A Greek Odyssey

Our Greek odyssey has come to a close, and we’re moving on to more riding in Spain with mixed emotions. It’s been an inspiring, infuriating and frustrating, sad and wonderful time that we’ve spent here. A surreal mix of friendship, hard work, celebrations and heartache, trips to the beach, bike rides in the mountains, and trail runs in the hills.

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Timiou Prodromou Monastery, in the mountains above Serres

Sarah’s talked about her teaching in the park in Serres. I’ve been doing a mixture of journalism and construction work, working again with the Get Sh*t Done (GSD) team. In June and July I worked on a few projects, building a roof to keep the sun and rain off a walk-in fridge, constructing housing for water tanks feeding one of the kitchens that cooked food to distribute around Thessaloniki, putting up workshop walls at the Help Refugees warehouse, and helping build a new roof at the women’s space centre in the Nea Kavala camp where Sarah was teaching. I rejoined the GSD team for a few days in August, constructing a shaded area in Nea Kavala next to the small playground there.

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Constructing a shade at Nea Kavala

One day, our work was cut short when we got a call from the workshop to come back with the van. Sinatex camp, a converted warehouse nearby housing around 120 refugees, had run out of water and needed an emergency distribution from the warehouse. A pipe had burst, and being a public holiday most of the camp management weren’t on duty and plumbers couldn’t be reached, so we took a pallet full of bottled water to the camp, where refugees helped us unload and stack the packs of bottles. Another of our teams was putting the finishing touches to a community centre they were building at the site.

I spent a week interviewing several of the Yazidis from the camp where they are based in Serres, helping one of the organisations collect stories from the community about their persecution at the hands of Isis, their escape and journeys to Europe. Their stories were harrowing, of near death, hunger, thirst and deprivation through mountains. Perilous sea crossings, years in exile in camps, waiting and families spread over continents. And these were the fortunate ones who had escaped. I worked with a young German Yazidi interpreter who had come to help. You could see him absorb the pain and emotion of those who told us their tales, and he could barely bring himself to recount some of the things that happened.

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Yazidi kids marking the anniversary of the genocide by ISIS

I wrote an article for the Are You Syrious news group, who collect refugee news from across Europe. I hope in some small way it helps share their story and highlight the situation here. The number of people who expressed their gratitude for our listening, and being able to tell their story was humbling. The number of the young people who we spoke to who said they wanted to be lawyers, doctors, translators, teachers, to help other people, was inspiring.

It’s been great working with the other volunteers here, too. So many inspiring people working together from all over the world. We’ve met other Brits (including someone else who cycled here, and one guy who walked!), Spaniards, French, Dutch, Greeks, Ozzies, Kiwis, Germans, Turks, people from all over. You can see the joy and energy in everyone, burnout and trauma in many, especially the longer term volunteers. I think many find it hard to leave, having a sense of not being able to leave people behind, of attachment and possibly guilt.

It’s healthy to try and keep some distance and perspective, but hard to achieve. I’ve been running and cycling when it’s not too hot (30 degrees counts as positively cool now), exploring some of the stunning scenery of northern Greece. It’s a remarkable country, for its people, landscape and wildlife. A couple of weeks ago we visited Lake Kerkini, a man made lake nearby, which hosts hundreds of bird species as they migrate through, as well as, surprisingly, a population of water buffalo.

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As we prepare to leave, we keep returning to thoughts about how the refugee crisis across Europe could possibly be solved. There’s the medium term of how to handle the numbers of people waiting in camps in Europe, and still arriving. And then there’s the longer term matter of what we can do so that people don’t have to make long and dangerous journeys to find safety and work.

On the first issue, there is a bureaucratic and political stand-off in Europe. Italy and Greece have borne the brunt of the hundreds of thousands of refugee arrivals over the last few years. Tens of thousands remain stranded in Greece, but the situation has evolved from emergency response to a stalemate of entrenched subsistence.

