“Why do the people here not recognize that we are human beings?”
This was the first question I was asked by a young Syrian I’ll call Khaled when I met him this summer at a refugee camp on the island of Samos, in Greece. Khaled is only twenty-five, yet he bears a shock of white in his hair and lines around his eyes, the result of the trauma and torture he underwent in Syria at the hands of ISIS.
I heard the same question from every other asylum seeker I met this summer on the island, where, as Europe and the United States once again tighten the noose around refugees, the camp is the most crowded it has ever been, local tolerance is wearing thin, police harassment is reaching a new high, and refugees’ hopes for their futures are spinning to a new low.
Samos, a northern Aegean island, is nestled up so close to Turkey that refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and further afield, from several war-torn countries in Africa, cross by boat every day to try to reach the safety of Greece. Once they leave Turkish waters, they are usually captured by either the Greek or European Coast Guard and taken to one of three island camps, the biggest one of which is on Lesbos and the second biggest on Samos.
Run by the Greek government, the Samos camp sits on a hillside just above the capital town of Vathy. Its population now exceeds its intended capacity four times over, even as summer temperatures can soar to 110 degrees, and water is cut off for at least eight hours a day.
A warren of concrete walls and hurricane fences topped with barbed wire, the camp is built on a former Army barracks designed to hold up to seven hundred people in transition, not the three thousand or so who have been living there now for months or even years. Every corner is crammed with light-gray metal shipping containers and crowds of tents. The air is permeated by the stench of clogged toilets, and the ground overrun by rats. As I was waiting to meet the official who was to give me a tour of the camp, an elderly man collapsed in front of me and had an epileptic fit. That is when I learned the camp has only one permanent doctor.
To escape these intolerable conditions, many of the camp dwellers drift down to the town—a collection of dusty streets, modern shopfronts, and picturesque old stone buildings—where they can seek shade, dip into the sea, or simply wait somewhere that doesn’t stink. This is how I met Ali, a 23-year-old Syrian who later introduced me to several of his friends, Syrian and Iraqi, who had fled war to seek asylum in Europe. I overheard him speaking English in a store, invited him for coffee, and we arranged to meet. (Both Ali and Khaled, the young man with white in his hair, asked me not to use their real names for fear of jeopardizing their asylum cases.)
The next day, Ali found me in the camp, and bringing along Khaled, led us up the hillside to the woods beyond, where many new arrivals are forced to live for weeks, and sometimes months, without toilets or shelter while they wait for space to open in a container or tent. There, we sat on logs under the shade of an olive tree, surrounded by pine needles, litter, and human excreta, while Ali kept a wary eye on the police down on the road. Once, he asked me to hide my notebook, so afraid was he of getting into trouble. After that, the three of us met regularly at cafés by the seafront in town, where we lingered for hours over coffee while the two young men told me their stories.
Ali is tall and strikingly thin, with unruly brown hair, huge eloquent eyes, and a fierce intelligence. He and his family fled their hometown of Sabinah, southwest of Damascus, in 2012, after his uncle and two cousins were killed by government forces, and when it became so dangerous that no one could go out for bread without risk of being shot. The family arrived on Samos a year ago, but when they were granted permission to move to Athens, Ali’s younger brother, Omar (also not his real name), twenty-one, had to stay behind because he was the only family member inexplicably rejected for asylum. Ali decided to stay with Omar in the camp so as not to abandon him. Once university students, Ali and Omar are now in limbo, like so many others trapped in the camp: full of energy, ambition, and talent, without anywhere to apply it. Indeed, Ali was admitted to a university program in Athens last year but was unable to attend because he lacked permission to leave Samos. The program has since been closed, the US government having cut off its funding.
“We can’t work here because nobody will give us jobs,” Ali explained, his brow furrowing under his mop of hair. “We can’t go to university because we can’t leave here. The only thing we can do is wait.”
With Ali translating, Khaled then told me about his life in Syria. At times the memories were so painful that he had to pinch his nose with his fingers to stop his eyes from filling with tears and look down at his lap, jiggling his legs until he could master himself.
