!داستان ما را بگو
Dastanay maw row begu!
Tell our story!
Before now I’ve never used pictures of refugees in a story, nor have I detailed problems which might get them in trouble either where they’re coming from or where they’re going.
Now that they’re begging me to, here is a behind-the-scenes look at October & November’s hunger strike by Afghan refugee on Lesvos Island.
!داستان ما را بگو
A week ago they were in the crossfire of a rock fight between Afghans and Syrians at Moria refugee camp on Lesvos Island, Greece. The fights aren’t terribly uncommon and the Syrians often “win” due to having multiple times more residents at the camp than any other nationality. This fight was different though: a pair of Afghan children were seriously hurt. Men were also hurt, but they often refuse to see camp doctors due to fear of punishment. Many Afghans were injured, embarrassed, and lived without adequate protection at Moria. So they left. They didn’t have anywhere to go, but they still sought refuge from their hellish refugee camp. A large group filed out of Moria and walked several miles to town, dragging blankets, backpacks, and children behind them.
I first saw them on a Friday, a line of a hundred people limping and coughing as they made their way down the shoulder of the highway. I was on my way to the hospital with a patient and didn’t have time to talk to them, but their faces told me they weren’t at all relieved to be leaving.
That Sunday I wandered into Sapphos Square, the main plaza in Mytilini. Huddled there were a few hundred Afghans. Some had blankets, fewer had food, and none had tents. Spring is still four months away. People huddled together and shivered as they talked to me, each having a different horror story from Moria. Several had been beat up by police, others had been hurt in the regular rock fights at night, while others were assaulted from within their own community but unwilling/unable to seek medical attention for fear of being reported to the police as violent. The common theme was safety, or the lack thereof.
I walked along Sapphos Square, correcting spelling on signs and striking up conversations with people who recognized me–I was an interpreter at a community center–and trying to make sense of it all: of the fighting among people who came to flee violence; of the fear of the police among people who came to flee authoritarian governments; mostly, to make sense of how their new life began to look like their old life. Were the violence and fear at Moria something they brought with them or was it an natural reflex to being in inhumane and unsafe conditions? I’m not sure I want to know.
While several people recognized me, I recognized few people. It was easier that way anyways, this is all easier to deal with when it’s a nameless stranger. Seeing a couple I already knew hit like a sucker punch.
I had taken them to hospital appointments before, translating for them while with the doctors and advocating for them with hospital officials. We had spent several mornings together, driving through town before waiting for hours to be seen. Despite their sickness and all the delays, waiting, and occasional cancellation at the hospital, they seemed happy after appointments. How they were happy despite leaving everything they owned and being smuggled into Europe on a small raft is a mystery, but they were happy.
Today was different. They had aged a decade over their week sleeping on the concrete, their smiles and beaming eyes replaced by stress lines on their foreheads and bags under their eyes. They frowned before they noticed me and then as soon as I left. Taking refuge from their refugee camp turned them into different people.
The wife needed to see a psychologist. She was put on a two-month wait list. The husband needed surgery. He bounced around several medical clinics and hospitals, each giving him over-the-counter pain medication and then referring him to someone else to get help. No one should sleep on the street, but seeing these two sleeping on a thin blanket hit me especially hard.
I went back to the square every few days. Every time I visited there were fewer people and more signs. Several refugees are now on a hunger strike.
They sounded unconvincing when they talk about the strike. I wondered if the hunger strike was out of protest, or just a way to dignify not having access to food. I wondered the same about their protest of leaving Moria. Was it a protest, or were they trying to dignify their flee for safety? I didn’t want to know.
As I left, I saw volunteers arrive at the square with several trays of rice, soup, and tea. The hunger strikers surrounded them like wolves then devoured their first real meal in days.