This article originally appeared on VICE US
On July 7, I received a message on Facebook.
My name Mouaz Khrayba of Daraa, Syria I am 20 years old
It is now in the Greek island of Samos
My brother was one of the journalists of the events in Syria
I dream to be well
Mouaz Khrayba, who had been put in touch with me by a mutual acquaintance, had attached photos of refugees protesting in front of barbed-wire fences on Samos. Many of them held signs, one of which asked simply: what is our destiny?
In 2011, I came to learn, Khrayba lived with his family in Nawa, a small city in Syria's Daraa Governorate. His mother was a teacher, and he grew up one of eight children in a happy home. Opposite their house was a garden with fruit trees and vegetables. Things took a turn during the protests that triggered the Syrian Civil War. The government repeatedly arrested his brother, Zahar, who worked as a media activist and protest organizer. In the armed uprising that followed, their family home was shelled and burned, and Zahar joined a Free Syrian Army battalion. He died of shrapnel wounds covering a battle in Nafaa. Khrayba's father also lost his life during the war.
"Whatever happens and no matter how far away we get, memories stay the most powerful," Khrayba later told me in Arabic. "Even when we forget, they haunt us in dreams and nightmares." In February 2016, after his father's and brother's deaths, two arrests, no future, and four years beneath "shells and barrel bombs that do not distinguish between people and stones," Khrayba and his wife resolved to leave Syria. For 22 days, they passed from town to town until they could be smuggled over the Turkish border. From there, they boarded a life raft to Greece, where they ended up in a camp on the island of Samos. But where previous arrivals had moved on from these island camps to the mainland after a few days, Khrayba was detained.
Over months of Facebook messages, Khrayba described the harsh camp life on Samos: overcrowding, blistering heat, and inedible food. His pregnant wife, living with him in a flimsy tent, their only shelter, suffered a miscarriage. But worst was the mental havoc of not knowing his fate or even the length of his confinement.
Through it all, Khrayba took photos. What began before the war as a hobby became, with the revolution, a kind of duty. Inspired by his brother's example, he resolved to document the pain of Syrian refugees in a way more intimate than the global media could—from a refugee's point of view. The photos he sent with his messages were sometimes beautiful—one, of a grinning child, he titled "Evening of Hope"—but he captured grimmer subjects—the claustrophobic camp fences, a bee feasting on rotten food—with a careful, artistic eye.
Khrayba is one of more than a million people, who, since 2015, have fled war and poverty in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere for Europe. Unlike most of these refugees, who, on landing in Greece, made their way north through the Balkans and into countries like Germany and Austria, Khrayba was stuck. On March 9, 2016, Greece's Balkan neighbors slammed their borders shut, sealing off the route to the EU's richer nations, and effectively trapping about 50,000 refugees on mainland Greece. With refugees piling up on the border and continuing to come into Greece, the EU signed a deal with Turkey on March 18 in an attempt to address the situation once and for all. The EU promised to give Turkey about $3.25 billion, as well as speed up negotiations for Turkey's entrance into the EU and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, among other things. In exchange, starting on March 20, Turkey would block refugee boats from leaving their shores and take back any refugees who had come to Greece through Turkey. The EU also vowed to resettle an equivalent number of refugees from Turkey within other EU states.
NGOs denounced the deal as a betrayal of international laws protecting refugees. Skeptical that Turkey was a safe country, an independent appeals committee blocked most deportations, leaving those refugees who couldn't find a smuggler in a state of limbo, their only hope to apply for asylum. Yet Greece's asylum service processes applications at a glacial pace, and refugees of some nationalities are given preferential treatment over others, who may face just as much danger at home. Khrayba is now one of between 50,000 and 60,000 refugees who remain trapped in Greece, with the future they'd risked their lives for just beyond their grasp.
While most refugees in Greece live on the mainland, as of January, 14,000 were trapped in camps, officially titled Reception and Identification Centers—nicknamed "hotspots"—on the islands of Chios, Kos, Laros, Lesbos, and Samos. In late October, I flew to Samos to meet up with Khrayba and see his home of seven months. I missed him by days. Khrayba and his wife had finally received their papers to go to Athens, where they would await an asylum interview.
