Mediterranean journeys in hope

Revealing truths: talking with refugees in Samos

Both creating and ameliorating suffering for refugees are profitable businesses. Refugees are aware of this, and they looking for solidarity in an unsolidaristic world.

Sofiane Ait Chalalet Chris Jones
9 June 2016

Refugees preparing food at No Borders Kitchen, Samos. Photo by author, all rights reserved.

The term ‘the system’ is one we have come across many times when talking with refugees and with poor people in many places and in various countries. It refers to the ways in which people understand the world and their place in it. It is also a description of the world in which they live under the gaze of teachers, police, social workers, border guards, prison officers, NGOs, bosses and supervisors and so on. It is the system that watches and humiliates and as one young Syrian refugee told us, it celebrates and feeds on wars. “Always war”, he said. “If it is not shooting you in your body, it is trying to destroy your brain and always shoots at our pockets”.

“We are used and abused by the system. The same system that has corrupted north Africa and so many other countries as well, and made it impossible to stay there with any life and freedom as is here in Europe. I feel like there are lots of people and organisations living off my back as a refugee. I am being used all the time to make money by big organisations. I know that they get money to look after us. But where does it go? Why don’t we see it?”

I want to help the refugees here but there is so little I can do even to help myself.

His friend, another Moroccan student added, “the system tries to fuck us all the time. It wants to make decisions for all of us but shares nothing. It cares for money and control and not about us. Never. It fights humanity. It wants to destroy humanity. And they call this real life and democracy?! Fuck them. “

“Why does this system trouble us so much?”

To which a local from Samos replied that he too was being screwed in his own country and that he too was suffering. “In this situation we must never blame each other. They want us to fight each other,” he said. “I want to help the refugees here but there is so little I can do even to help myself”.

It was during this conversation that Imad from Algeria took out a paper and drew a pyramid. The top of the pyramid was not connected to the bottom three quarters of the pyramid.


The gap in between was bridged by a single ladder. And in the top piece Imad drew a giant eye. Hundreds of tiny pyramids filled the bottom three quarters “This is how I see the system. We the people live in the bottom part controlled by a few at the top. They have a giant eye which looks down on us and is always looking for ways to make money. To get out of the bottom part and into the top they have put a single ladder, which only allows one person to pass at a time. There are six billion of us trying to get to that ladder. It’s chaos at the bottom of the ladder. At the same time they want us to be controlled by the tiny pyramids all around us – schools, police, army – We are now governed by people we never know or even see”.


Ask about the chief characteristic of the system and the conversation moves to discussions about humanity and inhumanity. These are the most common terms used. Basically the system is seen as lacking humanity and for many it is seen as being actively against humanity. It is cruel on every issue. What, as one Pakistani male refugee asked us, can be more inhumane than making and stockpiling nuclear weapons? Or weapons of any kind, said another. Those who hold power simply don’t care about the lives of the majority. They never say simple things like let’s help each other. They never stand with people who face difficulties. If they become rich they turn their backs and get to the front. But what saddened many in these discussions was the way in which the system tried and succeeded in dividing people; making people afraid of one another which “makes us forget to trust in each other”. “So many of us end up living in fear”.

The system is global. It touches everyone and everywhere. It has no nationality although some places like the USA, Europe, Russia and China, they tell us, have been and continue to be powerful in its shaping. But from Morocco to Iraq, Algeria to Somalia, Yemen to Pakistan we hear stories of a system that only cares for the few and seems to hate the many. Theft of income from national resources takes place on a monumental scale. The people see these grand corruptions regularly go unpunished. It is a system where bribery is part of its blood system. In Algeria it is commonly understood that the bigger the theft the bigger the reward. But steal a loaf of bread and prison awaits. Respect for the law is a joke, for all the laws are made to protect the powerful. They are not our laws, we are told time and again.

Many of the refugees we have met come from countries with rich natural resources, the most important being at this time oil and gas but also including a wide number of valuable minerals (gold, for example, in the case of Libya). This is not however a common treasury for the people but the ‘honey pots’ for which the system will happily bomb and destroy a country in order to keep them for themselves. “To have oil or gas brings big problems to our country. I wish we had beans instead”, one Iraqi told us.

