Ed note. This is a guest post by Shaliz Navab a student at the University of Edinburgh. She was a manager of the Refugee Speaker Programme for the Scottish Refugee Council in Glasgow and on a temporary basis works with diaspora youth communities through Iranian Alliances Across Borders.
(Vagiachori Camp, Greece) — “You need to come here! You need to come here!” a young Afghani man yelled in Dari. His voice expressed deep urgency and I dropped what I was doing to follow him to the back row of tents. “My sister is in pain,” he said, pointing at a young woman on the ground – she was seven months pregnant.
“You need to help me,” she grunted, her eyes rolling in pain, “you need to call an ambulance.” I frantically looked around myself, attempting to shake off the responsibility as it dawned on me that beside the policemen and military officers lurking in the corner, playing cards and smoking cigarettes, I – a temporary student volunteer – was the only person in this camp with any agency to assist the situation.
I dialed the Greek emergency number, but the hospital staff disconnected my call when I couldn’t explain the location of the camp. Reluctantly, I approached one of the police officers, the same man that had not allowed us to distribute food throughout the camp without his protection today because according to him this space was dangerous, especially for women. Upon my request to call an ambulance, he asked me to show him the patient. I pointed in the direction of the pregnant woman’s tent, and he uttered within seconds, “I know her. She is lying.” I chose not to hear this and instead asked him to please follow me and come see for himself. He walked over the bulky gray rocks – the same ones that constituted the floors of the refugees’ tents – and peered into the tent. The pregnant woman was now surrounded by other women. They were lifting her legs, wiping her forehead, and whispering encouraging thoughts into her ears. Looking down on her he frowned, shook his head and said, “She is pretending.”
He explained to me his conclusions: “Last night, I caught her trying to cross the border with her family, I told her not to leave my camp. I told her that she is pregnant and that my camp is the best one she will ever find. I told her she is stupid if she leaves. But she left anyway. Now she is in pain, and it is her own fault.”
I peered at him in disbelief. Partially, because I could not believe that any living being could describe a camp in which there was nothing but tents, waiting, and distributions of what could loosely be described as food only once every twenty-four hours as the ‘best’ camp, and partially because of the absurdity that someone could put the life of a seven-month old baby at risk because of a grudge. Further along my experience in Greek military camps I was soon to learn that such cruelty was not absurd, it was standard. I stood behind her with my hands on her shoulders, as he continuously yelled: “This is your fault! You are stupid! Why didn’t you listen to me? You are stupid!” Each time gesturing his index finger towards his forehead – as if this university-educated young woman, fluent in four languages including English, did not understand what he was trying to say.
Amongst her groans of pain and with a shortness of breath, and the tears that were now flowing, she explained to me that it was true.
Last night she had attempted the journey that so many refugees embark upon every day in hope of a more humane reception in Northern European countries. Like others who had run out of money, the best option was to walk across the Macedonian border, stay hidden in the forests during the day and go without food and water so as not to risk being caught by Macedonian civilians who were known to call the police, and on not so rare occasions beat or even kill the refugees. Once this first stage is completed, the dangerous route continues through Serbia, Hungary, Austria then Germany. This woman’s husband had already made it to the Netherlands months before the borders had closed. She on the other hand, months later, was caught at the Macedonian border and tear-gassed despite her constant pleas for mercy on grounds of the child inside of her.
Now, she is stuck in a military camp in northern Greece, writhing in pain.
The policeman was finally convinced to call an ambulance, after I patiently explained to him that although I understand that he may dislike this woman, the baby inside of her had done nothing wrong. I can still feel the discomfort creeping through my skin as I heard the words coming out of my mouth, rationalizing and bartering with a human so closed-minded and insensitive about something so fundamental and urgent.
It took one hour for the ambulance to arrive. During which time the woman cried, the policeman drank tea with a refugee family in the camp that he had become friends with, and I paced up and down nervously and uselessly, peering through the mental fence that surrounded the camp on to the almost always empty country-road. Finally, the ambulance drove the women off to a hospital, with her ten year old son, daughter and brother following behind in a taxi.
This is just one story I witnessed as a volunteer for Northern Lights, a Norwegian NGO. On that day I was there to do food distribution, distributing “ramadan packs” which were meant as a gift for the refugees, but for this particular camp because there was such a lack of food it ended up being something they were dependent on.
The scene I witnessed no doubt plays itself out in one way or another every night in Greece, where there are now approximately 53,000 refugees trapped. Between the slow death of Greek military camps, and war and destruction back home, these tens of thousands of people are stuck in the very literal sense of the word.