Dark empty beach, a stripe of shingle. There were stars in the sky but the moon hung too low and wan to offer any light. The wind had picked up and the waves drew noisily at the stones, a sucking blur. I was sitting, quite alone, on a beach recliner below the Kipriotis Hotel complex on the Greek island of Kos. It was five in the morning. Across the sea – ancient Aegean, full of rotting civilizations that nourish its shores – was Turkey. It was only four or five miles away. I could see the orange necklace of lights along its coastal road. I could not see the people massing on the shoreline, I could not see the smoke from the bomb blasts or the elongated shadows of gunmen standing beside braziers or the hovels in which eight or ten people were sleeping side by side, or the hungry mother with a scrawny baby sickly and fussing. These things I imagined, turning over in my mind as the waves lapped over all the centuries of wars and oppressions. I laughed to myself at the obvious banality of these thoughts and the metaphors that come along in facile trills, with nothing but the stars and the repeating rhythms of the sea to keep time and company –
I stared out to sea. Lights twinkled and blinked, illusive, elusive. I kept my eye on one, an intermittent bluish pinprick that seemed to be coming closer. But would an illegal boat have a light? I thought I could hear the faint throbbing drone of an outboard motor, but then the sound merged with the waves and was lost. It was very dark. I couldn’t see anything. Further along the beach, where the line of recliners and the street lights stopped and the shore clumped with dunes, a light flashed on and off. It seemed as if it would be a logical beacon to steer for.
A single car appeared, driving slowly along the esplanade. I watched it stop close to my sitting place. A man got out and I went towards him to preempt my fear of the unknown, waving my hand in greeting. The man smiled back.
‘Hello, I am a security guard,’ he told me. ‘My name is Giorgios. Every night the boats come in here.’ He said he had seen two boats land earlier, both full of Pakistanis. ‘Sometimes you can see them when they turn on their mobile phones and the screens light up. Look there!’
A bright light was moving jerkily about, a torch of some kind. ‘It’s a boat! Get in the car!’
We drove a few hundred meters and rushed down onto the beach; there, caught in the glare of the headlamps, were the outlines of figures coming toward us. It was the very moment of landfall, of arrival. I could hear high-pitched voices against the sonorous morning-night, full of exclamations, urgent, triumphant, relieved.
‘Hello hello,’ I said bumping among them, ‘Welcome!’ I reached out and found myself embracing a woman, plump, and damp from salt spray. She clasped my two hands together in her two hands, a little dazed and amazed.
‘Hello, my name is Wendy.’
‘I am Darioush!’ said a man’s voice in English. A hand appeared and shook mine. ‘The children are all wet! And look, this woman has no shoes!’
I could see them only in glimpses between the dim and the wobbly beam of their torches. Perhaps a dozen people, among them a woman with dyed blonde hair, two or three small children and four or five men. Their moment of joy was hustled and brief. They threw down their life preservers, took their mobile phones out of the Ziploc bags they had put them in to protect them on the crossing, gathered up the children and began walking, at a brisk and determined pace, towards the lights of the town. Two of the women and one of the children were barefoot.
I walked with them, distributing cigarettes, which was all I had to give. One produced a lighter and gallantly lit my cigarette for me. Darioush was the only one among them who spoke English. He was young and handsome, with even white teeth and a quiff of wavy black hair that fell over one eye. He said he was from Tehran. ‘I was the driver of the boat! We were chased by the Turkish patrol. They shot at us! I swear it. They were shouting through a megaphone. Finally they said, “OK, we allow you to go!” Allow us? They could not catch us!’
Darioush was still abuzz with the adrenaline of the crossing and he talked volubly. He told me the rest of the group were Iranian Kurds. They were a family more or less loosely related. He had only met them a week before in Bodrum, the Turkish resort on the other side of the sea. He had already tried to get across once with another group, but that time the Turkish police had turned up as they were setting off and they had had to run away. He had to leave everything behind on the shore: the boat, the motor, all his money, his mobile phone.
He had met the Kurds when he was sleeping on the beach; they were sleeping on the beach too. He said he would help them to buy a boat and a motor and take them across – this way he would have his passage and it would be cheaper for them than paying a smuggler.
‘Though they have money! They take advantage of the tourists, to get money, to get clothes for the children. Of course the tourists want to give them things, they are using their children to use the tourists! They will use you too, don’t give them anything!’ Darioush threw up his hands. ‘I am sick of these people! Can you hear them? Already they are arguing with each other – all the way across, they were saying, “Where are we? How much longer?” And when the children were crying, they hit them. If not for me they would have all drowned.’ He held out his right arm and tried to shake the stiffness out of it. ‘My shoulder is killing me. I had to steer that boat for two hours. I am the hero for five minutes and then they will begin again complaining. Except for one, the woman with the blonde hair – she is nice to me. She has been seven years in Turkey, she has two children, but her husband is in prison for drugs – you cannot imagine the money you can make in Turkey with this trade! She is a good person and I want to help her. The rest of them? They are like all Iranians, they want what is for their benefit and they don’t care about anyone else.’
