This essay originally appeared in print in the Winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review.
On a small car in my Dutch neighborhood, there is a bright orange fabric hood over the curved metal figurine of the towing hitch. Walking past it, every single time I see it, I think of Abu Ghraib and the cruelties that happened there, and I resent that I live in a world where that is my immediate association. This is a bourgeois complaint. But it is also foundational, the complaint of all of us, in one way or another: Why is it, how is it, that we live in a world with so much meanness, so much ugliness, so much sadism and injustice and indifference? The mess and tangle of this world is bewildering, overwhelming.
For a year I have been living in northern Europe, where the unfolding of the refugee crisis feels so tangible, so close by. So much more proximate than in the US, where our geographic isolation can make news from other parts of the world seem to be unspooling in a distant reality. I have watched, over the course of this year, the images of cold, wet, and terrified people arriving on overloaded boats to the rocky Greek shoreline; being corralled by police and barbed wire along borders in the Balkans; waiting by the thousands, in the Budapest summer heat, to board trains closed to those seeking asylum. I have read about the migrants living in “the Jungle,” the shanty camp of Calais—only a few hours away from me—as the winter weather turned colder and rainier, and watched with horror as young men from that camp were killed by lorries and cars entering the tunnel to Britain. And I have watched as the winter settled in, and thousands of people—families, children, elderly parents—were stuck, living in tents, all across Europe.
One photo in the Guardian from that time showed a newborn baby in a refugee camp: its tiny body purple and naked, being washed with water from a plastic water bottle, over a patch of dirt in front of a tent. The woman holding the baby is still half in the tent, two children peering over her shoulder; a man crouches in front of the tent, holding the water bottle, pouring the water over the infant’s bare skin. The man and woman wear thick jackets, collars up against the winter cold.
Throughout the fall and winter, watching the news, every day seeking out the stories of those searching for refuge, I wondered: How is it that all of us here are going about our daily lives as though everything is normal ? When so close by, there is a steady stream of people who are cold and lost and desperate arriving on the shores. When so close by, for so many people, nothing at all is normal .
In a recent On Being interview I listened to, the young monastic Shane Claiborne recalls a comic he saw in the Philadelphia newspaper:
[O]ne guy said, ‘You know, I wonder why God allows all this poverty and pain and hurting in the world?’ And his friend says, ‘Well, why don’t you ask God that?’ And the guy says, ‘Well, I guess I’m scared.’ And he says, ‘What are you scared of?’ He says, ‘I guess I’m scared that God will ask me the same question.
That same day, I watched a BBC video of Turkish coast guards hitting a boat full of refugees with sticks. We can hear a woman’s voice screaming. The boat is crowded, small, and low in the water. It holds perhaps twelve people, with several children in the middle. As the sticks hit it, we see the people at the edges flinch, duck down. There is a chaos of frightened, urgent voices, speaking in Farsi and Arabic. The two boats veer apart: “They’ve gone, gone.” Then, “Oh god! They are coming back!” a man’s voice narrates. “Hopefully we’ll be okay, please God,” says another. Finally the small coast guard boat turns away and the video cuts off.
At some point, I couldn’t keep just watching. I decided to go to Greece, to try to help, to do something other than sit in the comfort of my home and see the images of so much suffering from afar. Though well aware of the pitfalls of international volunteer work—the possibility of savior complex; the potential of becoming a resource drain yourself or complicating relations between locals and refugees; the little that can be accomplished in a short period of time—still, I decided, still: Just passively watching the news felt very much like a kind of indifference.
The sky that day was energized, the still-bare branches gesticulating wildly in the wind, the clouds skimming by as though driven by some mighty hand. A white coat of blossoms moved frenetically in the wind; even the birds swerved and veered through the sky.
Only a week or so later, a block of countries—Slovenia, Croatia, and then Serbia—announced that they would close their borders to any further refugees journeying through, effectively shutting down the western Balkan corridor that so many people had traveled on their way to seek asylum in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere in Western Europe. Macedonia, not wanting to be stuck with the backup of refugees that would result, also closed their borders. In some places, thousands of people were halted, left waiting in camps that were effectively in no-man’s-land, interstitially located between country borders, claimed by no one.
