My regular Friday volunteer shift at the wonderful Caritas soup kitchen was cut short today on account of Molotov cocktails and tear gas in the street outside the building. In one of the steady stream of strikes and demonstrations these days, protesters built bonfires and threw a few small incendiary devices, provoking tear gas from the police. A common enough scene in downtown Athens these days, but, unfortunately, it resulted in a few hundred hungry people not getting fed a free meal today when we had to shut down prematurely so the staff and volunteers could evacuate.
The soup kitchen has been very busy lately with the ever-increasing crowds of impoverished local folks joined by masses of migrants who, not deemed refugees, appear to be stuck in Greece. This latter group is made up mostly of North Africans–Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians. These guys (they are almost all male) have developed a pretty unsavory reputation along the migrant route, particularly since the horrible incidents in Cologne. Everyone knows that Moroccans, particularly, are a combative bunch and their reputation for getting into fights in migrant housing has spread. And their country isn’t even at war, so they aren’t even legitimate refugees–and now Greece is supposed to house and feed them all?
I had heard all these negative things about the North Africans so I was prepared for the worst in dealing with this crowd that has become the majority at the soup kitchen in recent weeks. But, as is usually the case with cultural stereotypes and prejudices, I have found most of these guys to be just like every other refugee or migrant on the trail–just trying to find a better life for themselves and their families and often fleeing very bad conditions. Some are harsh, some loud, but just as many are quiet, soft-spoken, and helpful at the soup kitchen, making a big effort to clean up after themselves and their fellow migrants.
I met these two guys–Zacharias and Mahmoud–in Victoria Square, the central gathering place for migrants in Athens. They had been at the soup kitchen earlier and waved to me with a thumbs up. I asked them how and why they came to Europe and they told me in halting French about why they left Morocco. “We came for one thing only–la liberte.” In Morocco, they told me, there is no liberte–it is rotten with corruption from the king on down to the local police.
“If the police want money from you, they just arrest you and make your family pay a lot of money to get you out of jail. I was in jail nine times,” Mahmoud explained. “My family had to pay… (here followed a long discussion between the two guys about how much it was in Euros) something like 20,000 Euros to get me out.” He showed me scars on his shoulder from police abuse.
“Morocco is a wonderful country, a beautiful country, with the best food in the world,” they told me. “You must go there! The tagine…” Here both of the guys got a faraway look in their eyes, their mouths watering thinking about the glorious Moroccan stews of lamb, chickpeas, nuts, and fruits. “It’s a wonderful country but the politicians and police are all criminals. We had no choice but to leave. We can never go back.”
Do they realize that they can’t go forward either, I asked them, that the borders have been essentially closed to people from their country? Yes, they had heard this, but they were undeterred. Mahmoud wants to go to Italy where he has family. Zacharias will go anywhere that will take him–he’s not picky. Germany, maybe, Sweden maybe?
I didn’t want to put too much of a damper on their hopes–they were still remarkably upbeat and hopeful, despite all the reasons they had not to be–so I didn’t tell them that I saw their situation as pretty hopeless. What will happen to these thousands of Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Bangladeshis, Iranians, Nigerians, Senegalese, and so many others who have joined in this current massive migrant wave but who will almost certainly not qualify for refugee status in Europe? Greece certainly doesn’t have the resources to take care of them. Who will?