“What did we come here for then?” It has been more than two years since Sultan1, an economic migrant in his twenties, was lured by the promise that there was more of everything on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, if he could only manage to get out of Egypt and into Europe. “The Greeks give us nothing, honest to God, no clothes, no money, no food, nothing. We just want to live, to eat, to work.”
Built on a mountainside away from the quaint downtown of the port city Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, Moria refugee camp is what the Greek government unofficially refers to as a “hotspot”: camps developed in the wake of the European Union-Turkey deal purportedly as short-term processing centers for the more than one million desperate people who have arrived and continue to arrive in Greece since 2015. In fact, the controversial hot-spots run by the military are essentially overcrowded prison camps that human rights groups condemn in report after report. Overflow camps of flimsy tents cling to the wooded mountainside outside the military complex that Moria camp was built on. When my student Patrick Sullivan and I met and interviewed Sultan on October 20, 2017, he was one of more than six thousand refugees and asylum seekers there, about triple its capacity of 2,330 people.2 That same morning another 150 people survived the risky journey and arrived on the island’s beaches, but rumors of their immediate deportations circled through the camp. With the razor-wire fence between us, Sultan demanded answers.
“Why do these Europeans imprison us?”
“Why won’t they let us go?”
“Where are the human rights?”
“Why do the police abuse me?”
“Who do they answer to?”
“What did I do to deserve this injustice?”
“Where is America?”
“Who controls this place?”
“Are we going to stay here forever?”
Is this all there is?
Video: Patrick Sullivan and Clark Burnett
Sultan pointed out the squalid conditions, the open sewage, leaking tents, filthy bathrooms. “No one cares about us. We’re human too.” Just before I left, he showed me two words in English sprayed in black on a cement wall: “Human” and “Mahdi,” a common Muslim boy’s name. I wondered if someone in Moria Camp named Mahdi echoed Sultan’s demand to be recognized as human. Mahdi is also the Islamic term for the messiah-like figure heralding the end-times, establishing a just order after the Armageddon. (Among humanity’s final lessons: there is enough, were it not for human greed.) “We’re buried alive here. The only one who sees us is God,” Sultan sighed. “All we did wrong is that we came to this country.”
Greece’s weak economy does not suffice as an explanation for the horrific conditions as aid workers report that the conditions of Greek refugee camps are far worse than refugee camps in active war-zones like Afghanistan. Critics argue that the militarized containment and the inhumane conditions of the Greek camps are by design, a determent strategy. In order to teach the wretched of the earth to think twice about risking their lives to cross into Fortress Europe, the EU is willing to transform a few acres of a vacation paradise into hell. British-Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid describes the logic of determent this way:
Simply hardening borders and watching refugees drown offshore or bleed to death on razor wire will not be enough. Europe will have to drastically reduce its attractiveness to refugees. Those who look like refugees will need to be terrorised. They will need to be systematically beaten, rounded up, expelled. Some will need to be killed. The avenues of advancement of those who are not native-born will need to be curtailed by law and by custom – a system of apartheid will need to be instituted. To be of apparent migrant origin in a European country will need to become a fate worse than living in a town or village overrun by bloodthirsty fanatics, by rapacious warlords and thugs.
The EU-Turkey deal gives the governments of Greece and Turkey billions in financial incentives and (ironically) more freedom of movement for Turkish citizens in Europe in exchange for detaining refugees and migrants fleeing war, political persecution, extreme poverty, and environmental devastation in Africa, Asia, and the rest of the Middle East. For accepting the people the Greek government deports, Turkish citizens will be rewarded with visa liberalization and reopening talks of Turkish admittance to the EU. And for its blanket detention of refugees and asylum seekers in the camps, the Greek military receives an annually recurring $74 million.
After suffering through another deadly winter season in the unheated camps (“some will have to be killed”), the refugees of Lesbos have been protesting in Mytilene’s town square, demanding the Greek government close the hot-spots and end its criminalization of all migrants. On November 30, 2017, the mayor of Lesbos joined a refugee protest. He has filed a lawsuit against the Greek military for mismanaging Moria Camp, and accused the Greek government of turning his idyllic island into the “Guantanamo Bay of Europe.”
Sultan was not dressed in an orange jumpsuit—he wore jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “GOOD VIBES ONLY” as a promise or an invitation, or maybe both—but his description of Moria Camp invoked the lawlessness of Gitmo. Sultan and his Bangladeshi cellmate described how the weeks of sensory deprivation and physical abuse in their shared confined container-cell drove Sultan to attempt suicide. Sultan tried to hang himself and to focus his pain and sense of helplessness into the blade of a makeshift knife. His arms are marked with dozens of small scars, his despair concentrated into short lines of pale, raised skin.
“This. This. This. This.” He pointed out each scar.
“Why did you do this to yourself?” I asked.
“It wasn’t me,” he responded. “It was my hands.”