It was the off-season, and except for NGO employees, the island was dead. The financial crisis had left Greece with little except its beauty, but Samos had that in excess. The sea and sky conspired together to form an impossible sort of blue. Across the Mycale Strait, Turkey looked close enough to kiss. The ferry cost around $40—provided you had the right passport.
Refugees didn't live in town. The overwhelming majority were stuck in a camp with layers of razor-wire-topped fences that evoked comparisons to Guantánamo from some of its residents. Meant for 600, its population had, during my late-October visit, swelled to more than 2,400—with more arriving each day. According to one source, just fewer than 2,100 remained inside the camp as of late January.
After last year's media blitz covering the squalid conditions at Lesbos and Idomeni, the Greek government had largely closed the camps to press, so I didn't bother to apply for a pass. Instead, I walked around until I saw a hole that had been cut in the fence, out of which issued a steady stream of families—some buying cigarettes and groceries, others just stretching their legs. I met Rusheen, 39, and her husband, Jamal, on a hill outside the camp. They had arrived two days earlier. The Kurdish couple came from Aleppo, where Rusheen taught Arabic grammar and composition to high school students, a profession in which she took much pride.
Rusheen's house was in the frontline neighborhood of Bustan al Basha. She described the war in rapid Arabic—the shelling and destruction that had driven them from their homes—and, with bitterness, the filth and overcrowding of Samos's hotspot. Then, she offered to show me the camp. We climbed through the hole in the fence.
The hotspots were never meant to be places where people lived. Until the EU-Turkey deal, the majority of refugees stayed a few nights at most before getting on a ferry to Athens. But after the deal was implemented on March 20, new arrivals were officially confined to the islands. Doctors Without Borders immediately condemned the agreement, and not wanting to be implicated in refugee detention, briefly pulled out, along with other NGOs. First Reception Services, an arm of the Greek government, took over the running of the camp.
The refugees kept coming, but now, they couldn't leave. The camp's population spiraled dangerously upward, and the new restrictions created a market for smugglers. It's between $800 and $1,200 for a fake ID that lets you board a ferry. Getting onto a plane requires even more—about $7,500, part of a smuggling "package" that includes a passport and accommodations once the plane has landed.
If Samos's hotspot were simply full, most refugees would live in PVC porta-cabins, which look like shipping containers with doors and a roof. But by late October, it was so far beyond capacity that every empty foot was filled with tents. Several dozen people slept in the open air. Tents were the cheap single-person variety, just high enough to kneel inside, but one might house an entire family, packed so tightly they had to sleep curled in fetal positions, a thin layer of nylon their only protection from the concrete. Water leaked from the cabins' bathrooms onto the ground where people slept.
During summer, when temperatures can reach 100 degrees, the tents provided little protection. Nor are they waterproof, on an island known for its heavy rain. Respiratory illnesses spread, and by November, several fires had broken out from the small campfires people lit to keep warm. Very little preparation was made for the frigid winter. Though Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas said in Janaury that "no migrant or refugee is in the cold," the voluntary humanitarian worker Pru Waldorf, of Calais Action, told me that 700 refugees remain in tents in Samos alone, with up to 1,000 more in unheated dormitories. Many thousands more languish in the larger Moria camp on Lesbos and in camps in Thessaloniki. This winter, several refugees have died under freezing conditions in Greek camps; one victim lived in Samos.
The porta-cabins were only marginally better. The smaller ones housed just a few families, but other, larger cabins were dormitories, rows of bunk beds inhabited by unrelated men, women, and families, who hung blankets to give a semblance of privacy. Water was scarce both on the island itself and in the camps. Many refugees suspected that the frequent outages the camp experienced were due not just to pipes breaking, but to police intentionally cutting off their access. A Samos-based aid worker told me that doctors had found it contaminated with hepatitis.
