The Nonviolent State of Iraq and Syria. The Republic-in-Motion of Lovers Not Fighters. The Government-in-Exile of People Who Just Want to Go to School.
Greek refugee ship leaving Smyrna. September, 1922. Image source: Drexel University College of Medicine, Archives and Special Collections.
I came to Mytilene, believe it or not, for vacation. Mytilene is the capital of Lesvos. A tiny, pretty port town curves in a tight crescent around a bay. Aegean sunlight glares off huge gunmetal ferries. Pink and yellow buildings with terra-cotta tile roofs and little streets with coffee shops, cats, and a used bookstore. After the port, a sixth-century fortress squats on the side of a hill, squinting out at Turkey—just an hour and some away, by ferry, if you happen to have the right passport.
Past the castle and up the coast. Past the blue-and-white fish restaurants. Along the seaside promenade, the lady stands with her back to the navy-blue sea. She’s cradling a sleeping baby in her right arm. A boy and a girl are leaning against her legs and looking exhausted. She’s gazing off to the side—almost but not quite over her shoulder, like she just finished taking one last look at where she came from. A plaque on the stone pedestal read: “To My Asia Minor Mother.”
The refugees walk past her on their pilgrimage to the port, a journey within a much longer journey, to check if they can get on a ferry to Athens. Usually we would see one or two people asleep in her shade. The lucky ones would be lying on a scrap of cardboard, with their shoes placed carefully next to it, as if it was a carpet or a bed.
Greece took Lesvos from the Ottoman Empire during the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. During these wars, two little wars within a much longer war, the relatively new country of Greece managed to expand its borders so much that its territory doubled.
This was a victory for the Megáli Idéa, the dream of restoring Greece to the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire. In this dream, Megáli Hellas, Greater Greece, would extend across Macedonia and Thrace. Across the sea of Marmara and all the way to the Black Sea. Two continents and five seas. The capital would be Constantinople. All nations begin as the dreams of megalomaniacs.
We were driving from Mytilene to Kara Tepe, the refugee camp, when we saw a young man hitchhiking in the sun. He had flat black hair and he was wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans. It was 97 degrees Fahrenheit. We picked him up, turned around, and drove him to the port. Zora handed him a bottle of water. I asked him in Arabic if he was from Syria. He smiled and said, “Farsi.”
His name was Muammar. He was staying at Moria, the barbed-wire prison camp where they keep Afghans and others whom the authorities consider “economic migrants.” He knew a handful of English words: brother, Frankfort.
I liked his confidence. It seemed immovable. He had made it this far. Why shouldn’t he get to Frankfort?
See you in Frankfort, I said as we dropped him off at the port, knowing he would understand even if he didn’t get all the words.
Kara Tepe wasn’t hard to find. All over the island, columns of people were straggling toward it. Women, mostly in hijabs, carrying children. Men with shirts wrapped around their heads against the heat. When we stopped to give them water or fruit, they would split it among themselves. There was never enough.
At Kara Tepe, the fences fluttered with laundry. Behind them, tents, and little groups of people huddled on pieces of cardboard. A mother was washing a naked toddler in water from a spigot in a metal pipe. He was howling with outrage. Other people were doing laundry or sitting around smoking. Everyone was either sitting in tents or sitting on curbs and fanning themselves with pieces of cardboard. Or they were just milling around, waiting. There’s not much to do in Kara Tepe but wait. First you go to the port, to register. Then you go to Moria or Kara Tepe, to wait. The cicadas and their lunatic violin chord made the air seem ten degrees hotter and thicker.
Kara Tepe itself is a symbol of Europe’s failure.
The camp was divided into roughly two parts: on the left, a strange little miniature city. Tiny roads and sidewalks, little garden areas, a playground with a merry-go-round and jungle gym. A Greek woman later told me it used to be an educational park where children from the countryside came to learn about life in a city. It even had a small outdoor amphitheatre. This was where Médecins du Monde volunteers were doing medical examinations. It was always crowded.
On the right side, a neatly tended olive grove, with swirling olive trees, trunks painted white, about twenty feet apart. The ground was covered with gravel. Both sides were full of tents: white UN tents, and orange, blue, and red plastic pup tents. Someone had written “PAKISTAN” on one of the white ones and underneath it, in smaller letters, “I MISS YOU.”