Darioush quickened his pace and we moved ahead of the Kurds. ‘I don’t even want to hear their voices!’
I asked him why he had left Iran and he told me his ordinary could-be-anywhere story. His father was an addict and his mother was sick. He had two brothers, one good and one bad. He had learned his English from watching American movies and had found work teaching English at an institute, but it wasn’t enough money, so he had found a second job at a hotel. He was the breadwinner of the family, and he had taken on his mother’s medical costs.
‘But to tell you honestly, I was becoming an addict myself and I wanted to get away from those people and that life. This is why I left.’
I noticed that neither Darioush nor any of the others were carrying any bags. ‘I told them they had to leave the bags behind, there wasn’t enough room for them in the boat.’
I asked him what he had brought with him. Darioush pulled out his empty pocket lining, and laughed. ‘Nothing!’ He had only what he was wearing: a T-shirt, a pair of jeans that had been torn in the boat, a decent pair of sneakers, a cigarette lighter, a pair of Aviator sunglasses, about a hundred euros in cash and a small brown medicine bottle. He held it up and a single capsule of an opiate painkiller clinked against the glass.
‘The last one. I was taking them just to get me off the hard stuff.’
After forty minutes of walking we came to the town of Kos and I showed them the police station where the refugees gathered. The Kurds looked at the tents along the sea front and the row of bodies sleeping on flattened cardboard under the portico of the police station, and whatever mood of hopefulness that had managed to linger through the trek from the beach was now replaced with disappointment. They were tired and sat down on the curb in a huddled group. I took Darioush and we went to find a shop that might be open at this early hour. I bought pastries and biscuits, two large bottles of water, packs of cigarettes and some lollipops for the kids. Darioush was shocked at the price. ‘Welcome to Europe,’ I said, ruefully. When I gave these out to the Kurds they nodded muted thanks, peeled apart the cheese pastries and peered inside suspiciously.
‘It’s early yet,’ I said to Darioush, ‘Soon everyone will start gathering here, you’ll be able to find a place to sleep and begin the process of registering.’
‘Let’s get some coffee,’ he nodded, and we went to a little square and sat with cappuccinos and talked some more.
Darioush carried only himself, his body, his two hands and his intellect; his future would be whatever he could make of these things. I told him I admired his strength and his bravery. He was reaching for a life, for something better.
Maybe he would find it. Or maybe this adventure would only turn out to be youthful folly and end in disillusionment. He tried not to delude himself. His dream? He shook his head. ‘I don’t let myself to think like this.’ He wouldn’t indulgence in fantasies; he preferred to see things realistically. He had no concrete plan. He wanted to go to Germany to study and work, but he was not foolish enough to think he could saunter into a rich and accommodating Europe and have everything fall into his hands. He did not know what was possible yet, he was only thinking that something might be possible.
Darioush was scornful of the Kurdish family who were full of tales of milk and honey, money every month and houses given out to families.
‘They are thinking it will be a boast to say to your neighbours and relations: we are in Europe now!’
Darioush was entirely unsympathetic to his fellow travellers and their motives. After all, Kurds are not an oppressed minority in Iran. The family he had come with had apartments and jobs. He reminded me several times, with some envy and irritation, ‘They have money with them! But they prefer to sleep on the beach and to get pity from tourists!’
We discussed the pull and push of trying to get to Europe, different routes, rumours and risks. He told me that when he had first come to Turkey, several months before (travelling legally on his Iranian passport; he had completed his military service so that there would be no difficulties with an exit visa) he had applied for asylum in Ankara with the UNHCR.
‘Of course we all have to lie. The thing is to come up with a believable lie, something to build a case. I said I was gay.’ He made a face at me, as if to say see, I would even pretend to be gay if it worked.
I made a wry face back and said, to his chagrin, ‘Well, it’s plausible.’
He filled out his registration forms and was sent to a small town in the middle of Turkey. He worked in a shop there for a month, sleeping on the floor at night, but he realized he could be sleeping on that floor for years, only for the process to produce a ‘no’, so he took a bus to Bodrum and got work in a bar and saved enough money for a share in a boat – the boat that had to be abandoned on the shore when the Turkish police found them.
‘What do you think Europe should do with this crisis?’ I asked him straight out, ‘All these hundreds of thousands of people coming, coming.’
‘If it was me, I would not be so soft and welcoming,’ he said. He allowed a smile at the contradiction, but for him the debate was somewhat moot. He would make of the situation what he could; it was perfectly interesting to talk about, he could see both sides, but such discussions were abstract. He was here; he would try to get there.
The conversation slowed. I noticed his sentences becoming distended, left hanging open at the end, should would could, conditional, subjunctive. As if he was grappling with tenses, trying to construct the future imperfect. The excitement of arrival had dissipated and now his exhaustion showed through. He had not slept for twenty-seven hours. He was cold and wrapped his arms around himself. I noticed that a muscle in his cheek had started to gently vibrate. I ordered him some tea, and I told him he should get some rest. This was a stupid thing to say; he had nowhere to stay.
