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Snapshots of the ‘other’ asylum seekers at Oinofyta refugee camp

Europe has privileged Syrians over asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere, making it even more difficult for them to access protection. But just because they’ve been forgotten doesn’t mean they’ve left.

All photographs of Oinofyta refugee camp in Greece. Kaamlieh Hamid/All rights reserved.

While the world fixates on the situation in Aleppo and the plight of the Syrian people, the Afghans, Iranians, Kurds and Pakistanis also making their way to Europe are too often forgotten. Their struggles are ignored by politicians and the international human rights regime, who both operate as the arbiters of their fates in Europe. They often end up in detention and, as European governments seek to deter migration, are subject to increasingly frequent deportation. That makes it even more crucial to tell these people’s stories. This piece is about the Farsi-speaking people of the Oinofyta refugee camp in Greece. It is an attempt to show who they are and why you should care.

Oinofyta refugee camp is one of the main refugee camps in Greece, located an hour north by car from Athens. At first glance, the camp is underwhelming. The scattered tents, trailers, and central factory building-turned shelter make it difficult to believe that there are upwards of 500 people actually living there. An Iranian immigrant who grew up in the United States, I’ve come to the camp in late December 2016 to volunteer as a Farsi translator. The children of the camp quickly notice me, hurling questions while circling their bikes (and wheelbarrow) all around me. My response in Farsi surprises them. “Fekr kardam khareji hastin! (I thought you were a foreigner!)” they exclaim, now uncertain how to size me up.

The first few days are spent in the camp’s massive warehouse, sorting clothes, food and hygiene products, among other things. These goods are distributed to the camp’s residents, ready to receive what the NGOs have prepared for them for the day. My language skills quickly bring me out of the storeroom, however, and into constant interaction with the residents. Within a couple of days these interactions evolve into bonds of friendship and mutual respect, and I am increasingly greeted by both the young and the old as I walk throughout the camp. My new friends begin to tell me about their reality. Here are a few of their stories.

Elias

Elias (all names changed) is a young boy who is always hanging around the camp coordinator’s office. While most other kids are shooed away, he is always allowed to stay and I notice that he gets special treatment from the staff. Our first conversation revolves around his high score in Clash of Clans (the most popular video game amongst the camp’s residents). He looks at his feet as he responds to my annoying questions, and I struggle to understand his Dari dialect (one of the varieties of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan). I grew up speaking Iranian Farsi, so at first most of the Afghans I meet at the camp are quite difficult to comprehend. A combination of my Iranian accent and my inquiries into whether or not he has a girlfriend finally cause Elias to crack a smile.

At age eleven, Elias is the youngest unaccompanied minor in the camp. I am told that he made the land journey to Europe from Afghanistan with a man he called “uncle”. This uncle found his own way to Sweden, leaving Elias to his own devices in Greece. After some time in Athens’s Piraeus Port – a makeshift camp which housed several thousand migrants before being cleared by authorities – my young friend came to relative safety in Oinofyta.

He is looked after by a kind woman who has several children of her own. She has agreed to let him sleep in her family’s room and makes sure he has clean clothes and food to eat. A few of the trustworthy young men in the camp also watch out for him, taking him out of the many fights he gets himself into. Yet most of the time, he is left alone to fend for himself.

Despite his age, he carries himself with the weight and toughness of a man in his twenties. He plays with the other children in the camp but you can tell he can’t fully relate to them – perhaps because of the trauma he has experienced in his life. Unlike the other children, who shriek and laugh hysterically at almost anything, he tends to hold back his emotions. He is determined to appear strong. His eyes say something different.

Pumba

One of the young men that looks after Elias, and almost everyone else at the camp, is my friend Pumba. Given the nickname because he resembles the chubby, lovable bear from The Lion King, Pumba acts as a translator, camp security officer and mediator between residents and staff. He is one of the few Iranians living in Oinofyta and he and I instantly become friends. Our banter and ceaseless exchange of insults remind me of my interactions with my own brother back home. His positive attitude and light-heartedness make it easy to forget that he also endured the unimaginable on his way to Europe.

One day, as we jam to music from my phone while working together in the warehouse, he casually begins to tell me a bit about his own journey. Pumba comes from the southern coast of Iran. With the help of smugglers, he made the journey by foot through Iran, Turkey, the Greek islands and onto mainland Greece.

He was accompanied by a family, the daughter of whom was paralysed from the waist down. He tells me that during their crossing of the Iran-Turkey border, the men took turns carrying the young girl through a series of marshes and swamps. When they reached the other side they realised her legs and feet were scratched up and bloody. The sharp reeds in the marshes had cut through her skin but due to her condition she hadn’t noticed.