After the war, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Greek prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, presented his plan for Greater Greece. He did not get all the territories he wanted, but the Treaty of Sèvres, in 1920, gave Greece the administration of Smyrna and Eastern Thrace.
A camp is, by definition, a place for people already betrayed by borders. Kara Tepe is an “informal” camp, in humanitarian parlance, which means that nobody was responsible for managing it. The mayor of Lesvos had set aside the land when the refugee crisis began to explode, and the streets of Mytilene were full of refugees. The International Rescue Committee trucked in gravel and installed toilets. A Greek NGO called METAction was providing interpreters and legal help. But when we were there, in late August, after the refugee crisis had been going on for four months, the authorities—the Greek government, the European Union, the big international NGOs—were nowhere to be found. Kara Tepe itself is a symbol of Europe’s failure.
“To create a facility like Kara Tepe for one thousand people,” said Efi Latsoudi, one of the Greek activists I talked to, “is a big stupidity.”
In May 1919, the Greek Army invaded the country that Turkish nationalists thought of as Turkey but that Greek nationalists thought of as Greater Greece.
There was a group of Greek volunteers making food. We found them sweating over enormous aluminum cauldrons of macaroni with tomato sauce. We asked if they needed any help.
“Yes, please! Tell them to keep away!” said a young woman, brushing hair out of her eyes with the back of her wrist. “They always crowd around and try to take the food. Tell them they have to stand in line.”
Two men were hovering behind the food table. One was a tall, curly-haired guy in a red t-shirt, somewhere in his early to mid-twenties. Another was a thirtyish man, stocky and tanned, with a shaved head and the sea-green eyes that you find all over Syria.
I told them they would have to get in line like everyone else. They laughed at my Lebanese-accented Arabic and explained that they weren’t trying to cut in line.
“We haven’t eaten anything yet, you know,” said the green-eyed man, with a gentle half-smile. His name was Osama. The tall, curly-haired guy was Abdullah. They wanted to help.
The Greco-Turkish War and the Turkish War of Independence both effectively ended in September 1922. Turkish Nationalist forces pushed the Greek Army all the way to Smyrna, on the coast. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled to Smyrna to escape the fighting in the hinterlands. Tens of thousands of them died when a fire broke out on September 13. Many died in the fire. Others drowned in the sea, where they had fled to escape the fire. Allied ships, docked in the harbor, refused to pick them up. The Allies had encouraged the Greeks to fight, but they themselves were supposed to be neutral. According to the historian Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, the Allied ships played loud military music in order to drown out the screams of the drowning people.
Osama was a science teacher in his mid-thirties. He studied biology, with a specialty in plant science. He laughed a lot and liked to make bilingual puns. He was from Douma, a city to the northeast of Damascus. Douma was held by armed groups, outside government control. It was getting bombed almost every day.
“You have to put pressure on the American government,” said Osama. He was excited to meet an American. “You have to get Obama to help us. Why doesn’t he help us? You have to tell them what’s happening. You have to tell them what’s going on.”
“Look,” I said. Then I stopped. This conversation is always hard. I liked Osama and I didn’t want to lie to him. “Obama doesn’t care about the Middle East. He really isn’t interested.”
This felt horrible, so I added: “Maal assaf”—with sorrow, I’m sorry, unfortunately, alas.
“He’s only interested in American things now. It’s the end of his term, and he doesn’t want to start any new projects.”
“Ah. He’s only interested in domestic politics?”
He nodded, disappointed. He was a gentleman, so he didn’t rail about America, or the Americans, or Obama. He just stood there and looked like one last hope had been finally taken away.
Number of Greeks who became refugees in Anatolia and Eastern Thrace during the last four months of 1922: 900,000
Number of these refugees who died of disease and malnutrition between September 1922 and July 1923: 70,000
Number of refugees who arrived in Lesvos in the first ten days of October 1922: 50,000
Number of refugees who arrived in Lesvos in the first week of October 2015: 30,116
Number of Greeks who ended up as refugees in Aleppo and other Syrian cities: 17,000
A few days after I met Osama, the Syrian Air Force killed ninety-six people in Douma. The Air Force launched two missiles into a crowded marketplace, at rush hour, and then two more to kill the people who came to help. It was one of the worst massacres of the war. So far, 250,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict.