August 2015; I had gone to Kos to see the refugee-migrant crisis for myself. People had been coming for months, their numbers were growing, and the story had swollen into front-page news. The photograph of a small boy, who had drowned trying to get to Europe and washed up on a Turkish beach, had gone viral. Dead and peaceful, poor mite; little sneakers still on his little feet. The outpouring of liberal sympathy that followed was extraordinary and ironic, given its juxtaposition against years of indifference during which children had been dying trying to get to Europe, or mutilated, killed and terrorized under bombs, or had been left hungry and frozen in vast refugee camps all over the region. There was something in the sudden tidal wave that seemed saccharine, synthetic – understandable of course; I too felt the tug of something-must-be-done-to-help-these-people – but I mistrusted the idea of an easy, welcoming solution.
Kos is a pretty town set around a port. Postcard Mediterranean: fishing boats in the harbour, sky-blue sky and navy-blue sea etc. I walked along the seafront taking in the usual bars and tavernas and shops selling bikinis and seashells. The tourists were yellow-haired Vikings and Celts from the cold north. They wore skimpy clothes and their bare, pink plump flesh was covered with woad-colored tattoos. They strolled about with a slow aimless gait, unconcerned, completely relaxed, dawdling, on holiday.
The refugee migrants were, by contrast, thin and harried. These two peoples mingled along the sea front – mingle is the wrong word, a word for cocktail parties – but I can’t find another word that describes the shocking proximity of absurd and banal incongruities. Leisure next to desperation; both ‘getting away’, resort and resort to . . .
When I was flying to Kos from Paris, I was conscious for the first time of the ease of travelling, of the bland and tiresome routine of airports, of the long white travelator tunnels, everything smooth, brightly lit and clean, with plenty of toilets and cafes and other amenities. I carried my presumption and my bored irritation – queue, stop, electronic gates, security, boarding pass, passport check – along with my European Union passport.
I thought of the miserableness of long coach journeys, of tramping for kilometers along dusty bandit roads, of carrying, lugging, aching, waiting, worrying, frightened, too hot in the sun, too cold at night sleeping outside. Of the very specific horror of a mother testing the life of her child against the thin rubber skin of an overloaded inflatable dinghy. But I thought about these things only as sentences, not as experiences; which is to say I thought about them as fictional elements in a narrative limited by the confines of my own head; assumptive, assured, allowed. I was flying to visit other people’s flight. I connected in Athens at 4 a.m. The airport terminal was empty and I sat for two hours next to a closed coffee shop writing nonsense in my notebook. When I landed in Kos it was dawn and I had not slept at all. I walked through the airport in five minutes, hailed a taxi, settled in the back seat and told him to take me to a hotel in Kos Town.
When the refugees and migrants arrive in Kos, they register their names with the police. Several days later their names appear on a list posted outside the police station; then they must return the following day to line up for a stamped document that allows them to remain in Greece for thirty days. Without this they cannot take the ferry to Athens and continue their journey. After all the cash and courage expended to get here, as soon as they arrive all the migrant refugees want to do is leave.
Kos was a departure lounge. The refugees and migrants had nothing to do all day but wait. They sat on benches, squatted on stoops, curled up under trees – the stress positions of imposed patience. They were tired and worried; unable to sleep in the heat and the fetid confines of the tents, they surrendered to despondency, relapsed to fatalism, to lassitude. They bent towards their mobile phones, scrolling for news and updates, or talked very loudly into the handset in urgent tones. They carried their phones like amulets, talismans; touch and retouch, reassure, yes, it’s still there, this tenuous, intermittent signal that connected them to a world beyond the island (to the possible).
They gathered in the little plaza adjacent to the police station, passing time and snippets of information: a room, the price of a tent, bus timetables, the name of an agent that would put your family in the back of a lorry and drive you from Belgrade to Salzburg, a photograph of a Macedonian policeman beating back migrant refugees at a train station, news from the Hungarian border – they are putting up a razor-wire fence, did you hear? At midnight anyone illegally crossing it will be put in jail for three years. My cousin was detained in Denmark. You can still go to Sweden, but how can you go to Sweden without going through Denmark? Can you buy a train ticket to Austria in Budapest now? I have relatives in the Netherlands, they told me – No that’s not true anymore. Did you hear? The Germans blocked the border!
