A refugee on Chios, March 2018. Photo by Mustafa Jado. All rights reserved.
Whenever I pass by Chios city hall by car, I instinctively turn my head towards it. I had no reason to do so before, as it’s an ugly two-storey building near the city square. But for the last two years, especially after March 2016, there are always lots of refugees sitting on the pavement in front of the building. They are holding their cell phones trying to find a wi-fi connection. Cold or rain, they are always there in the dark, heads often covered in their hoods, knees close to their chests.
Things were easy for both the islanders and the refugees before 20 March 2016. People arrived on dinghies from the Turkish coast. They stayed for one or two weeks and then moved on to the mainland to continue their journey to Europe. With more and more people arriving in Autumn 2015, we organised a camp in the city’s public garden. Forty volunteers, with the support of the people of Chios, set up a camp that hosted hundreds of refugees every day. We prepared lists with the necessary things such as milk, diapers, or water and the next day locals came and gave everything we had asked for. Some people were cooking; others were preparing milk for the kids or distributing clothes. It was solidarity in action. It was solidarity in its purest form.
Souda refugee camp, Chios (June 2017). Photo by Ludek Stavinoha. All rights reserved.
A few weeks after the EU-Turkey deal everything changed. Chios was transformed into Europe’s prison, a barbed wire fence. The refugees had to deal with the long entrapment while waiting for the outcome of their asylum claim.
Souda was the first big camp in the city centre. The conditions inside the camp were horrible. People suffered from extreme cold or heat, the toilets were inadequate and filthy, there were frequent electricity black outs. The camp was meant to host people for a few weeks but now, because of the deal, there was the need for more permanent accommodation. As time went by and the winter approached we witnessed people who used every possible way to keep warm and cook food. People made improvised stoves and fires with of wood taken from the nearby fields. I remember trying to support young boys who had no other way to react to this imprisonment but to cut themselves or try to commit suicide.
Desperate people, suffocating people, people on the run.
Soon we had the first organised gangs inside the camps. More than 30 different nationalities and cultures living together under such conditions led some of them to express their frustration against each other. Souda was put on fire twice. Fights with the police were a common phenomenon. There were scenes of madness as the owner of a nearby tavern shot with his gun in the air to stop the refugees from running inside.
Souda camp, Chios (January 2017). Photo by Ludek Stavinoha. All rights reserved.
And then the deportations started. The police made organised raids into the camps and checked people’s papers again and again. No papers or two negative answers from the asylum authorities meant imprisonment and deportation to Turkey. I will never forget Yasi from Morocco. I saw the policemen dragging him, hands tied at the back. I went to the police car to tell him that I will visit him in prison. I did. And he asked me for cigarettes. I went back the next day. But he was not there any more.
The greatest loss for the island was stripping the Greek people from their humanism and the appearance of deepest feelings that stem from fear. The fear of the unknown which led them to turn against the victims and not the victimisers. The refugees were no longer perceived as people fleeing war, poverty and hardships. Now they were violent, vicious beings with the ultimate goal of taking advantage of the locals. Incidents of violence against the refugees took place more frequently with the ‘birth’ of fascists and racists on the island. The rage of the locals was also turned against the solidarians, including myself, who fought daily to support the refugees.
I sometimes wonder if Europe’s political leaders really care about the impact of their decisions on ordinary people. European governments have sacrificed thousands of refugees’ lives and Chios’ welfare on the altar of the horrendous EU-Turkey deal. A deal that does not resolve the problem but squeezes it elsewhere.
So whenever I pass by the city hall my eyes and soul turn towards them. Hidden in the dark, trying to make their presence as discreet as possible. But I know that they are there and I feel all the waves of desperation and suffocation they send.