'Refugees are not just victims, they've become activists!'
'The majority have become policital activists standing up for their human rights' - Maz Saleem
Refugees are not victims, that was clear to see on my visit to Greece. The majority have become political activists standing up for their basic human rights! We are facing the biggest humanitarian catastrophe since World War ll. We must keep the Refugee crisis at the forefront of every discussion and platform says Maz Saleem in her final diary extract from Greece
Polykastro – Eko Petrol Station – Unofficial Camp
Polykastro is a town and a former municipality in Kilkis regional unit of Central Macedonia, Greece. It is built near the Axios River, on the road and railway from Thessaloniki to Belgrade.
Polykastro is another unofficial camp where there are over 2,500 refugees, mainly children. It is a Eko petrol station and this was by far the most surreal looking camp I saw. It has a vast amount of tents next to the fuel pumps and refugees are visible in the petrol station cafe looking very tired and restless. There are a few UNCHR tents but the rest are makeshift tents which are not great, as became apparent when a thunderstorm occurred during our visit. Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees have been here for almost 50 days. There are toilets but clearly not enough. The refugees have to pay 2 Euros if they want a shower. The petrol shop and café is open for business.
Save the Children provide breakfast for the children and MSF provide the evening meals. NGO Lighthouse are present in this camp; they have assisted Save the Children with the distribution of food to the little ones here at Eko. “We've been distributing food by going from tent to tent, so that we can ensure that every infant and child is receiving this high-energy and healthy food. This exposed, crowded and unsanitary environment that these children live in makes them very vulnerable to disease and infection. For this reason, “food packed with vitamins, energy and minerals is absolutely essential to their well-being” explained a Lighthouse volunteer.
Syrian refugees approached me and asked my name. They spoke very good English and they offered to show me around the camp. Adnan, from Afghanistan, is 24 and has a degree in Petroleum engineering. “Funnily enough” he says “this camp is based around a gas station”. Adnan wants to get to Norway as he says “Norway is good for education in my field”, although he says his brother is in Germany. He continued to say “the Greek people are very nice, they are so supportive and show us so much love”.
As we walk through this camp I joined in with the young children playing football which was when Mohammed, (Aged 11) from Damascus, approached me and asked if I was a Muslim. I said yes and he gave me a big hug and took me to see his family in a UNCHR tent at the back of the camp. I was introduced to his mother and his relatives who were sitting outside the tent in the blistering heat.
Mohammed ran in and came out with a cereal bar and insisted I take it. I refused as I know they have very little but his family were adamant I take it. The mother hugged me and put her hand on her heart many times, as did the rest of the Syrian mothers who gathered around to meet me and chat. I managed to communicate using my rusty Arabic but clearly we all understood the language of love, unity and solidarity. A huge thunderstorm brought our conversation to an end unfortunately as we ran to take cover under the petrol station.
ATHENS - Ex-Ellinikon (also known as Hellinikon) International Airport – Airport to Nowhere
It has been 15 years since the last plane took off from the Greek capital's former international airport, which stretches along the Aegean Sea and lies a short drive south of the city centre. This was the international airport of Athens for sixty years until 2001 when it was replaced by the new 'Eleftherios Venizelos' International Airport.
I visited this disused airport camp in Athens before with Greek anti-fascist comrade veteran Christos. This camp is mainly filled with thousands of Afghan and Pakistani refugees. I saw young children walking around unescorted and looking lost. The staff greeted me in a very cold fashion and I was told to leave immediately and was escorted out. It was explained to me by some of the refugees at this unsanitary camp that the so called “officials” did not want me to see what was going on here. The abandoned disused airport holds thousands of refugees, in places like Ellinikon, refugees are free to walk in and out of the camp and wander into town. Those who can afford to buy food go to nearby stores, “because the food at the camp is so bad, locals do come and hand out fresh bread” says Ahmed. But the Ellenikon camp was never meant to last, or to house this many people. The situation here and in other parts of the Athens region have deteriorated rapidly as the result of the EU-Turkey deal.
We are facing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Several million people are fleeing war and persecution. More than one million reached Europe in 2015. Yet the UK government remains brutally cold, callous and racist in its response. Greece remains committed to enforcing the EU-Turkey agreement that requires most refugees currently in Greece to be deported back to Turkey. Besides Idomeni, Greece is trying to clear three other makeshift camps by the end of April containing a total of more than 10,000 people - Polykostros petrol station camp which is 11 miles south of Idomeni, the port of Piraeus, and the site of the ex-Ellinikon International Airport.
Camps are unavoidably disease ridden and we must continue to fight for our brothers and sisters by continuing to put pressure on Europe to open its borders. Over 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children have gone missing over the last two years, most likely at the hands of human traffickers. Several have died trying to get into the UK. There is absolutely no excuse for the UK government’s utter disregard for human life. The refugee crisis has largely been caused by Western interventions, occupations and subsequent wars. The wars are the main driver of the flows of refugees, but the elite’s policies of cuts and austerity mean they can barely imagine a planned, humane response. Islamophobia, also largely a product of war, victimises even the children who had to flee their countries due to this Western intervention.
On a positive note, the solidarity and support for refugees in Greece is truly heart-warming. It is one of the first countries I have seen give so much love and sympathy towards the refugees – the in-flight magazine from Aegean airlines even had a solidarity message of support for refugees which was lovely to read.
There were so many good examples of support I witnessed from the locals, councillors, activists, local mayors, trade unionists and even the youthful army who are obligated to do their national service. The amazing solidarity and sheer strength of the Pakistani community in Athens is wonderful, they demonstrate through the City on a regular basis for the refugees which is truly admirable.
A local 82 year-old called Panagiota, (the refugees call her mama) says refugees are her family now. She knows how they feel as she lost her home in World War II. She cooks for them and lets them have a hot shower. The Greek villager hosts five refugees in her house in Idomeni, and more visit each day. She welcomes them warmly with home-cooked food, hot showers and limitless grandma hugs “I have company in the house, I talk… we laugh… even though we can't understand each other.'
Refugees are not victims here in Greece. The majority have become political activists standing up for their basic human rights. Most of them have endured five years of violence and conflict in Syria. Half of the county’s population, which is over 12 million people, have been killed or forced to flee. The reality and implications are very difficult to comprehend. Essentially, one in every two people has been directly devastated by the conflict in the worst way. Half of these refugees are children and the majority we saw were under 10 years old.
Children have lost their right to feel safe. Most children have been unable to attend school for years. Most people who have left Syria are living in poverty in neighbouring countries, or have made the dangerous journey on rubber dinghies across turbulent seas to Greece, leaving everything behind. This is a humanitarian catastrophe and should be kept at the forefront of every discussion. Refugees’ lives matter and we must continue to challenge the racist rhetoric burning through Europe right now.