CHAPTER 2

Omar’s Place In Moria, House Number Spraypainted On The Roof 

Moria © Fortress Europe

Moria

“someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

UNHCR Definition of Refugee, 1951
What is a refugee? 

OMAR SITS ON THE FLOOR of his hut, with nothing but his face dimly illuminated. He swipes around on an iPad, trying to find a book he started reading yesterday. It should be somewhere in his downloads. His floor is cleverly designed. When he laid down the pallets, he added a layer of foam on top of them. Once he had covered them with blankets, he could hardly notice the rough edges of the boards. Now he can sit in relative comfort. Still, sitting for hours on end makes his back ache and he’s starting to feel tired.

             He looks up, and stares into the darkness below the curtain. At this time of night Moria is nice and quiet. The clear sky is filled with stars and the air is fresh. It’s on a night like this that he sends me a message.

“I woke up for studying, it is 02:45 at night so at the moment the WiFi is working, but not properly. When I am able to access internet I am going to answer your messages.”

During the day, both the door and the curtain are always open in a welcoming gesture. People have come to regard his place a community centre of sorts. Kids climb in and out, and when he has food in his hands he offers some to them. Neighbours charge their power bank using his socket or sit in the corner scrolling through Facebook. A small crowd of people shows up on an hourly basis, notebooks in hand, ready for an English lesson.

If everything goes the way it’s been planned for him, the 23-year old will leave the island in November 2021. Omar left Afghanistan over a year ago. He walked through Iran over a period of 46 days. He recounts that crossing the border to Turkey was easy in comparison. He had paid a young smuggler who arranged cars on both sides of the border and a guide to walk them across within a few hours. On the other side, he was placed in a holding-house until the money from their intermediator was released. It’s common practice. Once in Turkey, he could board a bus with a fake ID. The final goal: adding a master’s degree to his law bachelor.

There’s not much to do in moria during the day

Moria © Fortress Europe

 

He hoped to do that in Turkey, but his year in Turkey was a wasted one. He learned the language well enough to fool a university official, but never made it into the law program. Even though his scores were amongst the best on the entrance exam, he says, they won’t take a foreigner. He saves up some money by sewing ties, working on olive farms and stuffing leather jackets. Then he continues his journey into Greece. He moves to Izmir.

Being a young, single, male traveller, who speaks some Pakistani dialects and has the money to afford the trip, he checked all the boxes for the ideal traveller over the mainland, crossing Evros. It would’ve meant avoiding the years of geographical restriction in Moria. A chance encounter changes his fate. One night, as he walks home from the supermarket in Izmir, an Afghan guy grabs his arm. Alarmed, Omar looks up.
        ‘Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you’, the man says, his heavy, dark eyebrows raised apologetically. He doesn’t look very scary either. Tall and broad shouldered, with day-old stubbles on a stern face, he has trusting brown eyes. We were just wondering if you knew where we might find the nearest supermarket around here?’ He asks in a gentle voice. His wife walks up to them from the bus stop, leaving their three kids on the bench. They stare across the littered street at the closed shopfronts. 

Omar shifts the heavy bag with vegetables to his other hand. ‘Where are you going?’ He asks, noticing their backpacks. He has a hunch. The man looks away in a fleeting moment of shame. ‘We just came back from Evros’, he offers as an explanation. He shakes his head. They’re not going anywhere. 

There is something about his sincerity, helplessness, or apologetic manner that triggers Omar’s empathy. I meet the man who is called Chris myself, and I understand it. He’s a very kind guy.

 

Moria © Fortress Europe

 

That night, Omar takes the two stranded refugees, Chris and Fatema, and their kids home, rehydrates them, and sits them at his table with grapes, flatbread, and bowls of lentils and beans. They tell him how they attempted to walk to Greece several times now. Over and over again, they failed.
         “We can’t do it anymore, not with the kids. And the money is running out. We’re giving up.” They came straight from their last attempt, and haven’t eaten anything in the past 24 hours. The kids are finishing the grapes quickly. They reveal that their next try is going to be via the sea.

The table is cleared and his new guests are sleeping on the floor in the living room, but Omar continues to lie awake. He’s thinking about what he should do next. He knows that if he just lets them go on by themselves, they will be in trouble. Without any knowledge of the Turkish language, they are a very easy target for the exploitative local smugglers. Why did Allah send them to him? And so he decides to give up on Evros and join them across the sea instead.

It takes the group a total of 4 attempts, which cost Omar 1,400 euros. Each time, their van sets out from Izmir, to a dedicated spot near the beach. There they hide in a grey, bare forest, its leaves lost in the late winter. They’re waiting for the guy who should bring the boat. Unfortunately, before it arrives, the Turkish police get a hold of them. A nearby farmer had seen them approaching and informed the police of their whereabouts. It’s not a big deal, Omar says, shrugging. You just pay the bail and you’re out again. Their next attempt ends much worse. They make it into the water. Omar grabs his phone, and shows me a video he took. 
          It’s him, under a clear, blue sky, in an orange rubber boat. The motor zooms in the background, waves splashing around him and the shore in sight. He’s laughing and shouting something over the noise. The video stops.

