On the news we hear all about the refugee crisis in a way that is skewed to make people believe it is an invasion of a bunch of men trying to cross into Europe. They show pictures and video clips of the frustrated male refugees, the occasional riot and interactions with police without showing the children teargassed and the harassed parents. I’m not sure if it’s the governments or the media who want us to spread fear, hate and xenophobia. They call it a Muslim invasion or a way for the terrorists to infiltrate. Very few media outlets explain how the refugees that have been involved in the small riots are frustrated with how they are being treated, how they are treated with no respect for their rights as human beings.
Refugees are people running from conflict, war, violence and persecution. They have abandoned their homes, jobs and way of life for a chance at freedom – freedom from living under the threat of conflict and terrorism. And yes, some are fleeing poverty, hoping for a chance at a better life for themselves and their children.
According to the UNHCR statistics there were 856,723 arrivals by sea in 2015 and so far this year 155,989. Of these 38% are children, 21% women and 40% are men. Most are families, but yes, some of the refugees are single men.
note – many of the asylum seekers that they consider single men are actually under the age of 18 traveling as unaccompanied minors or are considered unaccompanied because they are traveling with uncles/aunts or friends of family.
When I was helping with the refugees on Kos last fall I fell in love with a special group of people, the Pakistani. Overall they account for 4% of the arrivals to Greece. Here was a group of predominantly men and young boys trying to get to Europe to make a better life for themselves. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for these guys knowing the hard battle they would have ahead. They were on the bottom of the humanitarian aid chain with the families from Syria at the top. And recently, here in Athens they are not treated as refugees – there is no special camp for them, no aid and very little sympathy. Sadly enough our nickname for them is, “The Forgotten Ones.” They are either degraded, humiliated and treated with contempt or completely ignored as if they are invisible.
The situation is very sad for these guys and I feel so bad for them. There is not much hope that they will be given asylum as their country is not considered to be at war. For many their application for asylum will be denied unless perhaps they are gay and can prove they are persecuted in their country. And the waiting is long and application process for the Urdu speaking is only done by Skype for one hour, once a week, on Wednesdays. Most of those I met back in November are still waiting for answers. In the meantime they are fellow human beings who are starving and in need shelter and assistance.
Even prior to the EU/Turkey deal the borders closed to the Pakistani and since the EU/Turkey deal the Pakistani detained on the islands have been among the first to be returned to Turkey. Some forced to return have attempted suicide. Those who made it to mainland Greece are stuck camping at the port, in the parks, in back alleys. They have less aid, less support, less comfort and less compassion. The squalid conditions they live in are horrific.
There is a large community of refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh in a section of Athens referred to as ‘Lil Pakistan. Some have found very cheap rundown apartments or hotels to stay in. They have gathered to help each other out, gather and share what little resources they have, share what little food they have. They provide assistance to each other by sharing cell phones, data and repeated attempts to Skype. They share information on where to find some low pay work, a place to sleep and share stories and contacts to a network of smugglers for those hoping to move on to other places in Europe. The cost is 1500 Euro and they say many have been successful. I am not sure the numbers.
Another volunteer and I made many trips to ‘Lil Pakistan to distribute aid. We brought them t-shirts, hygiene packs with razors and toothbrushes and toothpaste and food. They told us that volunteers are afraid to go into ‘Lil Pakistan and the only aid they receive is the daily food rations Greece supplies for their poor and with the addition of the refugees the queues are hours long and many are left with nothing. Many are too ill or end up too busy looking for work to queue. Regardless, the once a day rations are not enough calories for anyone. (Walking the streets of Athens you will see many refugees and homeless Greeks searching through the garbage, no one bats an eye as this is normal here.)
I want you to know these are are fellow human beings. They are individuals. They have feelings and they hurt just as you and I do. Let me introduce you to a few of my friends:
Mohammed is an older man who landed on Kos in November, when we met his boat he was suffering from hypothermia and it didn’t look to me like he would survive the coming days. He was traveling with his two teen nephews who had lost their parents. He was travelling with them to ensure they got a chance at a better life, a chance for a good job. He came to protect them when he knew the future prospects for himself were not great. He told us about his heart condition and showed us his medical papers that were carefully wrapped in cellophane and Ziploc bags to keep from getting wet or damaged. We said you really need to go to the hospital but he said that he must wait until he gets his nephews to Germany then he will worry about himself. As far as I know they never made it to Germany for once they reached mainland Greece the borders closed to the Pakistani. My last contact with Mohammed was when he asked for help to find medical aid in Athens. I reached out to fellow volunteers who were going to arrange cardiac care for him but we have not heard from him since.