Khaled grew up in a large, working-class family in the town of Manbij, northeast of Aleppo. His father was a construction worker, his mother a homemaker, and the family was tightly knit until the civil war started. In 2014, Manbij was taken over by ISIS, and Khaled, his beloved twin brother, and his other siblings were forced to leave for their safety and to find work. Soon after, their mother grew sick and died because the war prevented her from being able to go to the hospital. When Khaled and his twin went home to bury and mourn her, ISIS militants shot his brother dead. Later, they arrested Khaled for carrying music and photographs in his phone, beat him until his nose and fingers broke, and whipped him in public eighty-one times.
Knowing that he would be killed if he stayed, Khaled then fled alone to Turkey, where he tried to find what work he could and slept in an abandoned house. One night a group of Turks found him, beat him up, and set his bedding on fire.
Now, Khaled is in constant pain from his injuries and lashed with scars. And yet every day he washes his clothes under a tap in the woods, shaves, and makes sure to look clean and respectable. Respect is important to Khaled. He has lost everything else.
“Khaled may be young in years,” Ali said of his friend, “but inside, he is old.”
Ali also introduced me to Abbas, a 28-year-old Iraqi from Baghdad with graduate degrees in physical education and English, who told me that he had fled because corruption prevented him from finding work, and bombs made his life untenable. The rubber boat that Abbas took to cross from Turkey to Greece was so overloaded with eighty-three people—most of the boats refugees take are built to hold no more than nine—that it tore in half midway across, and a 23-year-old Iraqi named Mohammad drowned. Such accidents are not unusual. More than a thousand refugees have drowned trying to reach Greece just this year, many of them children.
Abbas, who is bearded and robust, is nevertheless cheerful, with a strong command of English and an outgoing manner. He has been living in a tent at the camp for eleven months now, yet works tirelessly teaching recreational activities to refugee children at the local NGO in town, Samos Volunteers, a lifeline for those otherwise trapped in the camp. Samos Volunteers runs two centers in town, The Alpha Center for adults and children and the new Mazi (which means “together” in Greek) Center for teenagers. The centers offer classes in English, fitness, and other activities, and provide a haven for residents of the camp where they can drink tea or coffee, or just sit and talk.
Ali later introduced me to two more of his friends: Ghadeer and Mayssar, the parents of a seven-year-old boy and twins who will turn two in October. Ghadeer, a small, pragmatic woman of twenty-seven, is from Aleppo. Mayssar, a tall man of thirty-eight with a soft-spoken manner, is from Homs, where the couple were living when the civil war started in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad considers both these cities strongholds of opposition to his rule and has waged war upon them so relentlessly that the cities are all but destroyed. Should Ghadeer, Mayssar, and their children ever return to Syria, they, like any other native of Aleppo or Homs, are likely to be arrested and killed. Furthermore, last April, the Assad regime passed a decree allowing the government to confiscate the property of millions of Syrian refugees, leaving them nothing to return to.
Mayssar’s family members were among the victims of the now notorious government massacre of March 13, 2012. “Assad’s army killed my cousin, her five children, and the baby she was holding in her arms,” Mayssar told me, adding that the same cousin’s husband was also killed in the massacre, along with his mother, sister, and sister-in-law. “They rounded up everyone from my neighborhood in Homs, put them in the town square, and shot them. My cousin tried to protect her baby, but both of them were shot anyway. Two of my other cousins played dead and survived. They are the ones who told me this.” The soldiers also arrested Mayssar’s father and two brothers. “My father is ninety and has lost his mind,” he told me. “We have never heard from them since.”
After Ghadeer and Mayssar fled for their lives, they worked at a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, where he was the manager and she a volunteer counselor for widows. “That camp was much better than this one,” Mayssar said. “It was cleaner, and we treated the refugees with more respect.”
“We have been married eight years and I’ve never seen my husband cry,” Ghadeer told me then. “But after that happened, he was a broken man.”
As the couple and I sat with Ali at an outdoor café, discussing these things while the children played around us, Ghadeer explained partly in English, and partly with Ali translating, that even though she and Mayssar have been in the camp since March and have been granted asylum in Greece, they must wait two more years for their residency interview, which will give them permission to live on the mainland—if they can find somewhere to live. The snail-like pace of asylum and residency hearings and overcrowding in the mainland camps are two of the reasons why transfers out of Samos have ground to a near halt.
