Thursday, 21 July 2016

Refugees begin to see Greece as home, not hotel

This article was published by Al Jazeera International as "The refugees making Greece feel like home". 

Fatima, from Afghanistan, converses with classmates at Melissa in Greek

ATHENS, Greece - Slowly, the Afghan girl articulates the words in Greek: “Me lene Zahra,” (they call me Zahra). Then comes the hard part: “I am not married. I am free,” she says, using the Greek expression for single, faltering on the vowels, laughing at herself and resurrecting the sentence.

Two weeks ago, Zahra and her friend Fatima boarded the tram outside their refugee camp at the old Athens airport and travelled downtown to Melissa, an organisation for migrant women. There they enrolled in Aleph, a municipally sponsored Greek language immersion programme.

The very name Aleph, Arabic for Alpha, reveals the Semitic origins of the Greek alphabet, adapted from the Phoenician some 3,000 years ago, and is meant to strengthen a sense of mutual respect.

Since last March, when Austria, Hungary and the former Yugoslav republics shut their borders to a river of migrants and refugees travelling from Greece to Germany, some 57,000 have unintentionally remained in Greece. Many are applying for relocation to other European countries. Others are applying for asylum in Greece.

Both processes will take months, and applicants are graduating from the state of pure emergency that brought them here. With the help of volunteers, they are attempting to achieve the normality attendant on fixed populations, and even the beginnings of integration.

“Maybe one day we will stay here and there is no way to go to another country,” says Zahra. Yet this is not the only reason they are learning Greek.

“They want human contact, in every way, just like all of us,” says their teacher, Vicky Tanzou. “You can come closer with the Greek people, you can be friends with them,” explains Zahra, who tries to talk in Greek to volunteers at her camp.

People’s likelihood of relocating out of Greece has little to do with their extrovert tendencies, says Nadina Christopoulou, who founded Melissa. “The desire to learn and to belong has very much to do with your background, your worldview, your vision of the future.”

Most girls of 15 and 16, Zahra’s and Fatima’s respective ages, are expected to start a family in Afghanistan; but tradition is not the force shaping these girls’ lives. Zahra wants to study civil engineering and chemistry. “My parents say ‘study first, then get married,’” says Fatima, who wants to be a doctor in Germany. “There is no way to be successful in Afghanistan - for women,” she says.

The girls’ brains, ambition and family support have shaped a sense of opportunity, and their gender has turned from a liability to a strength. Out of their traditional social context, refugee men are merely displaced, but refugee women are liberated, and Melissa has become their second home. “The one thing that has really impressed me is their determination to make a life in a new society,” says Christopoulou. “They are fully aware of the things we also perceive as oppressive…. domestic violence, for example, or the lack of access to education.”

Christopoulou and a dedicated platoon of migrant women from Africa and the Middle East conceived Melissa three years ago as a haven for new arrivals.

Melissa’s very arrangement is meant as therapy. “These people have not been in a home environment for months or years,” says Christopoulou. “A kitchen, a casserole, a pot of flowers, a pot of basil, a bowl of cherries - helps them make the transition so much better.”

The power of language – and makeup

Some normalisation initiatives come from the refugees and are strengthened by volunteers. Kastro Dakduk, a Syrian artist who made his way to Greece in the 1970s, has carved a shelter for some 300 refugees out of a disused school in the neighbourhood of Exarheia. Volunteers have provided food and clothing, but once those basic needs were met, the challenge was altered.

“I noticed the children all day would play football, play football, play football. I thought, what is next?” says Abeer Mawad, an English teacher from Syria. “Will they only play football?... The women sit down in the playground and talk. What’s the next step?”

One day in late March, Abeer, as everyone calls her, took a chair and a small Ikea blackboard, stood in the playground and waited. “Suddenly they follow me, the children and women, and come,” says Abeer. “We brought chairs and they sat and I began with my teaching.”

Abeer often had to knock on classroom doors where families slept into the late morning to convene her class. “Throw the sleep, throw everything and come,” she told them. Through the teaching of basic English to children, many of whom have never attended school because of the unrest in Syria and Afghanistan, Abeer began their transformation from fugitives to residents.

Exarheia is most famous as the capital of the Greek Anarchist movement, but the refugee children of the 5th High School craved the trappings of order – a schedule, the demands of discipline and the authority of adults.