Above the sinks of the filthy porta-cabin bathroom, a peeling poster instructed residents on how to shit and wash their hands. Though the camp employs a cleaning company, it often does a poor job with the bathrooms, which the refugees tend to clean themselves. Their squat toilets were constantly clogged, and dozens of men, women, and children might share a single shower. In camps plagued with sexual harassment and assault, there are no separate bathrooms for women.
"This is not life," Rusheen told me, as she led me through the cabins. "In Aleppo, we had a beautiful clean house. The door locked."
Refugees spoke about the lines, the bureaucracy, the endless waits to speak to asylum services that kept telling them to come back. A poet from Mosul with a crippled foot showed me a certificate from the camp doctor denying he was disabled. Most medical care consisted of aspirin and tranquilizers. In December, a 41-year-old Iraqi man died of a heart attack after waiting four hours to see a doctor.
The food wasn't much better: mainly pasta and potatoes shipped in from a contractor in Athens, which one friend told me his dog refused to eat. In early February, photos of these meals served crawling with maggots surfaced on Facebook. Refugees spent hours in line waiting for each meal, until their hunger and frustration boiled over into fights that police refused to break up. Anyone who could avoid camp food did.
"Do you think these articles do anything?" a young man asked. He was slim, sandy blond, and he spoke English with the slightest accent.
"Probably not," I said. "But it's important to keep a record."
The young man's name was Walid (he asked that I not use his last name). He was 25, a Palestinian born in Hama, Syria, and a friend of Khrayba. It was his writing I'd seen on those protest signs in Khrayba's photos. Walid's near-perfect English came courtesy of a Canadian girlfriend and the private language schools he'd attended since childhood. He loved cars—Corvettes, Dodge Vipers—California, and Tupac Shakur. In 2012, he was a student, and Syria's war was boiling. His mother pleaded with him to leave for Dubai. "You're my only son," she begged.
He spent the next four years in Dubai, sometimes working as a cameraman, until, one day in 2015, his residency permit was not renewed. He had only a few months to leave. "I only thought of Europe," he said. He told me he had arrived at Samos's hotspot eight months ago with his father and sister.
In Greece, Walid and his family found themselves in a sort of limbo that has been well known to Palestinians since they fled or were expelled from their lands by Zionist militias in 1948. The Syrian government does not grant Palestinians Syrian nationality, even if they, and their parents, were born in Syria. EU authorities often didn't classify them as Syrian but as Palestinian; sometimes they even left their nationality blank. This created confusion and made the process of seeking asylum drag on, while refugees were left stranded in tents in the winter snow.
After they registered, Walid said, Palestinians in Samos waited in vain for asylum interviews, but their names were never called. As of January, Walid told me that only one Palestinian at Samos had been granted an interview. Without these interviews, he said, Palestinians could not get the residency papers that allowed them to settle in Greece, nor could they get a card that allowed them to leave the islands and go to Athens, where many hoped to find smugglers who would help them on the increasingly difficult journey north. Walid showed me his registration card. It was stamped only samos in red ink.
Walid watched his Syrian friends leave, and new arrivals swell the camp. "Seven months, and nothing changed. Just lies and fake promises. Winter is coming. We can't wait. We are thinking of going to smugglers."
"This is not life," Rusheen told me, as she led me through the cabins. "In Aleppo, we had a beautiful clean house. The door locked."
Both the Greek government and major international NGOs have received hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with a crisis due in no small part to the EU's border closures. But a great deal of this money isn't reaching those for whom it's supposedly meant; much of it hasn't even been spent. In January, the German newspaper DW found that mismanagement, indifference, and lack of coordination kept refugees in snow-covered tents, while the Greek government, the EU, and NGOs traded blame for the failures.
Volunteer groups like Calais Action and Samos Volunteers pick up much of the slack. Often leftist in ideology, volunteer groups work on shoestring budgets, but, unconstrained by the hierarchy and bureaucracy found in many NGOs and government organizations, they're able to provide many supplies one would expect to come from these larger, better-funded entities—in Samos, they supply toilet paper, diapers, milk, clothing, and sleeping bags. Until it grew financially unsustainable, they even provided the tents. They also set up cafes and movie nights, hold language classes, build furniture with refugees, and facilitate cricket matches.