EU rules governing asylum claims — the Dublin regulation — say refugees must seek asylum in the first safe country in the block they are able to do so. In recognition of the vast numbers arriving in these two countries, the EU set up a relocation programme to help share the responsibility among member states, one that the UK has opted out from. But relocations are slow, the legal pathways are difficult to negotiate, and access is restricted to refugees who meet certain criteria, including country of origin. Syrians are eligible; Afghans are not, and Iraqis no longer are. Of course, this can fuel further tensions between different refugee communities in the camps.

Other options available to refugees in Europe are family reunification — if they have a parent or child in another country — asylum, or voluntary return to their own country. But family reunification processes are similarly difficult, with political heel dragging increasing. Germany, for example, has recently cut the number of monthly cases it accepts. Elections there loom, and the government appears to be playing to populist right wing concerns of immigration.

Many other EU countries required to take asylum seekers under the relocation programme are still well below their quotas. The programme presents a massive bureaucratic workload for the limited staff of the Greek asylum service. After finally working through a backlog of applications, Greece has now come up against a wall of having to wait for other countries to make their quotas available. There is a political solution, but it faces many barriers, not least the perceived growing populist fear of immigrant arrivals.

My view is that there is a lack of compassion, based on misunderstanding and exploitation by xenophobic political groups of weak economic conditions. Mainstream media portrayals have been typically either anti-immigration, or where sympathetic, have reinforced a stereotype of poor, suffering people. The daily reality is more mundane, of hundreds of thousands of often well-educated, skilled workers, lives in limbo, waiting. The appropriate response is not to demonise these people, but, equally, responses that ignore the genuine concerns of cultural change brought by immigration also miss something.

The solution, put well in a Vox article, must acknowledge the reality that welcoming refugees requires an openness and acceptance of some change. This change can be good, especially if people are open to the positive effects of migration.

“The British tabloid press, for example, has for years scaremongered about the supposed threats from refugees and migrants. Such politics, in Europe or elsewhere, often get described as being about pure racism or xenophobia, but in fact they’re about something a little different: a fear, rarely articulated, of changing demographics and civic identity.

Taking in large numbers of refugees requires accepting that those refugees might bring changes to your nation’s identity or culture. And while that change is often economically and culturally enriching, it can still feel scary. It requires people to modify, ever so slightly, their vision of what their town and neighborhood look like. That change can be hard to accept. You can see this play out in Europe, for example, in the regular political backlashes against new mosques being constructed. Those backlashes are partly about Islamophobia, but they are also an expression of people’s fear and insecurity about ‘losing’ what made their community feel familiar.”

And population change and migration are also natural phenomena. Trace any European family tree back just a few generations, and heritage will be diverse. Humanitarian organisations and politicians should work to spread awareness of the positive effects of migration. Accepting some cultural change, and the richness it can bring, is the condition we must be open to.

Refugees and other migrants are unlikely to bring a rise in crime or an increase in unemployment. Studies point to the long term impact of migration boosting wage levels and employment levels.

In some places, migration does pressure local services and populations, and these concerns should not be ignored either. Which brings us to the wider problem of people forced to flee their homes and travel thousands of miles in search of a place to live and work. No-one would risk such a journey if they could live well where they are. Going some way to solving the global refugee crisis must start with the conditions that force people from their homes in the first place. Any attempt to distance ourselves in the UK and western Europe from the causes of these problems must first address our long histories of economic and political exploitation of countries that are now conflict zones or afflicted by drought and famine. We can’t distance ourselves from these conflicts when our governments are the largest global arms dealers. We cannot walk away from borders when our countries invented them in the age of empires. So, not really a solution, but hopefully a coherent starting point.

It’s easy to then get lost in the abstract, the seeming insurmountability of it. But in camps in northern Greece you can see the difference the grass roots NGOs make. You can also see the fragility and vulnerability, the gaps in services, the trauma and uncertainty. It’s the kids that get me. No five-year-old should have to play on an abandoned airstrip in a refugee camp. The bright teenagers who have been out of formal education for years who, through no fault of their own, end up sleeping rough on the streets of Athens. The best case is years of missed education and opportunity. Other possibilities include falling into economic or sexual exploitation, human trafficking or coming under the influence of extremists, who have been known to recruit in the rougher camps.

Refusing to help support the relocation efforts, my country is failing these people.

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