Patras. Mountains. Sea. Warm spring sunshine. Having spent a year in Calais’ harsh, flat-as-a-pancake landscape, I am ridiculously glad to see hills, and the sunshine is a welcome break from the freezing temperatures currently gripping Northern Europe. The walls around the port are lower than their counterparts in Calais too, and you can see the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean beyond, glistening in the sun. The mountains are snowcapped and the skies are blue.
Ok, enough romanticising.
We walk along the road by Patras’ port – “we” being myself and A., an Afghan in his late teens/early twenties currently living in Athens. A. “tried” from Patras for several months, so he takes me to a couple of run-down warehouses by the port where several hundred Afghans are sleeping rough. He estimates that around 1000 people sleep rough in Patras each night. Speaking to people sat around the warehouses, and also over coffee in a nearby café, we hear that people here really do have nothing. A local organisation provides breakfast and lunch, and occasionally clothes which are “old and not useful for us”, but that is it. No dinner, no sanitation, no healthcare, no clothes, no sleeping bags, no shoes, no internet, no electricity, no information.
In Calais, a common argument by politicians is that volunteer organisations attract people to the city by providing aid. Patras, where 1000 people sleep rough trying to make it onto a 32-hour ferry journey to Italy with practically no help from organisations, charities or the state, is testament to the fact that people will gather in port-towns regardless of available aid. It is purely geography.
Politics aside, living conditions are bleak. People have barely any money and are forced to choose between phone credit and food. Asking around, some people feel that dinner would be most important, or at least equipment to make their own. Others feel that wifi and phone charging would be most important, as this would save them money that could then be spend on food. Many people say that they have worn the same clothes now for several months. I was shown the “shower facilities” at one of the warehouses: a rusty, broken pipe amongst piles of rubbish. “We have no toilets, we just go wherever we can, like animals”. Nobody intends to be in Patras for long, but people have been here for months, living in complete squalor. In France, healthcare is available for people who are sick – volunteers still have to drive them to hospital, but treatment is available. In Patras, an injury could lead to having to choose between healthcare, food, or internet.
I meet a man who used to live in Castlemilk, in the outskirts of Glasgow, who is trying to get back to his daughter.
Another man “worked for the Americans” in Afghanistan, and it has become unsafe for him to stay there. He is trying to get to Germany to reunite with his family.
Me and A. sit on a bench afterwards, just smoking and chatting about what we’ve heard and throwing out potential steps that could be taken to improve services here. I’m not personally feeling any desire to exchange one bleak port town for another, but it would be worth seeing who is working in the area, and what obstacles they face. However, we are cut off by a change of atmosphere, and suddenly, we are surrounded by police on motorbikes.
ID please. ID please.
My passport was stolen two days previously on the metro, along with my wallet and therefore any identifying document or piece of plastic I own. Thankfully, though I didn’t bring much to Patras, I had the foresight to bring a photocopy of my passport, and A. has his yellow card, so there shouldn’t be any problems. I’m wrong, and next thing we know we’re in the back of a police car with 6 other Afghans who must have been nearby, speeding towards the station. The police check out A.’s papers and let him go, and I sit while they do some sort of check on my passport before eventually letting me leave too. Two of the six were not so lucky. With no papers, they now face 6 months in prison.
It was such a lovely, sunny day before. Same shit, different port city. We jump on the bus back to Athens, and pass out among the mountains and ports speeding past us.
Athens, otherwise, has been a delight.
Two days earlier… I wake in Athens, sip a cup of tea on the balcony of my hostel. It’s drizzling, but by the time I head out into the backstreets the sun is up and it’s warm enough for sunglasses and a light jumper. Bliss. I head immediately for the Acropolis, photographing graffiti and getting a feel for the city. I like this place. There are happy people and the sun is shining. And there’s hills. My god, I have missed scenery. I sit near the Acropolis for over an hour, the sun on my neck, away from people, breathing in the trees and the hills and the sprawling city stretching to the sea and I realise I haven’t spent this much time by myself in some time. And it feels good. The perfect day. It continues when I meet up with some of the coolest kids I know: Molly and Haydn, who are cycling to New Zealand raising money for Help Refugees, and Ben, who is working here in Greece. They cook me lunch and we wander up another hill for sunset, through bustling markets, drinking beers in the spring sunshine and chatting and laughing and I feel myself pouring back into me. Later, we watch the rugby and Scotland thrashes England. The perfect day.
Ah, not so perfect – my wallet and passport get pickpocketed on the metro, just as we reach our final stop, which is a ball-ache, but not the end of the world.
The sun is still up. After a short visit to the local police station (wherein a chain-smoking man with long hair and no uniform takes my details and tells me to simply avoid using the metro) I meet up with Sarah, one of the founders of the Info Bus who is running the project here in Athens. We have a delightful afternoon, lunching on falafel and aubergine, wandering around the city, and then meeting her roommates and colleagues, putting the world to right. An Afghan meal in Exarcheia – an anarchist run district of Athens that the police do not (or, rarely) enter full of refugee communities, students, volunteers, activists, graffiti, cafes, bars and pretty much anything apart from the police – finishes off another excellent day. The next day, it was off to Patras. Me and A. spend a night in a hotel in Patras, falling asleep to what I can only describe as Indian psy trance, before our day of fact-finding and Greek police.
I like Athens, even though it took my passport and money on day 1. I like that I can meet people on neutral ground. I like being back in a city, but not one that’s too polished, or expensive. I like the mountains and the warmer weather. The souvlaki are a winner too. Time to chill now, for a few days, and take the time to properly have a holiday, ‘cos I’m not sure Patras counted as a break…
As I finish off writing, one of my roommates in Calais sends me a photo of an icicle coming out of our water tap in the caravan. The weather is freezing in Calais, the coldest sustainable spell it been yet this winter, and the situation is absolutely critical. Despite being away, it is impossible not to worry that there will be another completely needless and avoidable death at the border before the winter is out.
Not an article, but these words by Hassan Akkad –
Few years from now, there will be a huge Hollywood film about Syria. It will tell the true story of the systematic torture and rape Assad’s troops used against millions of peaceful protesters to shut down the revolution. A film which will tell the stories of the people who ate their own cats after Assad besieged their towns and villages to make them surrender. It will be a film about the children who were gassed to death, the cities which were bombed to the ground, and the millions of refugees who are living in exile for the rest of their lives. A film which will tell the story of Syria, a country which the whole world conspired against, from Aleppo to Ghouta.
A film which we will all watch, weep, and then say, “never again.”