I met Mannan on my last day in Athens. He was sitting with his mom and a friend at a plastic table in a nondescript room at Humanitarian Initiative Bridges, one of the organizations helping refugees. He sat with his hands in his lap, palms faced up, burn scars forcing his fingers into permanent fists. The skin around his mouth and eyes was bright pink and stretched, the left side of his head more burned than his right, but only slightly. It was rainy and cold outside, and the rest of his burns were covered by pants and a zip-up fleece to his neck.
His eyes pierced me with their pain, the skin drooping particularly around the left one. But he held my gaze, as if challenging me to turn away. When I smiled, he looked down at the table, grabbed his cup of water between his two wrists and took a drink.
Mannan is from Aleppo, Syria, and 10 years old. He traveled to Greece via Turkey with his mom and sister. Their goal was to get to Mannan’s father, who had already established himself with asylum in Germany.
On a freezing night in late October 2016, at the Oreokastro refugee camp near Thessaloniki, Greece, the family’s tent caught fire, eventually igniting the young boy’s sleeping bag. While it’s still unclear exactly what caused the fire, a cooking hot plate left on during the night for warmth against the freezing temperatures is the principal suspect.
In the aftermath of the fire, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) helped get Mannan to a hospital, where doctors were able to stabilize him; third-degree burns covered 85 percent of his body.
His mom Amina told us he didn’t receive surgery or really any pain medication. Without health insurance or money to pay for medical expenses, Mannan left the hospital, his skin still raw. The family traveled to Athens with help from the UNHCR where they’ve tried to get more medical help, only to find out it could take years to get him the help he needs through the public hospitals. The doctor Mannan and his mother had seen the previous day told her they couldn’t operate until 2019, long after the burns would leave irreparable damage.
As Amina spoke, the burden of her journey from Syria weighed heavily on her, and she carried the pain of her son in her countenance. She described her own anxiety and breakdown in the hospital, watching her son writhe in pain. The subsequent stress of trying to get help has caused her to lose sleep and her own health is deteriorating rapidly.
“He thinks he’s a monster,” she said.
• • • •
There are 62,000 refugees caught in limbo in Greece according to official estimates, although those working on the ground put the number closer to 45,000. Most of these people were destined for other European countries but were caught off guard, mid-journey, when Europe closed its borders to migrants in March 2016. Now there’s only a trickle of people leaving Greece, either legally or illegally, continuing on the journey many of them began months before.
The urgency of the situation may have somewhat dissipated to the outside world, but the desperation has not. Migrants still languish in an unknown state, unsure of their status and their options. Roughly 3,000 refugees entered the country in the first few months of 2017.
I didn’t go to Greece as a journalist, I went as a volunteer because I was no longer able to stay home only reading about the migrant crisis. Despite my best intentions, I left feeling unfulfilled, more like a tourist than I could have imagined. Instead of hiking up to tour the Acropolis or discovering other ancient ruins, I spent eight days traveling around the city visiting official refugee camps, make-shift squats and offices of organizations seeking to help this often-hidden population.
It’d be easy to visit Greece and not even know the refugee crisis was still going on, or that this economically struggling country was still caught right in the middle of it. We hired Ubers to get to more than one camp, often wandering around outlying and sometimes deserted neighborhoods, our drivers stopping to ask for directions without getting many answers in return.
At the old abandoned airport on the southern outskirts of the city, we wandered around Elliniko refugee camp looking to help at a nearby storage warehouse, sorting clothes destined for other camps. The buildings still boast signage from the 2004 Olympics, mixed with colorful graffiti. Two young girls in headscarves played in the old bus stop, sitting on a swing made of tied-up clothes. Other garments hung on the chain-linked fence, drying in the sun. Weeds grew out of the concrete, and a few boys followed us on their bikes. One in red rainboots continuously tried to run into our legs and asked in English if I would put my foot out so he could run over it.
At another community center, we spent the morning trying to disinfect the tubs full of donated toys. Only a few kids came in that day with their parents due to a metro strike. The train was the easiest way to get from the desolate airport camp to the center, which had warm showers, laundry and internet services. One little girl from Afghanistan wanted to color, but when I set out the paper in front of her she made one scribble, swatted it off the table, threw the colored pencil and hit another boy in the head on her way out of the room.
