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In Arabic: Pardon Me Sir, Is this the Boat to Nowhere . . . or Somewhere?

Tuesday, March 16, 2016 by Dr. Bill Dienst

Aboard the Greek ferry Nisos Mykonos, leaving the Island of Lesvos for the Greek MainlandDSCN1770

During the last days we spent on the North shore of Lesvos, we witnessed the arrival of an armada of NATO naval ships from Germany, Canada and other countries passing in front our our seaside hotel through the straits between Greece and Turkey. There are 15 large warships, at least. As far as we can tell, they are probably heading to the South end of the Island. We think the are here to help stanch the flow of boat refugees that have still been crossing across the wider straits directly into Mytilini. During the past month, crossings have been very few in our area of operations in the North. The Turkish Coast Guard, under pressure from the EU, has effectively blocked most of the crossings.

So now our NGO, Salaam Cultural Museum is deploying much of our assets to the Greek Mainland in areas of crisis and greater need: specifically to the border village of Idomeni, where thousands of refugees are now stranded up against a barbwire fence set up by authorities of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). This is not to be confused with Macedonia, the region of Northern Greece where we are now setting up our operations. We packed up a large van with all the humanitarian and medical supplies that we could possibly stuff into it; and then we headed to the South of Lesvos, an hour’s drive over a twisty mountainous road, and into the Port of Mytilini.

The scene at the ferry terminal was poignant: A long cue of Syrian refugees, still with hopes in their hearts for a better future. Finally, they have made it across “the straits of death” at $1000 a piece paid to smugglers to get to Lesvos, and Europe. They spent their time in the transitional camps at Moria or Kara Tepe. Now for about $60 each, they can cross in comfort to Kavala on the Greek mainland: An 8 hour voyage with beautiful scenery, and relatively zero risk of drowning. From there, they will make their way to the North.

DSCN1766A Syrian man tells me confidently and triumphantly during our conversation in pidgin Arabic: “ I am going to Germany!” Knowing what I now know, I have my doubts about his ability to succeed, but I do not have the heart, nor the language skills in Arabic to warn him about the harrowing trail ahead, so I just let it go. We take pictures of ourselves together as habibis (good buddies). Another Syrian man tells me his family will stay with friends in Kavala and only head up to the Idomeni if the border opens again. This seems like a much better informed decision.

The Syrians climb the gangway up to the 6th level and are seated at the stern; they are they lucky ones. They are free to move about most areas of the ship, more or less, though there seems to be a dividing line starboard side aft. Forward from there are the second class passengers, mostly Greeks and other Westerners, including us. First Class passengers who do not want to deal with the refugee crisis are conveniently accommodated in the bow.

On the sixth level portside is a coffee shop, complete with WIFI. Forward from that is a roped off area where we are not allowed to go. But we can see a large contingent of Greek policemen, and what appear to be “prisoners” Some are handcuffed. They are mostly men, but there are a few women too. I suspect these are people, who for one reason or another, were unable to get registered. If these unregistered refugees dare to wander off from the internment camps where they are housed, and they get caught, they risk arrest.

Whether one gets registered or not often has to do with nationality: Syrians and sometimes Iraqis are favored and deemed “war refugees”. Afghans, Pakistanis, Moroccans and others are considered “economic refugees” and are less likely to be able to get registered. Of course, the details of each person’s individual case is much more complicated than that, as UNHCR has argued. Places like Afghanistan are hardly at peace. But the Greek Authorities are doing the best they can, trying to sort things out and restore order in the middle of the chaos of this refugee crisis.

To me, the whole process seems political. The Assad regime and ISIS, though on opposite sides of the spectrum, are American and Western European adversaries. The Shiite dominated Iraqi regime, placed in power after the US invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, are supposedly our friends. But ISIS exists there too, so there are friends and enemies there. Afghanistan has another regime placed in power following an American and NATO invasion. They are also “our friends”, but what about the Taliban? To me all I see in front of me are a lot of worn, tired huddled masses yearning to be free from war and to have a better future for their families. It doesn’t seem to matter much to me beyond that.DSCN1760

Then there is a limitation of incarceration facilities on Lesbos, so I suspect these “prisoners” are headed to more secure facilities on the Greek mainland. There, they will probably face more accelerated deportation procedures that try to send them back from wherever they came, or else Turkey. Then they will be Turkey’s problem, not Europe’s.

Above on the 7th deck, port side forward at midship, there are an overflow of Syrians who are allowed to walk outside on the observation decks. We befriend them, share photo shots, and I do my physical comedy schtick with the children and get them laughing. Behind the Syrians port side aft are another group of people guarded by a smaller contingent of Greek policemen.
They have darker complexions than the Syrians and their manner of dress is different. The police do not allow us to interact with them directly. I think they are Afghans or Pakistanis: those who are probably not registered. Their trips to the bathroom are monitored so they do not try and slip away to mix anonymously with the Syrians. When we reach landfall, they are probably headed to another internment camp on the mainland until their disposition is decided.

We disembark in our huge van after the ferry arrives at Kavala. We see several large prison type buses and a lot more Greek policemen waiting to receive the unregistered passengers and prisoners. We drive onward through the night, arriving on the outskirts of the huge encampment of refugees at Idomeni just before midnight.

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