“Before everything was difficult. There was no speaking, only pointing. For example, going to the supermarket without speaking,” says Abeer, making the noises of a mute and pointing the way her students used to. “No! Now my students can go and speak English: ‘Yes sir, I need some water, Yes Sir, I need bread,’ and make conversation with grammar in a good way. When I see this, sometimes I cry, because I changed something inside them and outside them.”

Abeer flew to Germany on June 18 to be reunited with her husband and four children. Her final enterprise was a cosmetics workshop for young women. “It’s incredible how hungry they are for lipstick, eye shadow, particularly the Afghan women who’ve lived under the strictest regime,” says one volunteer at the school on condition of anonymity. “They wear their headscarves only halfway over their head and they see makeup as part of their freedom.”

Confessional theatre

A small number of Greek volunteers has achieved a rare social fusion for a brief period. Wilma Andrioti spent most of last year feeding refugees at the port of Piraeus. A few weeks ago, she organised some two-dozen Kurds and Afghans to retell their plight as a theatrical performance.

During weeks of rehearsals at her house, Andrioti and her two children, 11 and 13, became fast friends with the Afghan, Iranian and Kurdish refugees.

“We’d cook together, and what moved me was that because they felt obliged to me they brought whatever they were given at the camp – oranges, croissants, feta cheese in small packages,” says Andrioti.

“We played games and the Afghans taught my children the games they played back home … speaking words over hand motions – clapping, finger clicking, elbow bumping and hip movements.”

Andrioti now says, “We are a family with these people… They would clean and wash up everything afterwards. These people are civilised. They have noblesse, they have dignity and they are homemakers.”

Brave new continent

Integration is not everywhere offered, or sought, as keenly as it is in Athens, where refugees live in close proximity to Greeks. Most are kept in converted former army camps in the north of Greece, far from urban centres, and volunteer efforts are still focused on bringing them their daily bread. Some 8,000 are in enforced isolation on eastern Aegean islands, because a March 20 agreement between the EU and Turkey turned open reception centres there into incarceration facilities. Tensions in those reception centres are simmering.

But Greek volunteers and migrants who’ve spent decades in Greece have together acted as an outreach programme for the latest arrivals, in many cases supplanting the lack of state infrastructure.

“Greece never enacted any system of social integration, firstly because it was always a passage for migration, and secondly because it never really wanted to,” says Fanis Kollias, who recently started publishing Solomon magazine, exclusively written by –and for – migrants.

Kollias believes the first aid offered by NGOs and volunteers can be debilitating:  “[It] keeps refugees on a lower rung. It tells them, ‘I am here helping you because you need me and you will always be an inferior person.’… It doesn’t stimulate the refugees to begin to claim any sort of ownership. The point is to give people what they need to carry on alone.”

What Greece is witnessing now, through its accidental ownership of 57,000 refugees, is that humanitarianism is mingling with empowerment.

“We think about migrants in terms of their vulnerabilities and dangers they’re exposed to,” says Melissa’s Christopoulou, “but not on the basis of their skills, dreams, desires, their positive traits - their contributions.”

Girls like Zahra and Fatima are determined not to be victims, in Afghanistan or anywhere else. They have jumped at integration programmes like Melissa’s. In the process, they may be forming the vanguard of a new society on the edges of the troubled European continent.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Refugees in Greece take first steps towards self-reliance

This article was published by IRIN News

A man sits in front of his family tent at Ritsona

RITSONA, Greece - Masoud proudly lifts his bedding to reveal the construction of his makeshift bed: he has hammered together four wooden pallets normally used to stack cargo, and fitted legs under them. It’s poorly padded by a yoga mat covered by two woolen blankets, which seem to radiate heat in the June afternoon; but the 34 year-old Syrian chef has a solution for the heat too.

Outside the three-tent compound he has stitched together for his family, he has constructed a sort of summerhouse in the shade of some pine trees – a platform raised on several metal drums and rendered private by a bedsheet that flutters around it. There his wife, Mezgin, spends her afternoons cooling off, while Mohamed, 4, digs holes in the earth with the family claw-hammer and Linda, 9, works on a potted flower garden. Masoud has even built an earthen cooking stove, connected to a chimney on one side and an oven on the other, so that two meals can be prepared at once. He fuels it with dead wood foraged from the surrounding pine forest.

