Yesterday I had the great pleasure of meeting a young man named Yasin who had watched me struggle with my bags as I made my way through a large outdoor fruit market in search of the Airbnb I had booked for that night. Apparently, he had grown quite accustomed to the wandering tourist searching for the very same safe haven and knew just where to direct me.
Yasin owned his own fruit stall just opposite the building where I would be staying for the next couple of days. Along with fresh fruits, he also sold a large variety of nuts and dried fruit. During one of my morning strolls past his stand he pointed out a basket of coconut coated dried dates, “These ones are very good!” He informed me excitedly, “from my country!” He offered me one and I courteously obliged. It was delicious! The perfect consistency of mooshy and sweet while still capturing a crisp sense of freshness. This small interaction started off a conversation that, unbeknown to either of us, would last many hours and carry on over to dinner and drinks and a meeting with his wife and three young children. It all started off with a delicious date and an innocent question from me, ‘Where are you from?’
Yasin is from Iraq. He had come to Greece in 2016. Like many of his fellow countrymen he fled his home with his family to escape the political upheaval and extreme violence between the Iraqi government, ISIS, and other terrorist groups. His family, his two young daughters, his wife, and his younger brother (Kasim) and his wife, stole away in the dead of night with another group of Iraqis to meet a man that would help get them safely across the Iraq border, through Turkey, and on to freedom in Europe.
At the time they did not know Greece would be their destination, but they did know that anywhere would be safer than their current home. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” he explained, “I ran my own car dealership and garage and my wife worked as a cook. We owned a nice house and our children were well taken cared for. My parents lived close by, so did my other siblings. They didn’t want to leave. I told them they should.”
This was obviously a subject that Yasin had talked about before, but as you would expect, repetition hadn’t made it any easier to recount. Once reaching the Turkish coast, a journey I gathered to be a lot more difficult and tedious then Yasin was letting on, the small party boarded an inflated dinghy with a small engine, meant to hold 20 people at most. However, Yasmin estimated there were over thirty individuals in that dinghy which ferried them from their location in Greece to Chios, a small greek island six miles away. This trip should have taken no more than one hour, but lack of nautical knowhow, harsh weather, and arduous tide conditions left the group floating in the Mediterranean sea for over eight hours.
“There was very little food, and we ran out of water quickly. My brother’s wife was very ill and we didn’t know if she would make it. I’ve always been proud of my girls because even though it was very cold and they had been through so much they cried very little. They were two of the youngest children on the boat but they made the least fuss. That’s because they have a very good mother and father!” He flashes me a huge cheshire cat grin, the true mark of a proud dad.
The passengers were finally picked up by a group of coast guards, who had been on the lookout for crowded inflated dinghys just like theirs, and taken to the port of Mytilene, the main port of the Greek island Lesvos. Here authorities and aid workers had recently established a refugee camp to better house and aid those in need. However, according to Yessin, this camp didn’t quite accomplish this objective.
“We were lucky. We only got separated in the beginning when the camp first divided the men and women into different areas for safety reasons, but I had brought our marriage documents so it wasn’t hard to be housed together. We came in the beginning when there weren’t too many people in the camp, so it didn’t take long for us to be granted asylum and find housing and transport to the mainland. But like I said, we were very lucky. We had a little money left to make the transition easier as well.”
Yasin’s brother was not so fortunate. After his wife fell very ill during the hazardous trip, he refused to leave her side. The relief workers kept her in the camp and since Kasim had lost their marriage certificate he was denied visiting rights or access to her while she was treated and tried to recover. Sadly she didn’t make it. Her illness, details are still unknown to Yasin, was too severe. The relief workers with their limited resources were overwhelmed with people to care for. Kasim still remains in the camp to this day awaiting to be approved for asylum.
“I’ve worked every day since then to try and get my brother to Athens” says Yasin. “I send money, talk to lawyers, but the camps have gotten worse. It’s so much harder now to even find a way to contact him. He is also a young, single, healthy man so he gets less attention from the help organizations and is less of a priority because he is not a women, a child, or elderly.”
The preponderance of young single men is a trend growing in many refugee camps around the world. The number of young single men housed in these camps has nearly tripled over the course of the last two years, a number that is reaching into the tens of thousands worldwide according to The UN Refugee Agency
Yasin’s story intrigued as well as horrified me. I wanted to learn more about the current refugee situation in Greece and the effect it had had on both the immigrants and Greek citizens over the past couple of years. What I found thanks to grandma google scared me somehow even more than Yasin’s story did.