That was the final attempt, he tells me, the successful one. However, the first time they were at sea was less sun and smiles. They left on a rainy night. Halfway across the channel, the motor gave up. Heavy rain started filling the boat and panic broke out under the Mediterranean stars. People were shouting and scooping water into the sea with handbags. The boat was swinging dangerously. With the little bit of reception he had left, Omar managed to load the number of the Turkish coastguards. “Please tell me your location,” the woman on the other side of the line asked him in Turkish. His language skills came in handy now. He shared the coordinates from his phone with them and within 20 minutes, a boat pulled up beside them to tow them back to square one. 

Yet somehow, after that experience, they mustered up the courage to try again – and succeed.

Journalists And Camera Crew Are A Common Sight Around The Island

The beaches that refugees arrive on aren’t so idyllic

Moria © Fortress Europe

There are two ways into Greece if you can’t get a visa in order to do it legally: the land route or the sea route. 

The first one is the route Yousif took, over land. It usually takes you from Istanbul to anywhere along the Greek border, which is marked by the river Evros. That’s what it gets its name from: The Evros route. From there, pre-arranged transportation awaits to bring the arrivals to a variety of destinations in Greece, often Thessaloniki. UNHCR counted fewer travellers on this road. In 2019, 1 person crossed Evros for every 4 that entered via sea. In 2015, that was 5.000 Evros crossings for 857.000 sea crossings. 
          The other option is to do the same as Omar did, and take a rubber boat to any of the Greek islands. Lesvos, Chios, Samos, etc. The Aegean islands. This method saw about 60,000 arrivals in 2019. 60,000 life vests dumped on the beach. 

The reasoning behind why you would choose the walk over the rubber boat requires dissertation-style research, and random chance seems to be a big factor. There is no Rome2Rio for refugees, giving up-to-date travel advice. Experienced relatives and Facebook pages seem to be a reasonable alternative. 
         However, there are some general claims to be made about the two routes. First, the sea is cheaper. The exact price depends on your smuggler and can vary a lot! From the accounts I’ve heard, I’d estimate the price to be along the lines of 300-800 euros per person for the boat, versus 1.000-1.500 for the cars and guide over Evros. 
            Secondly, the types of risks differ. Like Yousif, if you cross via Evros, you fear getting caught by border guards. Once inside Greece, it’s illegal to push you back to Turkey without a procedure and border forces are supposed to be supportive. However, in Turkey, the border forces can be quite aggressive. I’m repeatedly shown videos of migrants, walking the streets of Turkey in their underwear, because guards took everything. 
And then there’s the risk of getting lost or abandoned. At the sea, you risk drowning, the motor breaking, the boat capsizing in a storm, and violence from coastguards. Death tolls, as counted by UNHCR, don’t seem to differ greatly. 66 in Jan-Sep 2019 for the sea route, and 35 for Evros, not corrected for traffic flows nor how easy it is to come by this data. 18 deaths were recorded in vehicle accidents and 12 drowned in the river Evros. 
             Lastly, there’s what’s waiting on the other side. The sea route leaves you in Moria – or its smaller equivalents on the other islands. That means months to years of cold, heat, hunger, overcrowding, violence, and boredom. In Evros you have a shot at free continuation of your travel. 

It’s day two on the island. I use my morning to write down what I learned the previous day. By noon, I’m back on the bus to Moria. I stare out of the window, and reflect on the people I spoke to. It strikes me that most of my encounters so far have been with young, single males with an academic background – the group that is easiest to approach. That day, I specifically set out to meet with anyone not belonging to that group. 

Benjamin is snacking a croissant before lunch, and is wiping his dirty hands on my water bottle. The blanket in the back separates the tent in two

Moria © Fortress Europe

On a walk through the buzzing market street in the main camp, I meet Hussain and his friend Abdul. Again, young males. This time, however, they’re not university educated, and both of them came with their family. Hussain, a 22 year old carpenter, fled with his wife Anya from Syria. When they arrived, she was only 17. UNHCR wanted to place her in the minor’s camp. Unsatisfied, she snuck out, and now stays with her husband in a family tent. They took their 2-year-old son Benjamin with them on their trip.
         A well-versed energetic Yemeni translator from one of the NGOs helps us out on the market square, as my Arabic isn’t good enough to converse in. I learn about their journeys. That afternoon, they invite me over to lunch. 

A number of people invite me – old, young, male, female, Syrian, Afghani – and with their help, I puzzle together a rudimentary picture of the internal structure of the camp. Back at home, I complement it with official statements and info from camp staff. I start to organise what I learn into three big topics which particularly help me untangle the invisible complexity: Shelter, finance and work. 