This Arabic version of the Swiss Family Robinson is part of a growing narrative in self-reliance at Ritsona, a former Hellenic Air Force radar station about 100km north of Athens. The facility has been abandoned for decades. The few brick-and-mortar buildings dotting it have gaping holes where machinery was ripped out of them. Even by rural Greek standards, it is the middle of nowhere.

Three months ago, as borders were reinstated across the Balkans and more than 50,000 refugees who had intended to make their way to northern Europe became stranded in Greece, the government began parcelling them out to abandoned military camps. Some 800 landed in Ritsona. Many have applied for asylum here or relocation elsewhere in Europe, but the process is likely to take months.

For volunteers and NGOs as well as the refugees they are helping, the emphasis is now shifting from providing everything they need to helping them fend for themselves. Handing out tools and pallets was a first step.

“For the first month it wasn’t happening at all,” says Ryan DeHane Templeton, an American volunteer with Echo 100 Plus, a Vienna-based charity. “And in the last three weeks it’s grown immensely.”

Across a dirt road from Masoud, another Syrian, Shem, has built a two-storey tree house to keep his pregnant young wife cool, draping pine needle-covered branches around it to provide privacy and shade. He is trying to coax rose vines out of four plastic water bottles.

The camp has no running water, and only the store room has electricity, yet another tent has managed to install a satellite dish, and children now sit around an ancient donated television.

Echo 100 Plus is encouraging such initiative-taking by the refugees. “We have a couple of sewing machines and a couple of tailors living in the camp who are going to start making the clothes,” says Templeton. “More conservative clothing is hard for us to find here in Greece. So, for example, they’ll start to produce long skirts for themselves.”

Some of the refugees find a sense of purpose by volunteering as translators and in other capacities for NGOs like Echo 100 Plus. One of the most sought-after translators is 23 year-old Soham Yazidi from Iraqi Kurdistan. She speaks Arabic, Kurdish and English, and finds the work therapeutic – especially as much of it is done in a pair of tents that serve as a Red Cross clinic.

“I try to spend my time translating, helping volunteers with food distribution, helping with clothes distribution, helping in the hospital,” she says. “I’m trying to spend my time away from the tents because life is really horrible here. But I’m trying to have hope; talking to people and taking some hope from them.”

In another effort to try to achieve a semblance of normality in the camp, a Canadian charity, Light House Relief, has fenced in an area for educational activities. “The kids are wanting to go to school and parents are trying to make sure their kids are on time,” says Patti Fink, a volunteer. “That’s part of the intent - to get kids to understand what it’s like to go to school and get into that routine.”

The Greek migration ministry has announced that it will open schools with Arabic- and Dari-speaking teachers in all the camps by September. In the meantime, the children of Ritsona, many of whom have never attended school, are taught punctuality, cleanliness and the ABC song under the shade of two enormous Aleppo pines.

Other improvements are on the way. Children watched excitedly as an air force excavator prepared a trench to lay down a sewage pipe. In a matter of weeks, Ritsona will have flushing lavatories rather than a bank of portable toilets.

On the outskirts of the camp, four plots of land demarcated with stones are the beginnings of a vegetable garden, currently on hold until irrigation water becomes available.

Ritsona’s refugees are not the least fortunate of the 57,000 currently in Greece. More than 8,000 are incarcerated on the islands of the east Aegean, on orders from the European Union, and have no scope for initiative.

Some 11,000 were last month evacuated from the border area in Eidomeni and relocated to hurriedly erected facilities in brownfield sites. Phoebe Ramsay, an independent volunteer from Canada, describes one of these in an industrial zone in the suburbs of Thessaloniki as “129 tents set up inside an old tannery... It's absolutely filthy-they didn't even sweep the floor before they set up tents. There's scrap metal and debris all around. There's only one tap of (theoretically) drinkable water for 800 people. And this is a good one.”

But neither are Ritsona’s inhabitants as fortunate as those spread through Athens in subsidised rentals and small communities that have been set up in disused buildings. Inside the urban fabric, these are closer to donors, volunteers and charities. They have enjoyed a greater degree of comfort and even face the prospect of limited integration.