Days later, camps in Greece began to overflow with people. Europe began to talk about returning refugees to Turkey. Those who hoped to find a safe place to welcome them out of the hell they had fled felt that hope begin to wane.
“We [have] run from death to find another kind of death,” says one man.
In a news video of refugees blocking a road in Greece—desperate for some attention, some information, something —a woman whose face is half-hidden by her head scarf says, “We have reached this point and we are asking, What is going to happen to us? . . . What is our fate? . . . We who ran away from our country, not because we were hungry. We didn’t leave because we were hungry. We left because there is a war. Is it our fate to die here also? No one is paying attention to us. Absolutely no one.” She is weeping now.
As I watched this I thought about our need to be seen, to be regarded. To matter . That to become invisible—truly invisible, unseen or even ignored in your moment of greatest need—is a horror, an unimaginable trough of despair for any of us.
In another interview, an older man with grizzled, salt-and-pepper stubble says, “We have a war. Imagine there is war in your country. What would you do?” He pauses for a long time, then shrugs, as if to say, Eh, what could you do? “You would have to leave.”
I began to research my trip to Greece: where to go, where the need was greatest, where to stay, how to get there. As an EMT, I had been planning to go to the islands, where the need for immediate and basic medical care of those coming off the boats—wet, hypothermic, terrified, sometimes injured—was great. But by this time, things had fragmented, and the closed borders meant there was no longer a flow of people through, but rather masses of frustrated, frightened, desperate people piling up in the ports, bused out to camps, amassed at the border and rioting. They were angry. They were afraid. They had heart conditions, pregnancy complications, diabetes, bomb blast injuries that were poorly healed.
I made a list of things to pack. Blood pressure cuff. High-vis vest. Bandages, thermometers, ibuprofen, aspirin. Index cards, permanent markers.
An American medic who had returned from Greece told a story of a woman she treated, a young mother who complained of abdominal pain. When they asked to look at her abdomen, they found a fresh scar, a very recent incision, and when they asked about it, she told them she’d had her kidney removed ten days before. Ten days before? They were aghast. To pay the passage to Greece for herself and her children, she explained, she’d been forced to sell her kidney.
This same medic spoke about caring for an unresponsive child, a young boy, from one of the boats that landed on Lesvos. She described the chaos of the moment, the panic of people trying to get off the boat, her urgency in trying to revive this child. “What we learned,” she said, “is people are drugging the children to bring over on the boats, because if they move or fuss or scream, the whole boat can capsize, and everybody can die.” The boats she saw coming in were so heavily loaded that sometimes the rim was only a few inches above the water. One boat capsized because the engine failed and three people moved to fix it at once, overturning the boat with their movements.
She recounted one pregnant woman who was convinced her baby was dead; she hadn’t eaten in three days and she hadn’t felt her baby move inside her belly. “We saw pregnant women who hadn’t eaten in a week,” she said. “Mothers who were breastfeeding.” She paused, was silent, her eyes drifting with the memory. “That was a very hard thing.”
Now, though, in the camps, there is so much waiting, so much boredom and stillness after so much panic and fear and exhaustion and hardship. Photos show people sitting around, sitting with their children, sitting with their families, sitting alone, just waiting. Imagine the impatience, the frustration, the hopelessness of having so little agency, so little information, so little idea what will happen to you or how to make anything better.
I was jittery on the day of my travel, jittery for two days before it, waking up early and with a sense of urgency, even after getting to bed late each night. In the airport, scrolling again through the Facebook feeds of all the various volunteer groups and camps, I saw that they’d begun clearing people out of Piraeus, the main port of Athens where so many refugees had been camping. They started with terminals E2 and E1.5, mandating that those living there board buses to one of the official camps. People were resisting, fearful of where they were being taken and what would happen to them there. Things were moving fast, conditions on the ground shifting, available information changing almost by the hour.
