Compulsory Tourism III (Athens – Analysis)

I was staying at a flat in Uskudar, Istanbul when two Syrian flatmates with whom I would become great friends and stay in touch arrived.

When I heard the friend whose story I am about to share was going to take one of the sea-crossing journeys from Turkey to Europe I was less than thrilled with a world that would put someone in this predicament.

But he assured all of us who asked that he would be fine, so we had to believe that.

The situation is terrible, and it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon, but my friend is fine, and about  month ago he sent me a forty-page document detailing the whole story of his journey. 

Having read (as we all have) so many “ripple-effect” refugee stories (I talk about this elsewhere on this blog), it was almost calming for me to read a first-hand account. Mostly I feel really happy for my friend that he made it to somewhere he wants to be. 

Please read (and share!) this story written by my friend: the more people who can understand the “refugee crisis” as it affects the whole world, the better.

Jamie Lynn Buehner, December 14, 2015

Καλώς ήρθατε στην Αθήνα

The ferry docks and the boarding process is repeated in reverse order. What a nice feeling to be here at last, especially when you have a good surprise waiting for you…the public transport is free for five days! We board the bus going to the nearest metro station.

I didn’t have any clue about what to do in Athens, but I said to myself that I would follow my intuition and ask the people about the next steps. So when we land on Athenian ground and hear people say they were going to “Amonia Square,” me, Hadikun, Wallow, and a guy called Abdou decide to go along: I ask at the information desk at the metro station. “You mean Omoneia? Yes, it’s this way.”

Helpless migrants everywhere, I am thinking to myself when I hear a female voice speaking in Turkish! Although I was in Turkey only five days ago, it seems like a long time for some reason. I get closer to the source of the voice, and there I see a Turkish woman talking to a Syrian woman (who apparently knew Turkish to a good extent).

The Turkish woman seems very compassionate, asking the Syrian about the journey and other generalities concerning the situation, so I join the conversation because I am curious to know more about this woman. She asks me and the Syrian woman about the other refugees who were around.

While talking, I noticed that she was with a man, who seemed like her husband/boyfriend, and she was translating everything to English for him. It turned out that he is really her husband and he’s Greek, and as he joined the conversation in English, we were already in Omoneia Square, and we had to get off.

The good thing is that Gozde and Panaiwtis (The names of the Turkish woman and her husband as they will tell us later) are also getting off here, and not only that, they are also going to help us find a cheap hotel around the area!

We get off with Gozde and Panaiwtis and a Syrian family of five or six people, and roam the surroundings until we find a hotel for 15 EUR per night! The Turko-Greek couple give us some extra info about the locality, and a contact number to call them if we need anything. What a nice start with nice people, I say to myself: it’s going smoother than I thought!

Anyway, we don’t book in that 15 EUR hotel, preferring to keep walking and looking for extra clues to help us plan our next step. We come across a falafel place with a signboard written in Arabic (“Falafel abu Michel”) and ask the guy where to find cafes or places Syrians sit to discuss the next steps. With a clear Lebanese accent, he shows us a route and we follow it.

We spot a cafe called “Cafe of Omoneia” in Arabic, and in front of it meet Tarek and Ramez, the Damascene guys who were with us in Izmir and on the boat. All of us decided to take a rest for a while. We were missing one phone because Abdou was bankrupt on the road and had to sell his to earn some 30 EUR. We had huge cups of delicious tea.

Afterwards, we stop at another falafel place, and when I talked to the “falafelist” he knows at once that I come from Latakia, as he is from the neighboring city of Jableh. He has been in Greece for 21 years. This conversation gets interrupted because another guy comes in, and everybody starts talking about how to reach Macedonia.

The new guy advises everyone to go to Thessaloniki as soon as possible, and says that we should book the night train right away, because it’s much cheaper. Thessaloniki is the next stop on the way for those who will be traveling through the Balkans, but Hadikun and I haven’t decided yet, and we prefer to go by air with fake documents.

We leave the falafel shop with that new guy, and as a last piece of help he shows us a cheap hotel for 10 EUR per night. I decide not to go back to that falafel shop because I don’t know anything about the background of the owner.

