Another Door Opens

Hello again!

As usual, it's been a while since my last update. I've been waiting for the right moment to talk about some exciting news but who knows when that right moment will ever be.

I am writing from inside the gates of Moria. Pictures are forbidden so I implore your imagination to design a small town made of aid-tents and container-sized buildings with metal bars clinging to every window. The hedges in this town have been replaced by three meter tall barbed fences. A spotlight, a loudspeaker and a security camera are fixed on the corner-post of a small basketball court surrounded by razor-wire and sweltering unused in 40-degree heat. Camping tents line the sun-stroked entrance to a mound of utter desolation where the camp's inhabitants have now been waiting nearly 5 months for a chance to plead their cases before tribunals which have been recently re-staffed according to a new Greek law which all but precludes the possibility of acceptance.

I am here to present a project to a group of community leaders from each nationality in the camp who meet every week to discuss collaborative approaches to camp problems. I tell them about Mosaik support centre in 20-second intervals followed by slightly longer pauses where the room fills with murmurs as my speech is translated into a dozen languages. Mosaik stands as an affront to the retrograde hostility which has been meted out so ruthlessly over the course of my 5-month stint on the island. It is the collaborative  brainchild of a handful of volunteers who embody the welcoming spirit this island represented before the mass detentions made it incredibly difficult to deliver this type of blind hospitality in good conscience. We serve migrants and locals alike in the centre of Mytilini, offering language training, legal support, art workshops, and music lessons in a beautifully restored manor whose 25 square meter stone mosaic sits under the shade of orange trees flanked by cafe tables and flowers. In the first 2 1/2 weeks of operation over 250 people signed up for courses which offer respite from the banality of camp life and an opportunity to take part in activities tailored to integration in Greek society.

I tell the community leaders about Mosaik with great pride because I have been working very hard for the last two months to coordinate all the activities, teachers and volunteers, to promote the center among asylum seekers and volunteer groups, to liaise with the NGO community on the island, to design the registration system (aka the insanity box) and to water the plants every night. I give each of the leaders a small treasure map so they can tell the people of Moria where we are, shake hands with the police commander who fortunately does not recognize me from the dozens of time I have been asked to put my guitar away and leave the premises immediately, and cross my fingers for tomorrow hoping that the message got through as I hoped it would. 

There is also a bit of a bitter-sweet element because just as the center is taking off I have daily fantasies about doing the very same thing: getting off this island! I would love to stay here and watch the project grow, to keep shaking hands with everyone as they arrive for their classes and try to remember their names even though my small-town-ontario phonetic alphabet renders this task impossible, to move hell and high water to be able to sneak one more student into tuesday morning's 10am Greek class, to drive around town with khimar-clad moms on the back of my (borrowed) motorbike, to continue my arabic classes with an entire family of Syrian refugees as my teacher, to make cheeky comments at UNHCR meetings, and to water my roses. But, though I have been implicated in virtually every aspect of Mosaik since its inception it is now time for me to accept that it has a life of its own and that part of the volunteer experience is to back down and let the next ones take over.

By the grace of 24 people who bought my Xenophilia EP, my grandma who sent a cheque at the end of every month, and my parents who bailed me out each time things got really desperate, I've been fortunate enough to stay on Lesvos much longer than I anticipated. I have no clue who will replace me or when I will actually manage to leave, and I am very likely to have a last-minute change-of-heart if the opportunity presents itself in the right way. For now I have exactly enough money to make 6 CDs and buy a ferry ticket to the next island so it seems like a new adventure is kicking off. Hope to see some of you along the way!

The Rose and the Rat

Today at 8 o'clock the "Big Fish" left for Athens like it does every day. Cars and passengers and trucks got on the ferry like they do every day. Some of the passengers used fake IDs that they bought for a lot of money like they do every day. Like every other day, some were arrested or denied access to the boat, and some of them got the ride to the mainland that they had been dreaming of. And like every other day, one of the trucks which had been sitting in the port all day waiting for the boat to arrive had been broken into and had some people in the back of it who couldn't afford a smuggler and took matters into their own hands. Today there were three of them. They knew it was a refrigerator truck but thought that 12 hours in the back of a meat truck was a fair price to pay for a chance to sneak further into Europe. The friend who closed the door behind them and stayed on the island had left it unlocked so that once the boat started moving they could make their way up to the passenger deck. They had no idea that the driver would lock the open door when he did is routine check before boarding the ferry. They had no idea that there wouldn't be enough air in that cold space to last the length of the journey, or even the first 2 hours for that matter. Right now they are very luckily still alive because my friend is a rose and I am his rat.