The little plaza had acquired the flavour of the Middle East. It was a small square, bordered with a broken wall on one side, a police cordon on another, a line of four Portaloos and the sea. Gutter filth; garbage mulch tramped into the cracks. The air was trapped by the pine trees canopy and the atmosphere was fuggy, thick with the stench of urine and rotting figs and the sweetly-sick undertow of excrement. It made me smile with reminiscence; I was instantly transported back to Baghdad Damascus Cairo. I recognized too the details of kindness and politeness that always made me happy and welcome in Arab lands; the instinctive impulse of hospitality, the offer of a bottle of water, a scrap of cardboard pulled out so that I didn’t have to sit on the bare curb. Dejection and laughter, all the cheek by jowl of it. Share a cigarette, share chagrin, pretend to offer advice when in fact no one knows anything – inshallah, come back tomorrow. The plaza was exactly, almost hilariously, Baghdad Damascus Cairo; officiated uncertainty, no knowledge and no process, enforced nevertheless by a row of uniforms (the Greek police stood about wearing black plastic leg armour and surgical face masks). It was very familiar to me after my years in the Middle East: break off a piece of cynicism and hand it around.
I met several Syrians from Al-Hasakah who were living in the tents around the corner, by the ramparts of the castle. How was the situation in Al-Hakasah? They shook their heads. The government was holding the provincial capital, Daesh had captured many of the villages. Repeated words, in broken English. Barrel bombs. Daesh. Bombs. A group of teenage boys collected around me to explain, they pointed at the sky and made helicopters with their arms and mimed houses falling down. One young man told me he had left because he didn’t want to be called into Assad’s army. Another pointed to shrapnel scars on his legs. His friends hoisted him up like a trophy, telling his story. ‘He was buried, dead. He was dead and now alive!’ It was a miracle. ‘Look!’ They showed me photographs on a phone: a rectangle of ash-grey rubble and in one corner, in the shape of a comma, the curve of his neck and a shoulder, barely visible in the blasted scrim. The miracle was embarrassed, but his friends made him pull up his T-shirt to show me a long surgical scar on his narrow torso.
An older man limped towards me. ‘Daesh is in my town,’ he told me. He was from Al-Hakasah too. ‘I cannot go back. They will kill me for leaving. They took over my house, my car, everything they take for themselves when someone leaves. Very difficult here.’ He swept his hand over the camp, washing strung up, mats laid out as sitting rooms, a man filling a water bottle from a hose connected to a mains water pipe, a woman sitting against a palm tree slumped over her sleeping baby.
‘I have three children. I cannot stand for a long time – my legs –’ and I looked down and saw that his trouser legs flapped at awkward angles. ‘I had polio when I was a boy, they didn’t have vaccines then.’ (And now polio, once eradicated from Syria, had returned to cripple children again, a nice little terrible fact to fit between two brackets).
Two Africans sat next to each other on a broken bench, one from Nigeria, one from Sierra Leone. They had received their documents but they did not have the fifty-four euros for the ferry to Athens. They politely asked me for it. I politely declined, a little guilty, a little misgiving, at the same time second-guessing my guilt and misgivings. The man from Sierra Leone had almond eyes; he told me he had been on the road for two years. God knows what he had seen.
A man with grey hair and a hooked nose held his small son by the hand outside a tent. ‘From Iraq, from Baghdad.’ He grinned warmly and shook my hand energetically and got up from the bench to offer me his place. ‘Please, please.’ He showed me a picture of his son on his mobile phone and I smiled, yes, beautiful, but the man shook his head because I had misunderstood. No, this is another son, this son is dead. ‘Bomb. Baghdad. Mother dead son dead. Go Germany.’
Behind the police plaza there was a pine grove that had been colonized by Pakistanis. They had scrounged mattresses and inflatable lilos and laid them under the trees and in the lee of a wall enclosing a site of ancient ruins: toppled pillars, a temple to Aphrodite. There were burnt patches of ground all around from their cooking fires. They were almost all young men, and had travelled across Iran and Turkey, walking, by bus; taking a month or two months to reach here. Why did you leave? Ah, well, the war in Afghanistan, Taliban, terrorism, bombs, the energy crisis, electricity only seven hours a day and all the factories closed down, no jobs, job finished, I worked in a factory stitching leather jackets, paid by the day, and now nothing.
Sleeping on benches along the corniche were Afghans who had never been to Afghanistan. They were born refugees in Iran and had lived all their lives in Iran. Why did you leave? Not good in Iran, many problems in Iran, Iranians don’t like us.
‘Is it true,’ I ask one, ‘that the government is pushing young Afghans to fight in Iranian brigades in Syria?’
‘If you are caught on the border,’ one of them replied – a beautiful boy of sixteen, with those high Pamir cheekbones that once cut Alexander to the quick, ‘they will give you a choice: either prison or you go and fight in Syria.’
During the morning a group of Greek volunteers in matching blue caps brought cases of bottled water to distribute. It was hot and someone had strung up a makeshift canopy over the designated queuing area outside the police station. A line of women sat underneath it, fanning themselves with their documents, patiently awaiting their turn. There was a Médecins Sans Frontières van parked discreetly in an alley so as not to attract a clamouring crowd. I saw one man having a wound on his foot bandaged, another examining a packet of tablets he had been given. On the esplanade another volunteer group handed out clothing. A girl from New Zealand who was travelling in Turkey had come to lend a hand for a few days; a man from Bristol had flown in just for the weekend to help. They tried to keep order, but a small crowd formed pushing forward. Men’s shirts, women’s T-shirts, children’s shorts. Shoes? Many people only had flip-flops and they wanted sneakers. Size 42? The other most needed item was a backpack.
