalia evade violence and persecution. But instead of moving on from Lesvos to a final destination elsewhere or being given the opportunity to start new lives on the island, they are suspended in time and space in refugee camps because Europe's borders have closed.
Hotel Orfeas is a five-minute walk from the city's harbor, whose docks are strewn with wood-paneled boats from other places in Europe: mainland Greece, Italy, and Spain. Among the fleet of private vessels drifts a ship emblazoned with "Frontex," the European Union's border control agency. Another reads "Sea Watch," a non-governmental organization that scans the six miles of ocean between Lesvos and Turkey for distressed refugees and migrants in transit.
The former boat patrols to enforce national borders, the latter in protest of them, hoping to transcend them through humanitarian rebellion. At the heart of the discord between those two ships is contestation over the border: where it ends, where it begins, who can be situated in it, and who must be excluded outside of it. In an ocean, at what part does a person find themselves on the "other side"?
The conflict between those two ships is rooted in a centuries-old power struggle between the nation trying to fortify its medieval border walls against the pressure of people demanding more humane refugee law and policy. Though the ships will never come head to head in a sea battle, the conflict they embody comes to life every day on the island.
On a balmy, 70-degree day in the middle of October, Kamal meets us at Hotel Orfeas around ten in the morning. In his past life, Kamal was a civil engineer who worked with Americans on construction projects to rebuild Afghanistan, a country almost entirely reduced to rubble in the wake of what has surpassed Vietnam as America's longest war. In his new life on Lesvos, he is the Afghan Community Leader for the 2,000-something Afghans in three of Lesvos' refugee camps: Moria, Kara Tepe, and Pikpa.
He describes his role as representative in nature. He is tasked with the challenge of interpreting and negotiating between his people, the Greek police, and camp authorities. Over the next five days, he worked alongside us as a translator for Farsi-speakers on the island, primarily within the camps.
We sit on the patio, gated by green ironwork that serves as scaffolding for sprawling purple bougainvillea vines and framed by a herd of marble tables and wooden chairs. Each table has a hand-painted ashtray for holding the burnt remains of hand-rolled Greek cigarettes, a necessity for any venue in the smoking capital of the world. Kamal sits down with us, his hands folded on the table in front of him, his hair neatly slicked back. He is wearing a black and heather gray hoodie, a pair of jeans, and bright orange sneakers.
Kamal arrived on Lesvos on July 23rd, 2016, about a year and a half before we meet him. He crossed the ocean on a rubber boat with his then-16-year-old brother, Sami. The pair fled Afghanistan after receiving multiple threats from the Taliban for their family's affiliation with the United States and Sweden. Their father worked for the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, an NGO that, since the 1980s, promotes democracy, human rights, and empowerment for rural communities. An earnest and personable man, Kamal beams a slightly gap-toothed smile. He is soft-spoken, yet authoritative and diplomatic. It is easy to trust him and easy to understand how thousands of others could do the same.
Kamal takes us on a ten-minute walk down the hill from Hotel Orfeas through the narrow and meandering streets lined with cafés, shops, and radical graffiti. Our destination is the Mosaik Support Center, a community center established to build solidarity between refugees and local Greeks. Mosaik offers language classes in English, Greek, and Arabic that are open to everyone on the island. Kamal teaches English here and tells us that Mosaik also provides space for a venture called the Lesvos Solidarity Project. Refugee and designers salvage life jackets left over from sea journeys and repurpose them into purses, backpacks, and wallets that are sold on the internet. The bags—patchworks of bright orange, blues, reds, and interwoven with patterned linings—are reclamations of the dignity lost in forced border crossings. In the face of an economy that tells them they can't work because of a lack of status or documentation, these refugees are defiant as they re-insert themselves into a market and a world order that has banished them to a waiting room.
In Mosaik's courtyard, clients are lounging in tables and chairs, billowing wind-catchers made from upcycled life jackets and intricate mosaic designs adorning the walls. Thanos, one of the center's employees, walks by. A lean man in his mid-forties, he towers like Mount Olympus at over six feet tall. With a thick black beard and a full head of hair, his youth does not betray him. We sit at one of the wooden patio tables in the courtyard. Above his head hangs a flyer titled "Open the Islands," a movement advocating for the closure of all of the island's refugee camps and the opening of EU borders before winter arrives. Thanos readjusts his studded belt and rolls up the sleeves of his poplin shirt.
