It is a game of papers in Athens, those who have and those who have not. On the day I was arrested, I was unfortunately the latter.
Of all the sunlit and paradisiacal days in Greece’s capital, Friday was not counted as such. I had gone in the rain and the gloom of 6:00 a.m. to the city’s police compound with three friends of mine, a fellow American and two of our refugee friends, to photograph the chaos of a broken system. Three days each week, hundreds upon hundreds of asylum seekers crowd the littered streets in front of the fenced and gated compound, identification papers in hand, waiting. They all wait for the same moment when, in the half-light of dawn, a guard steps from his hut within the walls and walks across the concrete lot to where they mill about, vying for proximity to the fence. Refugees from Afghanistan huddle shoulder to shoulder smoking, together with those from Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, the Congo, and countless other nations ravaged by war and injustice. These are their homes, and yet they must flee or, in many cases, risk their lives. They stand, clutching expired entry papers and a few with passports, hoping that on this morning their case will be heard and they will receive a coveted red card, granting them 6 months of permission to stay in Greece. And when that moment comes, when the officer exits his post, the chaos ensues. Because each of these mornings when papers are received and processed, only a handful of the throng will get what they came for. The other few hundred will be told what they are told over and over: go away. Come back in one week, one month, one year and maybe then you will be granted what you so desperately need. I stood and waited and listened to an Iranian man next to me, a man who had been in Greece for the last eight years without getting his papers, describe the madness of some mornings when hundreds of immigrants fought and pushed and punched their way to the fence, some forced to their hands and knees to crawl out of the masses, never having reached the front. Or others who spent days in line, sleeping in the cold streets just to get nearer to the fence, only to be overlooked by the morning guard and turned away as hopeless as they were when they first arrived.
And as I stood watching the people mill about, the moment arrived. In an instant, the waiting throng turned into a compact mass, clutching folded and folded again papers, trying to push theirs through the fence and into the hands of the policeman who collected them on the other side. As each document was gathered, they one by one detached themselves from the drove and wandered on with their day, told to come back at noon when they had been processed and would be given an answer to their pleas.
It is hard to be hopeful in such a place of repeated rejection.
I wandered about with my friends, two who had come to enter their names in the weekly plea for identity, snapping pictures as I waited. And as we walked away up the street after the clamor had subsided, camera slung around my shoulder, I saw one of the armed guards peel off of the main group and come hurriedly after us, shouting in Greek. He had a gun, so we stopped. And then he asked for our papers.
When we arrived in Greece, my American friend and I had taken the precaution of hiding our passports in a locked suitcase, well aware of how susceptible to pickpockets we were on the Metro. So when the hulking Greek guard with the rifle asked us to prove who we were, we could do nothing more than tell him in English that we were tourists and that we were leaving, having nothing to do with the proceedings a few minutes earlier. But no amount of explaining seemed to allay him, and we soon found ourselves and our two refugee friends being hauled beyond the fence, into the looming prison behind it. From the front guard we were passed through the gate to a second guard, who escorted us into the building through metal detectors, up a staircase and right down a maze of dimly lit hallways, into a bench-filled room with a few buzzing fluorescent lights to see by. Behind the desk sat a balding officer, piles of paper in his hand. One by one we were taken into the next room, patted down, and returned to sit on the hard slatted benches as the guards shouted in Greek to each other. Questions were asked, papers were demanded, reasons for our being outside the gates that morning were insisted upon.
And then it was silent. After a bit, the man signing papers looked up. Unless we could produce proof, unless we could procure our passports he informed us, we were no one. In broken English he told us that, being from Chicago, we could claim to be Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen. And he would believe us. But if we could not bring him papers to prove our existence, we would be detained indefinitely. It was a catch-22 and we were stuck in it. The room began to fill with others, Pakistanis and Iranians and Afghans all awaiting deportation. In broken Farsi I tried to make conversation with those around me. After two hours, one of our refugee friends was finally released and we slipped him the key to our apartment, hoping that he would be able to find our passports and return to the prison before the day’s processing was over and we were consigned to a cell for the night.
Thus began the wait.
— — —
According to the world, Amir is an immigrant, a refugee, forgotten and voiceless. He is an invisible man. He is one of thousands, hundreds of thousands, displaced and uprooted, expelled from whatever home they’ve known. He is a statistic, and a poorly recorded one at that.
According to Greece, Amir does not exist.
Amir remembers the day when the running began. Born and raised in the city of Ghazni, Afghanistan, he was still a young boy when the Taliban came to power. In an attempt to preemptively assure complete and total control of the area, it was made illegal to possess any sort of gun, a law that was strictly and unforgivingly enforced. But not always with the utmost obedience. Because in such a land, to give away one’s last vestige of protection was to accept and admit defeat, complete subjugation to those that had demanded it. This the Taliban knew. But they would not be deterred from their quest for total control, and so they clenched their fist on Ghazni without scruples and without mercy.
