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How a young Afghan woman trapped at Europe’s borders found her voice

From a camp in Greece, poet and human rights activist Parwana Amiri is fighting discrimination and demanding better conditions for refugees

Julia Hartmann
9 May 2021, 12.01am
Parwana Amiri (centre) with students at a makeshift school in Moria refugee camp, Greece
Judith Büthe

I would have never imagined that I would witness such scenes in the margins of great Europe. My diary is full of black, colourless memories you have caused and created.

Let me ask you this:

Can we be one of you?

Integrate with you?

Can we live together?

In the same society for ever?

From 'Letters to the World'

In 2019, sixteen-year-old Parwana Amiri and her family arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos. They fled Afghanistan hoping for a safe haven, but instead they encountered Fortress Europe. Constrained to live in the island’s notorious Moria refugee camp, Amiri started a journal, chronicling the experiences of people around her. This was published in 2020 as ‘Letters to the World from Moria’.

Amiri, who now lives in Ritsona, a camp north of Athens – where she continues to write her 'letters' – says it is important to draw attention to the situation of refugees. “Put yourself in our shoes! We are not safe in Moria,” she writes. “We didn’t escape from our homelands to stay hidden and trapped. We didn’t pass the borders and risk our lives to live in fear and danger.” Amiri has recently taken to the streets alongside other Ritsona residents to campaign for fairer and faster asylum processing.

EU countries have been struggling since 2015 to formulate a clear strategy for accommodating refugees, while the pandemic has brought new health and sanitation concerns for people living in camps. According to a report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), more than 19,000 asylum-seekers wait for their claims to be processed in Greece alone. Most of them live in temporary reception centres, waiting for their cases to be heard.

“Theirs is a terrible reality and it shouldn’t be this way,” Amiri writes. “The reasons people escape their home are different according to their individual stories – their families, jobs and the situation in their villages / towns of origin. But the main factor is the internal and cross-border war – not just for us Afghans but for most refugees. When forced to leave and journeying this way, we are risking our lives in order to survive. Even after considering all dangers and the possibility of death, this is still the better choice amongst bad alternatives.”

Broken promises

Even though EU member states pledged in September to share responsibility for asylum-seekers, those who are actually willing to take their share is relatively low. For instance, while Germany has agreed to relocate over 1,500 vulnerable people from refugee camps in Greece, the Austrian government is sending “care packages” instead. As an Austrian citizen myself, it is shameful to live in a country that shows so little international solidarity to vulnerable people, children included.

Austria has long had fairly rigid asylum policies, blaming the infamous “pull” factors for any influx for as long as I can think. Despite public pushback, Austria’s coalition government continues its inhumane course on migrants and refugees. In fact, children who are born in Austria but whose parents’ asylum claims are rejected are deported to their parents’ home countries. In the last couple of weeks, we witnessed police violently ripping students out of their schools – during a pandemic – and sending them overseas.

Meanwhile, our screens are filled with horrific images from the overcrowded and underfunded camps in Greece. Temporary housing facilities are regularly burned down and winter storms wreak havoc. Not to speak of the personal atrocities that camp inhabitants face – from unhygienic living conditions to rats gnawing on children’s toes. As Amiri describes: “Put yourself in our shoes! Can you live in a place that you cannot walk alone even when you just want to go to the toilet? Can you live in a place, where there are hundreds of unaccompanied minors that no one can stop from attempting suicide. That no one can stop from drinking.”

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We didn’t escape from our homelands to stay hidden and trapped

The EU has a moral and political obligation to deal with this humanitarian crisis. This is why Amiri and other residents of the Ritsona camp are protesting. The refugees are increasingly restive, Amiri tells me. “From the middle of last year, when the second quarantine finished, they restarted asylum procedures by interviewing some asylum seekers and getting their fingerprints and IDs. But they gave priority to some communities and later told us that it’s ‘international law,’” she says.

“We in the Afghan community felt discriminated against. In December, we started demonstrating because they didn’t give us any specific reason for these discriminatory procedures. We are demanding equal asylum procedures for all refugees and residents of the camps.”

According to the IRC, refugees need reliable information about available services and their prospects for asylum. Unaccompanied women with children need extra protection. The IRC’s report adds that a “robust integration program is needed to ensure that local residents as well as asylum seekers benefit from assistance. Solutions and interventions must be coordinated with local and national efforts, emphasising the important role host communities and governments play.”

A portrait photo of a young Afghan woman in a headscarf
Parwana Amiri
Judith Büthe

Amiri says that the demonstrations that started in Ritsona in February are growing bigger, especially when the Greek Ministry of Immigration is still stalling asylum procedures and riot police were dispatched to restore calm. “We had a lot of support from local people,” says Amiri. “It was very nice to see the solidarity of the Greek people and even the Syrian community supported our protest.”

Eventually, the government sent an official to speak to the demonstrators. “They accepted that what the ministry is doing [prioritising one nationality over another in asylum claims] is not fair, and they promised that they were starting to treat the communities equally.”

Ritsona remains on edge, however, as asylum seekers continue to call for improved living conditions, freedom of movement, access to education, the increased protection of vulnerable groups and faster asylum processing.

New beginnings

Since her arrival in Europe, Amiri has been working tirelessly as a community organizer and activist and collaborated with organizations such as Waves of Hope for the Future, a network of schools for and by refugees and asylum seekers, and photo-journalistic projects like Eyes of Refugees and Birds of Immigrants. Her goal is to tell unheard stories of the camps. “It is really important for me to work as a voice of these refugees,” she says. Amiri is also working to set up a school in the camp that will serve as a community centre, a library and an art gallery.

“We faced much opposition by the authorities and it was really hard to set it up but I am happy that this space was finally built. When I interview the people here in the camp, I get to know their talents and skills. There is a lot of creativity in here! If we’re not able to go out of the camp and tell our stories, this could be a way to communicate with the locals. They will not only see our problems but also the great talents that live here,” Amiri says.

European civil society should not expect the EU to fix this humanitarian crisis any time soon. As important as it is for Amiri to record these stories, it is ever more urgent for us to hear them, and start acting to make Europe fair and safe for everyone. As Amiri writes: “My pen won’t break until we end this story of inequality and discrimination among humankind. My words will always break the borders you built.”

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