In the afternoon I had a conversation with a Syrian Kurd called Obeid, an English teacher. His teeth were covered in grey patches where the enamel had worn off. He said he was travelling alone and hoped to get to a European country and then apply for his family to join him. ‘Ah London, I dreamed to go London in the fog.’ He had never seen the sea before, he admitted, ‘I was too frightened of it so I paid €3,000 to go across the sea in a good boat.’
‘€3,000!’ I said, ‘That’s a lot! Usually people pay €1,200.’
‘I know,’ said Obeid, a little abashed, and now almost entirely out of money, ‘it was a yacht.’
‘You had the VIP voyage!’ I teased him.
‘Yes, Very Important Person.’ He managed a half-smile and then he asked politely, ‘I have a question, if you don’t mind?’ I nodded, of course. ‘Is it permissible, I mean, for example, in Europe, if there is a girl, a daughter, is it possible that when she is eighteen she can go out of her family’s house?’
‘Yes,’ I told him, frankly, ‘at the age of eighteen, a girl or a boy, is legally an adult and they can leave home and do what they want.’
‘And if she has a boyfriend? How can I put this,’ Obeid paused, ‘if she is not a virgin?’
‘This is her decision,’ I told him. ‘Nobody can make choices for her, not her father or brother or even a husband.’
‘And then if there is a boy who wants to marry her? Will he still want to marry her?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘it is quite normal for a girl to have boyfriends and then get married.’
Obeid thought about this for a moment. ‘We have the matter of honour,’ he explained.
‘I know,’ I said, ‘but in Europe we do not have the concept of honour, we have the concept of individual rights.’
In the evening two German sisters came down to the tent city on the seafront and distributed hundreds of meals from the back of a hatchback. They had raised money on their website and came to Kos several times over the summer to volunteer. They were very efficient: people made a line and everyone got a tinfoil box containing rice and vegetables, an apple, a packet of plastic cutlery and a napkin. People took several boxes for families and friends, muttered thanks, or not, and moved away. The sunset shone an orange gel on the scene, in this golden hour long shadows softened into rosy tints. A tourist couple strolled hand in hand past two men building a lean-to out of broken chairs and tarpaulin; kids splashed in the sea in their underpants, making rafts with the life jackets they had worn on the crossing; a group of women scrubbed clothes in soapy water in a plastic bucket. A TV crew arrived and set up a camera.
I never liked refugee stories. Yes it is all very sad and desperate, but they are always the same. Wailing child, home destroyed, report, write, repeat. The relationship between journalist and refugee is awkwardly transactional and collusive. The journalist must tell the great suffering; the refugees must present themselves to be greatly suffering. Faced with a journalist, refugees are reduced to selling their package of abject despair, advertising it with tears and torn clothing and desperate quotes. ‘Our house was bombed!’ ‘They killed my husband father mother sister baby!’ ‘We don’t even have milk for the babies!’ ‘Look! The children are wet and this woman has no shoes!’
The tales the refugees tell may or may not be true. Ameliorating details, access to cash or relatives in Canada, are airbrushed. CV’s are edited to elide previous government employment or military service. Some details may appear larger than their actual size in the rear-view mirror. In any case, very little can be fact-checked. Whole lives must be compressed into brief expedient paragraphs. Reduced to the very basic: I need help. It is very bad back there.
Which does not in any way alter the undeniable extant fact of the woman with her child sitting in the dust mud dirt in front of me, saying that she needs help because it is very bad back there.
After I had been in Kos for a couple of days I met a young journalist, Sulaiman Hakemy, who was also reporting the refugee story.
Sulaiman Hakemy came from a grand Afghan family but he didn’t want to trade on the association. They were Ismailis. His mother was from Pakistan, his stepfather was Tanzanian. He was born in America and had American and Afghan passports and a Canadian residency card. He had studied Arabic in Damascus before the war, and at the LSE in London, but his UK visa was running out so he was going to be moving to Istanbul in the Autumn. He was twenty-three years old, intelligent, young, ambitious, energetic. Sulaiman was the mirror of Darioush, with only the luck of an American passport to tell them apart. Refugee, second-generation immigrant; displaced person, globalized itinerant – ‘What are you?’ I teased him.
We went to have a beer at one of the harbour restaurants to share our impressions. As we talked, the flow of tourists eddied against the migrants in their midst. We had both been struck by the different nationalities of the migrant refugees on Kos, and by the large numbers of young men among them. Added to this was our observation that the majority of Syrians were middle class and had some money with them. They were not destitute, they had paid thousands to cross and now many of them were staying in the cheap hotels in the town. One family, Sulaiman told me, had rented the apartment next to his for a month. I told him I had come across a Syrian dentist with luminously white teeth in a supermarket trying to find labneh in the chiller cabinet.