Even with this self-empowerment, refugees at the camp are still largely cut off from Greek society. The International Organisation for Migration is seeking to address that, too. “We’re working on a plan to give each family a pre-paid Diners Club card with €250 on it. The idea is to put them on buses and send them to Thebes to do their own shopping,” says one volunteer. IOM hopes to fund this programme at least to the end of 2016.

Some people have gone further. The mayor of the island of Lesvos, which received more than half a million refugees last year, wants the European Commission to subsidise job creation schemes to improve refugees’ integration.

“What I said was that this small island… would also receive some of them – hundreds or even thousands - on a permanent basis. The only condition I asked was that a certain number of jobs should be created, half of which would be filled by refugees and half by locals.”

Galinos sees such subsidised jobs as a form of compensation for the millions of euros his municipality has paid in water and electricity bills for refugee camps, but the Commission has yet to respond.

Others are picking up the baton. Melissa, an organisation for migrant women in Athens, is launching a programme to help the newly arrived refugees integrate.

“It’s a crash course in Greek that a group of linguists has developed at the University of the Aegean – it’s utilitarian Greek,” says Nadina Christopoulou, who founded Melissa. “We have done focus groups at Melissa to discover what situational vocabulary is most useful, such as going to a hospital, dealing with children, paying bills… We’d like the seasoned migrants to be the connecting tissue between the refugees and society.”  

Melissa also plans trips to markets and museums, so refugees get to use their Greek.

“I think it’s very important for these people to emerge from the camps and start mixing with local society… The key is to forge a path to income-generating activity, where they will be agents of their own learning, not just passive recipients.”

Most people in Ritsona have escaped war, but they don’t seem to mind the screech and rumble of Greek Mirage fighter jets and F-16s taking off from the nearby Tanagra air force base. “We know we will stay for a long time here, but we are safe so we are happy,” says Soham. If life is what happens while people are waiting for it to begin, it is surreptitiously taking root in Ritsona.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Greece demands return of Elgin Marbles from UK

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Two hundred years ago today, Britain’s House of Commons purchased a collection of marble sculptures that were removed from the Acropolis in Athens. The man who took them was the seventh Earl of Elgin, then British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

The British people paid Lord Elgin 35,000 pounds for the collection – a handsome sum at the time, but only about a quarter of what Elgin said it cost him to remove and ship them over 15 years.

The decision was controversial at the time and remains so today. To remove slabs of the Parthenon frieze, Elgin’s workers had to destroy a row of marble cornice above them. The sculpted slabs themselves are half a metre deep. To lighten the load in shipping, Elgin had the backs of them sawn off.

Even before the parliamentary debate took place, negative publicity surrounded the removal. In the Curse of Minerva, first published in 1811, Lord Byron, a fellow Scot, predicted the demise of the British Empire on account of the raptorial insrincts that led Elgin to the removal of the Marbles:

“So let him stand, thro’ ages yet unborn,
Fixed statue on the pedestal of scorn!
Though not for him alone revenge shall wait,
But fits thy country for her coming fate:
Hers were the deeds that taught her lawless son
To do, what oft Britannia’s self had done.”

The House of Commons formed a committee to investigate how Elgin obtained the marbles, and it is on that basis of that committee’s report that Parliament decided to purchase them from him. ‎But the committee had no independent documentary evidence. It only had Elgin's word to go on.

“Did the permission specifically refer to the removing of statues, or was that left to discretion?” the committee asks.

Elgin replies evasively:  “No, it was executed by the means of those general permissions granted; in point of fact, permission issuing from the Porte for any of the distant provinces, is little more than an authority to make the best bargain you can with the local authorities.”

As British ambassador to Constantinople, Elgin apparently used his influence to study the Parthenon - then stretched that permission.

What Elgin had, in fact, obtained, and pointedly failed to preserve a record of for the parliamentary committee, was a letter, rather than an official decree, or firman.

“What this letter included was that the Ottomans in Athens should be helpful to Elgin’s team and allow them to draw and take casts and maybe from the debris all around the Parthenon few sculptures or pieces of marble with inscriptions could be removed – some,” says Eleni Korka, Dir. Gen. of Antiquities at the Greek Culture Ministry. “But there is a sentence in the middle of the text saying that in no possible way could there be harm to the monument.”

