Piraeus buzzed with unscripted energy. I stood in the bright sun and watched the Aegean green water crash against industrial ships as they unloaded cargo on the dock platform. Cruise liners and commercial ferries dropped off crowds of Westerners wearing beach hats and pulling roller suitcases. Piraeus has been used as a major port for thousands of years, long before our modern national borders, our current rules about who belongs where, and ages before the United Nations, European Union, and notions of modern human rights emerged.
The noisy scene would have been unremarkable a few years ago, but this is March 19, 2016, and Piraeus is now the makeshift home to 3,000-4,000 displaced refugees and migrants. Western tourists pause with dropped jaws or grab their children’s hands as they weave through hundreds of scared strangers holding the hands of their own frightened children.
I watched as laundry fluttered on nearby bushes. Men shouldered blankets bundled in twine and cardboard boxes. A few women cradled distributed food from understaffed NGOs. Older men and women carried signs in languages I didn’t understand and held out their palms as the vacationers passed. “Solidarity with the Refugees” and “Open the Borders” were slogans spray painted on the sides of shops and road medians. Every bench was occupied by sleeping bodies. Bundles of garbage sacks carrying the refugee’s last belongings slumped beside them.
It is unclear if these people knew that March 19, 2016 was just one day before the controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey would take effect, shipping any new arrivals back across the choppy waters where they fled from. They are, along with over 50,000 others, scattered throughout Greece, the last refugees and migrants who can presume to not be sent back to Turkey or forced to claim asylum in Greece. What is now unclear is if they can move anywhere at all.
“I will walk to Germany if I have to,” one young Syrian man said. “Everyone here would walk to Germany.”
But whether or not the man will ever make it to Germany comes down to forces outside of his control.
I met with Elli, a woman with kind eyes and a necklace with brightly colored beads, who serves as an Advocacy Officer at a non-profit in Athens called Solidarity Now. Solidarity Now spun out of Open Society Foundations (OSF) as a humanitarian initiative in 2013 for Greeks impacted by the economic crisis. The group focuses on human rights for vulnerable Greeks and migrants. Their three responsibilities are to act as a classical donor to other organizations and collect data on effectiveness; to fund operations and participate as a leader and coordinator in the community; and to work as a classical NGO: get funds, seek grants, and fundraise. The idea of combining all three under one roof makes for better consolidation of resources and stronger leaders.
We sat down at a round table in a conference room, and I asked Elli how Solidarity Now began.
“It started as a way to address problems for Greeks. Solidarity Now was created in response to a crisis and has a humanitarian approach. We are equipped to respond through projects,” Elli said. “We were not designed for an emergency, but we can adapt.”
The Athens Solidarity Center has 300 beneficiaries per day. Right now, 70% are migrants and 30% are Greek.
“We have always had an open door policy,” she paused. “There were a few of us who saw this wave of refugees and migrants coming in 2014. Lesvos has always been a gate. There was a grant to Doctors without Borders, also known as MSF, to do a medical project. They received funds to do a first response medical screening and to pass out basic items like sleeping pads and flashlights.
By March 2015, we organized a workshop with OSF and invited all stakeholders of migration along with national authorities to discuss the main issues and to come up with some recommendations. We collected 1.5 million for projects. Unfortunately, while many donors acknowledge the importance of prevention, they do not usually donate until an emergency. Local authorities especially had an attitude like, ‘it will go away’ or ‘let’s not do anything. If we give them a harder time, they will not stay.’”
“Even in Lesvos?” I said. “Surely they sensed there was something coming.”
Elli smiled and shook her head. “In 2014 the mayor of Lesvos told us, ‘I need nothing. There is no problem.’ He was even considering closing down some of the settlements. It was hard for him to see and implement change. He realized and changed a lot though. He is now one of the best mayors we have.”
I tried to imagine what the past few years of the mayor’s term must have looked like.
