Photo: Ggia. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License. Photo modified by Ansellia Kulikku.

The judge narrowed his eyes. “Madam, did anyone pay or ask you to be in this courtroom today?” He spoke in Greek, but a mumbling interpreter turned his question into English.

“Absolutely not, your Honor,” I replied as firmly as I could, gripping the railing of the witness stand.

I had gone to Greece a few months earlier to research a novel, and now here I was, being questioned in a Greek courtroom as a witness for a Syrian refugee, a circumstance I never would have predicted. But all I could think about at that moment was how easily the legal system might take away the future for which he had risked so much—and I was terrified for him.

***

This all began when I went to the island of Samos in June of 2018 to research a novel I am writing about the refugee camp there, now the most overcrowded and inhumane such camp in Greece.

Samos lies in the Northern Aegean, less than a mile and a half from Turkey, and is one of the islands designated as a “hot spot”—that is, a holding pen for the thousands of human beings fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa in the hope of finding safety and a future in Europe. The camp is built on a former military base designed to hold 650 beds, but by last summer, it was packed with 3,000 people. Now, in 2019, that number has increased to at least 4,000, their tents and makeshift huts spilling over the hillside around the camp.

The day after I arrived in Samos, I rented a Fiat the size of a bubble and drove to the nearby town of Vathy to buy a map. Vathy is a port town that lies just below the camp, and I could see refugees walking everywhere: Syrians and Afghans, Congolese and Somalis, Palestinians and Iraqis, among other nationalities. When I bought the map, I asked the shopkeeper what he thought of all these visitors. “I feel sorry for them,” he replied. “They want to go home, but they can’t. But we are a town of 7,000, and we don’t have room.”

He had a point. Back in 2015, when the first great wave of current war refugees arrived—most of them from Syria and Iraq—they used to pass through the island to larger camps on the mainland within a matter of days or weeks. But now, as a result of the notorious 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey—a deal that basically exchanged €1.6 billion in aid for preventing asylum seekers in Greece from leaving for anywhere else in Europe—refugees are trapped on the island by bureaucracy for months and often years. (I met one pair of Syrian brothers from Dar’aa, the city where the revolution began, who have been waiting four years for asylum. They are still waiting.)

As I was talking to the shopkeeper, a young man walked in and asked for something in English, so I introduced myself to him. This was Ayad, a soft-spoken 23-year-old with enormous brown eyes and a kind smile. We arranged to meet the following day, and sure enough, he showed up as promised, only this time with a friend in tow: a man I took to be about forty, with a streak of white in his hair and deep lines across his forehead.

“This is Hasan,” Ayad said. “He is a man without hope.”

Over the next few weeks, Ayad, Hasan and I met almost every day, spending hours walking or sitting in cafés. During this time, they told me Hasan’s story, Hasan speaking in Arabic and Ayad translating.

Hasan was not forty; he was twenty-five. He grew up on a farm just outside the northern border town of Manbij, northeast of Aleppo, in a large family that included his identical twin, Hossain, their mother, and a little sister whom he adored. They grew olive trees and grapes, raised cows and goats, and struggled with poverty, hard work and family complexities, as do so many families everywhere.

After the revolution started in 2011, and then burst into civil war, Manbij became a political football between Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the rebels, ISIS, Turkey, Russia, the US, and the Kurds. By late 2014, Manbij was under ISIS control, and when Hasan’s mother and twelve-year-old sister—who both suffered from severe heart conditions—tried to get to a hospital for urgent surgery, extremist militias blocked their way. As a result, within a few months, both Hasan’s sister and his mother were dead.

Two years later, Hossein, too, was killed, shot by ISIS fighters. He was twenty-three. When Hasan took out his phone to show me a photograph of his identical twin’s corpse, it was like looking at Hasan’s own dead face.

In 2014, Hasan himself was captured by ISIS and tortured for three weeks, after which he was released only on condition that he would return every day to attend religious re-education classes. Instead, he escaped to nearby Turkey, and then later, like everyone else in that the Samos refugee camp, paid a smuggler to find him a place on one of those rubber rafts to cross the sea.

