Telling Stories

I ignored my nerves and followed the young man. He walked briskly, confidently weaving a path through Athens’ city centre and out to its shabbier outskirt. Dusk fell, and I began to feel afraid: the cramped streets all looked the same and I couldn’t read Greek script on the street signs. I had no idea where I was.

I looked nervously at Ezmerey striding ahead of me. Clad in jeans and leather jacket, a phone glued to his ear, he laughed, switching easily from Arabic to Greek, and occasionally turning to talk with me in near perfect English. We had met a few hours earlier. He was not the first refugee I had interviewed in Athens, but was the first to trust me. He had been a football player in Afghanistan, and had begun to impress in one of Athens’ smaller leagues. But his chances of a glittering football career had been cut short by Greece’s then dysfunctional asylum system. Ezmerey’s application for asylum was one of tens of thousands; it could be years before he received an answer.

Still, the sense that I had been too trusting only disappeared when eventually we turned into a dilapidated building, walked up several flights of stairs, and I found myself sitting opposite two young Afghan women. As children crawled around us and men spoke loudly in another room, I got my notebook out and said: “Tell me your story.”

The fear I felt at being led through a foreign city late at night with a near-stranger for a will-o’-the-wisp story fell away. Here were people who had fled real danger and instability, and were now battling a European bureaucracy indifferent to their plight. They had sunk into poverty while waiting to find out if they would be allowed sanctuary. Meanwhile, they could not legally leave the country or find work to support themselves. My job was to listen and tell their stories.

Two years later, I sat listening to students discussing their work at the University of Warwick’s Writing Wrongs class, and was reminded of the stories I was told that winter in Greece. I attended the seminar as part of Lacuna’s editorial team to give a talk about the process of putting together the magazine.

We discussed everything from how to combat existing mainstream narratives and connect personal stories of injustice to wider, systematic violations of rights, to the ethics of writing about other people’s suffering. At one point, Maureen Freely, the course tutor, in an attempt to elicit a thoughtful answer, asked ‘why do you bother?’

The question made me think of Greece, when, plagued with my own doubts, editors ignoring pitch after pitch, worrying about my own sustenance, I instinctively followed Ezmerey, in search of a story.

And by following Ezmerey I met Farida, one of the Afghan women in the house, who told me a story of floating for 16 hours in the Aegean Sea, clinging to life, and watching fellow passengers drown. Before Europe, Farida tried her luck in Iran, where her children were denied an education and she struggled to find work. But the pattern of poverty and discrimination she experienced in Iran continued in Greece. The dingy flat where we met was shared with 23 others, all piled into two rooms sleeping on rugs. Farida’s 9-year-old son, a pale child with dark circles under his eyes, escaped the flat everyday to sell cigarette lighters. They were trapped in Greece, unable to leave because of EU regulations limiting the movement of asylum seekers. Yet she harboured hope. “We don’t have any more hope for our lives,” she says. “The best hope is for our children.”

Farida’s story reminds me why I bother. She hoped that the telling of it might change something. Her story is symptomatic of a global injustice, which can be traced across continents from the footprints of people who dare to run. Telling her story exposes the behaviour of governments, bears witness to these atrocities and prevents a cynical world from saying we did not know.

Telling stories is important, but change takes time. For things to change, there must be enough people asking why bother, and deciding to act. Choosing the best way to act is not an easy decision to make. For me the most difficult obstacle is the lack of a blueprint. But, over time, what is becoming clear to me is that the people doing useful things to combat injustice rarely follow a plan. Instead, they do what they can, when they can, with the skills they have. And rather than offering others wanting to act on injustice a path to follow, they should simply be an inspiration. A starting point, not a blueprint.

It took a series of storytellers to catalogue the horrors of Greece’s chaotic asylum system, so that refugees and migrants are no longer sent back there from other European countries.

Under the EU’s Dublin II regulations a person must apply for asylum in the first member state he or she enters. If an asylum seeker moves to another European member state to seek refuge there, their fingerprints will appear on a central database with details of their first claim. They are then deported to that country.