After reaching mainland Greece Pumba, like Elias, first entered Piraeus. He shows me a series of photos of his life there at the port, with the glittering blue Aegean Sea not far behind him in each one. He narrates his good times at the port, fishing with friends in the daytime and grilling their daily catch at night. Then he shows me a photo of a crane lifting a tent high above the ground. It is his tent, which, along with his laptop and all of his belongings, was destroyed by Greek authorities in a raid last summer. Aside from the occasional fight between residents, Pumba’s life has been relatively calm since moving to Oinofyta. He keeps busy, acting as the problem-solver for both residents and staff. Yet like everyone else living there, he continues to play the waiting game that is Europe’s asylum process. 

Nadima

While many have no choice but to wait for their asylum applications to be accepted, others decide to take matters into their own hands. Doing so means investing in a journey facilitated by one of the many migrant smugglers operating throughout the region. I meet one such family on my last night at the camp, at an impromptu dinner hosted for the staff by Nazim and his wife Nadima, reportedly the best cook at the camp. She has already set out an impressive spread of maash polo and ghormeh (mung bean rice and a pungent lamb stew) when we arrive. We eat quietly as she peers over at us with a shy curiosity. I begin to make small talk and translate between her and my fellow volunteers.

After a bit of conversation, Nadima tells us to pray for her because she is making her way to Germany with her daughter the following week. She will stay there until her husband and sons are able to join her. Unlike land journeys from Greece into western Europe – which at smuggler’s rates cost about €1,200 per person – to go by plane costs around €4,000 per person. Although more expensive, air travel is safer than traversing eastern Europe’s land borders and harsh wilderness.

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The smugglers buy real passports and give them to people like Nadima and her daughter, who then travel with men acting as husbands or other male relatives. Once the journey is complete, migrants wire the money to the smugglers. Aside from coming up with the money, the most difficult part of air travel is the limit of one to two people per trip so as not to arouse suspicion from the authorities. Thus, many families are forced to send their kids alone. To join his mother in Germany, Nadima’s young son will have to travel alone as well. She tells us this last part and glances worriedly at him across the room.

When asked if she is afraid, she quickly responds “no” with a smile. It is something she must do since the family’s attempts to go through the official asylum process in Europe and the United States have failed. She tells us that her family is quite wealthy back in Afghanistan. Her husband worked there as a medical researcher and her home had separate rooms for each of her children. She says this to make us understand that despite the material comforts, she has reason enough to prefer her life in the tiny single room at the camp. Officials have declared the war in Afghanistan to be over, yet Nadima’s recent reality in her home country begs to differ.

Second-tier asylum seekers

While the rest of the world fixates on the situation in Aleppo and the fate of Syrian refugees, Afghan, Iranian, Kurd and Pakistani migrants are generally forgotten. Since their home countries are not technically engulfed in war, they are deemed to be ‘economic migrants’. The international human rights regime functions under the false assumption that countries like Afghanistan are not so bad to live in – despite the legacy of the US-led invasions and sectarian conflicts that continue to plague the nation today. Thus, these people are given second-class status in the European asylum process in comparison to Syrians – the majority of whom have been accepted in Greece at least as political refugees and as eligible for relocation in Europe.

Many reports of the so-called “migrant crisis” in western media help propagate a oversimplified image of who has come to Europe irregularly in recent years by neatly dividing them into two groups: the deserving and non-deserving. Their realities and characteristics are much more varied and complex. While some get drunk at night and break windows throughout the camp, others return their unused plastic bags so they can be useful for other residents. Regardless of their actions, each of them have their own set of frustrations, beliefs and expectations about what their future holds. They all reserve the right to move forward in search of a better life.

It is close to midnight on my last night at Oinofyta. I find myself sitting in the coordinator’s office with Elias by my side, playing Clash of Clans, just like our first encounter. Only this time I have both of my arms wrapped around him and I can’t seem to let go. For the fifth time, he asks me if I am really leaving the next day. I say yes with a lump in my throat. Pumba is there too, along with a few of the other good friends I have made in the past ten days.

We are exchanging stories and jokes as usual, trying to pass the time without talking about the final goodbye. What will become of my friends? It is hard to say. One can only hope for the best. Suddenly, someone realises that it’s snowing. We all shuffle outside. Elias runs onto the fresh layer of snow coating the volleyball court. It’s one of those rare occasions he has let himself go. He starts to spin around and giggle, sticking his tongue out to catch the snowflakes. I watch him for a while and then decide to do the same. At this moment in time, nothing else seems to matter.


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