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“Some people say Mohammad, you’re crazy, you’re stupid,” said Mohammad, a refugee on the Greek island of Chios. “But look: I am human. Yes, maybe it won’t change a thing. But I’m no animal. I do think about my future. I do and I try.” For the last 40 days he has chosen to enact a peaceful protest outside the gates of Vial, an abandoned aluminium factory now serving as the EU’s ‘hotspot’ on the island. This is where the fates of hundreds of refugees like Mohammad are being decided by Greek and EU asylum officers.
Mohammad, 26 years old, fled his home town of Deir ez Zoar, Syria in early March last year. He crossed the Turkish border and two weeks later found himself stepping onto an inflatable boat with 43 other refugees and a heart filled with hope of finding safety in Europe. While Mohammad and his travel companions didn’t know it at the time, they arrived on 20 March, the day the EU-Turkey deal came into effect. Refugees were now prevented from leaving the Greek islands for the mainland, and the borders to the rest of Europe had shut.
Since then, Mohammad has been a de facto prisoner on the island as he awaits the outcome of his asylum claim, his temporary home a small plastic container in Souda, the island’s second major refugee camp.
Open your minds. Open your hearts. Then open the borders.
Souda hosts around 900 people, including families with small children, pregnant women, and other vulnerable individuals. Plastic tents and containers standing on the mud offer scant protection from the cold and the damp. There is no hot water, electricity is intermittent, and heaters were only installed a few weeks ago in parts of the camp. Basic needs such as food or clothes are provided by humanitarian organisations and volunteers. Here, where many traumatised refugees who fled terror and war are offered little-to-no psychological support, attempted suicides are on the rise and the authorities are not able to ensure safety.
Despite the inhumane conditions, in the 11 months that Mohammad has waited in Souda he has become a source of hope and comfort for many others. Volunteers describe him as a deeply compassionate man with a keen sense of humour, and Wassim, whose container neighboured Mohammad’s for several months, recalled that “because of his smile my family had patience while we were in Chios”.
Growing older as the system churns
Almost six months after registering his asylum claim, Mohammad was informed that it had been rejected. He faced imminent deportation to Turkey. He lodged an appeal on 21 September and was told by the Greek Asylum Service that he would receive an answer within 90 days. After 91 days of waiting, Mohammad began his protest.
Every morning, Mohammad sets out to Vial where he conducts his peaceful vigil, armed only with his placards, colouring pens, an umbrella, and his smartphone. Often he stays overnight, braving freezing temperatures and rain. He expresses himself by drawing, making videos and writing, reflecting on his condition as a refugee. One such drawing depicts a bleeding dove, another the words “Freedom is very expensive”.
Life in a refugee camp creates passive beings, subject to the ‘goodwill’ of the authorities, humanitarian organisations, and volunteers. “Eat and sleep”, Mohammad said, when asked about the everyday monotony of life in Souda. Unable to develop a life of their own, refugees queue for food and for clothes, and wait for a piece of paper which will allow them to leave the island and move on with their lives. Many dare not speak up, fearing negative consequences for their asylum claims. What is more, the presence of volunteers inside Souda has recently been limited by the municipality and some have even been banned. Refugees are thus left alone in their struggle.
In such a disempowering context, Mohammad’s persistence in his protest becomes a unique act of resistance against Europe’s border regime that tries but consistently fails to strip refugees of their humanity, a way to restore his dignity and exercise his human will. “Open your minds. Open your hearts. Then open the borders”, is a phrase that Mohammad frequently repeats.
Attempts by refugees to exercise their freedom of expression and to demand their rights are often met with hostility by camp authorities. When a police officer threatened to confiscate his drawings, Mohammad reassured his followers: “My friends, do not worry about this war, and I'll stay peaceful until being beaten”.
To be sure, there are times when despair overwhelms his optimism. “Please help me to escape to the moon, it is the best place: there is no racism and hatred .... Send us to the moon which is better than all the earth”, Mohammad once wrote on his Facebook wall.
And, yet, despite all the hardship that he has endured, Mohammad refuses to give in to the feelings of helplessness that many others are reporting. He refuses to give up on his dream of a safe life in Europe, of being able to continue his university studies cut short by the war in Syria, and one day to pen a book, The Lives of Refugees.
‘I have two hearts’, Mohammed said. ‘One for my family and one for my dream ... I will complete my dream. Mine will not be a failed story, never. My story will be a lesson for the next generation how to resist with all the patience and love.’
After more than 300 days of waiting, Mohammad would simply like some respect, humanity, and answers, in return.