Jasim is an educated man who speaks English, while waiting on Kos for his papers to travel to the mainland he worked with us as a volunteer translator. He is now in Germany. He made it through Greece just before the borders closed to the Pakistani. I will never forget what he said when I first met him, “Please forgive me for smelling. When I was at home I never wore the same clothes two days in a row, here we have to.” He is still waiting for his asylum hearing in Germany. Jasim is not running from the Taliban or war but from the oppression and violence in his country. He joined the refugee migration to Germany last fall but it is actually his third attempt at finding refuge for himself and his family. He has attempted before to gain asylum in Greece and in Malaysia. He is a father and a husband who prays for the day he can be reunited with his wife and children.
Jasim’s story is a love story. In 2010, he met a beautiful woman he wished to marry and his father went to hers and asked permission. Her family, a powerful one, denied the match. They married anyway. Her brothers have three times tried to kill him. Each time he, his wife and children have to move and find a new place to live. It has been six years of living on the run, hiding and being unable to pursue his career as lighting and sound engineer. The first time his brother in laws found him they just broke his leg and arm. The second time he was ambushed at a local market and was lucky and unhurt. The third time, six months prior to my meeting him, Jasim and a friend were shot at, Jasim was behind a car and not hit, his friend took a bullet (he is fine). Right now Jasim desperately misses his wife and daughters and his father who is looking after them until Jasim can one day get them to Germany. He is still waiting for his case to be heard.
Ali is a young boy of ten years old traveling with his fourteen year old brother. These kids and many more like them traveled from Pakistan alone, walking in worn or no shoes, all the way to the shore of Turkey where they hopped on a dingy to Greece. We could have reported them as unaccompanied minors but sometimes its decided that it is safer to just leave them alone. Unaccompanied children on Kos were detained in disgusting urine soaked cells at the jailhouse like common criminals until picked up by someone from the UNHCR. In this case we decided that the boys seemed to be better off traveling with their group of friends who were looking out for them. I prepared a backpack for each boy with a tent, sleeping bags, some clothes, jackets, shoes and hygiene kits. I hope they made it through before the border closed but it is unlikely, I will ever know.
Peter (not his real name) is one of two young men I met who were heading to Europe because they are homosexual. Peter’s case for asylum was accepted in Greece as they know his chance of persecution in his country is high.
Mamoud (not his real name) is a young man who has been working odd jobs in Greece to provide for himself and to save money to pay smugglers so he can continue on to Spain. He dreams of freedom and an opportunity to escape the oppression in his country.
Bilalhassan is a young man the same age as my son (27) who spent a lot of time on Kos as he didn’t have the money to pay for the ferry to the mainland. He worked hard as a volunteer serving up dinner for the refugees at the Boomerang restaurant where dinner was provided. When he came to mainland Greece he picked olives for the farmers for $10 per day. He had to stop working as he developed a hernia and as he had yet to receive the proper paperwork the doctors wouldn’t fix it. Bilal slept at the port and was given a small daily ration of food but spent a lot of time in ‘Lil Pakistan where the community of people there would try to help him find more food. He did not look well and was so much less spunky as when I knew him on Kos. Europe had beaten him down and he was so discouraged he decided to go home but even that had its problems, it took two months to get the UNHCR to get him a ticket for his flight home.
Rana Ali is another special refugee whom I met on Kos. He has been in Athens since November and has worked for farmers, managed to save money and pool funds with others for a decent place to sleep. He lucked out and when he finally got through on Skype to register. He was approved a white card to stay in Greece for one month. Then after one month he had his interview and he was granted another three months. The elusive white card enables him to stay legally in Greece and attempt to find work. He has been a tremendous help to us by volunteering to show us around ‘Lil Pakistan and do crowd control when we are distributing and letting us know who is in need of aid. As well he and his friends have helped us carry, shop for deals at the markets for food, find cheap accommodations for families, replace cell phone cards, find things, cook for the families we placed in the hotel and now with the funding from fellow volunteer, Maggie Mullin, he will be planning a menu, shopping and preparing food to feed some of the Pakistani refugees who have been continuously going hungry. Rana Ali is so considerate and caring of his fellow man that it pleases me to no end that he will be given an opportunity to help in such a profound way.
These are just a few of my new friends. I have found all of these men from Pakistan to be kind, caring, considerate, helpful, generous, patient, courageous, hard working and inspiring. I am very proud to have helped serve them and very honored to have them call me, “Sister.”
It is a shame that these lovely people from Pakistan are treated so poorly. They need aid as much as the rest of the refugees. Granted the resources for donations may have been slim when the crisis first started which caused charities and volunteers to prioritize needs and help the families from war torn Syria first. However, this does not have to be the case now. There is enough support for everyone it just needs to be communicated and coordinated…we have to stop letting these people live like animals. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair.
To follow my journey helping refugees on Facebook, here is my Be Kind to Refugees link