He seemed nice, but usually when dealing with Syrians I try to hide the fact that I’m from Latakia in order to avoid any troubles related to political or sectarian reasons, because Latakia is known to be a supporter of the Regime with a majority of Alawites (one of the many religious sects in Syria).

For a huge percentage of Syrians being from Latakia is suspicious because it means “Supporter of the Regime” or “Alawite,” and even if someone is Sunni (Islam’s mainstream sect) from Latakia, there is a widespread belief that these Sunnis “betrayed the revolution.”

Based on all of that, I thought it better not to get in close touch with the guy, because he might ask where am I from, to which sect I belong, and what I think about the situation while I’m trying to avoid all these topics – if not the pertinence to the entire poor social system that lead its people to such an abyss!

Stationary for a While

Hadikun and I decide that we are going by air, so we stay at this 10 EUR hostel at Victor Hugo street (I hope we’ll not be Les Miserables if we stay here, I think to myself jokingly). The others book their train tickets to Thessaloniki on the night train going next day.

The next thing we research is how to receive our money from Turkey, because the whole financial system -including banks and money transfer companies – is closed till further notice, and even Greeks can’t withdraw more than 60 EUR per day from ATMs.

After our comrades leave for Thessaloniki, Hadikun and I start our daily walks exploring Athens, pretending, even to ourselves, that we are ordinary tourists, and to look for a solution for our financial problem.

The first thing we notice is that the buildings which belong to 70s, 80s, and 90s are so similar to their counterparts in Syria, and, architecturally speaking, Athens gives the same impression as that of the chaotic Syrio-Lebanese cities in their contemporary versions.

It reminds us of place we’re trying to escape, but we’re able to forget this when we look at the people around us and see that the society is different and already liberated from the useless “conservations” of previous ages – unlike the Arab societies still imprisoned in ages of needless, even harmful, traditions.

We could see in some parts that Athens, before the emergence of these “Polykatikeia” buildings, was a beautiful place from an architectural point of view – the same as the cities of the Levant.

The (natural) beauty and ugliness  (architecture) of Athens.
The (natural) beauty and ugliness (architecture) of Athens.  Γκρεμίζουν την Αθήνα την παλιά του παλιού του μάγκα ραγίζουν την καρδιά 

These daily walks lead us to different places, like the old city (which we like too much at night), and to other “Syria-like” neighborhoods. Our focus on finding cheap shops always was fruitful: we ate daily at Abu Michel’s Falafel, because we could get a huge sandwich for 1.5 EUR, and Abu Michel himself had a good sense of humor and was always welcoming.

We discovered places we could buy natural juice for 1.20 EUR, semi-shops that sold clothes starting from 3 EUR, a cheap Bulgarian supermarket, 1 EUR shops, and other low budget options. It seemed that other fellow Syrians were doing the same, but too many of them used to stay at the Omoneia Square awake all night, waiting for the next step, whatever that next step is.

A few days later, we arrange a meeting with the guy who is supposed to provide us with the fake documents to fly away.  We go to the mentioned address on foot although it seems a bit far, because we like walking, not to mention our low budget.

On the way to this guy (whom I’ll call Faggio), the “Syrian Architecture” feeling gets stronger, but we always remember that we’re somewhere else by looking at the people, Greek flags, and Greek Style buildings that we see on the way, like the National Archaeological Museum. After about 30 minutes walk, we met Faggio at the agreed point, and he takes us to a shaded cafe in a nice side-street.

I get a good impression about him, because he reminds me of our mediator in Izmir: aa calm person, not much influenced in the Syrian/Middle Eastern mainstream culture, caring…one of those who got involved in this business because he had no other choice, NOT because he has a huge appetite for fast cash.

I expected Faggio to be such a guy, because I knew about him from a friend of my friends from Latakia who had come to Istanbul trying to make his way to Germany. We became “mates” faster than we would have if we’d have been in Latakia. I’d expected this Latakian friend could lead me to such people as Faggio.

While sitting in the café Faggio tells us that originally he tried to go to Europe illegally after losing almost everything in his native city of Aleppo, but he found himself stuck in Greece with no money, so he had to find some work quickly. Also, he had to pave the way for his family to go north.

That’s how he ended up doing this business in Athens. With Faggio we talked about different issues also, like what we used to do in Syria, what are our plans when we reach our destinations, and how we liked Athens.