Ultimately, they can only do so much. Hotspots are holding pens, not habitations. Clement Perrin, the head of Doctors Without Borders' mission in Greece, told me, "You don't spend six months in a transit center. You spend one week. Then you have to be transferred somewhere else where you will be allowed to take back control over your life." With their living conditions entirely determined by others, the refugees' helplessness is exacerbated by the long, uncertain wait to learn their fate.
But the people who seek refuge in Europe are seldom passive by disposition. The protest Mouaz Khrayba documented was one of many acts of resistance described to me by refugees and aid workers. Refugees held numerous demonstrations in Samos's hotspot. They held aloft signs, reading, no racist borders!, justice for refugees, we need to move and have a better life, since 1948 we have been a homeless people, and chanted "Death, but not humiliation," a slogan made famous during the Syrian revolution. One group organized a hunger strike. During times when camp authorities locked them in—refugees are not meant to leave the camps for the first 25 days they are there—the refugees cut holes in the fences.
In September, a young Pakistani man named Ayman tried to burn himself alive. His asylum had been declined. In his seven months at the hotspot, he had wasted about $2,700 on smugglers in futile efforts to escape. After his last attempt failed, the smuggler refused to give back his cash. Ayman poured gasoline on his head, lit himself on fire, and ran in the direction of the camp's police station. Refugees doused him in water, but he was hospitalized with burns covering his arms and face.
Frustration turned people against one another. On May 13, Samos's hotspot broke into a vicious ethnic riot. Pakistanis blamed the aggression of some Algerians. Arabs blamed the drunkenness of some Pakistanis. But the clear culprit was the camp itself. Young men who took part in the two-day riot described it as a military battle—fought with sticks, improvised weapons, and burning dumpsters—while women and children fled in terror and police watched from the safety of locked porta-cabins. At a second riot, a few weeks later, swaths of the camp had been burned. The wreckage remained for kids to wander through, a monument to the hotspot's failures.
When I spoke in late October to Elisa Freni, a field coordinator from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), which helps Greece's asylum services with applications, about the seemingly interminable asylum process, she sighed with exasperation: "We are guests in this country, OK? We don't make the decisions. The Greek authorities make the decisions."
Freni explained the process carefully: Once refugees reach the island, they have to register with the Greek government, usually with the police, and have the option to apply for asylum, at which point they should automatically be given an interview date. After the interview, if their application is approved, the process moves forward, and they leave the island. If it's denied, they can file an appeal, and the process can go on for another few months. This, at least, was how it was supposed to work.
She seemed surprised when I mentioned Walid's case—that his status as a Palestinian refugee had meant indefinite detention on the island. Freni reiterated that having access to the asylum procedure was protected under international law. "[They're] undeniable human rights; nobody can deny people from this right of [seeking asylum]." But the reality is murkier. Since the EU-Turkey deal went into effect, and possibly even before that, officials on the islands were ordered to process Syrian refugees first and foremost, followed by a few other nationalities—the rest were kept in the dark about their application or even deported. In addition, the whole process of detaining, registering, and processing refugees at the Greek hotspots is controversial and messy, and could easily lead to situations like Walid's. Whether Palestinians' long confinements were deliberate decisions on the part of officials or the accidental outcomes of bureaucratic incompetence is hard to say. Probably it's a bit of both.
Despite the EU planning on relocating up to 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy over the course of two years, in the past year only 8,162 refugees were relocated, 6,212 of whom were from Greece. In November, Perrin told me, "There is no plan from the government to accommodate people and to increase reception capacity in the mainland in order to take them more quickly." At this rate, it will take about a decade for the remaining refugees to legally leave Greece.
From this standpoint, the failure on the part of the Greek government to provide acceptable living conditions for refugees begins to make a kind of twisted sense. If life as a refugee in Greece is sufficiently harsh, maybe refugees with money will pay smugglers to go on, while those without will go home. But many believe the real responsibility lies higher up, with the EU itself.
"What the European Union wants to show is that, to people who are stranded in Turkey, or Syrian refugees, if you come to Greece, your situation will be bad," Perrin said. "There is for me an attempt to discourage people from trying to seek help in Europe."