Most asylum seekers and paperless migrants enter Europe through Greece, a country whose asylum system was already in crisis before its financial problems hit. By 2010 the backlog of asylum claims had crept towards 70,000, the immigration holding centres were severely overcrowded and poorly kept, and hundreds of refugees lived in various states of destitution in cities like Athens. Yet other European countries still deported refugees back to Greece.

After years of NGO and journalist reports, protests by angry citizens, and people like Farida choosing to speak out, European countries have stopped deporting people to Greece. Pivotal was the 2011 European Court of Human Rights judgement in M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece, which decreed that Belgium had acted unlawfully in deporting an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece. The court also held that both countries had violated the asylum seeker’s human rights because of the deficiency in Greece’s asylum system and the deplorable detention conditions there.

One of Lacuna’s aims is to challenge the indifference to the suffering of others and stimulate action. To that end we’ll publish a series of frank, short interviews with people working across a range of professions, all working for the same goal, to challenge injustice and promote human rights. This will act as a useful starting point for those of you who read Lacuna and decide to act. And if you find yourself plagued with doubt or fear, asking why bother, look on these as a source of reassurance. There is no right way to tell a story, the important thing is that it is told.

The first of Lacuna’s interviews is with the author and journalist Clare Sambrook. You can also read interviews with campaigning journalist Katharine Quarmby and legal aid lawyer Nadia Salam, and a filmed interview with Russell Stetler, national mitigation coordinator for the federal death penalty projects in California. 

Photo by Zé Valdi


 

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This book is an excellent guide for all writers. It teaches the art of the concise sentence and the beauty of uncluttered prose. Harold Evans, former Sunday Times and Times editor, explains why using language simply is often so effective. It is also a fascinating insight into the language of newspapers.

Tell Me No Lies

Tell me no lies

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‘Journalists take pictures and nothing changes’

“Lots of journalists come and take pictures and nothing changes. So you don’t need to take pictures.”

On hearing about the latest deaths off the Italian island of Lampedusa last month, I was struck by the prescience of these words. In the last decade, tens of thousands have died trying to reach the European Union in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. Just last year 60 Syrian refugees drowned in one such tragedy. Every last death has been avoidable, and every last death is attributable.

Yasin, the man who made the comment, was Eritrean, like many of those who died off the coast of Lampedusa, but he made the same journey and survived.  He survived and learned to feel unwelcome in Europe. When he told me not to take pictures of his camp, buried in a field in France, he showed that he had begun to learn something of this Europe, the one so different from the Europe of his dreams.

Read the rest of this article here over at openDemocracy.net.

I reported from Lampedusa and Palermo back in 2011. You can read some of my reports on refugees and paperless migrants here, here and here.

Letter from Europe’s border

Originally published by the New Statesman, ‘The Desperate Crossing’ 15-21 March issue

A question for the European politicians thrashing out a plan to provide “assistance” to Syria: if a bedraggled Syrian escapes the war, if he escapes the chaos of the refugee camps in Iraq or Jordan or Turkey, if he arrives tired but hopeful on your doorstep, what will happen to him?

Reporting at the European Union’s most porous borders where Greece and Bulgaria merge with Turkey I was struck by the story of a Syrian refugee who risked drowning to avoid the clasp of the EU’s tortuous asylum and immigration system.

After relating the story of how he was deposited on the banks of Turkey by border patrol officers in Greece, I assumed my interview with Farouk, a Syrian refugee, was finished. It was twilight, and the shabby cafe on the edge of the tiny Bulgarian village was empty. I sat at the head of a small wooden table scribbling into the silence as a dozen pair of striking eyes, various shades of green, watched me curiously. They were all Syrian, thrown together by the war. The two teenage boys were awkward, goofy grins even as they imitated the sound of bombs. The old man, stooped and pot-bellied, eyed me suspiciously. Farouk’s friend spat furiously in Arabic, insisting that he keep quiet. They ate from a large dish of sunflower seeds. I swallowed the remains of a thick, bitter Bulgarian coffee, clumps of sugar clung to the tiny shot-sized glass. “So after that you travelled from Turkey to Bulgaria? How did you cross the border?” I asked.

“No, that’s another story.” We ordered more coffee and Farouk told me about his second “push-back”.

Following his encounter with the border police in Greece, Farouk went back to his smuggler, who sent him to the Aegean Sea. He was packed into a large wooden boat bound for Italy with more than 100 other people. Very soon they lost control of the boat, and could do little as it spun in the middle of the ocean between Turkey and Greece.  “After three or four hours people started to throw up,” he said. “There was a problem inside the boat, the water started to enter. Everyone was scared and thinking about dying. We had suffered too much.”

On this occasion the Greek maritime police tried to rescue them, but the appointed captain of the boat, another Syrian refugee, deliberately thwarted the attempt. “He had a problem with Greece because he had been caught in Greece before,” said Farouk. Rather than find himself back in Greece, the desperate captain threw an anchor into the sea, which caught on something solid, so even as the Greek officers tried to pull the boat to safety it would not budge and looked certain to capsize. Farouk’s rising terror was compounded by the screams of his fellow passengers, among them young children.

What made the Syrian captain risk the lives of everyone on the boat to avoid Greece?

The fingerprints of any non-European person who has travelled “unofficially” across borders are taken on arrival in any European Union country. If you want to make a claim for asylum, under the EU’s Dublin II regulations you must do so in the first EU country you enter. If you try to make a claim in another EU country, your fingerprints will pop up on a central database indicating the country of entry, and you will be deported back there.

Dublin II could only work if each and every EU country operated an efficient, fair and humane asylum and immigration system. Most EU countries appear to have coherent structures in place, but in reality all over Europe there are hundreds of genuine refugees and children detained in prisons or holding centres, living in extreme poverty, or stuck in limbo for years while their applications are processed.

Greece is a tragic example of where Europe’s common asylum system is failing. Up to November last year 26,000 refugees and irregular migrants entered Greece illegally, with Syrians the largest group after Afghans. Around 90% of all migrants and refugees entering Europe unofficially enter through Greece, which embodies the worst of the differing national asylum and immigration systems across the 27 member states. Greece’s system had already collapsed before its financial problems struck. By 2010 the backlog for asylum claims had crept towards 70,000; Médecins Sans Frontières declared the state of immigration holding centres “medieval”; and a quarter of a million undocumented migrants and refugees haunt the city of Athens alone trapped in various states of destitution.

I don’t know what happened to the captain who panicked, but after eventually being rescued other Syrian refugees on the boat went back to the Aegean Sea. They drowned when their boat sank killing 60 people on 6th September last year.

Palermo’s ghosts

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Italy –  part IV

What is this post about? Read parts I, II and III on Italy here.

At first glance Palermo appears dark and unwelcoming. By day the Sicilian city is full of Italians bustling about their business, past the migrants selling tat on street corners; a stark reminder, not just of the country’s clandestine migrant population, but also of their own economic troubles. At night women traf­ficked from sub-Saharan Africa live out their night­mares, while the city looks the other way. Palermo, Italy

Beneath the surface of first impressions Palermo is a mes­merising mix of grim city life, complete with a maze of dark, narrow streets, occasionally interrupted by spectacular reminders of Italy’s grand architectural history. This is set against a post­card perfect picture of swooping valleys and an emerald sea. Slap in the middle of this is a growing community of migrants without pa­pers, trafficked women and asylum seekers.

The migrants and refugees living in poverty Palermo share the im­possible hope and towering ambition I encountered in similar communities across Europe. Take Samuel. Despite nursing a burning desire to get to London, being home­less and earning only the odd €20 fixing laptops, he remains upbeat and certain that somewhere, somehow, he will make his fortune in Europe. “I like Palermo, tourists come here every day, Chinese, Americans. I feel at home. On Saturday I go to the club in the streets. In the summer I go to the beach and take my drums and everyone is happy.”