When the meeting finished, we came back with a good impression, plus the info we needed to receive our money from Istanbul: there were Syrian “bureaus” working behind the scenes to provide such services for reasonable prices.

We went back “home” to our hostel at Victor Hugo’s, our “headquarters” to plan all our steps, where we were always warmly welcomed by the receptionists, exchanging greetings with the people sitting in the small lounge downstairs, including a Syrian handicapped guy who used to welcome us with a smile every day as we passed by.

Soubhi was his name, and he had problems walking normally, so he used a cane. Once as I was passing through the main lobby, he greeted me with “Why are you still here? I thought your wings were ready!” At that moment I decided to get closer and hear his story. He used to sit in the small hostel lobby alone every night, waiting for his “wings.”

After chatting for a while, I felt comfortable about that he had an open view of the situation. He was against the regime, his father and brother having died in the dark cells of the secret service. It took two years after his father’s disappearance for his family to learn that the father died after two days in prison.

According to Soubhi, the father was very keen not to talk politics because his other son (Soubhi’s brother) was an army officer, and if the family showed any symptoms of opposing the regime, the first victim would be the officer. The officer was never imprisoned nor interrogated, but the father and his other son (another brother of Soubhi) died in prison.

In this system people get arrested on so-called “reports” suspecting that they might be involved in anti-regime activities. These reports can be written by other people who have personal issues not related to politics at all. In these cases, the accused are considered guilty until proven otherwise – that’s why they get tortured or neglected until a clear decision – which takes a whole eternity sometimes – is made.

Soubhi left his wife and children in Istanbul at his brother the officer’s house. (He’d deserted the army to escape any possible persecution after his brother and father died in prison.) On the way to Turkey, he was caught by some Islamic militants who wanted to execute him, knowing that he was an officer in the army.

He managed to get loose and reach Istanbul after a scary journey. Soubhi’s wife is an Alawite from the Syrian coast, which is another testament that the guy is not sectarian nor Islamist in any way. He is afraid of the Islamification of the country more than he is afraid of the regime. “This is not a revolution, what we are seeing now is horrible….” he repeated on several occasions.

Soubhi decided to go to Europe in spite of his handicap, in order to ensure a better life for his family away from hatred. He had been in the hostel for 40 days, had had three attempts with different passports, but nothing really worked. However, he kept trying because he had no other choice.

Hadikun and I kept “voyaging” through Athens organizing my money transfer: I’d left my money with my Turkish flatmate in Istanbul in order to send it to me via Western Union, but since the financial system not working in Greece, I had to send it through this Syrian alternative.

"No more walls in the sea:" the same poster in different languages
“No more walls in the sea:” the same poster in different languages 

Days pass by, and we keep wandering around the city, this time more carefully as we are now carrying a huge amount of money with us all the time. Ready to try his first attempt, Hadikun deposits his money into a black-market bureau that works as a financial guarantor between the traffickers and traffickee.

Neither the mediator nor the trafficker gets their money if the refugee doesn’t reach his/her destination, because the refugee has a password agreed upon with the bureau, which the traveler discloses to the mediator/trafficker only in the case of success. It is only then that the mediator/trafficker can get the money – the refugee has the right to retake his/her money after a certain time if attempts to reach the promised land didn’t work. The same mechanism is used in Izmir for boat journeys.

I can’t do this step because I have to wait for my friend (Dave Hume), who was originally supposed to be my journey companion. The reason why I had to wait for him is because I had his money!! We kept our money with the same Turkish friend who was leaving Turkey for a long-term journey.

Dave Hume is an exceptional personality – one of those who works hard and is smart at the same time, never gives up, and represents a good living example of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Hume was the one who planted in my head the idea of reaching Europe illegally, because it seemed much easier than obtaining a visa (which might be impossible). He even gathered all the information needed about the route through the Balkans.

We got acquainted in Istanbul, where he had many ups and more downs. When I first met him he had a good job, but was fired because his boss was exploiting him and overloading him with huge tasks as if he was some kind of servant. He also had a huge amount of money stolen by impostors who promised him different things and then faded away.

Despite all of this, and although there was a big possibility that he wouldn’t be able to make it back to Istanbul since Istanbul has a bad reputation as a “capital for the Syrian Opposition” amongst the supporters of the regime, he was brave enough to go back to Damascus for his last university exam.