‘I explained to him that there wasn’t any labneh, but that yoghurt was quite similar. He nodded OK, but then he said that actually he was looking for the zero per cent fat kind.’
Sulaiman laughed at this. ‘I know, it’s like back in London where people complain the refugees all have smartphones, like they’re disappointed they’re not fitting the stereotype of poor refugee.’
I told Sulaiman about the Iraqi family from Najaf I had met having dinner in a restaurant in one of the back streets the night before.
‘So I asked them, “Why did you leave Najaf?” Because there’s no war in Najaf; it’s all Shia. One of the men offered me a cigarette – Iraqi hospitality, always! – and he pointed at my beer and answered, “Beer in Najaf no possibility, they shoot you. And I like beer.” He said he had been a bodyguard, his cousin had been in the army. They showed me pictures of themselves on their phones, all tooled up with body armour and sunglasses and carrying assault rifles – you know, typical Iraqi macho pose.’
It was difficult for us to fit these examples into the narrative of the generalized media outcry which had been focusing on needy Syrian refugees fleeing the war.
‘Some Syrians,’ I said, ‘are coming straight out of Syria, they left a week ago, got to Turkey, got on a boat. But others have been in Jordan or Lebanon for months or years. There is a sense of choice, there is a calculation. I understand why they take the risk, it makes sense – but are they refugees or migrants?’
‘What difference does it make?’ said Sulaiman.
I didn’t know how to answer this. I still don’t. I don’t want to embed a moral judgment in terminology. Nor do I want to detour into a discussion of semantics; this is the tactic of politicians. That is why I have used both words – refugee migrant. I would prefer just to use ‘people’, but this is not specific enough. Too often, I notice I have used the pronoun ‘they’ in referring to ‘them’. Inevitable perhaps, but it makes me wince.
Sulaiman had spread his not-European arms wide to embrace everyone. I stumbled in my confusion, swinging between compassion and qualm, and fell back to the skirmish line of practicalities, legalities, processes . . . (Is the rule of law just a fence-sitting cowards’ redoubt, the default de-fence of Anglo-Saxon complacency?)
‘It’s interesting,’ I said, ‘that here in Kos the Greek authorities are not making any distinction between refugees and migrants. Or even between Syrians and Iraqis and Afghans who might be fleeing war, or Africans escaping conscription and kleptocrats or Pakistanis and Bangladeshis looking for work. Whether they have passports or no documents at all, they give their names – whatever names they want to give – they have their photographs taken, and they all get the same stamped document, take the ferry, go to Athens and onwards.’
‘I guess they can’t,’ said Sulaiman. ‘There are too many people, there’s just no capacity to differentiate.’
‘All the legal niceties of applying for asylum and having a petition processed have broken down. The whole Dublin Agreement, the requirement that refugees must register for asylum in the first European Union country they arrive in, has completely gone by the wayside. Greece can’t cope, it just wants them to move on.’
Sulaiman didn’t want to put people into categories of need, I didn’t either, and yet – anyway, we both agreed, what kind of criteria could you possibly employ?
As we talked I found I could not balance out the natural human impulse to help with the scale of help needed.
‘And what about the unmentionable irony that a percentage of Muslims born and raised in Europe are now violently rejecting its values, while at the same time their co-religionists are appealing to those values to let them in?’ I threw up my hands, half in surrender, half in apology. Tricky issues – integration, values – back to the awkward rub of the us-and-them again. To counter my liberal guilt, I found myself swerving away from my fears of right wing alarm and culture clash and embracing my anarchist side.
‘What if there were no borders at all? Wouldn’t that be better? Isn’t this crisis really only a function of all the administrative categorization, of bureaucracy, stamping stupid pieces of paper, funneling, corralling, stopping people from going where they want to go? What if we let people be, as with Milton Friedman economics, free to choose? Wouldn’t they make the best choices individually, to come work, live, go back, try someplace else? After all, the people we have met seem to be good decent people. They want to work, to make new happy lives. Whether they are fit young men, or professionals, a little older and with their families – in a weird kind of way, just by having made it to Kos, to Europe, it’s like a test: survival of the fittest (with the neediest stuck on handouts in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan). These are exactly the kind of people you want to make a dynamic society: smart, resourceful –’
Sulaiman listened to my hopeless musings; now it was his turn to intervene with practicalities.
‘But what about the kids and schools and the sick and hospitals and the families without money who need shelter?’ He was right. But there was no good answer at the bottom of a beer mug. We fell silent.
‘They are making a choice,’ I said after a while. ‘They are gambling on this window of the possible.’
