“An immigrant is someone who is leaving, someone who must go. And yet Greece won’t let us, they keep us here against our will. I’ve been on this island for 29 months, waiting for permission to leave for Athens. Police officers stop us in the streets and search us, as if we are burglars. As soon as they open their borders, no immigrant will stay in their county anymore.”
I met Hamid on Lesbos island in Greece. He is a handsome man, but he had been through a lot during his time in Greece. He showed me some photographs from some time ago and said: “Don’t look at my skinny face now. I was 85 kg back in Iran.”
In Iran, Hamid was a bank clerk. He left the country for Turkey first and then found a human trafficker there, who promised to get him to Europe for US$4500, but he ended up on Lesbos. During his time on the island, he had no place to stay and had to spend time either on the streets or at other refugees' places. He could not tolerate Moria Camp for more than a month and preferred living on the streets to living in the camp.
When Hamid talked about other travelers he had met during his journey, his tone was sarcastic, but when he was telling his own story, he was just really sad. “I lost my fiancée, and the bank confiscated my car and apartment all because of this asylum-seeking. I have not seen my family for years and am getting used to this homeless lifestyle. This is my life now,” he said.
Sixteen months after being on Lesbos, a documentary-maker got in touch with him about his experiences.
[filmmaker: Fridoon Joinda]
I met Hamid in a refugee’s place in Lesbos, a two-bedroom apartment with a bathroom and a kitchen but without a living room. There were eight refugees from various nations living in the two rooms. Whenever the immigration agents visited the apartment, he had to hide in a closet to avoid getting kicked out. While I was waiting to start my conversation with Hamid, another refugee told me: “Everyone is stealing from immigrants in this country. For example, our electricity bill was hiked up 20 euros last month, and then they deducted 20 euros from each eight of us.”
A Choice Between Homelessness or Cramped Camps
We sat on a bed in one of the bedrooms. Hamid began telling his story and I began recording the conversation. “When I left Iran, I had to live in a human trafficker’s place for three days. Then they took us to Antalya [Turkey] in a van that was decorated with tourism advertisements. The plan was to go to Italy via sea from Antalya, but as soon as the ship’s captain spotted us, he prevented us from boarding. I went back to Istanbul and rented a room from the trafficker for a week. He then took us to Izmir, where two large ships were waiting for us. He boarded 25 people on each ship and they started moving a distance of one kilometer from one other. Our ship broke down. We called the trafficker and he said he’ll send help tomorrow. The next day, while we were waiting for him, the coastal guards found us.”
Hamid said the captain was a Russian national, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for human trafficking. All 25 passengers were transferred to Moria Camp on Lesbos. Since that first day, Hamid has been looking for an opportunity to get off the island. “I did everything I could for six months but failed each time. After that I hired a trafficker, but no matter what we did, I was never successful in leaving the island. Who really wants to get accepted here? Greek people are hungry and poor themselves. There is no job or future in this country.”
After going through the necessary administrative process, asylum seekers might be able to get a work permit in Greece, but this won’t guarantee them a job. Greece’s economy is still in crisis and homeless people — Greek and non-Greek — can be seen everywhere in its most touristy cities. Greece lacks the infrastructure to deal with immigrants and its current refugee camps are overpopulated.
“Greece receives more than 1,000 euros for each refugee they host. But after many months of paperwork, they give just 90 euros to single refugees and 150 to families per month. Moria’s capacity is 3000 people, but they keep 10,000 people in there. The other camp that is dedicated for families has a capacity of 1,300 people, but more than 3,000 families are living there. I applied for a room last week, but they denied my application and said since I’ve been accepted already, I’m not entitled to get a room anymore. Well, I did not have any place to stay before getting accepted either. What is the difference then? I did not even have that 90 euros per month for my first eight months on the island. I was sleeping on the beach and would get food from fishermen or volunteers.”
Like many other refugees, Hamid has not learned to speak Greek. He says he has been stressed out about his future and when he might be able to go to Athens to continue his journey. Greece used to be a hub for immigrants, a gate to Europe, but since summer 2018, when the country joined the Dublin Regulation III, if asylum seekers are fingerprinted there, no matter where they go in the EU, they will be sent back to Greece, even if they had hoped to live somewhere else.
The Invisible Wall
One of the big issues asylum seekers face is the way the locals treat them. They say there is an invisible wall between the thousands of refugees on the island and Greek citizens. Refugees have their own neighborhoods and places to hang out, which are completely separated from where the locals live and spend their time. Hamid’s perspective of this treatment is very negative, and he believes locals look at the refugees as if they are criminals and less than human.
Although he does have the required documents to go off the island, Hamid has been detained many times by police officers. “When you show them your permit, they enter your name in the system and it shows them that the person is allowed to be on the island and outside of the camp. But they detain you anyway, force you to strip naked and search every inch of your body. After they are done harassing you in the station, they take you miles away from the city and after a few hours say you are free to go. Then you have to walk all the way back.”
Winters are another story altogether. “It was cold, and I did not have enough clothes. I went to the camp’s office to ask for some, but they entered my name in the system and said, you are not registered at Moria Camp, so you can’t get any clothes. I told them I live on the streets and they said I should check with the UN and register myself there. I went there, but they also told me they were out of space and couldn’t register me. Even Greeks themselves have no idea what is going on around here. Every month, in order to get our monthly pay, we have to register again and there is only a two-day window. There is always a line with thousands of people waiting. Many times you can’t make it during those two days, or even though you waited in line for hours, there won’t be any money for that month.”
Hamid turned silent for a moment, lit a cigarette and continued: “During one winter the gas tank exploded near one of tents and a man lost his wife and kid. They let the husband to go to Switzerland a week later. But it was too late already. Another refugee burnt himself. They put the fire out quickly and sent him to Athens right afterward. Now, with a disfigured face and body, what can he expect from his life? They need us to die, so they let us leave.
“They don’t even provide us with edible food. First we felt there was something strange about the meat they gave us, then we found out it was horse meat. I even know the place they slaughter these horses. Why we are in this situation?”
I asked him to sum up his experience of life as an asylum seeker. “When I was in Iran, I had no idea about Greece, I thought it was a European country, but after living here for 29 months, I sincerely believe Turkey is a way better country,” he said. “If I could have worked in Turkey for the last two years, by now I would have made the money I need to go to Canada. Whoever stays in this country will experience nothing but misery. Asylum seekers try to find a better place to chase their dreams, but like us all, find themselves in big trouble.”
He turned silent again, and after a few minutes he showed me more of his old photographs from Iran and Turkey, photos of him that looked much different to how he looks today. In one of them, he was seated behind his desk in the bank. I stared at those photos from earlier years and compared them with his exhausted face. “Then I used to go to the gym every day, but I lost it all," he said. "I had a fiancée who also left me and is suing me for money.”
“I had a life in Iran. I worked in the bank for two years and got my associate’s degree while working. I worked in the bank from 8 am to 4 pm and after that I worked on my car. I was working 24/7 to make my mom happy,” said Hamid.
It was already night, and although Hamid had finished his story, I knew there was no end to refugees’ stories of suffering on this island. His complaints were bitter and full of pain. I asked him to go for a walk with me on the beach and show me the very first place where he first set foot on the European soil.
Hamid told me he had worked with Greek volunteers for a while. We were on the beach and it was after midnight when he said: “If right now you see a refugee boat sinking in the sea, you don’t have the right to go and help them, if you do, you’ll be charged with human trafficking.” It was hard for me to believe. But he continued: “I knew someone who is prison now only because he tried to help refugees. Can you imagine? You see people die in front of your eyes and you can do nothing about it. This is the story of us asylum seekers in Greece. No one helped us ever.”
Since meeting with Hamid, I have had an update on his story. At the time of publishing, he had finally received his ID and travel documents. However, despite his desperation to leave, he remained on the island to wait for his friend’s case to be determined as well. First he hopes to travel to a neighboring country to meet with his family for the first time after all these years. Although he now has the permission to leave the island, it’s not clear where his final destination will be. But so far, Greece has had nothing for him but pain and misery.
Read others articles in Aida Ghajar's series on Iranian refugees in Greece, Turkey and other European countries: