Piraeus Port in Athens, Greece is one of the biggest cargo and transportation hubs in Europe and has been since ancient times. Every day, hundreds of cargo ships and ferries come and go, either dropping off or picking up shipping containers and transporting tourists to and from Santorini.
No one would ever know that tucked away behind a few older abandoned buildings at the port, lies large refugee camp with more than 1,000 people, mostly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They live in camping tents right on the tarmac underneath a highway bridge, the only protection from the overwhelming combination of summer heat and humidity. Rats are a constant nuisance. The dozen outhouses are dirty, and unless you have your own toilet paper, good luck.
It isn't totally unlivable -- There are portable showers, though access is extremely limited. There is running water from portable outdoor faucets. Nonprofits bring food every day. There are enough volunteers wandering around to keep the mood light and friendly, despite the growing sense of hopelessness of refugees who have been living here for months and have no idea where to go.
Mahmoud ask that I don't show his face, since his family is still in Iraq.
It was at this place that I met Mahmoud, a handsome, intelligent 22 year old from Anbar province in Iraq. We at LHI had pulled up with a carful of items requested by the volunteers who run the camp, such as shampoo, soap, and toilet paper. Mahmoud was nearby and saw that we needed some help. He immediately came and helped us unload, even though it was hot and he was fasting for Ramadan. He even stayed to help us distribute the items, catching sneaky children trying to get two rolls of toilet paper instead of one, and making sure the lines were calm and organized. Afterwards, he refused any sort of payment for his vital assistance, adamantly repeating that it was simply his duty to help. I was able to catch up with him afterwards and get a bit of his story:
Mahmoud fled Iraq after his 26 year-old cousin was executed for refusing to join ISIS. His family only had enough money to send him. Mahmoud did not want to leave, but his family insisted. Like so many others, he fled to Turkey, where life was so difficult that he decided to take the dangerous journey to Lesvos, Greece, on an overcrowded inflatable boat. He hasn't seen his family for 2 years. He rarely hears from them, as both parties have limited access to the Internet.
Mahmoud at the port. He says he was trying to do something silly so he could forget his despair.
Why is he living in a camp and not working, some might ask. The very simply answer is that refugees aren't allowed to work in Greece unless they are granted asylum there, which is a lengthy and undesirable choice for most. And because the border is indefinitely closed, he has no choice but to sit and wait in the camp. He doesn't have any money, and tries to find ways to entertain himself, like jumping into the sea at the port to cool off, despite the visible water pollution.
Like the 56,000 other refugees currently stranded in Greece, he is awaiting resettlement. His dream is to go to Norway and become a lawyer and eventually return to Iraq. He speaks decent English. He told me he is aware that there is a fear of his demographic -- young, single men -- becoming radicalized. For him, though, he says he only thinks of a happy, peaceful future for him and his family, and that he thinks it's crazy that anyone would ever want to join ISIS. (In fact, I've never met one refugee who doesn't absolutely hate ISIS. People almost avoid saying the name because they detest them so much).
When Mahmoud does have Internet access, he sends me friendly updates on Facebook, updates on what is going on in Iraq, his status in Greece, his family, and his dreams. He constantly talks about his family back home. I hope that he will be reunited with them soon.
est of luck to you, my friend!