Many different people sit waiting outside Eleonas Camp: men, women, children, the elderly. They have been camped out here for a long time.
One day they hope they will be registered and permitted entry, but for now they are forbidden from going inside.
Eleonas is the only refugee camp in the city of Athens. There are many Iranian, Afghan, Syrian, and Pakistani families who wish to stay here. But getting in – and staying in – is not easy.
Near the entrance I meet a Pakistani couple with an 18-month-old baby who have been diagnosed with Hepatitis C. They have a referral from Doctors without Borders, but have not yet been allowed into the camp.
An Iranian man tells me that life has become unbearable for his wife, and she recently attempted suicide. She is now hospitalized in a mental institute.
As night falls, a Syrian man curls up in a corner of the street with a thin blanket. It is cold at night, but not everyone out here has shelter.
“Here We Have Nothing”
Inside the camp, I meet an Afghan couple who live in one of the Conex units. They fled Iran nine months ago, but now regret making the journey.
The woman is eight months pregnant and says that living in these conditions is very challenging for her and the baby.
According to the couple, there are vacant units and tents available, but unregistered people cannot use them. Those with money can unofficially buy or rent a unit from €60 to €600 (US$69 to US$690). But if guards find out, they will either evict them or harass them into leaving.
The latter happened to their family. The woman, Fatemeh, her husband, and brother rented half a Conex for €60, but the guards recently dismantled their air conditioning unit to pressure them to go.
Their Conex is 10 meters across, with a bed and bathroom, plus a kitchen with a refrigerator, stove, and dishwasher. When the men leave the room, Fatemeh tells me their story.
“When we got here, we thought we were one step ahead and everything was going to be better. But we were wrong. Everything got worse. In Iran we at least had jobs, food, and peace. But here we have nothing. No money and no place to live.
“I went to see the camp manager many times and asked him to find us a place for my situation. But he told me to sleep in Victoria Park like many other pregnant women. My husband went crazy and now has to take Ambien. I have insomnia myself.
“I feel like God does not see us anymore. I have no hope.”
“We Were Humiliated Because We’re Afghan”
Fatemeh and her husband were construction workers in Iran. She only studied until elementary school and could not continue her education because she was an Afghan citizen. She and her sisters were forced to work to make enough money to pay for their mother’s medication.
Her mother was diagnosed with cancer and her chemotherapy cost US$1500 a week. Insurance companies did not cover her because she was not a citizen. She eventually passed away due to the lack of proper treatment.
“This is why we convinced ourselves to leave,” she says. “We thought that, no matter how difficult it would be, we would at least find a place where we could afford medication if we fell sick, and we wouldn’t die because of it.”
She and her husband started their journey from Iran by foot. Near the border, the trafficker brought Fatemeh a horse to ride across the dangerous mountainous path to Turkey.
It was a 24-hour trip and she had a heavy load with her, including her own backpack and another family’s belongings.
This was the first time she had ever ridden a horse. At one point, without warning, the horse tripped over a rock and threw Fatemeh down the valley. Only her backpack saved her, when it got stuck in a branch of a tree.
“I could not see the ground below me while I was hanging there,” she says.
She pulls up her sleeve to show me the wounds from the accident. “Everyone, including the trafficker, told us the path would be very dangerous. But we thought it would be hard for at most 10 days and afterwards we’d have access to doctors and medications.
“We had no idea we would be humiliated so much only because we’re Afghan.”
“What Kind of Mother Are You?”
But the journey was not over. They were still several thousand miles from their ultimate destination, Western Europe. After staying in Turkey for two months, they continued on foot towards Greece across rivers and jungles.
After crossing the border, a trafficker arrived and drove them to a construction site 20 minutes away. He told them to wait there and someone else would come for them. But nobody turned up.
In the morning, the border patrols arrived and arrested them.
“The prison was a huge compound with large cells,” Fatemeh says. “Each one contained about 75 immigrants from different countries.
“There were two toilets in each cell with no lights, and not even regular clean water. There were no showers and the police always insulted us.”
Fatemeh and her husband were kept in the prison for a month. After that they were sent to a school building that housed refugees. This was when she started vomiting and craving strange food, and realized she was pregnant.
“We were on the third floor and the bathrooms were in the basement. Everyone was cooking, which made me feel sick. But each time I felt ill I had to go all the way to the basement.
“There was only one shower in the whole building, which was dirty and stinky and always had a long line in front of it. Those two to three months were very bad in that school.”
Because of the situation, she and her husband decided to leave for Eleonas Camp. After a few days living on the streets, they managed to illegally rent half of a Conex. But after paying the rent, they had no money left for food and medication.
When the camp’s doctor checked her, she said, “What kind of a mother are you? Why don’t you think about your child? You have a vitamin deficiency.”
“A Quagmire for Refugees”
Neighbors in the camp occasionally provide them with eggs and potatoes, but that is all they have. Legally every refugee in Greece is entitled to €150 (US$172) per month, but this family is one of many who have never seen that money after months or years living in the country.
Fatemeh shows me her medical and lab records, which reveal that she has many infections.
“In the school, there wasn’t a proper bathroom or clean water,” she says. “We only had a pack of toilet paper for a whole month. I guess I got infected with quite a few diseases there.”
Her drugs cost €8 (US$9), which they do not have. I take the prescriptions and promise I will find an open pharmacy and return with medication and food.
Before saying goodbye, she hugs me. “Tell everyone that Greece is a quagmire for refugees,” she says. “No matter how hard you try, you’ll just sink deeper.
“When I tell my friends not to come to Greece, they think it’s because I’m jealous. Most of my fellow Afghans have deported themselves back to Afghanistan. I have regretted coming so many times.
“Sometimes I think we should deport ourselves too. It’s a suicide mission, but at least death happens only once. Here you die every single day.”
Other Stories in the Series:
Iranian Refugee Rights Activist Faces Long Prison Sentence in Greece, January 28, 2019
From Asylum Seeking to Asylum Dealing, January 23, 2019
A Lost Life: Why was Pedram Safari Left to Freeze to Death?, January 21, 2019
Through A Child’s Eyes: Crossing from Iran to Turkey, January 14, 2019