Features

"I just want to leave this misery"

May 31, 2019
Aida Ghajar
12 min read
Amir Hampay has been trapped on the island of Lesbos for three years, and has faced arrests, threats of deportation, harsh conditions in camps, and now a court case
Amir Hampay has been trapped on the island of Lesbos for three years, and has faced arrests, threats of deportation, harsh conditions in camps, and now a court case

“It was two weeks ago when I thought about committing suicide. I told myself I’ll die and get rid of all my miseries. I thought about stealing a boat and going back to Turkey. I would either get there or die, both were fine with me. I just want these days to be over, days that have lasted more than three years now. But I did nothing, they were only thoughts. Life here is meaningless: you go to sleep, wake up, have some tea and food, smoke a few cigarettes, and nothing new will happen, ever, only the day is over and the next day, it’s the same story, with no hope for the future.”

I was supposed to meet with Amir Hampay when I got to Lesbos island. Amir is Arash Hampay's younger brother, whose story was featured earlier in this series. So far Amir has been stuck on Lesbos for more than three years, trapped on an island that refugees cannot leave unless they have the proper documentation from the authorities. It’s the same island that hosts Moria Camp and there are always reports and warnings from human rights organizations on the treatment of refugees here. Even if refugees don’t reside in the camp, they won’t have the permission to leave the island.

Amir’s application for asylum has been rejected twice. Once he was even almost deported and was boarded on a ship to be sent back, but his brother Arash and his lawyer managed to prevent his deportation at the last minute. He feels he has no hope to ever get answers to his questions. “The Greek government is keeping me here to take revenge on my brother’s human rights activism [his public hunger strike].”

When Amir and Arash arrived on Lesbos three years ago, the trafficker did not tell them anything about their destination. “You will be in Europe after 20 minutes,” is all he said to them. 

 

A Traumatic Experience that Led to Activism 

Amir was seven when a Basiji murdered his father in their neighborhood in Tabriz. Shortly after, they hanged his brother in front of their house. “I only remember how sad and depressed I was. They did not let me attend my father’s funeral. After they murdered my brother, we moved to Tehran. I was in middle school then, but could not focus on my studying at all. My traumatic past would not leave me alone. I couldn’t study anymore, I continued until the middle years of high school and then dropped out of school in 2016. I did not like school and studying anymore.”  

After dropping out of school, he worked in a shop making gold jewelry for a while, then he became a masseuse. But then he left everything behind him and became a human rights activist. He set up an NGO that provided less fortunate families with necessary goods, food, and financial aid. “Before Arash’s release, I was working with different NGOs. I turned our home into a warehouse for the goods we got for the families, and volunteers would come to my place to get them for distribution. Arash had to escape to Turkey after being released since the security agents were harassing him even afterward. I stayed and continued my activities secretly, but after eight months I was also exposed and threatened and had no choice but to leave as well and join Arash.”

Amir says the office of the security forces called him and summoned him to answer some questions. “I had no idea what the issue was, but considering my family’s background with assassination and execution, I was afraid for my life. I had also heard the news that Sattar Beheshti [a blogger who was accused of insulting the Islamic Republic on Facebook and jailed in 2012]  was murdered in prison, so I thought my only option was to escape. I bought a ticket the same day, and the next day, instead of going to the police station went straight to the airport. I did not tell my mom anything about the phone call, I did not want to make her panic. I had another trip to Turkey in 2015, so I told my mom that I was going on a business trip. I am the youngest child and she is very attached to me. When I told her I finally got to Greece and will never go back to Iran, she cried and said she missed me already.”

 

“I Felt Like I Was in a Prison”

Amir and Arash arrived on Lesbos by boat. “They first took us to a temporary camp and the Red Cross provided us with shoes and clothes. After an hour, they took us to Moria camp on a bus. From the very beginning, I felt like I was in a prison — wire fences, tents, and thousands of people. I thought to myself, oh my God, what did we do to ourselves?”

Just as they arrived, a huge brawl broke out in the camp, so the camp’s managers sent them to a quarantine area. “All the newcomers were sent to quarantine for their own sake to avoid getting injured in the fights. It was a horrible night that night, and the fight was getting more intense by the minute. They burned all the tents and conexes in the camp. I did not find out what the reason was for the brawl, but it’s usually about food. I felt like I was in the middle of the Syrian civil war.”

They were let out of the quarantine area after 20 days. But since none of the shipping containers survived the fire, they had to live in tents. Amir and Arash lived this way for three months. After that, they were able to borrow some money from their family back in Iran and rent an apartment for a month. But that money ran out fast and they were forced to go back to Moria. Everything began again — fights  at night and living in a tent over the rainy days of autumn.

It was during those days when a Kurdish family’s tent caught on fire and two people lost their lives just because they were trying to keep warm. “It was a grandmother and her grandchild. We saw their burnt bodies that night, it was horrible.”

When Amir got to this point of his story, he turned silent for a moment. Then he continued: “That night we all got together and burnt all those unsafe tents. We fought against the riot police, it was like Palestine. We were burning trashcans and threw them at officers. And they were beating us with batons. After that night we all left Moria and volunteers provided us with blankets.”

Amir and Arash took a blanket each and headed for the beach. It was icy cold that night, but they slept on benches near the beach until morning. “I was sad that I woke up in the morning. I sincerely wished to die that night and get rid of all my miseries. In the morning we went back to Moria, got a new tent and found ourselves a corner to set it up. The first night a rainstorm hit and we woke up in the middle of the night when rainwater began pouring in on us. I was laughing anxiously. The storm took our tent and sleeping bags with it. We went under a narrow roof and stood there until the morning hoping that the rain would stop and we could go get another tent.”