Gerald Knaus, whose think tank, the European Stability Initiative, is credited with designing the EU-Turkey deal that kept Khrayba and Walid confined to Samos, framed the deal as a last-ditch effort to save the values of an EU increasingly gripped by far-right nationalism. Unless the borders were controlled, he said, with nobody being sent back without having a chance to ask for protection, the EU would inch ever closer to the example of Australia, which indefinitely detains all refugees arriving by boat on abusive prison islands. The winners would be far-right politicians like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has exploited the refugee crisis to show "how liberal democracies are out of touch with the public. How universal human rights are a thing of the past."
Most refugees who've managed to get off the islands come to Athens. Of those, a fair number pass through Exarcheia, where leftists have established a network of squats to house them, which provide a standard of living and autonomy far beyond that available in government camps. After Samos, I headed back to Athens to see these squats in person, and to finally meet with Khrayba.
At the Samos port, undercover police stopped me as soon as I got out of the cab. They didn't care about my ticket—just my passport. Behind a massive fence, I joined passengers, riot cops, and a few lucky refugees with permits. Outside, groups of young guys crackled with nervous energy. They hoped to scramble aboard the ferry the moment the gates opened.
As the ferry pulled into port, I saw someone had written refugees welcome in large letters on the walls. I disembarked and made my way to Exarcheia.
Imagine a neighborhood run by anarchists. It radiates from Exarcheia Square, an intersection of three streets, where trees hang the banner: until every animal cage is empty. until every prison cell has been destroyed. K-VOX, an anarchist bar, keeps watch from one corner. The neighborhood boasts an old, rich network of squats, leftist social centers, communal gardens, and solidarity kitchens—and K-VOX is one of these pillars. Its walls display a global jumble of radical leftist memorabilia; several posters are done up in the red, yellow, and green of the Kurdish flag, commemorating young leftists who died fighting alongside the YPG in northern Syria.
Walk past the cigarette stall that sells Greek translations of Angela Davis, onto the winding, graffiti convulsed streets. They are fractal in their complexity. A hijabi woman in a life jacket dominates one wall. On another, a pig policeman points his baton. One squat hangs a banner in solidarity with a US prison strike. Slogans scream in seven languages. feminism or bullshit. refugees welcome. all cops are bastards. greeks and foreigners—we live together, and work together to smash nazis, in English and Arabic. At night, Exarchion Place is packed with refugees, anarchy tourists, and longtime residents, of every color and from every corner of the globe. They drink, play with the stray dogs, and, often, clash with the cops.
"Welcome to the Greece of Crisis, the Greece of Poverty, and the Greece of Solidarity," reads one headline in Bidoun Watan ( Without Nation), an anarchist, Arabic-language newspaper I picked up at a refugee squat. This sums up the situation well. Greece is a desperately poor country, wracked by unemployment, and Greek citizens have treated refugees with an extraordinary kindness.
Between 1914 and 1923, at least a million Greek Orthodox Christians were forcibly expelled or fled from Turkey, leaving behind the carnage of several wars, forced-relocation "death marches," and massacres at the hands of the Turks—a process that culminated in the expulsion of all remaining Orthodox Christians as part of a population swap in 1923. Today, the ordinary Greeks who shelter and care for refugees often mention this past. A police officer housing a Syrian family in his home told me: "My parents and my grandparents were refugees [from Turkey]. We grew up with histories of the refugee crisis in our DNA, our blood."
This solidarity reached its pinnacle on the antiauthoritarian left. Greece has a rich leftist tradition, harking back to the resistance fighters who once battled the Nazi occupation, and its countless leftist and anarchist groups play a significant role in Greek politics. When the Greek economy crashed in 2010, many of these organizations helped create networks of free clinics, squats, and soup kitchens to ameliorate the suffering.
Greece has been at the crossroads of irregular immigration for more than a decade, especially since the influx of refugees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. Some of those people stayed in Greece and formed strong ties to the leftist and anarchist groups that supported them. They helped form institutions like the Exarcheia social center, Steki Metanaston, which hosts an annual anti-racist festival, free Greek language instruction, and a legendary bar known to most people as Steki. But after the financial crisis, migrants and refugees became scapegoats, attacked by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Over the span of seven months in 2012–13, Greek police detained 85,000 foreigners in Athens alone. Two thousand of these were locked in detention centers. Greek activists and refugees fought both the fascists and the state side by side.
A squatted hotel called City Plaza is one fruit of this long-standing Greek leftist and migrant solidarity. Nasim Lomani, 35, is one of its organizers. Originally a refugee from Afghanistan, Lomani, who has lived in Greece for 15 years, stressed that all opinions were his own. City Plaza is part of a collective called the Initiative of Solidarity to Economic and Political Refugees. It's tried to address, among other things, the urgent need for refugee housing outside the isolated mainland government-run camps like Softex, a squalid former toilet-paper factory in Thessaloniki, and Elliniko, outside Athens, where Afghan refugees pitch tents in abandoned airports and stadiums.
"The policy of the Greek government is to hide people, to make them invisible," Lomani said. As an alternative, the initiative opened 12 squats in Athens in early 2016, housing 1,900 refugees. Since refugees were trapped in Greece, they ought to live someplace they could "have the opportunity to restart their lives."
"Our discussions decided that the best thing was to make a place that would provide for all the needs that aren't met in camps," Lomani said. "Good food, clean water, showers, safe toilets. And of course, privacy, security, dignity.
"We don't believe we can solve the issue by housing refugees in squats. But we believe that creating a good example can give the opportunity to a lot of other people to address the situation. We say that if we can do it, our government should do it too."
City Plaza provides its 400 residents with a clinic, clothing, vaccinations, and classes in Greek and English. Greek volunteers provide security at the door (another squat, Notara, had recently been attacked by fascists), but the refugees do most of its work. On City Plaza's second-floor bar, Syrian guys made coffee the traditional way, boiling the grounds in a small copper pot. It is tar-black deliciousness that costs a euro a cup. Other City Plaza residents lounge on the sofas, checking Facebook. Little kids shriek and play. By night, some of the volunteers and refugees drink together at Steki Metanaston, or join in Athens's near-constant protests.
I visited a similar squat run by the Revolutionary Left Current of Syria, at an abandoned school on Acharnon Street. Founded in Syria in October 2011, during the first year of the civil war, the Revolutionary Left Current believes in bottom-up, socialist revolt against capitalism. After a brief attempt by some of its members to form an armed group back in Syria, in the spring of 2016, the group opened six squats in Athens with the help of comrades on the Greek left, housing 2,400 refugees.
Two posters hung in Acharnon School's antechamber: neither washington nor moscow, and the Revolutionary Left Current's upraised fist. Young guys shot hoops in the school playground. Sometimes, speakers blared Lebanese diva Fairouz. In the small clinic, two Syrian nurses tended to a boy's broken foot. Most classrooms had been repurposed as sleeping quarters, but on the first floor, a schedule for language instruction hung between a room distributing donated clothes and a classroom full of kids learning to paint. Like City Plaza, it was anti-charity in ethos, largely run by the refugees who lived there. Kareem Kabbani, a Damascene activist who was one of Acharnon's organizers, told me he wanted the school to prove that "even if this is a harsh life and difficult situation, [refugees] can do something."
Most of Acharnon's several hundred residents desperately wanted to move on. The squat was a place to stay until they could. The majority were Syrian, but I met a Beirut tattoo artist and an elegant Tunisian girl with a nose stud, whose Syrian husband had arranged to have her and their son smuggled into Greece while he waited in Turkey, then announced he was leaving her the moment the two were stranded on an island. Their feelings toward the promises of EU bureaucrats could be summed up in the tattoo on one resident's foot: people's words are equal to my old slipper.
At night, Exarchion Place is packed with refugees, anarchy tourists, and longtime residents, of every color and from every corner of the globe. They drink, play with the stray dogs, and, often, clash with the cops.