Meanwhile, their older son has no school to attend, and one of the twin’s eardrums is broken from the bombs the family fled to escape. Ghadeer said her little son screams in pain at night and deafness is impairing his development, yet the camp can provide no medical care to help his hearing. “My children are always sick with fevers and diarrhea here,” she said. “The food is bad and the milk they give us for the children runs right through them.” Because of the lack of water and bathrooms, she added, it is even harder to keep her children clean and healthy.
Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which had a medical team inside the Samos camp until March 2016, says it proposed methods of improving water and sanitation in the camp, and of controlling the rat infestation, but these were rejected by management. My requests for comment on this from the camp director went unanswered.
This August, however, a French NGO called Med’EqualiTeam set up a center near the camp to provide basic medical care to the refugees, a small ray of hope in an otherwise desperate situation. So far, the center has two doctors, one nurse, a medical student, and some translators. The team hopes to expand.
Ghadeer, whose pale face is puffed by pregnancy—she arrived on the island four months pregnant and is due in November—has the determined manner of a woman ready to endure anything. “I can be strong,” she conceded, “but sometimes I feel so weak. The camp makes me weak. I want to leave and make a better life, but I don’t know where our lives are going.”
Like many others in the camp, Ghadeer and her family sleep on bunk beds in one of the shipping containers, metal boxes with windows cut into their sides, each of which holds an average of twenty-eight to thirty-four people who must share two or three toilets and a single shower during the brief moments when there is water. Because there are women from other families also living there, Mayssar feels he must sleep outside in a tent. “And because there are men not in my family in our container, I can never take off my hijab,” Ghadeer added. “My head longs for the feel of air.” The only privacy is a blanket hung around a bed, yet in the camp, the containers are luxury housing. Everyone else is either in a tent, or in the woods with no shelter at all.
I asked Ghadeer why so many women at the camp stay in their containers and tents, cramped as they are, rather than seeking air and exercise in the town, for I had noticed that the majority of refugees walking in town are men. “It is because the women are afraid,” she said. “Many are troubled emotionally because of what happened to them before.” She meant, I knew, that many women at the camp are traumatized, having been raped or otherwise attacked either in war or during their flight to Greece, and are afraid of being attacked again in the camp, especially if they are here alone. But then Ghadeer added something else: “Also, it is very painful to bring your children to the town. They see the Greek children with new clothes or toys or bicycles, and they ask, ‘Why don’t we have that? Why are we different?’ It only makes us sadder than ever.”
After spending several hours talking at the café, Ghadeer’s family, Ali, and I walked slowly up the hill together toward the camp, the sun burning down on us. Seeing that Ghadeer was struggling, I asked how she was feeling. She looked down at her belly. “My legs are swollen, but every time I try to see the doctor, I wait for hours and hours, and then he leaves. This baby, maybe it will be a baby, and maybe…” She shrugged and trailed off, her voice dropping. Then she said, “I wish it could be the way it was before. I wish the camp were just a dream and I could wake up in my own house.”
I met another asylum seeker who speaks English while I was touring the camp, a young African who asked that I not identify him by name or country because he fled persecution and certain imprisonment for being gay. Even his family, he said, rejected him. A slight nineteen-year-old with a smooth, delicate face, he said he cannot remember anything without writing it down, is afraid to make friends, even among his own countrymen, and spends his days alone. He has to wait until October for even his first hearing for his asylum case; every asylum seeker must pass two. I saw him several times over the summer, always apart from the others, his eyes darting warily. Shattered memory and distrust are recognized symptoms of trauma.
While I was exploring the island, I also spoke with many local Greeks about what they thought of the refugee situation. Some were sympathetic, and generous toward them, too, and said they regularly provided donations and food. But because Vathy is a town of about seven thousand, even the most understanding of local residents said the flood of three thousand newcomers is a strain on the town’s economy, especially as Samos is still struggling to recover from the Greek economic crisis of 2008. As a result, local resentment and misinformation abound.
“Why do they come here?” one shopkeeper said to me in English. “Take Iraq. Under Saddam, they did not come. Under the Iran-Iraq war, they did not come. Under the first Bush war, they did not come. But now, they come and come. I feel sorry for them, I do, but I think they only come because it is the fashion.”
