"I urge you to stop racism. At last, you have to realize that we are human beings and we are immigrant workers. We want justice," shouts Javed Aslam, the Pakistani president of the Union of Immigrant Workers in Greece. He is addressing the crowd of about 5,000 people, who have marched all the way to Syntagma Square, in front of the parliament building, to protest against fascism and the growing wave of racist attacks against immigrants, some of which have been fatal.
The demo is occuring a couple of days after the murder of Shehzad Luqman, a 27-year-old Pakistani worker who was stabbed to death by a 29-year-old fireman and his unemployed, 24-year-old accomplice, both Greek and suspected Golden Dawn members. During the early morning of January 17th, Shehzat was cycling to his employer's house in Petralona to load their truck before heading to the open-air market. The two offenders, who claim they had a fight with Shehzat because he'd been blocking their way, stopped their motorbike and stabbed him in the chest, causing his death a short time later.
Unlike many crimes against immigrants that go unreported, this one was witnessed by neighbors and a taxi driver who recorded the motorbike's plate and called the police. When arrested a short time later, one of the assailants still had the bloody knife in his pocket.
An antifascist solidarity demo outside the Greek embassy in London.
Shehzat's death seems to be the straw that is breaking the camel's back. At Saturday's antifascist demo, some of the protesters were holding pictures of Shehzat, a move aiming to overcome the anonymity that characterises the victims of race and hate crimes in Greece. The press, which usually reduces the victims to faceless "illegal immigrants," was now mentioning his name and reporting on his personal history, telling of his move to Greece, his job, and how he sent money back to his sisters in Pakistan.
It was one of the few times that Greeks and non-Greeks have demonstrated side by side, while events of solidarity took place all over the world, from Chicago to Paris, New York to London. Shehzat was probably the first "immigrant worker" to be publically mourned in Greece—not just by those in his community, but by all.
However, this is not how all Greeks see things. Despite the fact that human rights organizations and UN officials were explicit that this was a typical hate crime, the Greek police were loath to recognize the racist motive, while the public prosecutor did not make any use of it in his report. In response, Amnesty International filed a press release saying that the attack marked the continuing failure of the Greek authorities to take action and end racist violence.
The UNHCR (the UN's refugee agency) says racist attacks have risen to alarming levels during the crisis. Still, the Greek government is unwilling to adopt specific measures that would effectively allow the victims to report crimes and the authorities to provide statistics. It's been months since human rights groups warned the Greek government that both the quality and measure of hate crimes is changing, leading to a new typology of deadly assaults, which have come to include attacks in public spaces—such as in squares or on public transport—usually by groups of men dressed in black with their faces covered.
Ahmed's stab wounds
Similar to Shehzad Luqman is the case of Ahmed, an Iraqi immigrant from Tikrit who was attacked in the same way in Metaxourgio, an area located a few blocks away from where Shehzad was killed. I met him at "Triporto," a bar in Metaxourgio used by an active group of residents as a meeting point to keep the social bonds of the area tight. It's one of the few places where immigrants and Greeks mix to discuss residential problems, as well as hosting a social kitchen once a week, taking part in an antifascist initiative and showing solidarity to those in need.
"It was ten minutes to midnight on a Sunday night in Keramikos. I was out with friends and I was walking back home, a bit drunk. Four masked guys stopped their motorbikes next to me. One asked for a cigarette and another asked me if I was Bangladeshi," Ahmed told me in broken Greek. "I said I was Iraqi and then I felt pressure on my right arm and my back, and I fell to the ground. I felt heat on my arm and then on my back and my neck." Ahmed didn't realize he had been stabbed eight times until he saw blood spilling on to the street.
While lying there wounded, Ahmed called a friend who lives close by and the police arrived 15 minutes later. Luckily none of the wounds on Ahmed's body struck any vital organs, so he only stayed in the hospital for two weeks. That was about it. There were no racist slogans or fascist graffiti, yet there is no doubt that this was a hate crime and Ahmed was another victim of the growing racism crisis taking place in Athens. While in the hospital, Ahmed didn't tell his brother in Iraq what happened to him for fear of worrying his family. That lack of communication with his family made Ahmed worry about what might happen to his body if he died, and how it had to be sent back to Tikrit to be buried.
That's another issue the Pakistani community has to deal with. "Every week, we have to find money to send bodies back to Pakistan to their families. It costs up to €2,500 ($3,328)," says Javed. With no support from their countries of origin or the Greek state, the communities of lowly-paid, uninsured immigrant workers find it hard to grant their peers the right to die in dignity.
In Greece, Ahmed feels like a nobody. One of the shadows that walks up and down the streets of the capital, looking for metallic objects in bins and junkyards to sell as scrap metal, while squatting a cold, abandoned apartment with no water or electricity. Shehzad's memorial by the workers in the anti-fascist demo last Saturday could be Ahmed's only way out of the margins of Greek society. The protesters all wore a sticker bearing the motto, "I Will Not Be Scared." Javed asserted: "We know that if we don't fight, there will not be no justice. We will fight."
Follow Matthaios on Twitter: @tsimitakis
Photos by Nikolas Georgiou
More on Greece's troubles:
And on a happier note: