It’s nearly dinnertime at the refugee camp at Port Piraeus and everyone seems to be pretty hungry. It’s Ramadan and most people here are observing the Muslim fast, which means no eating til sumset. One of the volunteers here told me that when the holy month started, the Greek Navy (which supplies the bulk of the food) only brought in half the rations. No lunch, was their reasoning. The volunteers had to explain that Ramadan is about fasting, not starving.
In which I meet a young Greek who lost his job, miss my bus stop, ask five people ‘where the refugees stay’, wander around the harbour with no water, pass by a sinking passenger ship, find an unofficial camp staffed by friendly but cantankerous volunteers from all over the world, meet a young Kurdish man who fought ISIS in Iraq, and make 600 bean wraps on the roof of a restaurant.
It didn’t take me a long time to find what I was looking for. I had talked to a few people, and someone suggested that if I wanted meet refugees and the people who are helping them, then I should head to Port Piraeus, which for many asylum-seekers is the first point of entry onto the European mainland. And it’s where many stay. At least for a while. Over the last year, unofficial shelters have been established here in empty shipping warehouses. And as the Greek government begins to clear these all-volunteer, squat-like tent cities — think Idomeni — the newcomers from Syria and Afghanistan are slowly relenting to move into the sterile military refugee camps.
The only info I had was the name of the port, so I looked around for a bus stop near my hostel and it happened to go in that direction. A guy waiting at the stop asked me if I could spare a ticket and I could. His name was Mike, about thirty, dark hair, over-sunned skin. Was he going to Piraeus? No, he was going to his job at a factory. He had been an engineer, lost his job around 2012, got another but quit after six months when he realized his paycheck would never come. Now he works in a factory. On an industrial stretch of road, he got off the bus and told me I could use his name, but I couldn’t mention what he made at the factory. It’s a pity because it was poetic.
I missed my stop by a lot. None of the signs outside of the city of Athens are written in the Latin alphabet. But by asking over and over where the refugee camp was, I finally found my way to the harbour.
I’ve always been fascinated by stuff. It’s a troubled relationship. As a teenager, I was of the ascetic school, fantasizing about monks in mountains, philosophers in cabins. It was the idea of zero, attractive, impossible. Jack Kerouac (the one I’m always trying to distance myself from, like a political party of which one was once a member) — he wanted the same, and got to about the same place in his pursuits: You simplify, simplify, simplify, until you realize it’s a game. Certainly too many people have too much, and it’s usually these who worship the ascetic, it’s these who stow their valuables and head in the opposite direction of those who have lost everything or never had anything in the first place.
Last month, a bit spontaneously, I bought an EasyJet ticket from Berlin to Athens for around 30 euros. In 2014, a student from Damascus named Ghaith paid 6,800 euros to cross ten borders and arrive in Sweden.
It should be obvious to anyone aware of the so-called refugee crisis in Europe that borders are sieves that control the flow of people based on two things: ethnicity and income. If you have enough money, you can pay your indemnities and move where you please. If you share a blood heritage with the majority population of a wealthy country, you get filed into the shorter line at airports, you get the simplified paperwork, you are greeted by the hotelier and ignored by the police.
One of the sharpest ironies is that when you have a lot of money, unlike Ghaith, you don’t pay as much to travel. You don’t have to buy a fake passport or open your wallet to a blackmarket taxi driver or wire money to a smuggler to take you across the Mediterranean.
Of course there are exceptions to the sieve. But the exceptions are like paint flecks that fall outside of the line — you can still see the shape of the thing.
This blog, dispatching from Athens and points northward, is (first of all) my attempt to see the places and people marked by the passage in a single year of over a million souls out of North Africa and the Near East and into Europe. From June 14 through the end of the month, I will be traveling from Athens up the “Balkan Route” and writing about it.
But Left of North will also approach migration as a challenge to the current structure of the world, and it will look at migration facilitation — whether you want to call it human smuggling or humanitarian aid — as a kind of politics. And it’s a politics that has begun to define the left and the right in Europe.
Helping undocumented migrants is illegal, and yet people do it. They give up spare rooms for stopovers, purchase bus tickets, line up jobs, and drive people northward. Some do it for money, some out of pity, some out of ideology. It’s this last group that this blog is most interested in. Is there a cohesive movement of leftist migration facilitators? Is it a fundamental part of a progressive vision of Europe?
Those sound like good questions to start with.