The next day I took the overnight ferry to Athens. It was a huge ship, capable of taking lorries and cargo and cars and caravans as well as people. Nearly all the passengers were migrant refugees. They crowded jubilant onto the strip of aft deck and took selfies against the island’s skyline receding into sunset. We were so high above the sea, standing on the top of a solid steel superstructure thrumming with powerful engines, that we could not see the waves below. The ferry slid through the narrow channel between Greece and Turkey, the very stretch that they had all traversed only days before, every bump and thump of swell against the puny outboard transmitted through the thin rubber skin of the inflatable dinghies. Water wrinkled salty fingertips, getting colder, clinging on. Now they were opening up packets of biscuits, pitching camp in the saloons, playing cards in the corners. What merited such a transformation? A stamped piece of paper; a ticket. Stupid ridiculous stupid.
In one of the inside saloons with rows of plush seating, I was happy to see a group of Syrians I had met one evening eating their handout dinner behind the police station. Like many bands of refugee migrants (like the Iranian Kurds and Darioush) they had been brought together by the experience of the crossing, they had to trust each other, thick and thin, rain or shine; they would continue their journey together.
There was Ahmed, with one of those wide open faces that is always smiling and friendly. He had been living in Amman with his parents and was trying to get to Germany, to anywhere! There were two teenage cousins, one of them skinny with a narrow smooth face that had not yet seen a razor; he said he was sixteen but looked about twelve, sitting there chain-smoking. There was a woman in a black headscarf who had two children with her. There was Assam, wiry, with an angular face and salt-and-pepper stubble, a mechanic. He had been the driver of the boat on the crossing from Turkey – the motor stopped, but after an hour’s work he got it started again. And there was Nuha, a woman about my age who spoke some English and who was travelling alone, which was unusual for a single woman. Nuha did not dress in the usual dark covering coat and scarf that most of the Syrian women wore. The first time I met her, she was wearing trousers covered in green and purple flowers, pink sparkly flip-flops, blue eye shadow and a white scarf wrapped around her head in the voluminous Egyptian style.
‘Assam saved us all!’ she told me. ‘He is my hero, really he is a very good kind person, I feel safe with him, he has practicalities.’ When she smiled she had dimples.
On the ferry they had taken over two rows of seats and Nuha was making up sandwiches with white bread and Laughing Cow cheese triangles, dripping honey onto them with a plastic spoon. ‘Have one!’
‘You’re right,’ I said, munching, ‘It’s very delicious.’
The skinny teenage boy and his cousin were roaming about the ship, the lady with two children was demure and tired in the row behind, Ahmed was grinning and making jokes. Two little boys were playing swords with empty Pringles tubes in the aisle.
‘Let’s go up onto the deck and have a cigarette,’ I said to Nuha.
A story for an Aegean night, an odyssey. Nuha was not Syrian, she was Palestinian. From Jaffa.
‘Oh Jaffa is beautiful,’ I told her. I knew it as a picturesque old Arab town on the edge of new Tel Aviv, stone houses tumbling down to the sea, cafes and craft shops; a few Arabs had remained among the new Israeli hipster crowd.
‘I know, everyone says. I would like to see it once in my life,’ Nuha lowered her eyes. Her family had fled in ‘48. To Lebanon. Shatila. I put my hand over my mouth, ‘Oh God.’ Sabra and Shatila were Palestinian refugee camps massacred by Christian Phalangists in 1982.
Nuha nodded. ‘We were the last family in the camp, we were at the end of the houses, and they didn’t kill us. I was very small, but I remember blood and the limbs of people all over the ground.’
Her father was killed in the Lebanese civil war when she was small; her brother was a fighter for a Palestinian militia and was killed when an American warship shelled his position. He was twenty-three years old, the only son among four daughters.
‘My mother was never happy after my brother died. Since that day the light went away from her eyes and since then she is always ill and sad.’
Nuha and her family of women moved to Syria and settled in Yarmouk, a Palestinian quarter in Damascus. I had been in Yarmouk before the war, looking for Iraqi refugees – a lot of them had ended up in that neighborhood. Nuha became a kindergarten teacher; she lived with her mother. Then the war came: rebels, jihadi militias; Yarmouk had been under siege since 2012. A bomb had hit their house, blasting Nuha across the room.
‘I landed against the door. When we left I was wearing only my pajamas.’ She and her mother fled to Lebanon, two of her sisters were still in Syria. ‘I haven’t heard news from them for two months.’
Nuha had been married once, for three years. He was a doctor and it had been arranged between the families, but her husband had no joy in him, he only worked and came home and ate. ‘Also he hit me. I could not continue, and so I divorced him, even though he did not accept this. And so I had my job, I liked my job very much. And many years I am taking care of my mother, I love my mother very much.’
Nuha had left her mother in the care of another sister and taken a ship from Trablus in Lebanon to Turkey. She had a Syrian passport, but it registered her as Palestinian and Palestinians could not leave Lebanon without an exit visa. She gave a little laugh, ‘It’s Lebanon so you pay something and you go.’ She had stayed with a friend in Ankara for a few days and then taken a bus to Bodrum. In Bodrum she had met Ahmed and Assam and the others.