He almost got stuck there, but his quick-witted mind allowed him to pass through the military checkpoint safely. He wanted to graduate and keep moving on to higher educational degrees, so this last exam in Damascus must be passed.

Similar to me, Hume got sick of the sectarian, religious, social, and political limitations and tensions in Syria and has an ambition of becoming a world citizen who achieves success in various fields. Europe is the closest place which allows us to achieve that.

The Wanderers House

So I can’t make my move before Hume arrives – or at least before I find an alternative way to deliver his money – so I keep hanging around Athens for a bit longer. I have to find an alternative to Victor Hugo, because Hadikun’s attempt will be coming soon and we are 80% sure that he’s going to make it with his new Malaysian passport.

I was writing to one of my good acquaintances in Croatia, and she told me that there are some Serbian guys organizing a good initiative – a house where travelers can sleep for free in exchange for contributions and donations. I found the house on Facebook and asked if I could join.

They approved my request, for four days (the maximum, in order to allow other travelers to come). When the agreed day arrived, I exchanged “farewell” wishes with Hadikun and followed the instructions to reach the house, where I’m welcomed.

It was a normal apartment with no furniture, because everyone has to bring their own sleeping bags or whatever they like to sleep on. When I first got in, one of the travelers provided me with a general overview about do’s and don’ts. It’s a great idea, someone hires a house in a city, free of furniture, in order to provide a platform for travelers to meet and cooperate in a very minimalistic environment materially, but very rich intellectually.

Everyone is a guest and a host at the same time. There is a minimum required level of discipline in order to keep it going smoothly for all, but there is also a huge margin of freedom: freedom in contributing, freedom in communication, freedom from the monetary system (at least in terms of paid accommodation).

The house was a great chance to meet different interesting people, the most prominent of whom was the main organizer (Elia), a calm personality who seemed to have traveled a lot. He told me his idea was born in Istanbul, and having achieved success there, organized similar houses in Granada and Tbilisi in addition to Athens.

At about 14:15 on the first day I open the door and see a guy who speaks good Japanese, is a graphic designer, and artist – whose name is Hadikun! He came to the house after the failure of his first attempt. I had given him the info needed to register in case he failed.

Lina, the organizer who provided him with the instructions when he got in, thought he was from Switzerland! We wondered how it could be, but countries separated by huge Tempo-Geographical gap in reality – like Syria and Switzerland – are only one click away from each other on an online country list.

That evening we had a delicious Greek dinner cooked by Nadora (also not real name), a nice girl from Albanian origins, who cooks delicious Greek meals for everyone in the house once in a week. These dinners are a great chance to socialize, as everybody sits in a circle and talks about whatever, and a good example of the common spirit since everyone participates by money or contributions.

These initiatives are really important in our increasingly integrated world: we need such bridges of mutual understanding and examples of common non-monetary lifestyles in order to achieve our next evolutionary leap – avoiding conflict as much as possible – successfully.

There are a huge lot of reasons and tools for destructive conflicts based on all kinds of differences (political, racial, religious, regional – you just name it): Greek dinners (or other dinners if you would like) can be our savior.

 Ready to Fly

A few days after I deposit my money in an “insurance bureau,” I receive a midnight message from my mediator Faggio telling me to get ready – he has a Polish ID for me. I meet him about 2:00 AM at some forgotten corner. He shows me the ID with my picture on it (a picture that I took 2 days ago).

It really looks very original, except Warsaw is written in English instead of Polish, and even misspelled! Warsow! Where is this city? He assured me that there was no problem at all.

Back at the house, everybody seemed excited to see this Polish ID – most of them didn’t have to deal with fake IDs/Documents since they had European/quasi-European documents – for them it was really exotic to see firsthand someone paying huge amounts of money in order to pass those 10-15 seconds of passport control.

The next day, all I hear is “I hope I will NOT see you today,” as a wish of good luck in this attempt of mine.

At the airport, I follow the instructions that Faggio had provided: “Be confident, live your life normally, and way to go.” First gate, passed. Second gate (baggage control); third gate (boarding control), passed. I reach Gate B31 and sit down with everyone else waiting for the plane going to Modlin airport in Warsaw.