We have all seen the pictures: flimsy gray or black inflatable dinghies with so many people crammed inside they look about to spill over. Hasan’s boat was no different, stuffed with women and children, old people and teenagers. The statistics become numbing: 32,494 people made the crossing over either the Aegean or Mediterranean last year. One in every 18 refugees who tries to escape this way drowns. Every single day, two refugee children drown, too.

The boat shoved off to cross the Northern Aegean to Greece, but only a few minutes from shore, the smuggler dove overboard and swam back so he wouldn’t be caught, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves. Not wishing to be swept out to sea and perish, several men took turns steering the boat, even though, under Greek law, steering a refugee boat—even for a second—is considered a criminal act of human trafficking. Wanting to help, Hasan steered, too, for about 15 minutes. The men agreed among themselves not to tell the authorities who piloted.

When the boat arrived in Samos, though, one of the passengers broke ranks and fingered Hasan; he has no idea why. Before he even understood what was happening, the police hauled him away and beat him until he signed a confession in Greek, a language he couldn’t understand. His trial would be in a year.

“This is why I have no hope,” he told me, pushing away his coffee. “A refugee cannot get justice here. They will put me in prison for years.” He paused, jiggling his leg, his mouth pinching into a knot. “I came to Greece because they told me that in Europe, they believe in human rights. That I will be given dignity and freedom. Instead, I am treated as a criminal.”

Four months later, in October, I was back in New York when Ayad sent me a message. “Hasan’s trial is on the 21st. Do you know of any free lawyers in Greece?”

I did not, so the only way I could think to help was to testify as a character witness, figuring—to be blunt—that I, a white American writer and professor willing to travel all that way to appear in court for Hasan, might sway the judge in his favor. Even so, this did nothing to solve the problem of finding Hasan a lawyer. For that, only one kind of leverage would work: money.

This is when a friend who knew about Hasan and the situation for refugees in Samos came up with an idea. If we and some other friends would pool our cash, we could hire Hasan a Greek lawyer right there in Samos. And so we did.

The week of the trial, I took a few days off work, caught a plane, and fetched up in Vathy.

When Hasan saw me, he broke into a huge smile, picked me up and whirled me about in a circle. “Mom,” he said—for that is what he had taken to calling me—“Mom, you came.” And while I was trying to get over my surprise at how much better his English had become since I had last seen him, he whirled me around again, both of us laughing while everyone on the street stared.

But he looked awful. The lines across his forehead were deeper, he had circles under his eyes, and he was painfully thin. “Hasan, are you alright?”

“Small problem, Mom.” He shrugged. “Maybe I not sleep well.”

The next days were nerve-wracking. Hasan and I met the lawyer, who coached me on what I might be asked in court, and I realized I didn’t know a lot of the answers. How long had Hasan lived in Turkey? Why had he left? What else had he suffered in the war? So, with his permission, I read the transcripts of his asylum interviews, and learned what he had really endured.

When he had been captured by ISIS militants, they had taken him to a hotel they had converted into a prison, hung him from the ceiling by his wrists with his hands behind his back, and yanked him down to beat him with sticks. They had dragged him out in public and whipped him 80 times. And after that, they had forced him to sign blank pieces of paper, on which they later wrote confessions—to what, he did not even know. The beatings left him with a broken finger and nose, a torn shoulder and weakened spine. He was kept in a dark cell for so long that his vision is permanently damaged. He is anemic, his back and arms hurt, and at times he aches so badly, it pains him to walk up the Samos hills, as if he were an old man.

While he was living in Turkey, sleeping in an abandoned house, some locals beat him up and tried to set his bed of rags on fire.