Shameless looting for private gain is how local elites sustain their lavish lifestyles amidst widespread poverty. “They call themselves Algerian but they don’t live here like us. They have houses in France and the US. They can go anywhere. Not like us”, Imad said. Some weeks ago Mamoud told us that his home city in Punjab had an international airport for the exclusive use of the local rich and businesses. “It’s full of private jets. I think most of the time they are used to take people shopping in the Gulf states or to sex resorts like Agadir in Morocco. We can’t use the airport”.

No detention camps for the rich! Nor rubber boats and border controls either!

They are right of course to see how big money talks. When we tell them that the UK government fast tracks permanent residency permits for anyone prepared to invest £1.5 million in the UK they smile knowingly. Now Greece is also promising the same, although given the crisis here, the price is much lower at €250,000. No detention camps for the rich! Nor rubber boats and border controls either!

Whilst many with whom we have talked see wealth as theft – to become rich means making someone else poor – these discussions with refugees are often much more nuanced and influenced by the Islamic practice of zakat. Zakat literally means ‘that which purifies’. Zakat is considered as a way to purify one’s income and wealth from sometimes worldly, impure ways of acquisition. According to Murata and Chittick, “just as ablutions purify the body and salat purifies the soul, so zakat purifies possessions and makes them pleasing to God”.

Zakat is essentially an annual religious tax of 2.5% of your assets above a set minimum, which is then distributed to the poor. It is a serious obligation according to Islam and failure to pay zakat will weigh heavily against you at the time of judgement. Practices and amounts vary from place to place but it is estimated that zakat raises around $200 billion a year, which is 1.5 times the annual global humanitarian aid contributions.

As a result many refugees from Muslim majority countries, whilst utterly rejecting wealth acquired through corruption and looting, are more likely to judge the wealthy by what they do with their money than face them a priori with uncompromising hostility. We have been given many examples of how zakat contributions can be critical to well being and provide valuable help to the poor, including many in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Needless to say zakat in reality is more uneven in its practice. But it does mean that a crucial humanitarian notion of obligation to the poor and the vulnerable is part of everyday discussions about wealth and its meaning for society, which is now totally absent in much of the west.


In the summer of 2015 we happened to come across 44 refugees who had just landed from the usual unsafe and overloaded rubber inflatable. These are very emotional moments as the refugees are washed with relief at having made it without injury or loss of life while they also come to terms with the terror they just experienced. There is sobbing and laughter and all places in between. In this instance a brilliant nurse from Médecins Sans Frontières, once he had checked that all was well, got out his accordion and began to play folk dance music. The joy was explosive as we danced and hugged one another. It was amazing to see the transformation in all of us. No common spoken language but an elemental human connection crossing all barriers and bringing us together.

Let us be so we can sort ourselves out: the millions of euros you spend on managing and controlling us only benefit the system.

The system might have set its face against humanity, but this is not true for vast numbers of people. We have seen this so often, especially in the past 18 months. But we should not be confused by the mainstream media’s celebration of the heroic efforts of so called ‘ordinary’ people embracing the refugees, which has encouraged a view that this response was exceptional, unusual, and unexpected. The truth is that human solidarity has always been central to the survival and well-being of the poor. It happens all the time and continues to be a source of enormous joy and strength. It forms the protective shield that ensures that the system never crushes us all; that informs the bloody mindedness of the Berber insistence that “we never give up” and “never surrender”. As one Berber refugee from north Africa told us, the system “might get me but there are millions more behind me”.

Similar processes and systems are evident daily amongst the local people of Samos, who have seen their island destroyed by austerity and poverty. The daily patterns of life here are shaped by countless forms of solidarity – often family-based – which directly confront austerity with a ‘fuck you’ mentality. At the same time there has been the constant drumbeat of the system here on Samos which blames the refugees for the collapse of tourism this year. It drips like acid trying to corrode our humanity.

Even so these solidarities provide, or at least point to, a vision of a society that gives hope. When we hear some of the refugees attacking the system we also hear them saying “it does not need to be like this” and most importantly we could do it much better. We have heard many refugees tell us how their neighbourhoods, which have been abandoned by the state, manage themselves without the drama and theatrics of the system.


Open Eyes Balkan Route Kitchen, Samos. Photo by author, all rights reserved.

