The Big Fish

Today I got a message from a friend that shocked me: 

"moi j suis a paris"
(i m in paris)

No exclamation point, no punctuation.

He succeeded in doing what everyone on this island dreams of doing by pursuing what seemed like the only option available to him: flight. I met him less than 2 months ago at the fence in Moria. As I read his message today a vivid image of our first meeting flashed through my memory. He pulls me to the side and shows me pictures of his wife and his daughter in a safe-house half a world away. He tells me his daughter asks him every day when she'll see him again and with hurt in his eyes he tells me he can't imagine when or how he will ever get there. When I met up with him in Athens two weeks ago, all that pain was gone and it was clear that he wasn't sticking around there either. He was very purposefully putting together the pieces of a 3000 euro puzzle to procure a temporary identity, fly to France and start over again. He is not the only one looking of an alternative to the legal route off the island.

Every day at the port, a group of would-be escapees stalks the ferry terminal from a distance. They sit on the pediment of a 15m replica of the statue of liberty cast in bronze after the 1922 population swap that brought the last wave of refugees to this island. From here, they study what people in Moria call The Big Fish and plot their escape. Some make their way there early in the morning to break into containers before they get loaded onto the ship bound for Athens. Some sneak around the rocky breakwall waiting for the right moment to dash into the belly of the beast and hide among the cars and passengers. Others pay 300 euros for a recycled travel document so they can buy a proper ticket and hope the police don't call their bluff. It takes a bit of cunning to pull it off.

One woman tells me she snuck past the police in an angry huff, feigning ignorance and insult when they asked her questions in English until they finally brought out an officer who spoke her mother tongue. Trying to catch her off her guard, he asked her to state her name. "What, you cant read?!" She retorted. "It's right there in your hands, now give me my papers back and get out of my way." By the end of the exchange, the police apologized for the inconvenience as she marched defiantly up to the passenger deck. She had been kidnapped and held hostage in her home country before she was ransomed and given an airplane ticket for Istanbul and somebody else's passport with a turkish visa in it. There, she had endured 3 months of sexual assault at her workplace while she saved up the money to make the crossing to Greece. She suffered through 2 months of what would otherwise have been indefinite detention on Lesbos in a camp plagued with riots, famine and disease. Under no circumstances was she going to be held back any further by a nameless, steel-toed thug in top-gun aviators.

At the port in Athens, white passengers get off first and colored passengers are shuttled to a special screening center in order to have their identities verified for a second time. Rosa Parks would be weeping in her grave if she were Greek and yet every major news outlet that I contacted with a detailed eye-witness account of this institutionalized segregation neither replied nor reported on it. Another friend who I got to reunite with in Athens told me he stayed up all night on the boat trying to figure out how to evade the police when he arrived. When the ferry pulled into the port, he got in the front of the line with all the white passengers. At the last minute before the gate dropped, he picked up the heavy luggage of the woman standing next to him and said, "Please, let me help you!" She politely declined. "No, no no, I insist!" and he did, and they walked off the ferry past the police, and she smiled at the generosity of this stranger, and he smiled along at her unknowing complacency in his ruse, and from another perspective it seemed as though a happy couple had just returned from their holiday on the islands. As they bid each other farewell, she had no idea this man was a doctor whose practice and home had been burnt to the ground by ISIS in retribution for some harm he had unwittingly caused them. He fled to Athens knowing that he stood very little chance of ever telling his story if he remained on Lesvos. As a single man who had not been personally harmed or threatened during his short stay in Turkey, there was a very good chance that his case would be deemed inadmissible.

Just a few days earlier we were sitting in a cafe in Mytilini when he showed me a video of his would be persecuters destroying all of the artifacts at the Mosul museum. They toppled and smashed 4000 year-old relics of an ancient polytheistic culture that stood as an affront to ISIS' militant puritanical interpretation of Islam. We happened to be sitting with a friend from Damascus. His teeth were missing, his ears were visibly reattached to his head, scars lined his arms and upper body from an encounter with ISIS that left him for dead, and he told me his story, too. Leaving the cafe, I bumped into another friend who is still missing part of his skull after being tortured in his Pakistani homeland. Over coffee, he tells me about how he fled to Turkey and was tortured again and shows me his arms which bear the scars of surgery he could not afford to properly complete. For the 3rd time in one afternoon I'm on the edge of tears and so is he as he shows me a picture of himself before he was disfigured. And I'm once again convinced that everyone on this island has the worst story I have ever heard in my life.

 I have yet to hear from someone who wouldn't qualify for international protection if their case was heard. But most people who can afford the trip to Athens have already lost faith in justice and they're running away because they don't believe they will ever have an interview or that the interview will help. Or they just can't stand another moment in Moria and have decided that it can't be worse anywhere else. I have a friend who is considering voluntary repatriation to a country where he has already served 18 months in prison for his affiliation with a single gay friend. He can't afford a smuggler and would rather be back there and close to his family than wait here! The hotspot procedures, the EU-Turkey deal and the detention camps are all set up to fail people who should be receiving protection. I was wary about encouraging people to violate the restriction on their liberty of movement, worrying that they would lose their chance at asylum if they did. I still worry about this but I have a really hard time accepting that it's true. I'm really happy when anyone makes it somewhere further down the line. And I've met up with a bunch of people in Athens who seem to have worked their way back into the system even though they weren't allowed to be there. I think my friend in Paris can't be subjected to a so-called "Dublin Return" because of a 2011 ECJ decision barring returns to Greece based on the miserable state of their refugee camps. So I think he's OK, too. And actually, I think that everyone who makes it onto the big fish will be OK. Right now on the island, everybody has one thing in mind, and it's that fateful ride that will one day carry them far far away from here. All aboard!