“You know why the Africans come?” another Greek asked me rhetorically. “For money. There are no wars in Africa.” (In fact, there are fifteen wars in Africa right now.)
Tourism has long been the main industry on Samos, and because it declined dramatically in 2015-6, at the height of the refugee crisis, there is still a prevailing belief that refugees are at fault. Whether this is true is open to debate. Some say tourism went down because of the economic crisis and not because of refugees at all, others say they never saw any significant decline in tourists, and yet others say tourism dwindled for a time but is on the rise again, which appears to be true. Yet blame centered on the refugees remains rife. As one shopkeeper told me, “Tourists from all over Europe have refugees in their hometowns. They don’t want to come on vacation and see them here, too.”
Once, as I sat with Ali and Khaled at a café in the town square, I watched police officers stop two young men as they walked by, demand their IDs, and search their bags. “They know we are refugees because we look Arab,” Ali said. I had noticed that even as we sat at outdoor cafés for hours, my companions never went inside to use a bathroom, not even Ghadeer in her pregnancy. A lawyer who works with the refugees told me they would not be welcome at most of those cafés at all, were I, a Western white woman, not sitting with them.
Khaled said that when he last went to the police station to sign a document, as he is required to do every week, the policeman called him a filthy word in Greek, made him wait for forty-five minutes while he played on his phone, and then put on a rubber glove and lifted Khaled’s file with his fingertips, as if it were something disgusting.
“Before I left home, people told me that in Europe they will treat you with humanity, with compassion, but instead we are treated like animals,” Khaled said in Arabic, visibly upset, while Ali translated. “What have we done to deserve this? We are not criminals.”
The crowding, hopelessness, and heat are, understandably, causing tensions in the camp, and one hot July night, a fight broke out between some of the young men. The police swept in and arrested around ten of them while beating others.
“I saw a policeman run his hands over the outside of a tent feeling for the man inside,” Khaled said. “When he found the man’s head, he kicked it hard. The man had only been sleeping.”
I went to the arrested men’s trial. Not one of them had a lawyer, nor was there a court-appointed translator for the Arabic speakers. Within less than an hour, the judge had convicted each of the defendants and sentenced him to eight months in jail.
“If you’re not Greek, you’re guilty,” a lawyer told me. “That’s the way it works here.”
Even at the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, several workers at the camp told me, conflict, police harassment, and resentment weren’t this high—the camp wasn’t so crowded, and people were moving more steadily to the mainland and beyond. But now, thanks to recent border closings by Austria, Hungary, and other Balkan states, the 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey to force Greece to keep refugees, and the consequentially overflowing camps on the mainland, more than seventeen thousand refugees are trapped on the islands with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Untenable as this is, the crisis is only growing worse. Nearly twenty thousand refugees have tried to reach the Greek islands already this year, and more people are arriving every night. Twenty boats loaded with refugees landed on the islands just this June, up 48 percent compared to a year ago. And yet Chancellor Angela Merkel has just hardened Germany’s borders, and the US Supreme Court has just upheld Trump’s ban against Syrians and others with Muslim nationalities entering the United States. Syrians make up 38 percent of the refugees in Samos.
Were the world not shutting doors on refugees, leaving them trapped in camps with no way out, Ali, Omar, Khaled, Abbas, Ghadeer, Mayssar, and the young African could be moving on to live fruitful lives.
Ali is a talented writer with a love of history who was studying law before war threw his life askew, and longs to go back to university. His brother, Omar, who has written and acted in plays and videos, wants to be a director.
Khaled, who has been at the camp for seven months now, dreams simply of finding a job, building a small house, and having a family. “I always wanted to have a little girl named Alina,” he said with a sad smile.
Abbas, who worked so hard to earn two degrees, was planning to make a career of teaching physical education.
The young African man was simply looking for the freedom to be himself. “Human beings should have the right to be who they want,” he told me.
Instead, they, like thousands of their companions, are unsure whether they will have any future beyond endless waiting, marginalization, and poverty.
“You know what my dream is?” Ghadeer said to me, cradling one of her twins. “I dream that we are living in a safe little house, where we have jobs and my children can go to school. That is all I ask.”