By early 2017, Amir and Arash had been in Moria seven months. The UN was giving out rooms to refugees with medical problems, but they didn't know whether they would be eligible, and were told nothing about it. According to Amir, the managers evacuated Moria and placed all the residents in a huge ship in the port. They spend a month on the ship, then they were brought back to Moria. “They treated us like POWs and continuously transferred us from one place to another,” Amir said. 

After three more months in Moria, they eventually got a letter from a doctor stating that they were both suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of their ordeals, and they were allowed to leave the camp.

 

Deportation Threats, Multiple Arrests and Hunger Strikes

In February 2017, Amir had his first interview to see whether he could qualify for asylum. Forty-five days later his case was denied. He  appealed, but the appeal court also confirmed the primary decision in less than a month. “I had no idea they would send me to prison. I opened up the door to my conex and two police officers confronted me and took me to Moria’s prison, right next door to the camp.”

He was in prison for a few days when they called his name out and told him to pack up and get ready to go. He thought he was free, but police officers were waiting for him again. “Even then I had no idea they were about to deport me. The day before a police officer in plain clothes came to my room and told me to sign a paper since my lawyer asked me to. I signed — but apparently that was my deportation letter to Turkey.”

Police kept him in solitary confinement for four hours. “I was banging my head on the walls. Officers were cursing me. I was telling them my brother and lawyer didn’t know that I was getting deported. They said I would be able to call them from a refugee camp in Istanbul. They brought another piece of paper for me to sign — which I did not this time — but they signed it themselves on my behalf. After half an hour, the coastal guards came for me and took me to the port on a bus.”

When he got the port and on his way to the deportation ship, he saw his brother Arash, who was there along with his lawyer and some journalists to cover, and hopefully prevent, Amir’s deportation. Arash was also arrested for a few hours, but they told Amir he could leave the ship and go back to the island. 

He was arrested again, this time for a month. “A horse stable is cleaner than that police detainment center. I really did not see the sunlight for one month. I was in that cell with drug traffickers and murders.” After that, he was transferred to Moria Prison again for the next 70 days.

During the last month of his arrest, he went on a hunger strike in prison. Arash joined him, staging his strike in public in the center of the downtown area. During the hunger strike, authorities took Amir to a hospital to see a psychiatrist. After a month, and news coverage of their situation, Amir was finally released. “I was released 19 months ago, and now I’ve been stuck on this island for more than a year and a half.”

 

Arash, Amir’s older brother, joined him on his hunger strike. He chose to strike in public, in downtown Lesbos

 

Arash was sent to Athens one month later, but Amir is still being kept on the island. 

They both worry that authorities might never give Amir the permission to leave, or at least not for many years.

Amir has tried a few times to leave the island illegally but without success. The first time he tried to leave using his brother’s documents. “I was at the airport buying a ticket when the agent told me to go to the police station. As soon as I entered I saw the same officer who was usually on post in Moria. He knew me. He looked at the documents and said, these are your brother’s papers, not yours. I spent a night in the airport jail.”

After this attempt to leave illegally, authorities brought a lawsuit against Arash. He will be in court this year to defend himself. 

Regardless, Amir tried his chance once again 10 days after his first failed attempt. This time he forged his own documents and tried to remove the red stamp on them — a red stamp on a refugee’s documents means he or she can’t leave the island, while a blue stamp enables them to do so.

This time he was able to buy a plane ticket. “I had no stress anymore. I thought the worst case scenario would be to get arrested again. Police were checking my documents for 45 minutes, but they looked legitimate. The police officer was another who also worked at Moria. If it wasn’t for him, I would have passed that time. He arrested me again and confiscated all my documents. I had no document for two months. And because of all of that, I need to go to court and defend myself for these illegal attempts and forging documents. My lawyer says since I wanted to leave illegally they will try to keep me here as long as they can.”

 

Amir on the border between Turkey and Greece. The lights of a Turkish city are in the distance 

 

Walking with Amir on the beach, he pointed out the ships that immigrants try to sneak on to to get to Athens. “I wish they were a little more sympathetic and would let me leave this nightmare of an island. I’ve been to prison here and slept in rain and snow in the streets. Just let me go.”

I asked him to try to sum up the life of an asylum seeker. “The asylum-seeking world is the ultimate misery,” he said. “I’m being held in a cage. I have nothing to do and am bored as hell. Volunteers have provided refugees with a place to hang out and access free internet, but I like to be alone most of the time. I’ll leave Greece as soon as I get my passport. I hate this country.”

Still walking on the beach, he continued: “A month ago I went to the camp office and told them I wanted to go back to my country. When I told them my case has been denied twice already, they said I should have been in Turkey by now. I told them they neither let me out nor let me go back. Then they told me if I get deported again, I will have to spend time in prison. That’s why I decided to keep waiting.”

For Amir, it’s all about waiting. Like many other asylum seekers across the globe, he hasn’t been able to sleep well for months. And that urge to kill himself hasn’t gone away. “Now that is again winter, I feel even more depressed. I’m wasting my life here, with no job, no motivation, and no entertainment. I just want to leave and go build my life, get to somewhere, find a job, make some money and live my life.”

 

 

Read more in the series: 

Moria Camp and its Prison on Lesbos Island

The “Hellhole of Athens”

“Caravans of Hope” in Turkey and Greece as Rumors of Open Borders Spread

Arash Hampay: Refugees “Taken Hostage” in Greece

 

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