The Greek campaign to reunite the Marbles started in the 1980s. Greeks feel that Elgin removed the marbles both violently and illegally. But ownership is not the issue, they say.

“I think that these sculptures, which form part of an international cultural heritage, these belong to themselves, they belong to the Parthenon, and the Parthenon is here,” says Dimitris Pantermalis, president of the board of the New Parthenon Museum in Athens, where originals are displayed alongside plaster casts of marbles now removed to London. “If you ask people what they prefer, to have these marbles together or divided, it is very difficult to justify wanting them divided.”

Monday, 30 May 2016

How credible is Erdogan on refugees?

On May 25, just a day after the World Humanitarian Summit had concluded in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the EU that unless it implemented a visa waiver for Turkish nationals without imposing conditions, his country would not enforce a readmission agreement for refugees.

"If you're still imposing criteria on Turkey which provides important support to the European Union by preventing those living in camps and pre-fabricated homes who are waiting to go to Europe (from getting there), then I'm sorry," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

The implied threat is broader than readmission. If Turkey should abandon a “statement” made on March 20 with the European Union, it is presumed that refugee and migrant flows from Turkey to the Greek islands might shoot up to thousands a day, as they had done at the end of last year.

For the past few weeks those flows are down to dozens a day. The Hellenic Coast Guard rescued 126 between Friday morning and Monday morning. That reduction is attributed to the Turkish enforcement of the March 20 deal, which stipulates that it will prevent refugees from crossing in the first place, as well as readmit them.

Does that mean that Turkey can credibly imply a threat to inundate Europe with refugees again, should the March 20 statement fall apart? European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos certainly seems to think so.

“This agreement has to be enforced,” he told Greek president Prokopis Pavlopoulos on May 30, “because we [Greeks] will be the first to suffer the consequences if it isn’t… In Turkey right now there are three million refugees and on the north shores of Africa 500,000 who are awaiting the moment when they can cross the sea at the hands of ruthless smugglers. Italy and Greece are under enormous pressure.”

There are data to counter this view, however.

A graph of refugee flows across the Aegean compiled by the Financial Times Brussels Blog (below) based on UNHCR tallies, casts doubt on whether Turkey’s goodwill is the exact cause of that reduction in flows.

It shows that flows peaked in November 2015, and were already sharply reduced when the March 20 statement was made. It also shows that none of the milestone events since last autumn – including the closure of the Western Balkans route – had a definitive impact on flows on its own. The reduction seems to be sustained and organic. What, then, is its cause?

Undoubtedly Turkey’s stricter patrolling of its borders with the help of a NATO task force is a factor in the reduction of flows, but there are others. Europe’s unwillingness to take in more refugees, the closure of the Western Balkans route, the fact that refugees had to wait for weeks and months to be processed and the deportations of many back to where they had started their journeys are almost certainly all factors. The graph suggests that Turkey’s role as guardian has been only a partial explanation at best.

 What of the standing population of three million-odd refugees and migrants in Turkey, many of whom have been there for years? Could they not be unleashed upon Europe?

Past evidence suggests that they form a minority of migrant flows. Between April and September last year, the UNHCR polled 1,245 Syrians arriving in Greece. It found that nearly two thirds  - 63 percent – had left Syria in 2015.

While the UNHCR stresses that this sampling is not necessarily representative of all Syrian refugees crossing into Greece, it chimes with anecdotal evidence that last year’s surge of migrants from Syria was largely made up of newly departed refugees.

The fact that the number of refugees staying in Turkey has remained constant and even grown suggests that most of the three million lack the funds to pay smugglers, or have found some form of gainful employment in Turkey’s black labour market, and will stay as close to Syria as possible awaiting the war’s end.

A final factor to consider is Erdogan’s political self-interest. The European Commission has offered Turks visa-free travel on condition that Turkey revise its anti-terrorism laws to exclude journalists and political enemies. Erdogan’s refusal to accept these terms may be in earnest, but it still carries political cost.

The real reason to heed Erdogan is that regional instability for political and environmental reasons is likely to continue in North Africa and the Middle East, and migratory pressure on Europe is likely to be long-term. The EU needs to establish an immigration policy to counter this, which is enforced in its consulates across the region. Paying Erdogan to be Europe’s bouncer will not be a substitute to that.