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This is the first article in a two-part account of the author’s experiences in Athens. The second instalment will be published next week.
I hesitated to post this because of its tragic content, but I do so in memory of a young Syrian doctor who died on Friday walking to the Albanian border from Athens. He walked too many miles in one day, had a seizure and died.
Right now, on Syntagma Square in Athens, there are around four or five hundred Syrians who are waiting (and have been for some time) for their papers to travel to countries like Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, etc…
During my visit to Athens, I visited the Square and spoke to a cross section of Syrians who are middle class, educated: students, professionals, engineers, linguists, teachers and restaurateurs. These people were not the image of the ‘refugee’ so often been portrayed as malnourished, severely impoverished with flies on their faces. The refugees I spoke to had evidence of wealth on their smartphones; cars, big houses, health, and carried with them their culture of hospitality.
I was talking to a Syrian engineer who had lost family members during a night-time bombing raid. He worked for a freight company before the war came to him, and took away the life he had built. As we were talking for a period of time, he noticed my lips were dry and offered me some water, producing a bottle of mineral water and a plastic cup. Filling the cup before me with a smile, he said “Na Zdorovie” (good health/cheers in Russian). He thought I was Russian because I have a noticeable West of Scotland accent, despite communicating in English. I enjoyed the mistake and used this opportunity to form our friendship. He could speak Russian and told me about how he had worked on Russian cargo boats in the Gulf and he had received good treatment from the Russian captain, who thought he did a good job in the engine room because he was one of the few crew members who didn’t drink vodka, and so was never inebriated. He had a job, family, and a car and had no shortage of manners. He was not accustomed to sleeping rough on the street and yet, he conducted himself with aplomb. I had no water for him, but the ability to retell this story. He and many other Syrians built “dear-achieved” lives, that have been destroyed by the war that came into their lives in 2011.
Some of these people are on hunger strike in an attempt to be granted asylum. They are prepared to starve to death to help their community, whom they regard as the women and children on the Square who have gone through a hellish experience to be trafficked to Athens. This ‘odyssey’ costs 5,000 euros per person and there is no guarantee you will survive the trip. Some that I spoke to used their bank/credit cards to extract savings, jewellery, watches and anything valuable to raise the funds needed to save their lives, and that of their families. They could not strive any harder to survive; a concept appropriated and mutilated by the current coalition government in the UK.
On the Square, the Syrians are united. You could say they are “United in Diversity” which is the motto of the European Union. They come from all over Syria and are made up of Christians, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen among others. Perhaps they were in opposing sides in Syria but on Syntagma, the situation is different. They all have the desire to survive and have achieved much in getting to Athens.
They are tired and worn out physically and mentally. The thought of filling in a complex form would be something that we would try to avoid but, in desperate situations like this, completing and sending off convoluted immigration forms bring a sense of hope to these people’s lives.
Many have family waiting for them in Sweden or the Netherlands, which are two places that seem to be a popular choice for the Syrians I met. I believe the conditions of these countries are not too dissimilar but the unknown promise of these places carries a “down the rabbit hole” quality, that the Syrians spoke of in a positive light and, ultimately, pursue in search of a better life.
Before I left, a Greek MP, Yiannis Michelogiannakis, also joined the hunger strikers in an attempt to pressurize those in power to change this situation.
As part of the European Union, Greece is bound to espouse values which respect human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and human rights. The EU’s borderless approach make the plight of the Syrian refugees a European issue, rather than a Greek issue. If a resolution is not found swiftly, then more Syrian hunger strikers will waste away and the death toll will mount in this ‘unimportant’ place: Syntagma Square.
*This article was first published on Thomas’s personal blog, on the 10th December 2014.
This article is part of GRAMNet’s personal reflections blog series, where contributors offer short reflections on their personal, day-to-day interactions with migration issues. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch using the contact form below. We welcome all contributions, whether sharing positive or negative experiences.