In 1923, after months of diplomacy, Greece and Turkey agreed to a compulsory exchange of populations. In cities like Constantinople and Smyrna—or Istanbul and Izmir, depending on where you stood—the population was mixed between Greeks, Turks, and other nationalities. Greece had many Turks among its population. The Greeks spoke Turkish. The Turks spoke Greek. Many people considered themselves citizens of the country they had been born in and lived in their whole lives. Their leaders, however, in Lausanne, decided who was who by religion. If you were Muslim, you were a Turk. If you were Christian, you were a Greek.
Greece expelled half a million Turks. Turkey expelled 1.5 million Greeks. With the stroke of a pen, two million people were turned into refugees overnight.
“Girl, in one night they made us enemies,” said one Greek man to his daughter, who remembered it years later, in a documentary by Maria Iliou called From Both Sides of the Aegean. “We weren’t enemies; but they made us.”
Abdullah was from Baghdad. He was twenty-five years old. He hadn’t had a chance to go to graduate school yet. This was one of the main reasons for his journey. “You know, I have asylum in the United States,” he said. “I already have it. But I don’t want to go there. I want to go to France. They have better services. Better education.”
Women and children, we all know what happens to them. But what about fighting-age men who don’t want to fight?
What happens to the silent, undeclared majority of any war zone—the teachers, engineers, farmers, pharmacists, taxi drivers, comic book artists? The jokers and dreamers and housewives and poets? Women and children, we all know what happens to them. But what about fighting-age men who don’t want to fight?
One of the other Iraqis buttonholed me and leaned in toward my face and started talking very fast about how Sunnis were the majority in Iraq. I have been hearing this speech for years and it never gets any more convincing. Sometimes you just have to let people have their say.
Abdullah looked embarrassed. “Look, Iraq is not sectarian,” he said. “We don’t have this way of thinking.”
“Are you Muslim?” asked the other Iraqi man.
A flicker of annoyance and weariness passed across Abdullah’s face.
“Yes, I’m Muslim,” he said. “I’m Sunni. But we don’t think about these things.”
Sometimes denial, too, can be an act of courage.
The Door to Europe
“This is the door to Europe” is how most of the Syrians and Iraqis I met described Lesvos. Almost all of them added, with indignation, that “the Greeks are rich.” Nobody could say exactly who had told them this—perhaps the smugglers in Izmir—or why they believed it so firmly. Nobody wanted to accept that the Europa they had dreamed about for months—sold everything they owned and risked their lives to reach—was this dusty hillside, covered with garbage, and toilets that hadn’t flushed in days. “I know they had an economic collapse,” said Osama. “I read about it in the newspapers. But why is it like this?”
Osama and Abdullah’s route was the same as everyone else’s: start in Jordan, Turkey, or Lebanon. Make your way to Turkey and then Greece. After that, Macedonia, perhaps Bulgaria, Hungary—but watch out for Hungary, they fingerprint you and send you back—then Serbia, Austria, and finally, the promised land: Germany.
Like everyone we met, they recited the chain of countries with the intensity peculiar to information transmitted orally and then memorized—as though it was the chain of transmission of a hadith, one of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.
In wars and migrations, oral knowledge becomes more important; circumstances that could mean life or death are unwritten, and ever-changing, and your life might hinge on a scrap of information that someone you ran into by chance was generous enough to share: Avoid this smuggler. Don’t get fingerprinted in Hungary. Watch out for the commandos. Wrap your phone in Saran wrap. The Greeks are rich. You will see many strange things on the journey to Europa.
At one point, Osama’s boat ended up on an island that was uninhabited. “We thought: ‘Is this Lesvos?’” he said. “There was nothing—just rocks!”
“Were there goats?”
“There were goats,” he said, laughing. “But no people. We stayed there for two hours. Three hours. Nobody came! Finally some people came and took us here.”
“It’s like a modern Odyssey,” Zora said later. “All these people stumbling across all these strange things, and creating new myths, and stories getting more and more exaggerated. But some of the stories turn out to be true.”
For Greek and Turkish politicians, one of the main reasons for the population exchange was to protect the “integrity,” by which they meant the racial and religious purity, of the new nation-states. Cities like Izmir and Salonica, which had always been mixed, became homogeneous overnight.
For the people on both sides, the population transfer caused years of dislocation, shock, and incalculable financial losses. They showed up as strangers in a country that many of them had never seen, where people spoke a language that most of them didn’t know, where the only thing they shared was religion. Under the terms of the treaty, the refugees were supposed to receive financial compensation for the homes, property, and businesses they had left behind. For many, that never happened.