“Like I said, some of us saw it coming. But we were grossly unprepared. We didn’t have funds. People were in denial. March 2015, known as ‘Big March,’ was when we saw a huge wave of people moving towards central Europe. As many as 4,000 people were coming per day, and 70% of those were through Lesvos. Almost all of them planned to move north. No one wanted to settle in Greece. The Balkan route was open then. People were applying for asylum. There were massive moves. Thirty buses per day left from Athens with groups of twenty or thirty people crossing the border. There was a constant flow. People showed up and they waited a few hours, maybe a day, before moving on. But not anymore.”
Elli sighed. “Look at the camp at Idomeni on the border of Macedonia. It was created to house 6,000-8,000 migrants, but only for a day or so. This was when there was a nice movement of cross border cooperation. Things were working. Not now. Idomeni is overrun. Right now, 12,000 people have left and are camped at the border. They refuse to leave, but there is no capacity. They are living in the mud, hoping. It is one of the major hot spots. Others have also maxed their capacity throughout Greece.”
“How did these bottlenecks started to form?”
“Borders closed. Registration became overwhelmed. Before, it was like they only asked, ‘what is your name, where are you from, okay, go on.’ Now that the process is more refined, it is much slower. International NGOs started coming in. There was some progress in planning, but there were still bottlenecks and problems. Arrivals have slowed down. There are now only 1,500-2,000 per day, but it isn’t summer yet. Things could get bad again.”
I felt the weight of what she said. “How will the new EU-Turkey deal impact that number? Isn’t the plan that every refugee coming after March 20th will be sent to Turkey, so someone already in Turkey will be placed in Europe by the EU?”
She shrugged. “Things are now unpredictable and very complicated. There is a lot at stake. As an operations person though, I do not see how this will work. It seems like this is one of those plans cooked up by some mastermind at Harvard, destined to only work in a classroom. These are interventions that are expensive and logistically complicated. Many feel it is a violation of human rights. I do not believe there will be forced deportations. People will start to claim asylum in Greece, but that isn’t what anyone wants.”
“Will the dangerous boats keep coming if people know about the new deal?”
“There seems to be a lot of misinformation. We urgently need to prevent the smugglers. Tourist and bus drivers are sometimes taking money from ignorant people saying it is okay to cross, only to drop them off and have them turned away or beaten for attempting to slip across the border. Illegal smugglers from Turkey will probably keep coming because managing migrant flows is according to Turkey’s interests. This isn’t easy to stop. Registration in Turkey would stop a lot of smuggling and increase human rights. But they don’t want hot spots themselves, and they are trying to leverage their own interests with the EU. At the very least, registration in Turkey could stop the drownings. Hundreds of men, women, and children have drowned trying to cross from Turkey to Greece in the past year on these risky rafts.”
I cringed. I thought about a big news article about a child washing up on the shores of Greece a few months earlier. It had seemed to get people thinking. I’d made the mistake of thinking it was a rare event, but had since realized that the tragedy continues.
My stomach dropped. “What can be done?”
“That is a hard question. Right now, we are trying to implement a housing scheme project to find 350 Greek-based households willing to host a refugee family for a maximum of eight weeks.” She huffed. “Of course, that is what is technically the duration of the asylum process, not how long it will actually take. But it is symbolic. It represents solidarity. We want to sustain solidarity—not xenophobia—in and around Athens. Many groups are mobilizing to help build this kind of relationship. Many citizens across Greece have opened up their homes to the refugees and migrants. There are dozens of Facebook groups mobilizing people. Regular citizens from Eidomeni, Lesvos, and all over Greece are volunteering.”
Elli continued. “Another project we have in the works is with UNICEF to create a holistic, mobile unit around the islands and main accommodation centers to target information awareness gaps. People are not making informed decisions about services, even though many options are available. It is hard to communicate, and some information is broken or misleading. We hope to provide a van mobile unit to go to Piraeus to provide informative, comprehensive guides. Another mobile unit would be specifically oriented to mothers and children. We are also creating platforms on Facebook where there are many useful resources in many different languages. Item distribution and hanging out dry foods for people walking is also in the plan, though we may have to stop that with the new agreement. The plan is to have this holistic mobile unit ready by April 10th.