When they realized they couldn't get out, they didn't know what to do. When they started feeling short of breath, they started yelling for help and banging on the walls but by that time the vehicle deck was empty and nobody heard them. Two of them passed out and the third, realizing that he was next, called my friend as we were sitting and drinking coffee on his balcony after dinner. For the sake of anonymity, I'll call him the rose because his name means flower and his tireless dedication to others makes him one of the most beautiful living things imaginable. He hardly sleeps because he is always on call. He is a community leader in Moria and everyone from his country knows that no matter what problem they have he will sort it out for them. He very calmly took the phone away from his ear and told me someone had just contacted him from a container on a ship somewhere off the coast of Chios and I thought it was hilarious. He told me two other people on that container were unconscious and the mood shifted. Is it life or death? Yes. I'm calling the coast guard. Good. And a little while ago I called them back and they told me everything is OK and anyway I'll have to talk to them tomorrow when they start investigating how on earth I'm connected to three dudes half-dead in a meat cooler in the middle of the Aegean sea. Fair enough.

I want to share this story because it highlights a very basic element of the refugee crisis which is causing thousands of needless deaths: there is no safe legal passage! In order to apply for asylum, you need to already be in a place where you are not allowed to go. Even in the face of this massive migration the international community has done nothing to rectify this paradox. A lot of people ask me what they can do because they are so far away and the answer is always so much more than we can do here on the border where we offer band-aid solutions to the deepest wounds in the international order. Wherever you are, you can lobby your xenophobic governments and push them to start accepting asylum claims right there in the places people are fleeing. If people could simply go to any embassy and start telling their stories there, the smuggling rings would be completely disempowered. If you could simply walk up to one of Europe's land borders and say "Please help me" then we could stop reading headlines about capsized ships in the Mediterranean. But for all of the lip service that is paid to supposed efforts to help victims fleeing war and persecution, there is no great push to lift the barriers which impose this life-threatening journey on would-be beneficiaries of international protection. Shall we not use a bit of common sense and move our lifelines within arms-reach of those who are so desperately grasping for them?

Where Have All The Migrants Gone?

I have a friend who walked 2 hours every day from Moria to get to Mytilini where he sat in a quiet corner of a cafe, nursed a coke or a coffee, and spent all day chatting with his family in Gambia. He couldn’t stand being in Moria and so these daily trips were his escape. He hated life on the island but was willing to wait out his asylum process rather than risk his chance for protection status by acquiring fake papers to make the trip to the mainland and beyond. Because he was given his ‘freedom papers’ which restrict his liberty of movement to the island of Lesvos, he resigned himself to spending his time like this. On Monday evening on the way home the police stopped him and asked him for his papers and he obliged. They looked them over, gave them back, and arrested him on the spot without cause.

Yesterday afternoon a former Lesvos volunteer who is now working in Athens contacted me to ask if I had seen or heard from him in the past days. I had not. When the police arrested him they also confiscated his phone so he would have no contact with friends, family, or anyone else who might be concerned about his disappearance.  I went to the police station and told them I was concerned about a missing person and gave his name. “Oh, you’re looking for one of the prisoners?” the guard replied. Yes, he might be one of the prisoners. They looked up his name on a long list, four pages in landscape, 12-point font, about 150 names. His was one of them. The young police guard saw no harm in having me talk to him for 5-minutes, so he opened the window of an iron cell door and shouted his name. I heard it echo down a corridor as more people shouted it out until he was found. I have no idea how big the space is where these arbitrary detainees are being held but in my imagination there were between 100 and 150 people in 7 or 8 small holding cells. With all the time I’ve spent bouncing my voice off the walls of various rooms as a singer, I can say with certainty that the voices didn’t travel far, not more than 15 or 20 meters and the natural reverberations of the hard concrete room were absorbed by bodies.

The police man showed me to a dank closet with two chairs in it, the yellow styrofoam padding had burst through the seams on their cushioned seats a long time ago. Wait here. The glass wall behind me was so dirty and dark that I didn’t even notice it until the door clattered open on the other side and my friend lurched through the door. He was unsteady and sweat poured through his white tank top. He flung his hands in the air and tears streamed out of his eyes before he buried his head in his hands and hung it below the window sill. When he looked up, our faces were inches apart, separated by this thick glass wall that muffled our words and divided the tiny space into two worlds. He couldn’t believe I was there, I couldn’t believe he was there. We only had 5 minutes so I tried to gather as much practical information as I could in the short time we had. Full name, birthday, country. What did the police do you with your documents? He still had them but they were not worth the paper they were printed on. How many people are there with you? A lot. There is one telephone and you need a credit card to use it. One person had a credit card and they were sharing it to try to get in contact with anyone who might be able to help. I told him he had been found and that we would do our best to help him, went outside, and called the best lawyer I know on the island.