But governments and people who made decisions about other people’s lives all considered the population transfer a great success. In 1937, the Peel Commission set up by British Mandate authorities recommended a “transfer of land and an exchange of population” between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, modeled after the Greco-Turkish exchange. “The best solution for the Arabs in Israel,” wrote David Ben-Gurion in 1951, “is to go and live in the Arab states—in the framework of a peace treaty or transfer.” British colonial authorities also used it as a reference for the partition and population exchange between India and Pakistan in 1947, in which 14 million people were displaced, and between a quarter and a half a million killed.
A True Story
Everyone had heard about the commandos. They were terrifying men in black uniforms and masks who were attacking refugees in the waters between Turkey and Greece. They urged me to meet a man who had seen this happen.
“It wasn’t my boat,” the man told me. “It was another boat. But I was close enough to see. They ripped open the boat with a long knife, on a pole. People drowned. Women. They shot at people. They took people’s things—their money, their bags.”
Some believed that the commandos were from the Turkish government. Others said they were German. They saw German flags or Turkish flags. Some even said they saw both.
Anyone can put up any flag, I said. A ship can be registered anywhere. Did you hear what language they were speaking?
“A strange language,” said the man who had seen the commandos. “It wasn’t Turkish. I think it was German.”
I asked them to draw the flags that they saw. They tore off a piece of cardboard from a box and drew the Turkish flag, the star and crescent, and a German flag that was three lines.
Their stories were confused, and it wasn’t clear who had seen what. But it was clear that they were telling the truth. Something bad was happening in the waters between Turkey and Greece. Later, the Greek volunteers told me they suspected it might be Golden Dawn supporters in the Hellenic Coast Guard. “There were pushbacks in the past,” said Pavlos. “And people died.”
A few months later, in October, Human Rights Watch documented eight similar incidents in which masked men attacked boats carrying refugees. In many of these cases, the “commandos,” after attacking the boats, sped off toward the Greek coastline.
Golden Dawn is the Greek neo-Nazi party. Its members are, among other things, proponents of the Megáli Idéa who chant that Istanbul will be Greek again. Since the refugee crisis began to accelerate, support for Golden Dawn has almost doubled on islands like Kos and Lesvos, which have received the largest amount of refugees.
In 2014, Golden Dawn supporters attacked a Médecins du Monde clinic that treated refugees on the outskirts of Athens. According to Human Rights First, a Golden Dawn defector testified in the criminal case. “The police couldn’t touch us,” he said, then corrected himself. “The police had specific orders not to touch us.”
In June 2012, the German organization Pro Asyl and the Greek Council for Refugees documented dozens of assaults on refugees in and around the port of Patras. The refugees referred to the men who assaulted them as “commandos.” The commandos beat them, attacked them with dogs, or threw them into the sea. In one case, the Greek Red Cross lodged a complaint against the Special Operation Unit of the Hellenic Coast Guard in Patras, claiming that it had done all of the above to an Afghan refugee: according to the complaint, he was “badly beaten in the head, thrown in the sea, forced to stand with his legs in extension, prevented from moving and bitten by a police dog.”
Number of Greeks who were of refugee origin in 1924: one in four
The war is borderless. It is being being fought across many countries. In late 2014, the Islamic State took over massive swaths of territory across both Syria and Iraq. Ever since then, it’s become the fashion to opine, sagely, that Sykes-Picot, which reshaped the Middle East after World War I, is no longer relevant. You get extra points for asserting that the nation-state is dead; that the Islamic State, with its epic sweep across the old borders, has buried it.
Pick the right side, and you’re a warlord, a millionaire, a king. Pick the wrong side and you’re dead.
But to the European and Greek authorities, the idea of nation-states is still very much alive and in use. Under their rules, Iraqis fleeing bombings, or mass murder, or government repression, are migrants. Syrians fleeing bombings, or mass murder, or government repression, are refugees. Afghans fleeing bombing, or mass murder, are refugees, but their cases are not considered as urgent as those of the Syrians. Pakistanis are considered economic migrants, even if they are fleeing bombings, or government repression, or the Taliban.
Identities are fluid during wartime. Your whole life can change overnight. Pick the right side, and you’re a warlord, a millionaire, a king. Pick the wrong side and you’re dead. Try to avoid picking a side, and you end up in a place like Kara Tepe.