“How are you able to address the needs of a community that’s constantly moving?” I said, thinking of my trip to the old abandoned Athens airport where hundreds of refugees had been living. Many had already been evacuated to a new location, leaving behind piles of crushed cans, plastic bags, and torn-up seat cushions for pillows.
“The pace is what makes it challenging. The refugees and migrants want to leave Greece and go to other countries where there are more opportunities. This is only the first entry point. With refugees in other countries, there are usually established camps near the borders where people live for years. Here, they are on the move. Some minors are lying about their age so they can move on with other adults.”
I thought about my recent trip to Sweden, where a friend who worked at a refugee center for youth served people registered as minors who were estimated to be ten years older than they claimed. The difference is that they wanted to stay in Sweden. Greece had the opposite problem.
“Do you see a lot of minors coming through?” I asked.
“Many. About 38% of the migrants are kids. 20% are unaccompanied minors. Their parents are sometimes dead or have sent them with a family friend. They all have a different story. You see a lot of separated families. Often families chose to separate to increase the chances that at least half of the family will survive.”
I couldn’t hide my horror.
“It’s their reality.”
“I can’t even imagine what that must be like,” I said.
“Some families even get lost,” Elli said. “The other week, we found a baby who got left behind. Fortunately, we were able to reunite that family. But these things happen.”
We sat in silence for a moment, the electricity of the overhead light humming in the background.
“What do you think the US’s role in this is?” I asked.
Elli was diplomatic. “The US has a host of their own issues to deal with. Immigration challenges have been their localized problem, and Europe has never stepped in to deal with them before. It is not totally the US’s problem, but at the same time, they do have interests in these areas. Putting the argument about whether or not the US helped create these problems aside, the US has heavy involvement and powerful players around the globe. This crisis is unprecedented. And while the US is a nation of refugees, what might be even more useful than accepting more refugees is to activate more humanitarian support and leverage organizations that could help.”
I thought of the political rhetoric of fear and hate back home. “For an individual who is outside of Greece and not part of a big institution, what do you think is the best way to help, other than voting responsibility?”
“Again, this is a hard question,” Elli said. Her forehead creased. “I think it comes back to the same model of solidarity. Spontaneous movement of solidarity from simple citizens who were not part of NGOs, and maybe even had bad feelings towards NGOs, have stepped up. They are the real frontliners. Maybe there is not much one person can do, but keeping minds and hearts open helps. Many big players, including the UN, are not upholding their word, but individuals are doing it. A mindset of solidarity may be more important than a box of food or clothes here or there.”
On my last day in Athens I decided to return to Piraeus. The port was less crowded than before, but it still pulsed with the nervous, transitional energy. Heat from the EU-Turkey deal was already picking up. Hope was dissolving into rage and chaos throughout Greece, and I had a sick feeling of dread that things were about to get worse.
I walked near the water’s edge as the ships pulled in and looked out at the sea. I considered the new job I’d accepted back home and whether or not I could delay my return ticket to spend a few more weeks and volunteer. The math didn’t work out. I sighed, and my sense of futility got carried away with the sea breeze.
As I walked back to the metro, I saw a man I’d passed hours earlier still sitting against a concrete wall, a plastic cup half filled with coins sitting beside him. Even though I am reluctant to give money to strangers in foreign countries and didn’t have spare change, I approached him.
“Where are you from?” I said, squatting beside him.
He answered briefly, but I didn’t catch it. His wrinkled brown eyes smiled.
He repeated himself, but I still didn’t understand. He cocked his head and pointed at me. “You?”
He nodded, but in a way I could tell he did not understand.
“America?” I tried again.
He grinned, but still held the blank stare.
“Want some food?” I pulled out a tin foil packet filled with cheese and toast I’d brought for lunch.
The man eagerly look it, shook my hand, and thanked me. I waved as I walked back to the train station, which was still packed with hundreds of other displaced people.
As the metro pulled away, I thought about the man. I didn’t change his life, and there were thousands of others I didn’t help, but maybe I changed a moment for one person. I wondered if it mattered that I didn’t understand exactly where the man was from or that he didn’t know where I came from. He was a human. He was in need. Maybe in a world with so many forces outside of individual control, solidarity is a powerful, immediate step.
Photo by author.