About half of the estimated refugee population in Greece is made up of Syrians who receive the majority of the help being offered by governments and foreign aid groups. But there are many other nationalities within the migrant population in Greece. A refugee squat in the middle of Athens houses people from a variety of countries including Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Ghana and Palestine, in addition to Syria and Afghanistan. A mixed-group of anarchists, refugees and supporters took over the abandoned City Plaza hotel in April 2016 and have been living there ever since. The building is around the corner from Victoria Square, one of the most important meeting places for migrants in recent years and in the heart of the neighborhood that also houses the headquarters of Golden Dawn, the country’s most notorious white supremacist organization.
“We wanted to prove that it would be possible to house refugees in the city center with privacy, safety, shelter, electricity, all the things which are part of dignity, part of what a human deserves,” Helene, a volunteer from Germany and spokesperson for the project, told me. “We wanted to show an example of how you can do it. We wanted to show our critics a practical thing to see that it could work.”
Roughly 400 people live in the seven-story building, each family with their own room, bathroom and key, a vast difference from the official refugee camps scattered throughout the country that house people in tents, stadiums, shipping containers, etc. The hotel had been closed for seven years before the group cut the chains, scrubbed the place clean and invited refugees to stay. It’s a commune of sorts, with daily shifts to cook meals, a cleaning schedule and bi-monthly House Assemblies to discuss any issues that may arise.
The project is supported by donations brought in from around the world and doesn’t get any government funds; It costs 9-12 euros a month to feed each person, a stark contrast to the 5-10 euros per day it costs the official camps, Helene said. It’s one of roughly 12 squats that have popped up around the city, most less organized than City Plaza. But still, the waiting list is more than 1,500 people long and growing everyday, as few people have the option to leave Greece. “That’s the worst job, to explain that we don’t have any rooms, that every room is occupied by a family,” Helene said.
“We don’t see ourselves in the position to solve the whole problem,” she continued. Rather, the group wants to be an example, to show the authorities that providing safe and stable housing for refugees doesn’t have to be expensive or strenuous.
We spend a few days at the hotel, helping out however we can, but mainly talking with residents and international volunteers. The cafe is full of people playing backgammon, smoking and drinking coffee. There’s a large bulletin board with shift sign-ups, class schedules for both kids and adults, and community announcements.
At a volunteer meeting one afternoon, we were interrupted by someone collecting donations for a resident family. An older refugee woman, one of the first people to inhabit a room at The Plaza, had passed away and the group was gathering donations to send her body back to a town near the Turkish border where the family could conduct a proper Muslim burial. There are no cemeteries that do Muslim burials in Athens, the volunteer collecting the money explained. I watched as people from all over the world pulled out 10, 20, 50 euro notes and dropped them in the cardboard box, like passing the offering basket across the pews at a church.
After the meeting, we spent time playing with a group of young boys running around the building. We grabbed a large sack of Lego-like blocks and the boys immediately built machine guns and grenades. They ran around playing war, pretending to shoot each other, sometimes point blank in the head. I couldn’t help wonder if they were just “boys being boys” or if they were acting out scenes they’d seen at home before their journey began. We did our best to redirect their attention to the plastic bowling set and making paper airplanes, and some soon joined us. Others grabbed their weapons and ran out of the room.
• • • •
Much of my last day was spent talking with aid workers trying to figure out how to get Mannan more help. We stood in a circle around him, occasionally looking down at the young boy, seated in a chair, his hands face up on his lap, his feet swinging because they couldn’t reach the ground. Every now and again he tapped his mom and she’d start rubbing his arms. “He itches everywhere,” she explained.
We talked about setting up a medical fund to get him help from a private doctor, the problems with Greece’s overburdened public health system, and the bureaucratic roadblocks Amina and her husband were facing as they tried to reunite. While other volunteers handed out blankets and diapers downstairs, we sat in the office talking in circles. In the end, we got the process started and a volunteer who came after us helped set up a crowdfunding account to fund the multiple surgeries Mannan still needs. Unfortunately, progress has been slow and both government and hospital bureaucracies have only made the situation worse.
I left Greece less than 24 hours after I met Mannan. I thought of him as I flashed my passport to board the plane home, disoriented by the ease of my travel experience after hearing contrasting stories of desperation all week. I recalled my conversations with Nassim, one of the main organizers at City Plaza, about the refugee solidarity struggle, his inability to watch what was happening in Athens and not respond in a tangible way regardless of potential consequences. “I think there is personal responsibility of each person to be aware of the situation, to take a position in the crisis, to make clear which side you are on,” he told me. “In a way, you have to be a part of reality and reality is this.”