Text and photos by Matthias Canapini* – Unimondo**
The first episode is set in the Greek town of Polykastro
In the morning light, Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish children wait for the OCC-rented van to pass. One of them chases a chicken to pass the time. The bird is released by the child’s father, a 27-year-old from Erbil who is a bit of a mechanic, a bit of a translator, a bit of a helper in the service of the NGO. “My name is Gaylan. Although there is no war in Erbil or Sulaymanyyah like in Syria, tensions are always high on the Turkish border. The fixed salary in Kurdistan is a mirage. Only teachers and policemen get it. I have a degree in physical education, but I have never found a job. On 25 September 2017, a vote was held on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. The referendum, called by Barzani, did not solve the region’s problems, but rather exacerbated them: internal feuds, economic difficulties, patronage resurfaced. I left as soon as I could and got stuck in Polykastro. It is impossible to leave here. If you don’t have a passport, all you can do is imitate the poor man who tried the illegal route to Skopje two weeks ago: he died alone, crushed by a train at Idomeni station”. Mohamed, 23, from Aleppo, did the same: “My journey began in 2013. Three hours in transit inside the Bab Al Salam camp (the Gate of Peace) and then on to Istanbul. In Aleppo, I used to go up to the citadel every day, an ancient fortress on an artificial hill about fifty metres high. I lived an hour away and was delighted to see so many Europeans visiting. We took pictures, we talked, we had fun with little. My family stayed in Istanbul, but life for Syrians in Turkey is not easy. We are discriminated against, some can’t find rent, others are exploited and don’t get paid, because if you are undocumented, it’s as if you don’t exist. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t go back, there’s nothing left in Aleppo”. I ask for explanations about the route taken, the money spent and the organisation, in order to compare points of view and experiences. “How do you bring together so many ethnicities, traditions and religions?” – Mohamed wonders, referring to the camp at Moria on the island of Lesbos – 7,000 people in a cage. “The situation could easily explode. There were more than sixty of us on board the dinghy, the crossing went well, the sea was calm and I spent only a thousand euros (including the life jacket). On arrival, an Iranian man stabbed the dinghy with a knife and said that the Frontex people would send us back.” Three Hazara brothers join the conversation, very friendly and discreet. The first is an architect, the second a pharmacist and the third a student. “We Hazaras are an ethnic group living mainly in a mountainous region of central Afghanistan known as the Hazarajat. Centuries ago we were the largest ethnic group in the country, but due to constant persecution we now make up about 9% of the Afghan population. We fled because Ammar, the middle one, was working with the American army. In addition to his role as an interpreter, he led the armoured escort of the US military: he was an easy target, seen as a traitor. «You must get rid of all your rucksacks and bags, because they are too heavy to carry on the dinghy», the smuggler ordered us in Izmir. When we reached the mainland, we all started attacking the dinghy with pocket knives. On the island, we split into groups to avoid attracting too much attention. The three of us stayed together all the time,” says Huseyin, the eldest, “and because we felt very cold, we sat on a pile of stones. We made a fire with dry bushes and stood around the flames for two hours to warm ourselves. When we were warm, we looked for the refugee camp, only to be met with a nasty surprise: the only way to eat was to give money to the soldiers in the camp and they would bring us pork sandwiches. We were so hungry that we could not refuse, even though we were Muslims.