But Samuel is aware that, however at home he feels, many Italians would rather he left the country. “But I cannot take my band everywhere,” he says. “Some people like blacks and some people hate blacks. I cannot go too far outside Palermo. If you go out­side Palermo where there are no blacks, they can be racist. But if you go to the market here, every­one is from Africa. We speak our language.”

Twenty-year-old Sofian Mauzien is also positive, despite losing a well-paid factory job when the company went bust. Sofian has struggled to find more work and relies on charity, despite speaking five languages including Russian. When I met him, he had lived in Italy “two years, three months and 24 days”.

sofian in palermo “I like Palermo very much,” he says. “I would like to stay here forever. I have many friends from all over the world. I have a lot of friends from France, from Austria, from Senegal, from Ghana, from Morocco, from Palermo, from Greece. In Morocco I know people just from Morocco.

“To find work at this moment it is difficult. I want to complete my study. I want to go to the university here. I want to study languages and then maybe I can get a job.

“I think it is very hard [for immi­grants in Italy]. But if you search for work, it is difficult to get it. I hope to finish this crisis [the recession]…every­one can get a job and work and live. Also Italians. Because there are many Italians who don’t work, not just immigrants.”

According to Centro Astralli Paler­mo, a charity set up 30 years ago to support the waves of asylum seekers from East Africa, 40% of the mi­grants living in Palermo do not have papers. Centro Astralli’s team of tireless volunteers feed irregular migrants when they can, and sometimes offer Italian and IT lessons. Charities like Centro Astralli are the only resource for many of these so-called illegal migrants, who do not exist as far as the Italian government is concerned.

Alfonso Cinquemani, who works for Centro Astralli, argues that one of the biggest problems is the difference in asylum and immigration law across the Europe Union. This makes it difficult to properly protect refugees and regulate migration, he says.

“For each country the laws are different. In Europe you can circulate freely. Also the migrants with the permit may regulate freely but the laws are different in each country. That is absurd.”

But he admits that the EU has helped in other ways, with funds to support refugees, for example. “There are some funds dedicated to the immigration politic. Each country uses this money in different ways. In Italy it depends on the region. There are very advanced re­gions, Lazio, Tarantino, [that offer] better help to migrants.

“But in our region the situation is not so good. The money coming from Europe to the Ital­ian government in Sicily is dedicated not only to help migrants, but to cover other prob­lems.”

But giving these invisible people just enough to survive seems only to prolong their limbo. Many arrive in Italy expecting to find work somewhere in Europe. Instead on arrival, often they are confronted with a bar­rage of information on how to seek asylum. Seeking asylum can quickly be­come the sole option for migrants enter­ing the continent without papers. As a result, once they are refused asy­lum, there are few legal options open if they want to stay in Europe. This leaves them vul­nerable to unscrupulous employ­ers, traffickers and criminal gangs. Could what they left behind be worse than that?

Social worker Sandra Voutsinas thinks so. “In reality they don’t live in good conditions in Europe. But there [in Europe] the pos­sibility that at least something will happen here. Hope in their country is less than here.

“Even if they live here in welcome cen­tres, everything that we offer them, which is nothing at all, but there is one hope at least that something can change, or someone they meet, something can happen here. Where there it is quite impossible that something can happen. Nothing happens there.

“Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria, they have problems. There is too much corruption. If you are rich you stay rich, if you are poor you stay poor. Nothing will happen. So having one brother or one sister living in Europe for a family in Africa means a lot be­cause they have hope that something can happen. Even if he gets a document, it is something.

“A human being without hope is dead. Even if the conditions in Europe are terrible because we don’t offer immigrants anything, at least we offer them hope. They can dream for some­thing better here. It is something. If I were them maybe I would have done the same thing – it is human to try to look for something else.”