Among all the other news shared by volunteers on the ground, there were rumors that hate groups were planning a protest at Piraeus, and there were mentions of a possible Golden Dawn presence near Malakasa camp, where I was headed. My plane floated over the Greek fields, lit reddish by the setting sun, and I thought of Golden Dawn—such a beautiful name for something so ugly, these groups of angry, hate-filled men. Men ready to do violence to those most vulnerable, those come from one terror into another.
As we descended into Athens, the hillsides were patchworked with various shades of green. The city, an undulating blanket of red tile roofs, spread between the hillsides like the sea between islands. Next to the twilit runway stood an IKEA, garish in its bright yellow and blue.
An hour north of Athens, Malakasa camp had about 1,100 people living in it, almost exclusively Afghans. There were rows and rows and rows of white tents, each of which housed two families. Between them red dirt and dust; between them endless sunshine, soon to become scorching heat. There were a few trees on the edges of this camp, but not enough to shade a thousand people. There were twelve showers and twelve toilets, which were divided, half for women and half for men. According to the Greek volunteers in the camp, there were at least 350 children in Malakasa, at least thirty pregnant women, and a couple of newborns. There were estimated to be at least thirty-five or forty unaccompanied minors, though it was difficult to get any sort of accurate count as they often blended in with families and went uncounted.
Malakasa camp is on military ground and controlled by the Greek army. They turned most outside organizations away at the front gate, so unlike some of the other camps, there weren’t many NGO volunteers working there. A group of Greek people from local towns were doing much of the support work inside the camp, an informal “solidarity network,” in their words. Almost all of the translation and communication between the residents of Malakasa and the volunteers, doctors, and army was done in English by Afghans in the camp, in varying degrees of fluency.
Before I left for Greece, I wasn’t certain I would be able to get into Malakasa, but local volunteers took me under their wing and got me into the camp. When I arrived at the entrance with one of them, we just walked in, past a table of less-than-friendly soldiers, a hodgepodge of dogs lolling in the dust at their feet. Inside the fence, we faced a massive dirt lot, lined with large white tents; off to one side, set off by chain link fences, stood cabin-like buildings—the medical clinic and the supply warehouse. Women with toddlers, young men, clusters of children walked across the lot at slow paces, unhurried.
Many people had walked for months, some for years. Some were pregnant; some carried infants in their arms. One young man told me people had even walked in the cold and snows of winter through the high mountains of Iran, Iraq, and then Turkey, to get to Greece from Afghanistan.
When people first got to the camp, which opened in late winter, a retired Greek schoolteacher named Nikos recounted, it was cold, still the rainy season. The babies had no shoes and no foot coverings; many of the people had no socks. He showed me a photo of the flooded mud around the latrines; water ran out from the structures for the first several weeks people were there, he said, and they had to hop from stone to stone to avoid walking through puddles of mud and sewage.
There was still no Internet at the camp, no Wi-Fi, which meant the people there were totally cut off from the news, cut off from any real access to information. They were free to come and go, but Malakasa is a small village many kilometers from anywhere, so unless they had the money for the train to get to Athens, there wasn’t much of anywhere to go.
For so many of these people, Nikos said, their whole lives, all the belongings left to them, are on their phones. Their legal documents (often the only copy remaining); photos of family and loved ones; videos and photos that document the persecution, threats, and violence they were subject to at home. The direct danger to their lives. One young Afghan woman, who worked for the US Army, showed me the photos of her brother’s dead body, shot by the Taliban as retaliation against her and her family because of her work.
Some of the people in the camp lost their phones during the journey; others have had their phones stolen in the camp. It is a devastating loss.
A few days after my arrival, I went down to Piraeus port in Athens: a concrete labyrinth of gigantic scale. To walk to E1, the terminal where most refugees were camped, is to cover several sprawling kilometers of concrete and pavement, a path flanked by massive multideck ferries, gullets open, waiting to load lorries and cars and mobs of people going to the Greek islands.