He tells me of the earliest refugee surge to Lesvos he can remember but is often forgotten: the Kurds in the early 90s, at the height of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. Ships of refugees clandestinely mounted the shores of the island's beaches while the Greek government turned a blind eye, tacitly consenting to accept them. He wonders aloud why the traditions of hospitality have since dissipated.
A member of the island's Communist party in his early teens and later an anarchist, it is unsurprising that Thanos helped launched the Squat, a makeshift refugee shelter. At the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, Thanos and his friends renovated abandoned university dormitories and opened them to refugees. Downheartedly, Thanos says that the Squat successfully houses only twenty people—not nearly enough, but twenty fewer souls and bodies left outside to freeze as winter closes in.
On the other side of the island, there is another community space attempting to restore dignity to refugee lives. The concept behind One Happy Family is simple: a community center not built and run for refugees, but with them. Fabian, a former Swiss banker who now runs this bustling hub of human activity, tells me that it was designed to be a safe place where refugees could escape from the perpetual boredom and despair of the island's camps.
At 2 p.m., there are English classes in session, kids painting with watercolors, games of volleyball and basketball, commerce happening in a makeshift boutique of donated clothes, a kitchen handing out meals, toddlers jostling amongst themselves, and chaperoning parents. New mothers sit along the muddy, makeshift sidewalks, cradling their young babies. Tucked away in a corner is the gym, primarily used by men. Refugees here don't make textile goods out of lifejackets, but they make use of their ample idle time.
Behind the gym is a garden perched hundreds of feet above sea level. The rest of the island looks minuscule in comparison, a diorama of moving cars, people, animals surrounded by the all-consuming sea. Kamal gazes across the lush landscape, adorned with miles of olive groves. Their continuity is disrupted only by the occasional road cutting through or building jutting out. He asks, almost rhetorically, "Beautiful, isn't it?"
"Yes," I utter cautiously, unsure of how to respond.
"Well, it's not beautiful when you're here every day. Trapped. The West is always talking about human rights. Where are they? There are six thousand humans on this island. And no rights for them." Kamal and his family spent their lives in Afghanistan working on behalf of the West, only to be rejected at its doorstep.
Jacques Rancière cynically theorizes that human rights have become a sort of "return to sender." The developed nations manufacture them for the people of all nations, but the moment that a less-developed nation cannot guarantee them, the more robust—typically Western—nations step in with an excuse to do what they please.
Later that day, Kamal takes us to the Moria refugee camp. He lived there for over a year before he was given an apartment to share with his brother and seven other men. Still, he returns to Moria daily because of his role as Afghan community leader. As we arrive at the entrance, it's hard not to notice the high metal fences surrounding the encampment, embellished with barbed wire at the top.
Arguably, some are dying to get into Moria—those who don't survive the six-mile sea voyage, those who can't be legally recognized as refugees—but the architecture is more about preventing Moria's inhabitants from getting out. The black spray paint decorating the cement walls of Moria's front gate warns, "Welcome to Moria," but Moria is crossed out and the word "Prison" replaces it. Moria is built to house 1,400 people, but it is currently inhabited by over 6,000.
Kamal doesn't have an office inside. When he does have meetings, they are held within the confines of an Isobox: a converted shipping container one step up from a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tent. For many, an Isobox is a pardon from a death sentence: in the winter of 2016, six people froze to death, huddling for warmth in the polyester blankets of their plastic tents. For others, an Isobox is a prison within a prison: a reminder that there is no end in sight for the bureaucratic limbo that is life on the island.
With Kamal as our guide, we tour the unofficial and makeshift camp on the outskirts of Moria. An overgrowth, it is sardonically dubbed the "Olive Grove." Its inhabitants are primarily single men who have been rejected from placement inside. The frustration and desperation permeating the air are palpable.
Very quickly are we accosted by the Olive Grove's denizens, whose grievances collide against each other like glasses accidentally clinking at the dinner table. They shout out a litany of problems as if it was a competition. There isn't enough water. The bathrooms are unclean. There are daily fights over food, only one psychologist on the island. When they leave the confines of the camp and venture into the city, they are profiled by the police, arbitrarily detained, and strip-searched. There is no refuge anywhere. Not within the walls of their tent, not within the walls of the city.