Amir remembers walking about town one day when some men stopped him, offering candy and cookies. And with their treats they spoke sweetly to this young Afghan boy, asking him questions about his home and his family, questions that were rewarded with gifts. And did he know if his father owned a gun? It was not a problem if he did, it was okay and he could tell the truth. Amir was 8 years old when he said yes.
He remembers approaching home later that day to find Taliban men outside with his father, handcuffed and under interrogation. As he stood watching, the men ransacked his house, searching for the weapon that his father insisted did not exist but Amir in his innocence had revealed. When they found it, Amir’s father and mother and younger sister where brought out of the house. They were reminded that it was illegal to posses a weapon under the reign of the Taliban, that they were liars, and that to lie was deserving of death. And then they were executed.
He remembers the men walking passed him, away from the life they had just stripped him of. How one handed him a cookie and patted his head, saying that he had been a good boy for telling the truth. The neighbors helped him bury the bodies of his family and gave him a place to live as long as he worked in their fields, but they could do no more than that. He was eight when the running began. And it was at age eight that he lost proof of being eight years old. Paperless and without a family or home, Amir remained working for his neighbors for a few months, as it was at least a roof to sleep under, but it was not an income. Just before he turned nine, Amir traveled to Kabul, getting a job at a confectionary in the capital city and saving everything he could. Two years he saved, until he had enough to pay for a smuggler who would take him to Iran, the place where thousands of displaced Afghans before him and thousands after him ran. For nine years Amir lived in Iran, but it was not a sanctuary. Because Amir had no papers. No papers to prove that he had entered Iran rightfully. No papers to prove that he could work in Iran. No papers to prove that he had fled from Afghanistan. Not even papers to prove that his name was Amir or that he had been born. All that he had was a face that looked distinctly Afghan, and that did not help him. For nine years he worked odd jobs in Tehran, as a rug cleaner or sewing bags to hold salt, and for nine years he was robbed by taxi drivers, shop owners, people who passed him on his way home from work, everywhere threatened to be taken straight to the police for deportation if he did not pay. Life was getting more difficult each day Amir lived in Iran.
So it was that in August of 2011 Amir fled Iran, crossing the whole of Turkey before entering Greece. At the border, he was given a document acknowledging his arrival and his desire to seek asylum, a document that gave him one month to apply for and receive a red card. That was ten months ago. For ten months, Amir has joined the clamoring throngs outside the Athens police compound week after week, sometimes arriving days beforehand and sleeping outside the fence, hoping that one day he will be among the few close enough to be chosen. During the days he collects glass bottles and metal parts, recycling them for money in order to one day save enough to continue his journey on into Europe. And night after night he sleeps in Alexander Park amongst the hundreds of other refugees who have fled to Athens in search of the same thing: papers.
But he is not without hope. Amir also spends his days learning English, and practicing it with other English-speaking refugees, or those he meets around the city whose first language it is. At the Athens Refugee Center, Amir has met many workers to talk to and practice with, and moreover has found a second subject to devote his time to: studying the Bible. As with many of the Iranian and Afghan refugees, Islam was the law under which they were raised, and to question its truth was illegal. To even have a Bible in Iran was a crime punishable by death. And so it is that, in the midst of frustration and a seemingly crumbling system, Amir has begun to find Christ. In broken English he explains that he has seen Christ in the people around him, and he knows that they have clean hearts, that they read the scriptures and try to live out what it says therein. There is no deceit, and no lying, things that have been a daily part of his life since he can remember, things Amir says are all of what Islam represents to him. The Christians around him do not seem to care where he comes from, or if he has the papers to prove it.
And his is a life marked by the importance of both.
— — —
Four hours after I was detained and taken into the prison, my friend returned, handing me my passport. As I got up to show the guard my picture he looked at me and said, “I know, I don’t need to see it. I already have. I’ve even seen your Facebook,” he laughed. “You can go now. Do you remember your way out?”
And then it hit me: the whole time I had been sitting in that prison room, the guard wasn’t concerned that I was who I had said I was. He had seen pictures of me, had read about my height and weight and eye color, had even seen copies of my passport. He knew that. I just had to prove it. No one even bothered to escort us out of the building until I told him I couldn’t remember where the exit was; moments earlier I couldn’t even use the toilet without a guard following me into the bathroom and waiting for me to finish. And now here I was, walking out into the daylight, back across the concrete lot, and out of the front gate without a single guard taking notice of me. All because I had the proper papers.
I learned that day the power of a passport, the power of having papers that prove you are who you are. I remember being so frustrated hours earlier, as I talked to the guard about Chicago and about my home and about so many other things that were my life, hoping to convince him of it. Which is a funny thing to think about, convincing someone of your life.
Pray for Amir. Pray that he can get his desperately needed papers. Pray for him as he continues to study the Bible. Pray that he can find an identity, both in Athens and in a relationship with Christ.
*The names in this story have been changed to protect the individual from the possible dangers of persecution