But the minute the war is over, the men with pens begin to write things down. Identities harden and crack like ice. You might survive the entire bloody war, only to wake up one day and find out the country you grew up in is gone. Or it’s still there, but you are not.
A Syrian fleeing ISIS is a refugee. An Iraqi fleeing ISIS is a migrant.
“These Greeks,” Osama said. He laughed and shook his head. “They’re all named Niko this, Nikas that, Neek something.”
We all laughed. It’s true: “Neek” is one of the most common phonemes in the Greek language. The Greek language itself, in Greek, is Elliniká: Ell-a-neek-ah. “Neek,” in Levantine Arabic, is one of the dirtiest words you can imagine.
On the path to Europa, you will pass through many strange lands. The door to Europe is a country where everyone is rich, yet they look very poor, and every other person is named Fuck.
Number of refugees who arrived to Europe by sea in the year 2015, as of December 11, 2015: 944,909
Percentage of them from Syria: 50
Number of the dead or missing: 3,580
The Refugee Museum
To get to the 1922 Refugee Memorial Museum, first you call a number that you can find on the Internet, if you plan ahead, or on a little metal plaque outside the museum, if you don’t. If you’re lucky, Dimitris Papachrisos will answer and agree to meet you at the museum.
I took a bus to Skala Loutran, a tiny village on the other side of the hills. When I got there, Dimitris was just pulling up with his son and daughter-in-law. They lived in Sweden, but happened to be visiting.
The museum was in a low, salmon-colored building that used to be a school. Inside, it was cool and smelled like acrylic paint. One wall of the museum was occupied almost entirely by a giant map, about fifteen feet long, of Turkey and Greece: the old Megáli Hellas. The Turkish side was spangled with tiny black names in the Greek alphabet. These were the names of Greek villages that stopped existing in 1922.
All the tiny villages that had been erased from Asia Minor were there, scattered across the map like seeds. The names were heaviest around Izmir. But even the vast Anatolia hinterlands had the occasional Greek name. A map of Atlantis.
On the Greek side of the map, little dancing figures represented the new villages. Many kept the same names as their lost Asia Minor counterparts, just adding the word “New.”
“Skala Loutran is a refugee village,” said Dimitris. “My grandparents came from Izmir and Ayvalí. At one time, 45 percent of the island was refugees.”
The descendants of Asia Minor refugees decided to open the museum. People came from all over Greece to donate artifacts that their grandparents or great-grandparents had brought from Asia Minor: a teapot from Ayvalí, now Ayvalik. A traditional Greek dress. Two swan-shaped silver candlesticks.
“There’s two groups of refugees now,” said Dimitris. “The first group is from Syria. They come here because of bombing and war. They have a lot in common with the 1922 refugee wave. The second is the economic refugees, from Afghanistan or Pakistan, who come over time.
“It’s a war now, and there is a lot of responsibility in the Western countries, because they allowed the war in Syria. But they don’t take responsibility. It was exactly the same thing in 1922. Because when that happened, in 1922, both France and England didn’t do anything to solve the situation. They allowed it to happen. It’s a parallel now. The Western countries see the situation, but they don’t do anything to help.”
The Little Girl
A Syrian man with tired eyes brought a little girl to Konstantinos. She was dragging her feet and staring at the ground. “Her mother died before one month,” said the Syrian man, in English.
Konstantinos looked very angry. He leaned down and absorbed her into such a bear hug as only a giant Greek man can give. He lifted her up off the ground, and he didn’t speak any Arabic, but he was speaking to her in Greek and she got the idea and started smiling despite herself. He hugged her and swung her around, still speaking in Greek, until she started laughing.
“Did you see that girl?” he asked me later. “Her mother was killed.” He shook his head, angry as if no mother had ever been killed before in this world.
After World War I, refugees from all over Europe, including Greece, were fleeing to the United States. Newspapers and politicians and radio commenters referred to the immigrants as a natural disaster, an enemy invasion, a sickness. Above all, they spoke of them as a liquid: an ocean, a tide, a flood.
“The flood metaphor was especially likely to be used in conjunction with the threat to American character that was posed by the overwhelming rush of immigrants,” wrote Gerald V. O’Brien in the journal Metaphor and Symbol.
Such is the power of this image, this fear of fluidity and motion, argued O’Brien, that the words themselves can change how we view the people they describe: “Whether perceived as a poison coursing through the blood veins of the nation or an engulfing flood, liquid metaphors were an important element of restrictionist writings, and served as an apt means of portraying a group of persons who arrived over the water.”