Luckily Lesvos is small and Mytilini is even smaller. Everybody knows everybody. The lawyer arrived on his scooter 15 minutes later. We had a short meeting in the shade of a palm tree so I could tell him everything I knew and he went inside to find out more. The office who dealt with refugees was closed and would not be open until the morning. If we got his detention decision, we could then appeal it, but we would need to know why he was being detained in order to appeal. Meanwhile everyone was meant to be transferred to the mainland that evening. When I went back today, a different police officer told me that “Gambia” was sent to Paranesti last night, so now we’re working with a legal NGO with a team on the ground over there. But they still haven’t been granted access to this place which is kind of like the Moria of the mainland.

This is the second time in one week where large numbers of asylum seekers have been rounded up and sent off the island. The focus is on Africans, although I know Pakistani people who have also been subject to this arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, too. After two days in the Mytilini Police Station, they are handcuffed and chained to one another and taken to the ferry. They remain in these shackles for the length of the trip. The last group of 81 was sent to Korintas, where they were offered a choice between voluntary return to their home countries with a sum of cash OR a 6-month prison sentence. None of the lawyers on the island know which law they are being arrested under but they are of the opinion that it is some sort of all-encompassing public safety measure.

There are two things I want to point out in this story, which is a tragic and outrageous example of what can happen any minute on Lesvos. First, the rules are changing constantly. The recent actions of the police are a disturbing violation of an already inappropriate status quo. I understand that a lot of refugees have been escaping, lingering around the port, maybe even committing petty crimes (though I know a lot about what people do to get by and given the amount of information I am privy to, I would be very surprised if this were the norm). Still, these people are victims of the most horrendous human rights abuses imaginable on the planet. I have met people from as far east as Nepal or Sri Lanka and as far west as the Dominican Republic. That’s a range of over 14000km. If you want a crash course in global conflict from the past ten years, this is the place to get it. And yet new laws and decisions arise constantly as though the victims who came here seeking shelter were some sort of public nuisance which needs to be swept quietly under the rug. The broom strokes impunity and cowardice, the rug is woven of fear and ignorance.

Second, the only thing which brought this particular injustice to light was the tireless resolve of volunteers who have been touched by the chaos of this unbelievable place. I found out about my missing friend from two Americans who kept in touch with him after they left and a Spaniard who moved to Athens to continue her work on the mainland. As he wept before me in that decrepit chamber, he howled disbelief. “You people really care,” were the first intelligible words he spoke. I am astonished that sporadic communications of casual acquaintances can make the difference between life and death because I come from a place where death is either rare or predictable. Aside from his name, I really know nothing about this man, but he is my friend. We greeted each other almost daily when we passed in the street. Sometimes we sat for a few minutes in his corner of the cafe and talked about football or the heat or what’s going on inside Moria. Right now there are about 3500 volunteers and asylum seekers on the island and after 3 months here together, we often know and recognize each other even if it’s nothing more than that. That connection can change everything. Our friend is in a perilous place and his fate still hangs in the balance. I cry because we cannot do more in this retrograde paradigm, I rejoice in the unwavering commitment of so many strangers turned friends.

The Big Fish

Today I got a message from a friend that shocked me: 

"moi j suis a paris"
(i m in paris)

No exclamation point, no punctuation.

He succeeded in doing what everyone on this island dreams of doing by pursuing what seemed like the only option available to him: flight. I met him less than 2 months ago at the fence in Moria. As I read his message today a vivid image of our first meeting flashed through my memory. He pulls me to the side and shows me pictures of his wife and his daughter in a safe-house half a world away. He tells me his daughter asks him every day when she'll see him again and with hurt in his eyes he tells me he can't imagine when or how he will ever get there. When I met up with him in Athens two weeks ago, all that pain was gone and it was clear that he wasn't sticking around there either. He was very purposefully putting together the pieces of a 3000 euro puzzle to procure a temporary identity, fly to France and start over again. He is not the only one looking of an alternative to the legal route off the island.

Every day at the port, a group of would-be escapees stalks the ferry terminal from a distance. They sit on the pediment of a 15m replica of the statue of liberty cast in bronze after the 1922 population swap that brought the last wave of refugees to this island. From here, they study what people in Moria call The Big Fish and plot their escape. Some make their way there early in the morning to break into containers before they get loaded onto the ship bound for Athens. Some sneak around the rocky breakwall waiting for the right moment to dash into the belly of the beast and hide among the cars and passengers. Others pay 300 euros for a recycled travel document so they can buy a proper ticket and hope the police don't call their bluff. It takes a bit of cunning to pull it off.