After passing a bombed-out-looking building that was part of the E2 area, and the interstitial encampment people were calling E1.5, I finally arrived at E1. On one side of me stretched massive car lanes and then huge ships; on the other side, a large concrete expanse lined with dirty, slightly ripped tents. A lot of tents: a town of tents, lines and rows and clusters of tents.
I skirted through the tents and walked into the terminal; the air was thick with human smell, moisture, coughing. People sat everywhere; every inch of space seemed occupied. The floor was lined with blankets, personal belongings tucked into any corner or cubby available. Children ran indoors, bounced balls, wailed. Outside, small football games were staged around the tents. Some families sat along the pier, watching the massive ferries embark. The children waved wildly, excitedly, at those outside on the upper decks, towering several stories above us.
I tracked down the Greek volunteers running the supply room, who were all out back smoking, to find out what they needed most. I had done some fundraising before the trip, so that even if my short stint of volunteerism wasn’t of much use, at least I could help get some supplies. Tea and sugar, they said, and laundry detergent and lice treatment.
There was a loose stream of people constantly leaving and returning to E1, and when I left there were two men ahead of me, one of them on crutches, most of one leg gone. How on earth did he make it all the way to Greece, I wondered in amazement; I’d thought this earlier in the day, too, when Gulcheen, a young Afghan woman from the camp, had invited me into her tent to meet her tiny, smiling, elderly mother.
On Sunday morning I went back to Piraeus to drop off the supplies I’d purchased, as well as to leave a bag of medical gear with the doctors in the clinic, which was housed in a container beside the E1 terminal building. Several boys who were playing soccer jumped to guide my car as I backed up to the building, their tanned faces smudged with dirt. The Greek volunteers formed a chain and passed in the flats of sugar and detergent, the crates of tea.
The next day one of the Greek volunteers and I repeated the process for Malakasa, buying detergent, tea, sugar, razors, and shaving cream. And pregnancy tests, which were in high demand by women in the camp. Many of their husbands refused to use condoms, and the women were unable to refill their birth control pills in Greece, since they were without access to a gynecologist for the scrip or money for the pills.
So many of the things we take for granted in our lives are not available or accessible to those living in refugee camps. Information. Internet. Pediatricians. Birth control, prenatal visits. Lights—the camp at Malakasa was pitch-dark at night. Unsafe dark, with no lights in the tents, no flashlights.
The reality of refugee-camp life is steeped in the lethargy of a sluggish governmental system, the stagnation of lives lived with little sense of agency, and even less sense of daily purpose. I had imagined the waiting, fear, and uncertainty refugees in the camps might feel—but the degree of boredom, I had not anticipated. Stagnation damages people, I realized during my time at Malakasa: being stripped of purpose for such long periods of time, dependent on and subject to the whims of fate and those in the camp around you—it heightens the tensions between people over petty things; wastes people’s potential and education; encourages a sort of black market in things, if not bodies; and increases domestic violence. In the clinic I saw a woman wearing a neck brace and with a large wound on her forehead; her husband had knocked her across a room several days before. Many women told us such abuse was extremely common in the camp, a product of so much frustration and inertia. Families disappeared daily with smugglers who promised to get them to Germany. The unaccompanied minors in the camps, so hard to keep track of in the first place, also sometimes vanished. Stories abounded of them disappearing, particularly from Piraeus, kidnapped into the organ or sex trades.
Even those who come to help sometimes end up adding to the chaos, the hardship. A former student of mine, volunteering in a camp near Malakasa, told me that some well-meaning outsiders had shown up one afternoon, given out hundreds of packs of Hot Hands—those little chemical hand warmers—and then left. Most of the people living in the camp had no idea what the little white packets were, and volunteers found people all over the camp, including children, pouring them into their tea.
Leaving is an incredibly difficult thing. It is essentially saying, Though we are both human beings, I am a more important kind of human being than you are. And while this situation is real—these troubles, and this thing that your life has become—I am going back to my own life now, because I am not ultimately the one responsible for your life or for all the colossally massive factors weighing on it, pinning it to the ground .