It is not difficult therefore to understand why so many refugees say that they just want the system to let them be: get out of our lives; you only bring us difficulties and humiliations. Let us be so we can sort ourselves out. The millions of euros you spend on managing and controlling us only benefit the system. Give us this money to make a fresh start in Europe and you will see what we can achieve for ourselves and in our new homes. “Stop making decisions for us. You never ask us what we want”. It is the same with many of the NGOs and human rights groups. “They claim to represent our interests. I never gave them this right”. “All their vests, jeeps, offices, workers, flags, and logos are paid for from our backs. How does this help us?”

These discussions, on Samos at least, were sharpened by the refugees’ experience of the two (No Borders and Open Eyes) kitchens which fed them for over five months. The contrast with the NGOs could not have been greater. The kitchens operated and functioned in total solidarity with the refugees. They became the only safe refugee places on the island where people could gather to drink tea, talk, play chess, and share information.

The kitchens demonstrated the effectiveness of solidarity and humanity. They stood outside of the system and shared with refugees their disdain for what it does and what it stands for.

The food was prepared and cooked with the refugees. Preparing, cooking, and then eating the meals was done with respect and dignity and had none of the frenzied, chaotic, and inhumane characteristics common within the camp. Moreover, the volunteers who established and managed the kitchens were in undivided solidarity with the refugees. Unlike most of the other NGO workers, who have tight gagging clauses in their contracts which compel them to be silent, the kitchen volunteers would not tolerate such limitations. The kitchens demonstrated the effectiveness of solidarity and humanity. They stood outside of the system and shared with refugees their disdain for what it does and what it stands for. “The system is just not capable of doing good. It needs to destroyed it cannot be reformed”.

This is but one example from Samos but there are countless others across the globe. Even in the most miserable places such as Idomeni and Calais, we have seen refugees create self-managed camps schools, health centres, clubs, libraries, shops, bathing facilities, and systems of mutual support which have made life bearable. Little wonder they resist being moved into the camps/prisons run by the system. We do not lack for inspiration if we know where to look. Health programmes, schools, and farming, and more – for the people and by the people based on solidarity and humanity – show us again and again how we can do things better and bring joy rather than misery to many people.

Listen to us. Talk with us!

But as some of the refugees we have met told us, so much about their lives and experiences are unknown to the majority of people. “They don’t know the difficulties we face, nor the ways in which we survive as human beings and resist the attempts of the system to destroy us”. Because people are now so divided and separated in the places where they live, “things happen” which never get reported in the press or the TV. “In my neighbourhood in Algiers it is only poor people. Until we organised, the police were disturbing us every day. Many of them were violent. They came in the night. Broke our doors and messed our homes. This was happening all the time. But who knew? We did but we don’t count. There were no controls for the police. They knew they could batter us and they wouldn’t be stopped. That’s why we had to do something”.

Imad’s understanding can be applied to a huge array of the system’s operations. Take for example the ongoing state of emergency in France. It is, we are told, a ‘popular’ policy gaining something like 91% approval ratings in opinion polls. But what of those who live in segregated minority communities who face the entire brunt of the police’s hugely extended powers to raid their homes and neighbourhoods without limit? (The French state announced to the Council of Europe on 27 November its decision to contravene the European Convention on Human Rights).

Humanity, solidarity, care and compassion alongside a boiling fury at a system with stands against all these principles ran through our discussions.

Who, apart from the British Muslim communities, knows of the impact of the so-called ‘anti-radicalisation’ PREVENT policy, which has now enlisted virtually every state worker (teachers, doctors, nurses, university staff…) in the surveillance of young Muslims, looking out for signs of so-called terrorist contamination? And so it will continue as long as most of the population never gets to see, let alone experiences the negative consequences. As one young Moroccan refugee told us, “it is us today. But tomorrow?”

There are many good reasons why we should listen when refugees tell us that the world should start to look and learn from the poor and the oppressed. Humanity, solidarity, care and compassion alongside a boiling fury at a system with stands against all these principles ran through our discussions. And, it should be added, there is usually a lot of laughter too. The system is crazy they say. Just look at its response to the refugees – militarised borders, razor wire, prisons and closed camps, drones and navy patrols, and no end to the bombing and destruction of our lands. It can only succeed by total destruction. “Do you believe that this system loves you? I tell you that this system is lying to you and using you against us, the refugees. So we keep drowning. We must not co-operate at all. We must never give up on our humanity!”

لا تيأس أبدا (never give up)

We thank the authors for permission to publish this piece, originally posted on the Samos Chronicles blog, 17 May 2016.

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