The “incoming tide threatens to overwhelm us with the magnitude and ceaseless oncoming of its flood”
“the flood gates will be down and a turgid sea of aliens will inundate our seaports”
The laws “effectively dammed a rising tide of immigration from Europe”
Weaken them and you “undermine the dyke that keeps out the infinite ocean.”
“A multimillion-dollar shadow economy…has developed in Turkey to profit from the massive human tide rushing toward Europe” (the New York Times, Sep 26, 2015)
“Can the flood of refugees into Europe be stopped?” (Al Jazeera, October 17, 2015)
“The waves of Syrian and other Muslim refugees inundating Europe” (the Washington Times, November 17, 2015)
“And what institution is more vulnerable than the European Union? Powerless to stem the tide of refugees, its walls and fences going up and down like an unsuitable metaphor, it often seems, in the words of one European politician, that eventually the EU “‘will collapse as the Soviet Union…’” (The Times UK, December 10, 2015)
“Islamic State extremists are taking advantage of developed nations’ generosity towards refugees to infiltrate Europe” (Daily Express, November 18, 2015)
To infiltrate, of a liquid: to permeate by filtration.
The Syrians taught Konstantinos and the other Greeks the Arabic word for bread: khubz. All day, people would come up and say this word to them, and now they knew what it meant. Khubz! they shouted, lifting their faces up to the sky. Khubz!
Between 1921 and 1924, the US Congress passed a series of laws designed to keep out foreigners who might bring over dangerous, violent ideologies like socialism or anarchism from Europe: Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Greeks. (Africans were even more severely restricted; Arabs and Asians were completely excluded.)
But to-day it is the Italians, Spanish, Poles, Jews, Greeks, Russians, Balkanians, and so forth, who are the racial lepers. And it is eminently fitting and proper that so many Members of this House with names as Irish as Paddy’s pig, are taking the floor these days to attack once more as their kind has attacked for seven bloody centuries the fearful fallacy of chosen peoples and inferior peoples.
—Speech by Robert H. Clancy, April 8, 1924, Congressional Record
Everybody needed shoes. Aside from the danger of drowning, one of the problems with a rubber boat, especially when it’s made to carry fifteen but loaded with fifty, is that it takes in water. So you’re sitting with your feet in the water for hours, and your shoes fall apart, and even if you bring an extra pair you’ll probably have to throw your carefully packed bags overboard. Then, when you finally make it to shore, you will have to walk. And walk. As far as sixty kilometers, in those ruined shoes, carrying everything you have left, which for many was simply their children.
“We threw everything into the sea,” one young mother told me. She was laughing, holding her baby. Giddy at simply being alive. “Everything. But we made it. Now where do we get diapers?”
“She took a gold sovereign and wove it into her hair, so it wouldn’t show, a loaf of bread, and a picture of the Prophet Elias. Her slipper fell off in the water, and she arrived in Greece with only one slipper.”
—From Both Sides of the Aegean
One of the main reasons for the immigration restrictions was to “preserve the ideal of US homogeneity,” by which they meant the racial purity, of the nation.
I think we now have sufficient population in our country for us to shut the door and to breed up a pure, unadulterated American citizenship. I recognize that there is a dangerous lack of distinction between people of a certain nationality and the breed of the dog. Who is an American? Is he an immigrant from Italy? Is he an immigrant from Germany? If you were to go abroad and some one were to meet you and say, “I met a typical American,” what would flash into your mind as a typical American, the typical representative of that new Nation? Would it be the son of an Italian immigrant, the son of a German immigrant, the son of any of the breeds from the Orient, the son of the denizens of Africa?
—Speech by Ellison DuRant Smith, April 9, 1924, Congressional Record
The immigration restrictions passed the Senate by a vote of sixty-two to six. The House voted for them 323 to seventy-one. They remained in force until 1952. Because these laws prevented most Europeans from getting refugee status in the United States, some historians today view them as one of the reasons why so many Jews—not to mention Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, righteous gentiles, and other troublemakers—died in World War II.