When the boarding time comes, I move on very confidently, but confidence doesn’t mean anything if your document has a shouting spelling mistake, which the controller’s eye can hear from miles away. The controller says to me “Please sit aside, we have to check this.”

At this moment I was sure that I was busted, but I was at least happy that my skills of paying attention to details are good enough. A few minutes later the security officer comes and asks me in a very polite manner in English “Where did you get this?” I answered him in Greek that I bought it.

“So you speak Greek?” he asks. “Maybe,” I answer. He guesses that I’m from Syria, and asks me to follow him. He accompanies me to the first gate, and tells me “Here you leave my friend.” I thanked him for his real politeness and went away. It seemed that he felt more sorry for me more than even I felt!

Athens’s airport staff is tolerant with Syrians who travel with fake documents. When they realize that someone is Syrian trying to get to Europe with a fake document, all they do is just take the document away and ask you go back. They don’t take any serious measures.

From my personal experience, and the stories I heard from others, I think that Greece was very helpful to Syrian refugees during this crisis. They are the first and the biggest station for the refugee tsunamis, but in comparison to other countries on this migration road the Greeks are extremely patient and tolerant although they have their own economic troubles.

Back at the house, everybody seems more disappointed than I am. Anyway, this was a chance to cook more, chat more, and do more collective activities, until I get my new document as promised by Faggio.

Faster than I thought, Faggio calls me the same night and tells me there is an Italian ID with a booking to Germany. “Would you take this?” he said. I say yes and meet him at 11:00 PM to give him my personal pictures for the new document. He says the document will be ready at 1:30 AM.

Everything goes as planned, and I get the document and the ticket. When I first saw the Italian ID I thought there was no way I was going to fly. It seemed very primitive, and the name and surname of the guy were not Italian at all. “Anyway, it’s just another attempt,” I said to myself.

I liked the idea that the ticket was to Berlin – this way I would get a chance to drink coffee with my sister (she was studying there at the time) before moving forward to Warsaw. But of course, everything depends on these ten seconds at the passport control.

At the airport I repeat the same steps, only the last step is different. The controller just looks at my face to compare it with the face in the ID and lets me in.

Personal Analysis & Opinion

I’m expressing my opinion regarding the refugee crisis here as a person who doesn’t belong to either side, yet belongs to them both at the same time.

Who are the refugees?

From what I read on the net, the stories I hear from friends, and my personal experience, I could say that there are three categories of (at least Syrian) refugees.

Real Refugees

Poor or helpless people who have lost almost everything, including hope to see the end of this mess: that’s why they decided to move on to Europe (namely Germany, Holland and Scandinavian countries). There they can find peace, hope for a better future, and reasonable financial aid until they’re able to stand on their feet again.

They come usually from conservative communities, but their version of Islam is what I call “Popular Islam,” which is not dangerous against others. They have a positive attitude toward the Europeans who they see as having saved them while their own compatriots and fellow Arabs and Muslims didn’t give a damn about them.

Amongst this category there is a huge sentiment of thankfulness towards the receiving countries, and a will to be positive contributors themselves. A significant portion of this category is determined to “go back home” when it’s finished. I think they’ll remain conservative in Europe (at least the first generation if they stay there). They understand that European societies have different standards and will not try to impose anything on Europeans.

Bad Refugees

One can also see a visible (not huge, but also not very small) category of “negative refugees.” The common denominator amongst these is the ingratitude toward receiving countries. Bad refugees are the examples that scare some Europeans from accepting refugees, and fuel right-wing arguments against “The Islamic Trojan Horse” coming to Europe.

Some of them look at Europe as a place where they can get easy money, without paying any real respect to the fact that these new countries have welcomed them much better than their fellow people.

Others can be dangerous: they have an “Islamist” background (“Islamist” in the sense of aggressive religious fanaticism, or compassion with fanatics). These don’t have any respect for the “infidel” people they criticize. Fortunately, it’s easy to distinguish them, as they will always be trying to make demonstrations or other activities to express their discontent, or to impose their opinions.

This part of the second category is especially responsible for increasing Islamophobia amongst the Europeans who deal directly with them.