We can't help them. But we can bear witness and serve as sounding boards. We are told that the olive branches in that grove sometimes bear the fruit of men trying to hang themselves.
Later that night, my phone buzzes with WhatsApp messages from Kamal. A riot has broken out at Moria between the Farsi and Arabic speakers. Fault lines within the camp typically form along racial and ethnic lines: the Congolese against the Arabs, the Arabs against the Afghans.
We arrive just as night falls. Vehicles pull up to the highway surrounding Moria, armored Greek police buses among them, and refugees are walking along either side of the road. They carry their children, blankets, and UNHCR backpacks in tow. Their eyes gleam like those of deer caught in the headlights: vulnerable, off-guard, unsure of where to go. But they don't run. They walk into the dark of night, away from the unrelenting chaos of Moria.
At the entrance of the camp, hundreds of Afghans are sitting down in protest. Most of the protesters are made up of mothers and their children. They have a banner made of white cloth inscribed with the phrase, "Moria is not safe." Many young children are wearing headbands and armbands that echo the sentiment.
Frenzied, they declare they are refusing to return to Moria because of its lack of safety and security. Women are wearing diapers at night for fear of being raped on the way to the port-a-potties. They never let their young children out of sight. Tonight, they will sleep outside of the camp, right where they are protesting. Like the Olive Grove, it is on the margins of the margins.
Kamal says these fights happen weekly. This fight started because an elderly man was pushed as he was waiting in line for a document stamp that would permit him to take a ferry to Athens. The value of that stamp, which confers access to the rest of Europe and thus the possibility of some figment of freedom, cannot be measured. Single blows erupted and soon transformed into an all-engulfing riot. While most were looking in that direction, young babies were hit with rocks, and a young girl reportedly raped in the other.
All of this happened under the watchful eye of the Greek government. The camp police do nothing, perhaps afraid that the hundreds of cellphone cameras ever-ready will catch them in a compromising position. They only intervene when tents are set on fire, responding with tear gas canisters designed to pacify but only terrorize and traumatize.
Little do they know, they don't straddle the border of neutrality. What the EU and their governments have built is designed to stave off having to resettle and integrate them in the long-term, to abdicate responsibility for as long as possible. They don't care. The police enforce and uphold the inhumanity of these policies. Earlier, they did enter the camp, but only to shuffle the primarily white European aid workers out.
It is hard to separate the courage of the families from desperation. It is also hard to assess what effect this action will have if any. This mass exodus from Moria is supposed to be an act of civil disobedience, but is it disruptive if they are freeing up space in a camp three times over capacity? Is their refusal in violation of any law that they could be punishable under anyway? The international order has rendered them superfluous. As Hannah Arendt writes about refugees: "Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed but that nobody wants even to oppress them."
Kamal disappears into the uncertainty behind the barbed wire gates, obligated to pacify the conflict between his people and the others. Before he leaves, he regretfully says that he may not be able to uphold his translating duties tomorrow, depending on how long the peace negotiation process takes.
It could be argued that the refugee camp experience is contiguous with the rest of a person's life, sharing a common border. But it is not. From the twentieth century on, the temporary refugee camp has been transformed into a fixture suspended. In this condition, created to defend the nation and its borders, everything is in the bounds of the law, and nothing the state does is illegal. This is what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben the state of exception.
The inhumane conditions inside of Moria and other refugee camps reveal that the global system of nations is in crisis. Laws, constitutions, norms of decency have been suspended, and human lives deemed expendable—all to prove that sovereignty is still supreme. The nation derives its strength from controlling and regulating every aspect of refugees' existence: when they will receive housing, food, water, travel documents, permission to rebuild a life, and even time. Once the nation has had enough, it works with other countries to pass the responsibility for disaster off, like a baton in a relay race, just like the EU Greece-Turkey deal, which suspends refugees existence in exchange for diplomatic normalcy. Or, with luck and benevolence, they find a country, usually in the West, willing to resettle refugees permanently.
Either way, the nation manages to benefit for their inhumane acts a second time, turning the suffering of refugees into humanistic cause. All the while, the nation will continue to wage wars and economically exploit other countries, producing more refugees than the amount they have resettled. Those left unsettled by design are consigned to sleep outside the steps of the "homes" the West has generously given them, begging for access to basic human rights. But why should they have to ask for something that the virtue of their humanity affords them?
