Rest, Recovery, and Reconnaissance in Belgrade

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A few years back, I was fixed on a French word — debrouillard — which describes a person who can literally clear the fog, figuratively solve the little hang-ups that ruin plans. If you’re traveling with a debrouillard and you miss your train, somehow you’ll arrive at the next city before the train does. I don’t know how. Maybe they’ll talk to the ticket booth attendant and the attendant will drive you personally to where you’re going. There’s no straight lines in a debrouillard’s life, though. The rule is, they never catch the train. They’re always one cent short, and then they get the meal for free.

When I met Mohammed at the MiksaliŔta center for refugees, I could tell he was of this tradition.
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The Night of the Humanitarians

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Since June 14, I’ve been traveling from Athens to Berlin and writing about refugees and the people who help them get where they want to go. In my last post I wrote about Macedonia, a hostile country refugees have to cross as quickly and quietly as possible. Serbia is a good place to rest. Although the country is surrounded by closed borders, it’s own borders are open. That means once refugees enter Serbia, they can stay, they can buy bus tickets to other points within the country, they can rest up for their trip north. Almost everyone I talked to was heading north, to Vienna, to Switzerland, to Germany.

When I arrived in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, there was an event at a bar/art space where refugee helpers were going to share stories and strategies. It was a glimpse into the world of humanitarianism, and I learned two things: There are too many NGOs in this world to keep track of; and people working on the ground tend to look askance at the people in charge of the money.

A row of unframed black-and-white photos in a hall, hanging next to a bar, finger food, people in little clusters, chatting. I was looking for Elise, the German woman from Refugee Aid Serbia who had invited me, but I didn’t know what she looked like. I went over to the photos, read the artist’s statement: “Older Syrian men are a pleasure to photograph…” I suppose the series of portraits intended to make refugees appear human to the people who only see refugees depicted in photographs.

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Refugees Smuggled Me into a Military Camp to Show Me How They Live

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This is the second part of my visit to Polykastro, Greece, a small town transformed by the refugee camps in the area.

“What are you doing here?” Alaa asked me inside the lobby of the Park Hotel.

I had talked to a lot of people at the Park Hotel — a hang-out for residents of the nearby Nea Kavala refugee camp — but I hadn’t talked to him. A lot of people had just come up to me to make small talk. Alaa seemed somehow too serious for that. Not cold, but serious. I found myself sitting next to him at the coffee table under the TV, and I had said hi first.

“I’m writing a blog about the situation of refugees and volunteers,” I said.

“Oh, I thought you were here to help.”

Later that evening, around 8 p.m., I saw him again and smiled.

“So, do you want to see our camp?” he asked.

He knew and I knew that journalists could only get into the official military camps if they were invited by the Greek government. I didn’t have the time to visit the parliament. But since I’m writing about the difference between official and unofficial camps, I was certainly interested. When the Greek government cleared the massive unofficial camp at Idomeni in late May, they moved as many people as they could to official military-run camps, usually far outside cities and away from borders. But it’s hard for journalists to get in, and not a lot has been written about conditions at these places.

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay. I help you get in, you help me tell the world how bad our life is here.”

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Overnight at the Port Piraeus Refugee Camp

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The tent city at the harbour of Piraeus, Greece, is an unofficial refugee camp, constantly under threat of evacuation, where over 2,000 refugees from Syria and Afghanistan have been residing, many of them without papers, for several months. A team of dedicated — and overtaxed — volunteers from a few small NGOs, as well as some “free agents,” manage the residents’ health, safety, hygiene, and even recreation. Because they are an unofficial camp, they get little more than emergency supplies from the UN refugee agency. Most of what’s done at the camp is an improvisation and a cooperation between the volunteers and the residents. There’s almost always a feeling of conflict in the air, but also of humor. (Some names of people have been changed.)

It’s the morning after the night I spent at the port. Samrend is standing over me smoking with his foot resting on the concrete barrier I’m sitting on. His tan is deep, his hair sandy brown, his golden Aviator shades reflecting my own skinny figure back at me. He looks like a Kurdish Abercrombie model who’s been to war. In fact, he has been to war. He fought ISIS with the Iraqi military last year.

Everyone else is hiding in the shade except us two.

“We have a lot volunteers. A lot good. One crazy.” He starts laughing at his joke and decides to repeat it. “One crazy. You know who.”

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Preparation

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 facilitationĀ  — 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.