Hussein and I walk past rows and rows of little shacks, like the one Omar lives in. These are the shelters people construct for themselves. They cost about 130-150 euros to build, because they require pallets, some wood, tarp and blankets. It took Omar’s neighbours 3 months to save up for that money. Alternatively, you can be assigned a UNHCR tent, like Hussein, or a container home in the main camp. These are available to certain vulnerable groups. When I first step inside Hussein’s tent, I mistake the front room for a sitting area, falsely assuming that the sleeping area is hidden from sight by a blanket. To my surprise, while we’re having tea and Anya is peeling potatoes, I hear voices coming from the other side of the blanket. As it turns out, the cover does no more than compartmentalise the space into two to create more homes. An Iraqi family lives on the other side, also with a young kid. The bedroom is the room we’re sitting in, with mattresses hidden from sight by colourful blankets. 
            When you don’t have the right to a UN tent or one of the limited places in the main camp containers, and you lack the money for building materials, you can pick up a free camping tent. Needless to say, these are horribly cold in the winter and provide little shelter from the sun in summer.

While we’re heating the frying oil, Hussein begins to tell me a little about the financial system. He, Anya and Benjamin receive 150 euros a month: 90 for him as the registered head of household, and 70 for her. Through a UNHCR office in a container in the main camp, all registered asylum seekers can pick up a cash card that they can then use to buy groceries with. It has 90 to a few hundred euros on it each month, depending on the family size. 
       It’s not nearly enough, Hussein says. Their daily flatbread can already cost a euro a day, and on top of that there’s oil, salt, lemons, diapers, shampoo, etc. There’s a food distribution centre in Moria, but because of overcrowding and underfunding there are only a few people who can make use of it.  

Hussain takes care of fresh potato fries for lunch

departing refugees stand in line, as I’m beckoned through to board the ferry

Two kids running around the tent, while we’re having lunch

Moria © Fortress Europe

To supplement the monetary allowance, people commonly open little shops or start a hair salon. Others get a job at an NGO and receive food coupons or other small extras for their work. 
             I speak to someone who invested their last 300 euros in shop-supplies within his first month of living in Moria. He proudly grins as he tells me that it was the best investment he ever made. It’s not only because of the much needed money, he says, but rather because it keeps him sane. He has something to wake up for and people know and greet him when he walks around the camp. 

Anya cuts up a salad head inside the tent across from ours where Abdul lives with his family. Abdul’s wife Zhara helps her, while Hussein fries the freshly cut potatoes. Before long, we sit down with potato fries, scrambled eggs, tomato salad with lemon dressing and huge pieces of fresh flatbread, dipped in Greek yoghurt. We even have ketchup. I strongly doubt every meal looks like this, but I don’t ask. 
               Over lunch, I ask Hussein why they opted for the sea route, instead of the Evros one. He shakes his head. “It was a mistake”, he explains. “What happened?” I continue. He tells me that he had trusted his smugglers. Apparently, they had promised him a world of sunshine and freedom on the other side. Europe, the promised land, just a boatride away. Desperate as they were, there was little time for careful consideration. That’s how they ended up stuck here. 

“Had I known, I would’ve never gotten on that boat.” 

The reason it takes so long to get off the island is because asylum seekers (i.e. someone applying to get refugee status) are kept there until Greece has decided whether they are a ‘true refugee’. So what does that mean, to be a refugee? Does a refugee have to come from a war zone?  

In the official system, ‘refugee’ is a label. You don’t decide you are one, only the state you apply to can decide you are after you’ve made your case in an interview. Until you’ve done that you are an ‘asylum seeker’, carrying a card which proves you applied and which shows your interview date in the top right corner. Nearly everyone in Moria carries one of those cards.
          What exactly defines a ‘true refugee’ is  obviously a controversial question. There is no single definition that all world leaders agree upon. Take for example the most internationally accepted definition by UNHCR, the one quoted at the top of this page. 

“someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Even this definition was never signed by the USA, which maintains its own definition. That being said, it is often regarded as the ‘global’ definition of a refugee and is at least recognised in Europe. And yet, it’s controversial. Because even though it recognises many groups of people who are in serious danger, they must be fleeing ‘prosecution’ specifically. That excludes people fleeing natural disasters, hunger or financial stress, for example. Floods and drought don’t usually ‘persecute’. 

I leave Lesvos a few days later. As I’m ready to board, I join a line of asylum seekers, waiting in front of the fence that leads to the port. The big ferry is waiting for us. A guard walks up to me. “This way, miss.” he waves and lets me pass the line. My backpack and white skin gave me away. 
          On board, the migrants mostly stick together. By the looks of it, it’s mostly asylum seekers occupying the upper deck, in particular in the middle room. There aren’t many of them – the boat is still almost empty. Taking advantage of the space, people spread out their blankets, to use as a dining area and bed. I sit down with a woman and her daughter, and we pass time reading Arabic together, chewing on salted sunflower seeds. The noisy room is a contrast to the quiet deck below, where European looking passengers sit diffusely spread. Early the next morning, we arrive in Athens.

i offer my assistance to a family trying to make a farewell-selfie of their final departure from moria. They received refugee status. published with permission.