The next morning, my colleagues check WhatsApp to find videos from the families that protested the night before. One of the videos shows nothing but complete pitch black. It only includes the narration of a woman's voice. She says they slept in the cold of the forest, the adults giving up their blankets to keep the children warm.
I call Kamal. He says the Afghan families are marching into the heart of Mytilene with the plan of occupying Sappho Square until changes are made to improve Moria. A taxi takes me to a gas station on the highway halfway between Moria and downtown to meet him. In the sweltering heat and raw sunlight, a procession of a few dozen families trickles along the shoulder, quietly marching except for a row of pre-teen aged girls who are enthusiastically chanting "Moria is not safe." A Greek police officer on a motorcycle hovers on the side, tasked with performing crowd control.
There are at least three miles to go until the city center when an elderly woman collapses to the ground and starts convulsing. The procession stops, her family members circle her, and everyone else looks around in fear, unsure of what to do. She is given water and hand-holding. The police officer mumbles something into his radio, and in about 15 minutes, another motorcycle pulls up carrying a volunteer medic from an NGO. An ambulance soon follows, the woman is escorted inside, the doors close, and the march continues onward.
Kamal, unbothered, says that protests like last night are a rare occurrence, and marches like this, a first. The woman fainting? Not so much. He is grateful that she will at least be taken to a municipal hospital, guaranteeing her better care than she could have ever received in Moria.
It is not soon before we approach an intersection that marks a transition between the outskirts of town and the inner city. The police are waiting, blocking off the passageway with an armored bus, a line of policemen in riot gear. Instead of wavering, Kamal sticks with the protesters as they waltz right into the police blockade. He says he has no plan, but that anything is worth trying if it could improve Moria. Another armored bus pulls up, blockading them on either side.
Hours later and the Red Sea of police officers and buses has yet to be parted. The body language of the Greek police and their riot shields tell us they will not let us through. Instead of trying to negotiate, we creep around them, scaling the steep hillsides of the residential streets fragrant with the smell of blooming tropical flowers.
Perched behind the corner of a dilapidated building that surely once served as a service station for the adjacent marina, we gaze at the one-sided standoff from behind the line of police officers. From our vantage point, we see the refugees, and they see us. It is a moment of recognition, almost like a secret. The police are oblivious to it all.
Suddenly, a critical mass of protesters decides they have had enough of basking in the sunlight, of being intimidated to return to their camps. They rush the line of police officers, who by now clearly notice that we are behind them, and blows are exchanged. The officers, aware of outside eyes, do not retaliate or stop them. Their batons are not raised, and the line breaks. Like water flowing out of a broken dam, a surge of refugees streams our way, turning the corner to make a beeline for an unblocked route into the commercial downtown area. Kamal is with them, every surge and step of the way. Eventually, they make it to their destination, setting up camp in the heart of the city center.
That evening, Kamal and I are outside of Moria debriefing about the riot, the march, and the occupation. We sit outside of one of the many cantinas serving hearty and greasy fare to residents of Moria. As he forgets how to pronounce my name, I tease him for having a bad memory. We laugh in unison, and unexpectedly, he says: "We have to have a bad memory because of depression, because of detention. We have to have a bad memory."
Later that night, after the sun had set and the fisherman had gone home for the day, Sappho Square remained bustling with an unusual amount of activity. But it had nothing to do with it being a Friday night, or the bars and restaurants situated steps away. It was because of the hundreds of refugees who decided to create a new home for themselves, unhidden and ungated. A home that no longer resembles a prison.
Adults are congregating and smoking. Teenagers are kicking around a soccer ball. Toddlers are running around with lollipops in their mouths as motorbikes zoom by on the highway just feet away. Groups of families huddle together for warmth on pieces of cardboard and UN-issued sleeping bags, impressively fast asleep in such a raucous atmosphere.
Kamal is standing off in the corner, speaking to a group of parents, and keeping a watchful eye over the newly-founded refugee camp. I asked him what he will tell his people to do. With certainty, he says: "I am only the Afghan community leader. They can stay here. They can have their demonstration if they want. But I cannot tell them not to be here. It belongs to them."
Trinh Q. Truong was resettled in Utica, New York from Saigon, Vietnam. Her research examines how countries respond to the social and legal demands of migration. Currently, she is blogging for the documentary film Utica: The Last Refuge. She is an incoming MSc. candidate in the Refugee and Forced Migration Studies Program at the University of Oxford.