Piraeus Port, Athens
Our time volunteering on Lesvos was abruptly cut short as a result of the EU-Turkey Deal having gone through the day after we arrived in Mytilini. Mass evacuations of refugees from the islands to the mainland began to take place, along with mass detentions of other refugees. Collectively we decided that our efforts for the remainder of our time in Greece would be put to the best possible use if we returned to Athens. In Piraeus Port, over 6,000 refugees had become stranded at that time.
The port was taken over by makeshift tents, warehouses, and thousands of wandering refugees who were ferried here from the islands and escorted off with no information on what their next steps could be. Piraeus now sits as one of the main hubs of activity in the crisis.
Needless to say, the situation was dire - many refugees had already been living in the port for over a month, with no showers, access to running water, electricity, or clean clothes, and with limited daily provisions.
One would think that with such a crisis, there would be a large NGO or government presence for both security and humanitarian reasons. The Port of Piraeus is the largest seaport in Greece, and one of the main ports in the world - think Baltimore, New York, Halifax or Vancouver being open to anybody. Again, our assumptions were proven wrong. As we opened the doors to a dimly lit warehouse, we were greeted by two long-term Greek volunteers, Dora and Apostolis, and mountains of donations scattered across the floor. No instructions, no rules, and no details. No leaders, no police, or security personnel.
We collectively agreed that it would be best to enlist the help of those that knew most about the situation: the refugees themselves. In mere minutes, a group of young Afghan men strolled into the stone warehouse to help us fold clothing and organize the warehouse for distribution.
"Breaking the ice” with refugees is awkward. Small talk seems ridiculous, but jumping into meaningful conversation seems intrusive all the same. I started my conversations with the most innocuous questions I knew:
“Where are you from?”
“Afghanistan,” proudly responded all the young men, who focused attentively on folding the clothes and organizing them perfectly. Their number one concern in that very moment was making damn sure that the boys and girls baby clothes went into their appropriate piles. They were so concerned that the right items should get to the right people.
Three of the young men shared their stories with me. Their ages were 17, 19 and 24. Each had their own version with the same horrific themes – The Taliban or Daesh required them to fight with them or be killed. Two of their fathers were killed as a sign of what would come next for refusing to allow their young sons to be taken away by these violent criminal gangs. The oldest's father was targeted and murdered in a car bombing for working as a driver for the government. Their families went into hiding and the boys fled.
It’s no longer surprising why so many people choose to pay $10,000 to smugglers to traverse through the Middle East for 2-3 months, only to land in a rat-infested warehouse. The only other option is infinitely worse.
At one point, one of them showed his frustration at the situation they found themselves in, asking nobody in particular, “Why is the whole world coming to save the lives of the Syrians, who have been at war for only 4 years? But no one cares about us from Afghanistan? My whole life has been war. We just want a future, that's it.“
When asked where they wanted to go and why, the answer was almost always the same.
"Germany. I want to go to Germany, so I can go to school and study."
During our time volunteering in the port, I kept noticing many girls and young women with what looked like burn marks on their faces. I asked one of the Afghan volunteers what they were from. Acid attacks.
"They're crazy" he told me, referring to the terrorist groups, "they throw acid at girls' faces for going to school. They poison the water."
These experiences were recounted to me while we all folded clothing for other refugees. At the time, the number one concern of these young men was making sure that the clothing they were folding so attentively was being placed in the correct piles. They were so worried that they get to the right people who needed them, so conscientious that the girls and boys baby clothes go into the right spots while their own lives remained in an insecure state of limbo.
The US-led invasion of Afghanistan led to the unseating of the Taliban. What followed was the establishment of a democratic system and as a result, many Afghans that had been living abroad returned to their homeland. They brought with them their education, their international experience, and their skills. Schools were opened up, including for girls, and almost all Afghan children learned to speak English by the age of 10. An entire generation of highly educated, highly skilled and very socially aware Afghans. This undoubtedly also created an entire generation seeking a better life, with the desire to experience economic prosperity, and expectations for the basic necessities of life. Most importantly amongst all of this, exists the yearning for peace. An entire generation of Afghans was allowed just the slightest, sweetest taste of possibilities, freedom, peace, stability, and adherence to basic human rights. They are now dodging explosions, suicide attacks, targeted violence towards their families. They are fleeing the country en masse in another exodus of Afghanistan's human capital. Many of the schools that were built have now been levelled. People are without jobs and displaced throughout Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.
In 2015, there were over 185 documented attacks on schools and hospitals in Afghanistan. Terrorist groups opposed to girl's education claimed responsibility for the majority of them.
Now, circle back to the young Afghan boys and their motivations for taking this long, dangerous, and financially crippling journey to Europe. To go to school. To learn. To have a future.
When we tried to give them a little extra from the supply warehouse as a thank you for helping us, they vehemently refused, making it clear to us that it wouldn't be fair to the others outside.
Again, my preconceived notions of refugees were challenged. Refugees are not a homogenous group of people. Most notably is that they do not want to be recipients of charity, as many in the media would have you believe. As if they were arriving on the shores of Europe to take advantage of the situation. The refugees we met were motivated, filled with hustle and resilience, and wanted to be active in securing a better future for themselves and for others. They were proud, ambitious and community-driven.
These stories of course are just small anecdotes that fit into a much larger issue - Afghans fleeing their homes because of violent persecution, but continue to be treated as second-class migrants with little hope at achieving refugee status. Afghans make up the second largest refugee population in Europe, and one of the largest globally. Yet, we aren't hearing or talking about it.