By the time the day of the trial finally arrived, Hasan, his friends, and I were nervous wrecks. We were all, of course, terrified that he would be thrown into prison, but I was also afraid that I would make everything worse by saying the wrong thing. The trickiest question, the lawyer warned us, would be if the judge asked why Hasan had confessed to steering the boat. “You cannot mention anything bad about the police. No beating, no forced confession, nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

Dozens of cases were being pushed through court that day, including those of six other refugees who had also helped to steer their boats and were standing trial on the same charges of human trafficking as Hasan. Three of them had lawyers, and three did not. So we had to wait many hours for our turn. Hasan jiggled his legs, draped his arm around me, went out with us for lunch and cracked jokes, but every now and then his eyes would take on a distant look and fear would crowd back into his face. “You must be so scared,” I whispered to him.

He shrugged. “Don’t worry, Mom. Small problem.”

At last, his turn came. The proceedings moved excruciatingly slowly, for every question and answer had to be translated from Greek to Arabic and back again.

Hasan was given little time on the stand and looked so vulnerable up there I wanted to cry.

Then it was my turn. I was introduced to a scruffy, hungover looking fellow who was to translate between Greek and English, and sent to stand before the three judges arrayed on a raised platform above me, like Olympian gods.

Most of the questions were as expected, if muddled by the barely comprehensible translator.

“State your name and profession.”

I did.

“How do you know the defendant?”

I explained.

“Why did the defendant leave Turkey?”

I told of the beating and the fire.

“Did he steer the boat?”

I had to say he did, since he had signed the confession.

But then came the dreaded: “Why did he confess?”

This is where my background as a fiction writer came in. “Because, your honor,” I offered, “the torture he endured in Syria has left him so terrified of authority that he just said what he thought the police wanted to hear.” I had no idea if that was true.

The judge narrowed his eyes. “Did anyone pay or ask you to be here today?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Have you heard anything negative about the defendant?”

“Nothing whatsoever.”

I was dismissed, unable to tell whether I had helped or hurt his case. The lawyer told us we could leave. “I’ll text when I hear the decision.”

Hasan had been in agony for an entire year awaiting his trial, but this was the worst wait of all. We sat in cafés, walked, sat in other cafés. Checked our phones. Tried to joke, tried to talk. Hassan’s leg was jiggling faster than ever. His eyes seemed to sink. But the refrain remained the same. “Small problem.”

Finally, the lawyer came striding up. “Suspended sentence!” he announced. “No prison!”

Oh my God. We hugged. We jumped. We cried. Then, because Hasan and his friends are Muslim, we ate ice cream, the Westerners among us muttering longingly about champagne.

“Mom,” Hasan said, “I am tired, must sleep.” And he left.

The next morning, he was transformed. The white hair was still there, but the lines on his face were entirely wiped clean. For the first time since I had met him, he looked like the twenty-five-year-old he was.

To tell the truth, I don’t think my testimony did much good in the end. The three other young men with lawyers were also given suspended sentences, and they had no character witnesses like me. The three without lawyers each went to prison for seven years.

Hasan is no longer a man without hope, but he is wise enough to temper that hope with apprehension. After a year and three months trapped on the island, he was finally transferred to a remote hotel on the mainland on March 17—his twenty-sixth birthday, and also, it so happened, the eve of the third anniversary of that very EU-Turkey deal that has caught him and 75,000 other refugees in Greek limbo. Now he sits in a remote mainland location, awaiting his asylum decision, with no idea when it might come, while the government transfers him and other refugees from hotel to hotel like packages.

Meanwhile, he wrote me this series of texts and asked me to include them here:

Tell them what is happening here.

Tell them we are Muslims, but we are not terrorists.

Tell them we do not want anything from them.

We just want to live in dignity.

Tell them we are humans, just like them.

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of Wolf Season, a novel about the effects of war on Iraqi refugees and US veterans, as well as several articles about refugees on Samos.

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One Comment on “Small Problem

  1. A heart warming end to a sad story. It is good to note, that, there are still human beings who go out of their way to do good. Unfortunately, the cause of the war in Syria that had exacerbated the refugee crises was not once mentioned, in a world where one man influences so much destruction of a country to “feel important” as an entire planet spectates.

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