Smugglers work openly on Acharnon Street, as they do in many immigrant neighborhoods in Athens. It's tricky to find a decent smuggler, Malik (he asked that I use a pseudonym) a 20-year-old Syrian refugee from Deir ez-Zor, told me when we met at City Plaza. You need recommendations from friends; otherwise, they could rob you. Malik had interviewed 30 smugglers before deciding to pay about $3,000 for a fake-identity card that would allow him to board a plane to Germany. First, he put the money in escrow. Then, the smuggler gave him an ID and took him to the airport. There, people's chances come down to the whiteness of their skin, the niceness of their clothes, and their confidence with the demeaning rituals of modern air travel.
It hadn't yet worked out for Malik. Each month, for the past three months, he went to the airport with an ID card in hand. Each time, police confiscated the card and turned him away. The smuggler would keep providing new papers until Malik was safely in Germany.
The Great Refugee Crisis of 2015 has birthed competing stories. To the racist far right, it's an "immigration jihad," carried out by young men who want to mooch off welfare, grope European girls, and impose Sharia on the decadent, unsuspecting West. Liberals counter with the real, heartbreaking stories of Syrian refugees—families who fled torture, barrel bombs, and ISIS. Compassion is the least they deserve.
While this vision is true, it is also selective, and it imposes its own cruelties. It segments people into categories: "good" refugees (generally Syrian) and "bad" economic migrants (everyone else). Following this logic, refugees have the right to governmental support in the wealthy countries of Northern Europe, while economic migrants are left in detention centers until they are deported back to Turkey. This distinction seems clear when you're in an office in Brussels, but stand a bit closer, and the neat lines blur. The young Afghan who left his village for a better-paying construction job in Iran might be running to Europe to escape forced conscription to fight in Syria. The Syrian dad slaving for starvation wages in the relative safety of Turkey might take the boat to provide a decent future for his kids. These complexities disappear once you slot people into a hierarchy that pits citizens from one country against those of another.
In Athens, I finally met Mouaz Khrayba. He seemed even younger than in his photos, jokey and slight, a wire of grinning energy from his gelled hair to his blue camp-issued shoes. A Greek NGO, Praksis, had found him an apartment. His wife, a shy, pretty 19-year-old who spoke elegant formal Arabic, served us coffee in a living room with lace curtains and Greek sculptures that set it far from the filth of Samos's hotspot. He proudly patted her pregnant belly. They were expecting a son: Laith.
Khrayba showed me a photo of a Palestinian man, collapsed on the pavement in Samos, who had been hunger-striking for three days. "I would have done it too," he said, "but my wife wouldn't let me."
He flicked through more photos of protests. Their form was immediately recognizable. They were mirrors of the first demonstrations of the Syrian Civil War, but smaller, stripped down, far from home. The circles of protesters. One guy sitting on another's shoulders, leading the chant.
Though Khrayba longed to continue to Germany, he had applied for, and received, a three-year residency in Greece. His ambition was to study journalism and work as a professional photographer. Despite the seven months in the camps, he was one of the lucky ones. Rates of acceptance for non-Syrian refugees were much lower. "We didn't want Europe. We were happy in our country, but the circumstances of war forced us to leave," Khrayba would tell me in the aftermath of Trump's inauguration. "Before Trump's election, the European Union locked its borders in the faces of refugees. [But] presidents don't represent countries. What represents a country is its people."
In the months after I visited Khrayba, Germany would announce that it would stop accepting refugees who had arrived from Greece, and the EU would announce that it intended to speed up the process of deportations to Turkey, an attempt to save the EU-Turkey deal, which Turkey was constantly threatening to dissolve. Greece would announce its intention to remove as many people as possible from the camps across the nation and place them instead in upgraded facilities, though as this article went to press, there were still thousands of refugees confined to the island camps. Brutalized by the winter cold, and their indefinite waits, refugees would once again hunger-strike in Samos.
But at that moment, back in Athens, we sat on the couch, and Khrayba showed me videos of his life before Greece. His brother, reporting in the aftermath of a battle. His brother, being lowered into his grave. The boat queasily rocking as they spotted the Greek coastguard. The passengers cheering. The sun pure gold on the Mediterranean.