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People Example11

Get to know the newcomers, activists and volunteers we met in Athens, Berlin and London, as they share their personal experiences of refuge, welcome and the digital city.


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Votanikos, Athens, November 2018

You meet so many smugglers on the journey and they are the worst humans you can meet. From Syria to Turkey, they charge around 200 dollars to guide a person walking to a border point. But I had to be driven all the way because of my wheelchair, so they charged me ten times more.

On the way, the driver stopped at an olive grove and made me get out of the car in the middle of nowhere to wait for two young men to take me the rest of the way. No one ever came and there was absolutely nothing I could do. In the end, it took three attempts to cross from Syria into Turkey, and ten attempts from Turkey into Greece. Sleeping rough, police beatings, losing your life’s savings... my wife even had to sell all of our furniture. And on the last attempt to get to Greece, the smuggler took my wheelchair from me before I got on the boat. I don’t know what drives someone to try over and over again. For me, I think it’s believing that this is the way to see my children again.


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When the revolution started, I posted my thoughts on Facebook, but even mild criticism is considered traitorous opposition and someone reported me to the local police. We call them ‘the fifth pillars’ — those who report on people around them. My family has a history of opposing the government and my brother was a political prisoner — he was killed in the Tadmur prison massacre in the 1980s — so it was not safe for me to stay. My wife and children went to her parents’ home, and I went to Idlib. We expected it all to be temporary. That was four years ago and it was the last time I saw my family face-to-face.


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I help my daughters with their homework every evening at 6pm on WhatsApp. At the camp, the wifi is free but in Syria it costs them about 8-10 Euros every month, which is a lot from the money I send them. But it’s really great to see them. I used to help them only with math and English, but now they send me all their homework to review, even if they don't really need any help. They want to spend time with me. But it’s not the same when you can’t hug them, or even scold them. It’s about the five senses. I say I ‘see’ them on WhatsApp, but I also need to feel them. I want to walk with them to the park or to the theatre, not just hear about it.

(digital lives)

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I have to lie to my children so much, and I hate it. They keep asking when I’ll get my papers, when we’ll be together. I say, ‘One more month at most, don’t worry’. I do it to manage their expectations. Month by month it becomes more manageable, and the time passes like that, like all these years have. But it’s tiring to keep lying to your children, to the people you love.


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The resettlement route in other EU countries has been closed since the Dublin agreement. My biometrics were registered when I first arrived in Greece and because of that I can’t settle anywhere else in Europe. Wherever I go they will scan my info and see that I’ve registered in Greece already. I’ve been told there is a way to cancel biometrics data so you can register in another country, but I don’t know how you go about doing that. The main problem is there is no clarity to immigration law, nothing you can depend on to argue a case. I can’t say, ‘under section 2 of law 4 I have a right to...’.”

(communication rights, Athens)

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For my first asylum claim appointment at the Ministry, I went early, all the way to the top of the hill in my wheelchair. They made me wait all day, and then rescheduled it to 40 days later with no explanation at all. And the Minister of Immigration has not approved a single family-unification application in three years, and the process is so long and expensive. My lawyer actually recommended that I bring my family over in the same way I came, illegally, as it’s easier to get registered. There is no way I would do that to them, no way. I did the journey alone to spare them all that.


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I have been in Greece for just over 1 year now and my asylum claim has been accepted — I am just still waiting for my ID — but I see no future for me here. To tell you the truth, I did try learning Greek, but I think to learn a language that is so different to your own, you need to have the motivation to do it, to see yourself living here. You are meant to leave the camp within 6 months of getting your ID but they’re not even enforcing this rule. This is Greece, there is a financial crisis. There are no jobs. They know they will just end up increasing the number of homeless people on the streets, so they don’t enforce it. How will I find a job here when Greeks can’t even find jobs? How will I bring my family here?

(home, austerity)

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I need five different medications but not once have all those been available. Sometimes they give me three or two, and when I am lucky, four. I call this ‘Greek style’: one month they have it, one month they don’t. They tell me to buy the rest privately but there is no way I can afford that. I currently get 150 Euros per month to sustain me, but I send 100 Euros to my wife in Syria and I’m their only source of income. So, I have only 50 Euros a month to cover all my food, transport, everything...


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I had the choice of living in an apartment but I’d have to share it with 5 or 6 people. Here, I live with only 2 people and one is my nephew. Living in the camp has also helped me create networks with people, with organizations. But it can sometimes be annoying. Many times, I’ve been sitting with my neighbours in front of our containers having tea and chatting, and you see people from organizations walking around, looking at us. Even though most of the volunteers here are really supportive, there are some that come and spend a day here just to take photos and say they’re doing something for refugees. We are not creatures in a zoo, come on! Last week François Hollande, the former President of France, was in the camp. A few weeks before that the Irish president was here and the newspaper took a photo of him speaking with me. So just so you know, I know presidents!


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Back home, you counted. You had people who cared for you, who depended on you. It’s different when you are a refugee. Here, it is just me. I have no social value, no influence. No one cares. If I miss an appointment, no one will notice. I got sick and missed 2-3 weeks of lessons of a course and when I went back, I realised no one even noticed I was gone. It’s a very unsettling feeling. In Syria, if I was 20 minutes late to work, colleagues would already be asking if everything was okay.


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It takes time to be friends with Greek people, which is understandable. Their information is only the news and there are a lot of people coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where wars just go on and on. When people first look at you they will see you as a refugee, not as a sovereign being. Not the person that had a life, with social networks and value in the community. It takes time for people to know who you are, as a person.


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I come down to the square with my friends and we buy souvlaki from one place and a beer from the other, and we sit down to drink, eat, hang out and laugh. Afterwards, they head out to Exarcheia to continue their night out, but I go back to the camp. If there’s a football game on, I watch it at the coffee shop nearby. My ability to move around is thanks to this electric wheelchair provided by Project Elea, an organisation based in the camp that has been an incredible source of support. They also gave me the chance to return to teaching, something I really treasure. And that’s it really, that’s what I do with my time. I keep saying that when you're a refugee, you have so much time, but you don’t own this time. That’s the problem.


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‘Refugee’ is not an adjective. At some level, as a human, you have to feel like you are the centre of some world. It’s not narcissism, just a feeling that others depend on you, on your energy. I’ve helped many members of the community translate letters from English and I teach at the camp as a volunteer. Most of my students have never been to school before, some are even illiterate in their mother tongues. It’s a beautiful thing to see how hard they're trying. They feel like they’re preparing themselves for new lives, that’s why they try so hard. And it makes me feel like I’m helpful, like I'm not just a refugee.


Update June 2020 — I was fortunate to receive Greek travel documents, but family reunification remained impossible in Greece. I decided that my best option for being reunited with my family was to travel to Holland and apply for asylum there, but the Dublin agreement stood in my way and my application for asylum was rejected. I have since moved to Germany and have submitted an asylum claim here. It has been 10 months and I am yet to receive a final response from the German government. It has been such a long journey, all of it chasing a dream that is the most basic of rights: living with my family in one place.

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