Cultural Refugees

These ones are the skilled, the creative, the ambitious who felt always as strangers in the socio-political systems of their original societies, which at the least didn’t support anyone trying to behave “outside of the matrix,” and at the worst waged war against any new or unfamiliar personalities/ideas.

After the war, they’ve felt more alienated in a country divided between a totalitarian regime and Islamic militant groups, and the zealous supporters of each party.

Some of the cultural refugees were opponents of the regime and participators in the demonstrations. They had to flee Syria to escape persecution. Most of them have become now opponents of both the regime and the Islamic militant groups, which for them represent a huge disappointment in this society.

Another part of the cultural refugees are the ones who were keen to avoid any tension from the beginning. They didn’t participate in any activity (on purpose), thinking that this will only lead to more blood and tension with no “victory” for anyone. They were aliens before the war, and after the war they’ve become even more alienated.

Some cultural refugees are/were regime supporters. They’ve lost their hope in any “victory” because of the corruption of the regime and the vicious circle that doesn’t seem to be ending quickly as they expected. This is what made them revise their opinions, and reach the conclusion that it’s best to live somewhere else where a human being is more respected.

It is worth mentioning that they support/supported the regime not because they are ready to fight and kill for this cause, but because in their eyes it represented the best possible choice on ground – they are intellectuals and university graduates who had nothing to do with weapons, same as the intellectual supporters of the opposition, who were hoping to create a democratic and free Syria.

Of course, you can find people who belong to a mixture of these categories at the same time.

 And the Europeans?

“Welcome Refugees”

Free of any kind of discrimination against any racial, ethnic, religious group of people, they think that everyone on the planet deserves a decent life, and the priority is for helping fellow humans rather than caring about “who’s legal and who’s not.”

“Right Wing”

Refusing to accept refugees based on discriminative (racial, anti-Islamic, nationalistic) reasons, for them these migrants/refugees are at best inferior people/unwelcomed guests, and at worst, enemies.

They can’t see the distinction between the aforementioned categories of refugees. Usually one can recognize this category by their hate language, which is similar to the hate language that Islamists and other fanatics use against “others.”

“No Hatred, but No Refugees”

People in this category are not racist and have nothing personal against Muslims/Arabs, but they think that accepting this amount of people coming from a different culture (inflicted with wars, conflicts, fanatism, ignorance, etc.) will have negative effects.

They might even have friends from Muslim/Arab backgrounds or countries, but they think that the majority of the newcomers will not be as nice as their Arab/Muslim friends, especially with what they see about Muslim countries through different media, or their own personal experiences sometimes.

Personal Opinion

Pragmatically speaking, I think for the EU it’s not a matter of accepting or not accepting; rather it’s about the way to receive the refugees. Greece, Italy and Hungary will keep witnessing an influx of refugees as long as there are wars/troubles in the poorer regions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

It’s not practically possible (let alone ethical) to stop these waves of refugees in a world that is becoming more integrated – where a war in one place might have far-reaching echoes in ways never before seen in the history of humanity. This is what “Right Wing” Europeans can’t understand, apparently.

The EU countries are obliged to help Greece, Italy and Hungary as members of the same union. However, they have to come up with a plan to welcome refugees. This plan should be well designed, fulfilling the following elements: (1.) finding out “who is who” (i.e., who belongs to each category) amongst refugees.

(2.) Avoiding any troubles that might be caused by “bad” refugees (this can be done with the help of other Syrians who are willing to demonstrate the bright face of Syria, and don’t feel comfortable towards the negative deeds done in their name).

Here it is worth mentioning that many Europeans from the “Welcome Refugees” category should pay attention to the fact that not all the refugees are “nice,” and refrain from arguing with the opponents of accepting refugees – because arguing just leads to more polarization and complications.

I think it would be better if they could keep working, but avoid direct confrontations with Right-Wing. Eventually, it’s about building a positive sentiment (as much as possible) among all the parties concerned, from both the Europeans and the refugees.

(3.) Designing different integration plans according to each category, and according to the country situation, down to the very local level.

I know my view might be very short-sighted, but this is everything I can come up with so far, based on my knowledge and observations. If you have any new suggestions, comments, or ideas, they are more than welcome…especially with a cup of coffee or tea.

(Understanding the crisis)

(Humanity Thanks)

Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions about anything here please contact me via the “contact” link at the top of this blog. 

With love