On August 27, two weeks after I met Osama, Abdullah, Feras, Walaa, and Muhammad, Austrian police discovered a truck designed to carry refrigerated chickens abandoned on the side of the road outside a town called Parndorf. When they opened it, they found the bodies of fifty-nine men, eight women, and four children, including a baby girl, who had suffocated and died while being smuggled across the border. The bodies were so liquefied that they were hard to identify; many did not have fingerprints. The truck had no ventilation and the smugglers had wired the doors shut. Austrian police said they believed the people were already dead when they crossed the border from Serbia.
Out of the crowd of thousands, all waiting to leave, someone would always step forward to help. This time it was Feras. When he saw us passing out juice boxes to children, he tried to buy us coffee and food.
Feras studied engineering in Damascus. But he looked more like a poet. A willowy 23-year-old, with a long, pensive nose, blistered by the sun. Light brown curls tumbled out from under a floppy khaki golf hat. Big hazel eyes that widened when he spoke, as if shocked by the words coming out of his own mouth.
“He’s on the side of the Syrian people,” she said, fiercely, which meant neither with the Islamic militants nor the regime.
He took us to his tent to meet his family: his uncle Muhammad, forty-seven years old, a father of five. His sister Walaa, also in her mid-twenties. She had the same light greenish-brown eyes as Feras, but she was more talkative. She liked the Syrian rapper Ismail Tamer. “He’s on the side of the Syrian people,” she said, fiercely, which meant neither with the Islamic militants nor the regime.
Inside, the tent was airy, light, sunny, and hot. The back was open, to let in the breeze, but they closed it at night against flies and mosquitoes. White canvas covered the floor. They apologized for the ants, and brushed them away for us before we sat down.
“Why did you leave Syria?” I asked Feras, after the few minutes of small talk.
“Because I didn’t want to go into the army, and I didn’t want to go into prison,” he said.
“If I went into the army, I could have been kidnapped and slaughtered,” he said, drawing his hand across his throat and using an Arabic word that, until the Islamic State, was mostly used to talk about killing animals. “And if I didn’t go into the army, I would have gone to prison.” Neither option comes with much of a life expectancy these days.
I asked him if he thought about joining the Free Syrian Army, or one of the other militias fighting against the regime.
“No,” he said simply. “They’re all wrong. I didn’t want to kill anyone. They all use violence. And I don’t believe in violence. Even the FSA, even they use violence.”
“The FSA, at first they were with us,” said Walaa. “They were from the Syrian people. But then we saw them begin to change. We saw people starting to show up from all other countries—Libya, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon. They started getting involved in kidnapping, and stealing, and other crimes.”
“There’s another side in this war,” said Muhammad. “A third side. They are the gangs.”
The revolution began, he said, like they all do: from the people. But then there was a transition. “After a while, we saw shady men begin to show up,” he said. “A guy, for example, has a good car. Mercedes, BMW. You see these guys, they come along, and they take it. They trade it for a bad car, like a 1977 Lancer…”
Here, he named about five makes and models of cars, his voice lingering with affection on each one, as if each was a person we knew.
“You know a lot about cars!” I said, laughing. “Even the years!” Uncle Muhammad reminded me a little of my grandfather. He was the same way about cars.
“Well, I know 1967,” he said, laughing back, “because that’s the year I was born.”
“Insha’allah, we will see you on the Autobahn,” said Zora.
At this, he got quiet. “I don’t think about this anymore,” he said. “Now I just want my kids to study.”
When I asked the dozens of people I met in Lesvos—from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, even Morocco—why they had risked their lives to get to Europe, every single person, without exception, used one of the following three words:
“Anyone who migrates, they all do this because they have dreams,” said Muhammad. “They all dream of building a future. For themselves and for their children.”
“Do you think you will ever go back to Syria?” I asked him.
Almost all of the refugees said the same thing, in almost the same words: If the war ended, I would go back tomorrow, or, If Bashar al-Assad left, I would go back tomorrow.
Muhammad was more cynical, or more honest. “Even if Bashar al-Assad leaves today, the soul of the country is destroyed,” he said. “Because of the war, now there are 200,000 Bashar al-Assads.
“Maybe in twenty years,” he said, “we can go back.”
The war is borderless. But so are the refugees.
If the warlords, gangs, and profiteers are a third side, then the refugees are a fourth. This nation flows across the boundaries of nation-states like water. If it had a name, maybe it would be something like this: The Nonviolent State of Iraq and Syria. The Republic-in-Motion of Lovers Not Fighters. The Government-in-Exile of People Who Just Want to Go to School. It is made up of people, helped by volunteers who don’t believe in borders: Greek anarchists and European lesbians, some European anarchists and Greek lesbians, and assorted cranks and weirdos from all over the world. E.M. Forster was on to them, with his aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky. And as he pointed out, you can find them in all places and classes and in all time periods. They are the secret government of the world. The refugee camps on Lesvos tend to have a higher proportion of them, but you can find them anywhere. You might even be one. If anyone has transcended the nation-state, it is them.
I heard that a leather workshop owner in the village of Eressos had donated several cases of shoes to the refugees in Mytilene. Because Lesvos is a tiny island, he happened to be the same leatherworker I had bought sandals from when mine broke: Kyriakos Karkalis, fifty years old. He was a tall, thoughtful-looking man with a long ponytail and a tanned, hawkish face. Like a lot of the Greeks I met on Lesvos, his face had settled into a scowl that made him look simultaneously testy and kind.
I needed to get my belt fixed, so I went back to Kyriakos. Inside his shop it smelled like warm leather and wood and the fat that he rubbed into the leather. He was sitting behind an old metal sewing machine. When I asked him why he had sent shoes to the refugees he looked at me like I was insane.
“Because they are people,” he said, “that need help.” He shrugged. “Wherever I can help, I help.”
“Are other people from the island helping, donating things? Why?”
“Many Greek people know from immigration,” he said, pushing the old sewing machine with his foot so it rattled and clanked like a steam locomotive. “They went to America, Germany, many places. Yes, Greek people generally like to help. Generally. Because they know from immigration.”
“Did your family emigrate?”
“All my family is like this. Was in Turkey. My grandmother was like this. I know these people. I met them. In my life.”
“So your family came in 1922?”
“Yes,” he said, and clanked some more. “Greek people that used to live in Turkey. In Ottoman times. At that time, was okay. After the war, they sent them away.”
“Did they talk about this?”
“Of course. My uncles, how their relatives, some of them fighted with the Turks. How their Turkish friends helped them, when the orders came to kill. Many stories.”
“My grandmother used to speak Turkish in the house. The mother of my grandmother, with her daughter. My grandmother.”
Some customers came in, and he talked to them in Greek for a minute.
“Yes, Greek people, generally, they have philoxenia,” he said, after they had gone. “You know, hospitality. Like characteristic of the population. Generally.”
Philoxenia: love for the stranger, the traveler, the guest. Who might be a god or goddess in disguise. Or Odysseus, returning from his travels in the guise of a beggar in order to test the loyalties of his servants.
“We sended sandals,” he said, and shrugged again. “They enjoy it.”
He smiled at all the questions, and went back to his sewing machine. He wouldn’t let me pay him for fixing the belt.
“Old man, the dogs were likely to have made short work of you, and then you would have got me into trouble. The gods have given me quite enough worries without that, for I have lost the best of masters, and am in continual grief on his account. I have to attend swine for other people to eat, while he, if he yet lives to see the light of day, is starving in some distant land. But come inside, and when you have had your fill of bread and wine, tell me where you come from, and all about your misfortunes.”
—Eumaeus, the Syrian, to the disguised Odysseus; The Odyssey, Book 14
We were walking down the hill and out of the camp when we saw him: a spindly teenager at the bottom of the hill, just off the highway. He was standing behind a wheelchair and looking around bewildered. In the wheelchair was an old woman with her leg propped up in a cast.
“We just got back from the hospital,” he said. “They took us directly to the hospital. But then they brought us here. They just left us here. Where are we supposed to go now?”
He looked at us. We looked at each other. The dirt road was steep and full of rocks. It wasn’t even really a road. It was not physically possible to push the wheelchair up the hill of rocks and gravel. Not without wrecking it and hurting his mother.
We stood there with him trying to decide what to do. Go up? How? Go back? To where?
Just then two more spindly teenagers came up over the top of the hill. They were walking down among all the other people coming and going. The mother looked up and saw them and suddenly her whole face changed.
“You made it!” she said, and started crying and laughing at the same time. Turning around and looking up at her son, she said, “They made it! They made it! They’re here!”
The two young men started running down the hill. Their faces were shining.
Annia Ciezadlo is the author of the award-winning book Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press, 2011). She was a special correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Baghdad and The New Republic in Beirut. Her writing on culture, politics, and the Middle East has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Time, Newsweek, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Nation, and Granta.com.
To contact Guernica or Annia Ciezadlo, please write here.