The first phrases that jumped out to me after a quick google search of the Moria camp were shocking, ‘21st century concentration camp’ and ‘Increasing number of suicides’. The Moria camp where Yasin’s brother still remains, a camp that has long gone into disrepair and is now, literally, crumbling. In the last few months the camp has faced foreclosure do to “uncontrollable amounts of waste that have lead to extreme health risks” according to the English Newspaper, The Guardian. Originally meant to house only 800 people with a stretched occupancy limit of 3,000, this camp-turned-shanty-town is now home to over 7,000 refugees that are waiting to be granted asylum. Among these 7,000 refugees, approximately 500 are unaccompanied minors ranging from ages 4 to 17 years old. While many people believe the flow of fleeing immigrants has slowed, this appears to be far from the truth. In 2018 alone, nearly 12,000 refugees have come to Greece while still around 19,000 immigrants continue to await placement, either in the mainland of Greece or elsewhere, on a collection of outlying greek islands.
Electricity, heating, and running water are rarely functioning and with Winter creeping ever closer people have begun to desperately create shelters out of whatever they can find. After looking through photos and reading more about the Moria camp and ones like it in and around Greece I found myself starting to agree with the descriptions that had originally caught my eye. These encampments, complete with barbed wire and military checkpoints, reminded me of images of the German Concentration Camps from the 1920-40’s.
I had believed that camps like these only lived on as photos plastered to the pages of our history textbooks. It was hard to believe that these places with their appalling conditions actually existed in today’s 21st Century Europe. Yasin and his family, despite their harrowing experiences, are in fact lucky. Escape from war torn countries and the search for safety for your family is not just a historical phenomenon. Like Yasin, it is true today for many families who have survived the horrors of war, torture, starvation and illness.
What I found even more inspiring than the family’s ability to overcoming a world of tribulations and trials was how far they had come since their escape from Iraq. They had built themselves a new home in a new, strange land and flourished. All members of the family, children included, had picked up a new language and found places for themselves within a new society. As well as being adaptable they retained their generosity and kindness and even opened their hearts and homes to a complete stranger for the night.
After our rather intense conversation Yasin brought me home to meet his family for I was dying to put faces to all the incredible stories he had told me. His two daughters, shy at first but who grew slowly more comfortable with me after a cup of tea, introduced me to their favorite barbie dolls and excitedly showed me around their shared room. Yasin’s wife, who remained quite occupied with their newborn son for most of the evening, greeted me warmly and described her life as a part time store clerk and full time housewife. Watching the family go about their small home as they would any evening, you would never guess what they had been through and experienced. One could argue that they acted just as normally as any other family would on a wednesday evening, tidying the house, making dinner, and preparing the older kids for the next day of school. In fact this IS a normal family.
For those of us fortunate enough to live in the first world, we need to be reminded that these people are not just tragic stories and statistics, they are people. We have grown so accustomed to hearing stories similar to Yasin’s on the radio, we are used to seeing violent images of refugees escaping war torn countries, that all this information and news has started to blur together. It is too simple for those of us who do not directly experience these realities to become disconnected and removed emotionally from such the pain and tragedy. More than these stories becoming the norm, they have been normalized due to a feeling of overuse or superficial, over coverage by our media. However, these events are only becoming repetitive because they are! It’s the same tragic story being replayed on every continent and still many of us are numb and apathetic towards it.
I am aware that these issues are complicated in and of themselves, and are usually not easily solved by one group of people, but I believe it is time we all come to terms with the fact that these events and issues are not just political and do actually involve real human beings with their lives and livelihoods on the line.
My meeting with Yasin help me put into perspective the stark differences between our lives simply because we happen to be born in different places. Safety and prosperity should not be a question of luck and circumstance. These are two basic human rights that all human beings should have access to no matter where they may live on the globe. When did these necessities fall second to the completion of any political agenda no matter what the regimes main objective might be? These experiences will continue to be realities for families around the world if we as global citizens don’t take action and stand up for those that have been oppressed and made voiceless. So maybe it’s time that we made a stand, for Yasin and all the people who have undergone similar trials. For it is not the minority with guns and orders that have the power, but the masses with the voices and minds.
Refugee Agency, UN. “Refugee Statistics.” Definition and Meaning | USA for UNHCR, USA for UNHCR, 4 Mar. 2018, www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/statistics/.
McElvaney, Kevin. “Rare Look at Life inside Lesbos’ Moria Refugee Camp.” GCC News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 19 Jan. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/rare-life-lesbos-moria-refugee-camp-180119123918846.html.
Stubley, Peter. “Greece’s Moria Refugee Camp Faces Closure over ‘Uncontrollable Amounts of Waste’.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 10 Sept. 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/moria-refugee-camp-closure-greece-lesbos-deadline-waste-dangerous-public-health-a8531746.html.
Leape, Sebastian. “Greece Has the Means to Help Refugees on Lesbos – but Does It Have the Will?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Sept. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/sep/13/greece-refugees-lesbos-moria-camp-funding-will.