What compels us to cross a boundary? To take a risk? To break a rule? To make a line? In his documentary short Paraíso (Paradise), Nadav Kurtz poses questions about life and death to three Mexican window-washers as their bodies dangle precariously against the skyscrapers of Chicago. Rather than jocular adrenaline-junkies, the men are meditative, introspective, loving; perhaps these qualities are nurtured by their high-risk work. As they tie intricate sailor knots, strap pulleys, and scale Chicago’s tallest buildings, they discuss the purpose and meaning of life, their obligations to their families, the kinds of wealthy people they observe on the other side of the glass, the real risks of dying on the job. “Is there another world?” one of them asks. They each speculate about life after death, men who take their lives in their hands everyday so skyscrapers can gleam, so they can provide a bit more for their families. This visually stunning film short explores many heady questions in its ten minutes but some of the most effecting moments are small ones, such as when one of the men confesses to a simple fantasy:
“I’ve always wanted to walk down Michigan Avenue with a Starbucks. All relaxed, just like that.”
Lesbos’s beaches are stunning but, after being in the camps, the winds rustling through the olive trees and the lapping waves of the sea sounded to me like eerie whispers of the floating dead, whispers of survivors hidden from tourists.
I stood on a Greek beach facing Turkey with my students and Manar, a young Yemeni woman with large bright eyes and a quick wit. I had hired her as a translator for my students, and as we warmed ourselves under the sun, I marveled at her resilience, at how she joked and laughed so easily with us. She speaks perfect English in a soft, raspy voice that became pained describing her loving family, how leaving them had been such a difficult decision. She fled her war-torn homeland once she became a target of Al-Qaeda for her work as a research assistant for iNGOs and United Nations officials. Once she reached Turkey, they told her the journey to Lesbos would only be a few hours by boat but it took them eight terrifying hours to get across the sea. When the boat finally met the Greek shore, she burst into relieved tears. Then she burst into tears again, once she set eyes on Moria Refugee Camp; at the entrance, in drippy black spray-paint were the words: “Welcome to Moria Prison.”
Manar is detained indefinitely in Greece. Unlike those fleeing the wars in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, the EU does not grant Yemenis refugee status because the EU is not directly involved in the Yemeni conflict. (Some human rights activists predict Yemen will be the “next Syria” in half the time.) Manar’s warmth and charisma make it easy for her to connect to people and she has a close network of friends inside the camp, but she feels vulnerable as a single woman. Fights routinely break out between the men, particularly along ethnic and national lines, and there is rampant sexual harassment which the police and guards ignore.
“If I knew it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have come.”
I tried to call a cab on that Greek beach facing Turkey, so close that its shores were visible to our naked eyes, so close that the signals between my iPhone and Verizon’s satellites misjudged my location, mapping me as a small dot on the Turkish beach 4.1 treacherous kilometers across the sea. Imagine if our bodies transported across borders so easily.
Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, Exit West, makes doors rather than phones into magical realist portals to critique the magical race-thinking and the politics of scarcity that undergird immigration policy in Europe and North America. In a dystopic future, smugglers use portals to guide and transport masses from the Global South to the Global North. Hamid’s love-struck protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, are Muslim refugees from an unnamed Muslim city (a mash-up between Lahore and Mosul) transported to an overflow tent camp on the Greek island of Mykonos. At one point Nadia tells her lover she understands the white nativists who fear millions from all over the world suddenly arriving in their hometowns. Saeed reminds her that their own country took in millions of refugees when there was a war.
“That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.”3
Is this all?
From Mykonos, the lovers are transported to refugee squats and communes in London and San Francisco. While most readers might mistake Hamid’s narrative turn from the dystopic to a more “utopic” storyline as a turn from more realist material to political fantasy, the less tragic parts of his novel are just as grounded in the very real and inspiring experiences of refugees in Greece and beyond. The second half of Hamid’s novel reads like a lightly fictionalized account of an anti-fascist, anti-racist grassroots community in Athens I also visited. Weeks after the EU-Turkey deal was signed, over one hundred leftists and one hundred and twenty refugees broke into the abandoned City Plaza hotel and reconnected the utilities while neighbors threatened to call the police or the local fascist gangs to kick them out. The squatters peacefully resisted, making human chains around the building, ultimately establishing a home for refugees from twelve different countries.
Throughout Athens, fifteen abandoned buildings have been forcibly repurposed as thriving communities (squats) in order to challenge the EU deal and the Greek government’s militarized response to refugee homelessness. Unlike the camps, these squats are not rife with ethnic or sexual violence but are diverse, harmonious communities. Just as important, the squats publicly pose the question of whether the core capitalist value of private land ownership should take precedence over the need to meet people’s basic human rights to shelter, water, and food.
Is this all there is?
The question can be political, or metaphysical, or both. The same is true for the defiant answer: “No!”
Subjects requested only their first names be used↩
In the fall of 2017, I co-taught a course about representing refugees with a journalist, Jake Halpern, and my graduate student, Randa Tawil, which sparked a research collaboration in Athens and Lesbos, Greece that was generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.↩
Hamid, Mohsin, Exit West, Riverhead Books, 2017, 164.↩