‘This is the first time I travel by myself. You know,’ she admitted shyly, ‘I feel myself free. I am happy.’ She pointed at her headscarf, ‘usually I am not covered,’ she told me, ‘but here, well –’
‘I understand,’ I said, ‘You are a woman alone, there are a lot of men, you want to seem to be –’
‘Yes. But I think when I arrive maybe I will take it off.’
The ship’s wake churned behind us, unseen in the darkness. Nuha’s life had been circumscribed by what she thought she should do, what other people thought she should do. She had been good, she had tried. She had seen many terrible things, she had suffered, hoped, endured, been lonely, but she didn’t want to think about all of that now – now was a new chapter. She waved it all behind her, twirling the glowing orange coal of her cigarette against the black night wind.
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘Maybe to Holland, I have friends in Denmark. Maybe I can work, I am a teacher, I loved my job, I loved the children. I love people. I love the sea!’ She spread her arms wide and her dimples reappeared. ‘I love life!’
When we came back inside Assam was sitting curled in his seat with his forehead pressed against the window. He had declined any food and now he groaned and turned towards Nuha and I could see he was obviously in great pain.
‘We think he has kidney stones,’ said Nuha.
‘It hurts here,’ he said, pointing to his bladder, ‘And here,’ he pointed to the small of his back. He felt the urge the pass water, but when he got to the toilet, he simply couldn’t. I felt his forehead. He didn’t have a temperature. Nuha rummaged in a bag of medicine they had got from a doctor in Turkey. Several blister packs of tablets – names I didn’t recognize, the instructional leaflets were in Turkish – a tube of multivitamins, a syringe and several vials of something painkilling. I went and got some ibuprofen I had with me and told him to take two every four hours. Nuha filled the syringe and Assam leaned over so that she could give him an injection.
When Assam began to doze, I said to Nuha, ‘Let me invite you for a coffee,’ and we went to a lounge at the front of the ship where there was a bar and armchairs. We found a table next to a backpacker stretched out on a banquette.
‘I am worried Assam cannot travel like this,’ said Nuha. ‘He has had the pain all day. Before it was not so bad and now it’s worse.’
I didn’t know what advice to give her. I said that probably if they went to a hospital in Athens nothing would be done for him and it would just waste their time and money. ‘The trouble with kidney stones is that the pain is terrible, but there’s nothing to really do except wait until he passes them.’
Nuha took sips of coffee and made little sighs. ‘Really I am worried for him. I can’t continue without him. He is the strong one, he knows how to do things – it was only he who could get the motor working again when it stopped. I trust him. I love him so much. We cannot leave him. You know we are all strangers to one another, but in very few days we have become a family.’
I asked her if she had enough money. She said yes, her sister had sent her some by Western Union. I told her I thought they should think of going through Croatia instead of Hungary, because it looked like the Hungarians were closing the border and threatening to detain people. I gave her my phone number, I said to call if she needed help.
‘God is always with me,’ she said, determined – this great journey, this leap of faith possibly possible, ‘I always have the feeling that God is with me.’
We docked at Piraeus early in the morning. Nuha took off her hijab and put on a hat she had bought in Kos and tucked all her hair up inside it. Assam was feeling a little better; he could walk at least. We gave him coffee and let him sit as long as he could before we had to disembark. I wanted Europe to look spanking bright and shiny for them, but the port was only another grimy way station. A crowd of migrant refugees was already gathered on the quayside, hemmed against a chain-link fence. Ahmed spotted the agent with the bus to the Macedonian border and they rushed off for it.
I took the metro into Athens and sat in a cafe scrolling through Twitter and Facebook. Pictures of migrant refugee fathers holding up their children, many bodies pressing forward, tramping in columns to the Croatian border. The weather was getting colder. When it was time for my plane I took the train to the airport and flew back to Paris. The European powers were meeting to discuss quotas for refugees. There were already stories of a German right-wing backlash.
Two weeks later I got a voicemail message from Darioush. ‘I am in Germany now, and I will try to go to Sweden.’ I tried to call him back, the number rang but there was no answer.
A month or so after that Darioush called me via his Facebook alias. He was OK; well, he was in Gothenberg. He had been in Sweden for several weeks already.
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘You made it!’
‘Yes,’ I could hear a soft rueful awkwardness in his tone.
‘How is everything?’
It turned out he was in a mental hospital, they were nice to him there, yes it was all fine, they had put him on a drugs to help, he thought they were anti-depressants, but couldn’t remember the name. In Kos he had met two Swedish girls who had helped him; when he first arrived he stayed with one of their families for two weeks before he registered and went on to a hostel. Then something had happened. He wasn’t specific, I didn’t like to pry, but from the way he talked about it, it sounded like a suicide attempt.
‘But I am OK now,’ he said.
‘Good, I’m glad.’
And I thought: I don’t know how to think about this. How to stretch compassion for one person into a million. But maybe that’s the only way to try and do it, each one at a time, unto each an individual story.
Photographs © Wendell Steavenson