One woman tells me she snuck past the police in an angry huff, feigning ignorance and insult when they asked her questions in English until they finally brought out an officer who spoke her mother tongue. Trying to catch her off her guard, he asked her to state her name. "What, you cant read?!" She retorted. "It's right there in your hands, now give me my papers back and get out of my way." By the end of the exchange, the police apologized for the inconvenience as she marched defiantly up to the passenger deck. She had been kidnapped and held hostage in her home country before she was ransomed and given an airplane ticket for Istanbul and somebody else's passport with a turkish visa in it. There, she had endured 3 months of sexual assault at her workplace while she saved up the money to make the crossing to Greece. She suffered through 2 months of what would otherwise have been indefinite detention on Lesbos in a camp plagued with riots, famine and disease. Under no circumstances was she going to be held back any further by a nameless, steel-toed thug in top-gun aviators.

At the port in Athens, white passengers get off first and colored passengers are shuttled to a special screening center in order to have their identities verified for a second time. Rosa Parks would be weeping in her grave if she were Greek and yet every major news outlet that I contacted with a detailed eye-witness account of this institutionalized segregation neither replied nor reported on it. Another friend who I got to reunite with in Athens told me he stayed up all night on the boat trying to figure out how to evade the police when he arrived. When the ferry pulled into the port, he got in the front of the line with all the white passengers. At the last minute before the gate dropped, he picked up the heavy luggage of the woman standing next to him and said, "Please, let me help you!" She politely declined. "No, no no, I insist!" and he did, and they walked off the ferry past the police, and she smiled at the generosity of this stranger, and he smiled along at her unknowing complacency in his ruse, and from another perspective it seemed as though a happy couple had just returned from their holiday on the islands. As they bid each other farewell, she had no idea this man was a doctor whose practice and home had been burnt to the ground by ISIS in retribution for some harm he had unwittingly caused them. He fled to Athens knowing that he stood very little chance of ever telling his story if he remained on Lesvos. As a single man who had not been personally harmed or threatened during his short stay in Turkey, there was a very good chance that his case would be deemed inadmissible.

Just a few days earlier we were sitting in a cafe in Mytilini when he showed me a video of his would be persecuters destroying all of the artifacts at the Mosul museum. They toppled and smashed 4000 year-old relics of an ancient polytheistic culture that stood as an affront to ISIS' militant puritanical interpretation of Islam. We happened to be sitting with a friend from Damascus. His teeth were missing, his ears were visibly reattached to his head, scars lined his arms and upper body from an encounter with ISIS that left him for dead, and he told me his story, too. Leaving the cafe, I bumped into another friend who is still missing part of his skull after being tortured in his Pakistani homeland. Over coffee, he tells me about how he fled to Turkey and was tortured again and shows me his arms which bear the scars of surgery he could not afford to properly complete. For the 3rd time in one afternoon I'm on the edge of tears and so is he as he shows me a picture of himself before he was disfigured. And I'm once again convinced that everyone on this island has the worst story I have ever heard in my life.

 I have yet to hear from someone who wouldn't qualify for international protection if their case was heard. But most people who can afford the trip to Athens have already lost faith in justice and they're running away because they don't believe they will ever have an interview or that the interview will help. Or they just can't stand another moment in Moria and have decided that it can't be worse anywhere else. I have a friend who is considering voluntary repatriation to a country where he has already served 18 months in prison for his affiliation with a single gay friend. He can't afford a smuggler and would rather be back there and close to his family than wait here! The hotspot procedures, the EU-Turkey deal and the detention camps are all set up to fail people who should be receiving protection. I was wary about encouraging people to violate the restriction on their liberty of movement, worrying that they would lose their chance at asylum if they did. I still worry about this but I have a really hard time accepting that it's true. I'm really happy when anyone makes it somewhere further down the line. And I've met up with a bunch of people in Athens who seem to have worked their way back into the system even though they weren't allowed to be there. I think my friend in Paris can't be subjected to a so-called "Dublin Return" because of a 2011 ECJ decision barring returns to Greece based on the miserable state of their refugee camps. So I think he's OK, too. And actually, I think that everyone who makes it onto the big fish will be OK. Right now on the island, everybody has one thing in mind, and it's that fateful ride that will one day carry them far far away from here. All aboard!