It is a strange fact that, outside of ourselves, the world is completely made up of other people.
Basic, yes? There is no other me, no other you, wandering about with 100% likeness of body and mind, acting out in exact fashion our lives as we in turn live them. Rather, there is this vast abstraction, this blob that, unable to wrap our minds around, we simply call Other People. Yes, we have names for them; in tidy packages we lump the Europeans together, the Asians or the Africans. And then there are national titles, like the Mexicans or Colombians, or even regional generalizations as in “she’s from the South” or “he must be from the West Coast.” No matter how intimately these Other People come to being involved in our lives, they still simply remain our School Friends, our Neighbors, our Co-Workers, or whichever category we choose to cluster them into.
Do we not too often strip people of their uniqueness though, categorizing them in this manner? Is it not quite impossible to avoid this? At the end of it all, is it not hard enough to “know thyself,” and even this with minimal success, let alone acknowledge those others for who they are, giving them the dignity of a name and a story? An individual name and an individual story, moreover?
Perhaps we can begin when we call them, quite simply, Human. That is what Seyid believes.
The world does not know what to do with this Afghan refugee and his family. They live on the northeastern side of Athens, in the shadow of the massive Panathanaikos stadium and only a short distance from the Ambelokipi Metro stop, where stands a one-block by one-block district that is forgotten by the Greek government. Not forgotten in the sense that it is hidden, or that the seven or eight crumbling, three-story high apartment complexes that have claimed squatter’s rights to the land go unnoticed by the authorities. They stand baking in the broad Athenian daylight, their doorways vacant cavities and windows boarded with scraps of sheet metal and plywood. They are not invisible. No, they are simply permitted to exist without permission. No rent is paid, no taxes collected, no utilities charged. These are merely another stand of buildings abandoned in a city reeling from economic collapse, counted among the hundreds of others as no longer in use.
Or rather, they were abandoned. Now, over a thousand refugees call these buildings home, family upon family crowded into what once was simply a three-room apartment. From all over they have come, seeking asylum and looking for shelter. Outside, dusty lots intended long ago for parking now collect new stones, chunks from the time-ravaged facades serving to fall in and fill the displaced gravel, leaving gaps in the wall’s graffiti. A few gnarled trees grow alongside the walkways, heaving up further the already uneven land. Each building has several points of entry, and in each winding stairwell of padlocked doors hangs a solitary light bulb dangling loosely from the ceiling, attached by tangles of electrical cords and wires.
Seyid lives on the third floor of the second building, close above the bustling city street with the other complexes stacked in rows behind it, rising up the hill like so many stone dominoes. There is a barred and chained door guarding the actual front door of his apartment, a unit that he along with his wife and daughter share with two other families. It is a place to live in, yes. But it is not where Seyid is at home.
Some years ago, Seyid had a home in Afghanistan. And he had a job, first as a journalist and then as a translator for the U.S. Army, patrolling the war-torn areas of the country he had grown up in. As a young man though, Seyid had made a decision that slowly drove a wedge between him and his country, eventually forcing him to flee. That decision was to become a Christian in a Muslim land. In a frustrated voice, Seyid recounts the life of a Muslim in Afghanistan.
“Islam is rules. The problem is that in Islam, you are not allowed to read any other book. It is like punishment.”
Seyid, like many other refugees in Athens, have not merely fled their homes away from political oppression and war, but also towards a new hope: religious freedom. For Seyid, the questions began when he met a Christian missionary in his hometown. A friendship developed, and so too did a space to ask questions.
“When I started talking with the missionary and he started talking with me about God, it forced me to start thinking about Islam deeply. About the meaning of Islam and Muhammad and his aim.”
And as he began to dismantle and probe the beliefs that for so long had been his life, beliefs that were ingrained into the bedrock of his culture, he began to discover a truth vastly different than the one that had thus far served only as his punishment. “For me it was like finding something new. Something like treasure.”
But it was a treasure that made Afghanistan a dangerous place to live. And so, forsaking the home and the life that he knew, Seyid and his family fled the well-beaten path northwards, to Europe. To what he expected to be a new home and a new life in a land of acceptance. What he found was far from those expectations.
“When we first came to Greece, the treatment was terrible. At least I expected them to treat me as normal.”
In a land far from familiar, Seyid expected many hardships and adjustments; he knew the difficulties of being a foreigner and he knew the work that lay ahead. But he was not ready to be invisible.
“I remember the first Greeks I saw after coming out of the police station. They were university students and I went to them for directions to the metro station. They moved to the other side of the street when they saw me. And I went to them again and said excuse me, and they just moved on. I couldn’t believe it.”
It has been many months in Athens since that first encounter, most filled with similar tales. Months of being overlooked, and being forgotten. Months spent living in buildings that are invisible, amongst people who are without documents. They are labeled many things, lumped together in the minds of most as a growing problem, nameless and faceless, this vast number of Other People that the world cannot wrap its mind around. And with that label they begin to be stripped of who they truly are.
With a sad smile Seyid spreads his arm out, in one sweeping motion taking in the small room that is his apartment.
“This, it is no place to live, you know? Yes, we are immigrants. Yes, we are refugees. But, we are still humans.”
Seyid is many things. He is an Afghan, an immigrant in a foreign land and a refugee. He is also a father, a husband, a friend. He is a journalist, a writer, a man who knows the importance of a story. He is a translator, fluent in multiple languages. He is a man who is constantly smiling, soft-spoken and kind. He is a Christian, and a son of God. He is an individual with a beautiful story and a beautiful life. When the world sees Seyid as such, then change can begin.
Seyid is, in his words, Human.
*Names in this post have been changed to protect the individual and his family from the dangers of persecution
(*See “Portraits: Seyid” for a face to put with a story, and other images of the housing developments that so many refugees find themselves calling home)