There is a small, dusty patch of ground near the center of Alexander Park, in Athens, Greece, tucked away behind a cluster of bushes and a sitting bench that should have been replaced years ago. That is how you and I would see the place: lackluster and nondescript. A triviality not worth a second glance. But for one whole year, Ramim* called it home.
It is a tragic reality that hundreds of thousands of refugees in the city of Athens have at some point lived this kind of pallid life. Yet the realities behind the statistics ultimately mean little to us as they fade into the fog beyond our own experience. How do you truly understand life through the eyes of someone who sleeps on the ground of a public park? What does it look like to walk a mile in the shoes of those who have none? What do you say to the gaunt Afghan man picking up cigarette butts off the sidewalk as tourists brush past with their coffees and souvenirs?
I could tell you the numbers, but to what end? Guilt? That only fades into the mire of hopeless apathy. No, I want us to try with hopeful spirits and prayerful hearts, to understand real stories. And so does my friend Ramim.
I noticed something about Ramim the very first time I met him: a small gap nestled between his two front teeth. It’s the kind of ordinary detail you would only remember of someone who wears a constant smile as if it might be a favorite shirt. That’s the kind of smile Ramim wears most of the time, and it would make you believe that Greece had been a wonderful home for him these past two years. But it hasn’t. In fact, Greece has been anything but the land of opportunity that Ramim expected to find when he left Kabul.
As we walked along the streets of Omonia one day, Ramim told me a bit of his story. He had studied journalism at a university in Tehran several years earlier and then moved to Kabul to work for a radio station. It was a good job and Ramim’s eyes lit up behind his glasses as he talked about it. Unfortunately that radio station was associated with the government in Afghanistan, and his employment there bred resentment among some of his extended family that hated the government in Kabul. “My uncle, he threatened me and said, ‘I will kill you,’” Ramim told me as we headed toward Alexander Park. “That was when I decided to leave.”
We reached the park around noon and headed inside. On a sun-soaked day, Alexander Park seems to have a peaceful and inviting quality about it, as children romp in the grass and old gentlemen play backgammon on wooden tables at the edge of the walkway. But Ramim and so many other refugees know better. As the sun slips behind the horizon at the end of each day, it becomes a far more sinister place, playing host to an array of gangs, thieves, rapists, and drug addicts. A friend of Ramim’s told us that he and his friends used to sleep with their arms interlocked, clutching their few possessions to their chests. That way, if one were attacked, the others would know. I thought back to that morning when I had complained about my poor night’s sleep due to a hard mattress. For these people, a poor night’s sleep means being attacked and robbed at knifepoint.
On the far side of the park we found a large concrete area filled with refugees playing cricket, volleyball, and soccer. The afternoon recreation there is always ad-hoc and spontaneous as so many refugees search for something to fill their meandering and directionless days. Some attempt to make money by stealing shopping carts and roaming the city, rummaging through dumpsters for recyclable waste that can be exchanged for cash. Others turn to more desperate measures, like prostitution. Ramim explained that he currently lives in a three-room flat with roughly 25 men, some of whom wander the park at night, looking for males that are willing to pay for sexual favors. I sat wide-eyed as Ramim talked, slowly beginning to understand what a sordid and forgotten life so many have found in this city.
It was only a week later that I saw Ramim, wearing a cast on his right wrist along with that smile he wears so well. But when I asked him what had happened, the smile faded as he told me how two fascists had attacked him the previous night for no reason and thrown him to the ground. He pointed to the back of his right leg and recounted how they had stabbed him there with a small knife and then taken his cell phone before running away into the night. I stood there bewildered as he explained how attacks like this have become a familiar tale. Apparently one month ago, an Afghan man had killed a policeman in Athens, enflaming tensions between immigrants and the local fascists and neo-Nazis. But that Afghan was not Ramim. He had done nothing. And yet nearly every day, another immigrant here joins the sad ranks of those with a similar story to tell.
I felt the pang of anger mixed with helplessness rush over me as Ramim spoke and showed his scars. But Ramim was not bitter. He was not angry. “I’ve already forgiven the people that attacked me,” he said, despite the fact that those individuals had no intention of seeking his forgiveness. “God protected me.”
Ramim’s story is just one in a sea of similar overlooked tragedies here in Athens. The more time you spend in Alexander Park or the back roads of Omonia, the more you feel the weight of hopelessness that hangs in the air. With documentation so hard to come by and employment virtually nil, it is difficult for refugees to escape these streets once they are here. And eventually you might begin to wonder what kind of cruel god would bring people to this place to write such stories of tribulation on the pages of history. But Ramim helped me to see this place in a different light.
Despite how Ramim has suffered here in Athens, he would never go back. Back to a life of spiritual oppression where the truth is suffocated by the muzzle of strict religious conformity. Ramim has not found comfort here, nor the pleasures of a carefree life. But he has found joy, and I remember that each time I see his smile. Perhaps it is not a cruel God that pushes people into suffering, but a loving God that brings people from closed, Islamic countries to a place where truth can be openly proclaimed. Perhaps God uses the colors of sadness and the lines of struggle here to paint a masterpiece that you and I can only see but a fraction of right now. Perhaps he does the same in our lives too.
This is just a piece of Ramim’s story. And his, like so many others, is the day to day reality that lies behind the statistics. Now that I have seen life through those eyes, I can’t look away.
I hope you will join me in praying. Praying that Ramim would grow in the Lord and cling to Him in all the trials he may face. And perhaps, that that the Lord would use Ramim and his story as a powerful witness to help raise up a generation of Afghans and Iranians in Athens who know and love Jesus Christ.
*For security reasons, we have changed this individual’s name. This is the same refugee friend we have written about before, the one who spent time in prison last week and, by the grace of God, was released four days later. However, we are attempting to limit the use of his real name as a precautionary measure.
(For images of Alexander Park and other scenes from the streets of Athens, see “Portraits: A Day in the Life”)