I am not responsible, though I benefit from those factors just as surely as you are pinned beneath them. And I’m not sure who is responsible. I don’t really believe it’s you, for you did the only logical thing possible, given your circumstances, given the weft of the world you were facing, the violence, the privation. But I don’t know how to make this situation better.
Spending time in a place like Malakasa raises so many questions, a pile of questions, one laid atop the other. How can I help with the immediate needs of the people here? becomes, Why are so many people stuck here in this camp? becomes, Who do we offer asylum to, and who do we turn away? becomes, What are the underlying causes of so many people needing asylum? and then, How do we make this world full of meanness, indifference, and vast inequality, any more just? Any kinder, any more human? The pile leans and totters.
For now, these giant camps full of people are functioning as a sort of human stop sign, a message to those refugees stuck in Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan who might have hoped to follow: Don’t come. Europe does not want you.
The morning after I returned from Greece, I woke up to find the world around me spinning. Every time I moved my head or my body, the world moved, too fast and in dizzying, blinding circles. If I lay flat and still, everything seemed normal.
So I lay in bed, trying not to notice the longing looks and eventual agitation of the dog, and used my phone to research positional vertigo, which I concluded was the source of this spinningness. I thought about hunger and thirst and needing to pee, and I thought about helplessness. I thought about what it would have been like if this had happened while I was in Greece, or if it had ever happened to someone who was—like almost everyone I’d met in Malakasa—walking the immense distance and rugged mountainous terrain from Kabul, or Kunduz, or Fayzabad, through the massive length of Iran, through Turkey, and then crossing the sea to Greece.
It is summer as I write this. Europe is on holiday, and no one wants to think about the thousands of refugees sweltering in primitive camps across the continent. The situation has shifted again, this time to invisibility. If you put people away into camps and stop showing images of boats crashing upon rocky shores, it is easy to forget about all those lives stagnating, unseen, in the summer heat.
Europe’s deal with Turkey—to return refugees to that country—carries on, despite Turkey’s own spiral downward into repression. The current of boats has shifted paths, but still they come, despite increasing border checks, despite the agreement with Turkey, despite everything. They come to the shores of Italy now, and Spain, longer and more dangerous routes, but still they come.
A young man from Afghanistan has taken an ax and drawn blood on a train in Germany. A week ago, a man in France ploughed a large truck through a holiday crowd in Nice, killing many people. In the US, a man shot up a nightclub full of revelers, more black men have been killed by police, and several police have been killed in retaliation. The escalation in this moment, on both of these continents, feels spiraling, violent, out of control. The language of hatred builds like the massive wall of a summer storm, gray and dark and terrifying.
In the meantime, political parties riding an anti-immigrant wave tap into people’s fear and gain momentum all over Europe, from Marine Le Pen to Geert Wilders to Norbert Hofer to Nigel Farage. In the US, our own candidate for hate spews anti-immigrant rhetoric along the campaign trail.
For a few days, as the news circles around the actions of this Afghan teen—a refugee, an unaccompanied minor—and his bloody rampage on a train, the sorrow of hearing it sits heavy in my chest. I think of all the Afghan people in Malakasa, their hope worn thin and tattered. Each time one angry, violent person commits an action like this, a tally is added to the accounts of every person in that camp, in all the camps across Greece, and all the camps that stretch out in a fractured network through Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and on.
This situation can be changed, but only if our compassion is stronger than our fear. There are 1,100 individuals in Malakasa alone, and each of them has a name, a story, and hopes for the future. Across Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, it is estimated that there are currently 4.3 million refugees, many living in the most abject conditions. In Annie Dillard’s words, “To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself—in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love—and multiply”—by four million.
I think of all the people I met living in Malakasa camp and I hope desperately—for their sakes, and for our own—that we can find our compassion; hope desperately that this dark sky of fear and hatred doesn’t unleash its storm.