Kulturissimo: On refugees in Greece

The EU’s indentured servants market place

Karine Leno Ancellin

Not a leaf blowing, the sun tinted this aloofarea of Athens a pale bloodorange colour.Silence overwhelmed poverty in the desola-te neghbourhood of Elaionos where thetransit refugee camp stands.At the close of a usual volunteer workday,for the NGO Metadrasi, I feel the weight ofthe outlandish despair encounteredthrough the sunny hours of that day. Fierceresignation flashed in the red spider-veinedeyes of the newly arrived Syrians, Afghanis,Iranians and Africans, an unending flow ofpeople.The white bandaged wounds oozed trick-les of scarlet and yellow fluids.


 On the ban-dages traces like rings on a tree stump exhi-bit the wounds that may never heal. Multi-ple scars, small but varied in colour, shapeand depth marked the faces of young boysroaming the camp, kicking a football withan undeterred grin, as if parts of their liveshad been spent in an arena fighting wildanimals with claws. These faces have a his-tory, of fear, of love and a look of being per-manently on vigil.The NGOs at the camp do their best to re-lieve the plight of the refugees. Each mi-grant is given a 4 hours interview, duringwhich their stories are heard. Their night-mares are exposed to another human beingwho is showing interest and care. It requi-res patience for these Greek young men andwomen to sit and hear these excruciatingstories, most of the times with the interme-diary of a translator. The NGO workers dowhat they have to do. One allows the mi-grant girls to braid her hair while anotherroughly tells them off. The precautions inthe policy guide for volunteers are usefulbecause as soon as one of us offers some in-terstice of empathy, the crowd gathers andthe precarious order and stability shivers.Rules and regulations for working at thecamps are strict. After a short dialogue withthe authorities, migrants are expected toabide to those same rules with a symbolicsignature. The hours are landmarks; at 4pmis the bread distribution, at 6pm the clothesdistribution. Refugees can request servicesat Medical centers andMetadrasisfrom9am to 7pm and volunteers are on duty atall times in theMSF – Doctors WithoutBorders-medical ward. Distributing food iscarried out by a family like organisationwhich brings individual aluminium contai-ners of traditional dishes for many. Thereare more than five NGOs working at theElaionos camp.The Volunteers sort out the clothes, forthis we have latex gloves and we take the pi-les of card boards of donations that are sto-cked in a container, put it on a supermarkettrolley and bring it to the distribution room.The clothes are all neatly arranged in pilesby sex and age, boys age 0-3, 3-6, 6-10, girls,men women, we create new categorieswhen donations require it, like scarves andgloves…. At times we open the one windowin the prefab motorhome room because thenaftalene and other dust emanating fromthese old clothes make us dizzy. Someitems bring out laughter and discussions,string underwear or a huge embroided leat-her coat….who is going to wear that? Thecolours are also a problem as the refugeesprefer black and the few black items are asource of disruption being so coveted. Atthe end of the work time, 6pm, the distribu-tion starts and in a few minutes all the neatorganisation is brought to chaos, howevereveryone goes content with the pieces theyreceive. Some come at 5pm when they areleaving the camp they have a special autho-risation to get their share before, obviouslysome that are not leaving try to sneak in thepriviledged lot, but they don’t hold the pre-cious voucher…On March 20th, the first day of spring, thecamp management and the municipality’sGovernment representatives, had organi-sed entertainment in the form of clownsand a music band to cheer up the people ona bright Sunday afternoon. The artists wereso casual with the astonished crowd thatthe celbration was a success and smiles irra-diated the faces of those otherwise morose.It was Nowruz, the new year for eastern mi-grants, who welcomed the celbration fin-ding the atmosphere warming to their he-arts.The attitude of the refugees is not one ofdespondency or of melancholy, but one ofdetermination, togetherness and movingforward… A mid-aged Farsi man, Ahmad,speaking with an interpretor had a deter-mined intent. He had had information priorto setting on the journey, and had a sure be-lief he was taking his family to safety. Whatdid they say back in Iran? What did theypromise back in Syria? Who is behind thisexodus? Ahmad is convinced he will get toGermany and find his way however thesmugglers who ferry the migrants from Tur-key to Greece had extorted a high price (3-5000 euros) for hope, deluding many candi-dates to a better life. These refugees are theelite, as one of them explains, as the poorerof them are still at home. The filieres, tribaland clans spread the word of mouth infor-mation but the smugglers are responsiblefor much of the rumour that ’a rich life‘awaits in Germany, France and England.They make up tales the migrants take forgranted, of course the options are not onethey want to consider, a life of threat and fe-ar, or simply death.The first batches of migrants that weresettled in the host countries of Europe haveset in motion the wave of desperate follo-wers. Around the camps are people prayingon these vulnerable beings, rumours ofyoung women disappearing are vibrant.Skilled workers are assets, as they are sotraumatised after this harrowing journeythey are ready for anything and will acceptwork at wages defying the local competi-tors. Not slavery but not a win win situationeither, some get the labour for cheap andothers get the rebuked….abuse is rampant,even in countries ruled by law.The Aegean waters are now tainted withthe blood of the drowned. Their abrupt andviolent deaths offend the perfection of a on-ce leisurely sea. What will happen this sum-mer when tourists will flock to the islandsof Greece to sunbathe, swim and dance onthe shore of the wounded land of Lesvos,the island where Sappho sang her poetry?Now Macedonia has erected a barbwirefence along its border both threatening andefficient. Will we now have to build an ironcloud to separate the skies of each nation toblock the birds from flying on their usualmigration?

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