Polykastro is shrouded in mist. Abdullah, a slightly stooped 20-year-old, is drenched in sweat. His face bears a striking resemblance to a giraffe’s snout, and his mouth wavers between a smile and an evil grin. “I never went to school. Where I come from, in Kuwait, if you don’t have papers you are nobody, you have no right to education or medical care. I don’t know if it’s different in Europe. I come from a very small rural village between Sabah Al Ahmad and the waters of the Persian Gulf. I have never seen the famous modern architecture of Kuwait City, from the skyscrapers to the dizzying towers, not even in pictures. A bit like my father, who emigrated to the UK eight years ago. I haven’t seen him since. The rest of us emigrated to Iraq and Jordan. In Greece they split us up without logic: my brother and I, who are of age, have to wait here for documents. My mother and sister are in England. They didn’t give us too many explanations… But for me, time is very important. I want to study in life, I want to know languages, I don’t want to waste any more time”. He walks away, shy and bent, books under his arm, piercing the fog. “Daesh took Mosul and cut off heads, but the reason I am here, paradoxically, is the Peshmerga, the armed forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan,” says Saladin, namesake of the famous leader who died in Damascus. “We had a rich family, I studied law. My father was a colonel in the army, and a year ago, during the Daesh offensive, the government gave the order to recruit anyone capable of fighting and defending the national borders to the death. The authorities are so consistent in this that the term peshmerga literally means ‘a guerrilla fighter who wants to fight to the death’. But I had no idea how to use a gun, and my father knew it. For two days he refused to take me with him, and on the third day he did not even show up at the front. He was told that because of the dishonour he had shown in battle, he would have to leave or risk being court-martialled. That’s all. That’s why I look more mature than my 21 years, because of everything I carry inside me.” There is no respite. A funny, atypical, not at all obvious couple caught my attention. Anas, 18, and Amndush, 54, have no parental ties, but for days they have been talking lovingly to each other, as if they were father and son, or uncle and nephew. Just eleven months ago, a mortar crashed into the kitchen where Anas and his family were eating. In the days when the international media focused on Idlib, battered by bombs and poison gas, the boy’s chest, part of his neck and left arm were on fire. But as the infected, blackened, swollen and boiling skin slowly healed, leaving furrows and lacerations over 30% of his body, people bickered: Bombs on hospitals. Among the victims, at least 20 children and 17 women; Erdogan calls Putin: “Inhuman and unacceptable attack, risks thwarting all negotiations. Trump: Obama administration’s fault; Syria: endless war. I am not sad, nor do I bear a grudge. I was saved, no one was hurt too badly, that is the most important thing. There was no electricity and the hospital was inaccessible, so I was treated at home with gauze and disinfectant oil. My mother had to challenge the snipers several times to change my mouldy bandages.” Amndush looks twenty years older because of degenerative arthritis and a fragile heart. He had a heart attack during English class last Tuesday, and his classmates say that in an excess of nostalgia, he told everyone how strong and healthy he was when he was young. In freestyle and breaststroke, Amndush was unrivalled in Kurdistan in the 1980s. Now he stubbornly refuses to miss any of the many English classes sponsored by the OCC, despite his limp body and depressed spirit.
Mohamed and his roommate Salam invited me to dinner. We wait for darkness, and camouflaged I follow them into the camp, built on the runways of a disused airport. A few sleepy guards see only shadows slipping in and out of the metal gate: only the residents notice me. The young Syrians’ house, a naked container resting on four pallets, is branded with the image of C15. The interior, painted in irregular blue, yellow and green stripes, reeks of cannabis, rotten mills and raw earth. Mohamed passes out on the unmade bed, just below the Bob Marley poster and a shelf of exoteric objects. “I want to go to Germany, or even better to Spain. I have a brother in Munich, but many friends are waiting for me in Barcelona. I left Aleppo in 2012. It was better not to have seen the total destruction of my homeland, all those dead… I lived in Istanbul for five years, working as a tailor. It’s not an easy life, they don’t pay much, you can be blackmailed and I can’t work all the time! I want to travel and Chios was the way out. Five hundred euros for the Syrians, a thousand for the Iraqis,” says Salam, slicing three aubergines for babaganoush, a typical Middle Eastern starter. Mohamed hums, wrapped in a sheet, his feet bare and dirty. Geopolitical magazines are scattered on the floor, dusty piles of laundry. Everything is as it should be, horribly identical to a cross-section of the local university. Like a Sunday morning in Bologna, I would say, taking into account the abysmal disparity: the longing for the right to freedom, the privilege of fun. “Is it easy to move between the different camps of the Greek government?” I ask thoughtfully. “No! I used to live in the Red Cross camp in Thessaloniki, but after a while they take away your living space to make room for others. As a permanent volunteer, the authorities decided to send me to Nea Kavala. We sleep until midday to waste time. It is the only thing that can be saved, superior to anger and boredom, the useless time we fill our pockets with. Some people sweep, eat, drink coffee with their heads down, park their bikes. Youssef is struggling with a tyre punctured in several places. With one hand he holds the rim, with the other the remains of a joint Mohamed had offered him. “I lived in the Eleonas camp, an hour and a half from the nearest town. The one-way bus ticket cost 1.20 euros; if I wasn’t careful, I’d blow my meagre monthly allowance just to get to the centre. I’ve lived in Athens too: it’s a Babylon of rape, prostitution and racism. Promiscuity is total. I left the refugee camp bare-chested and the guards winked at me.”
* Matthias Canapini was born in Fano, central Italy, in 1992. He travels at a slow pace to tell stories with his notebook and camera. He has published five books since 2015 and is currently a news editor and reporter for the news outlet Unimondo.
** Unimondo, founded on 10 December 1998 under the auspices of the Fontana Onlus Foundation, is an online news outlet dedicated to providing authoritative content on peace, sustainable human development, human rights and environmental issues. It offers diverse and timely information, amplifying the voices of different facets of Italian and global civil society. As the Italian hub of the OneWorld network, founded in London in 1995, it is part of a global network with 11 centres worldwide and 1,600 partner associations.