Domestic Life: At Home with Refugees in Athens

In Athens, I was invited to dine with two refugees who I will call Farhan and Abdullah. I met Farhan and Abdullah while I was volunteering on the Greek island of Leros in June 2017. The two men were then living on Leros island’s “hotspot”, a detention center for irregular migrants arriving by sea. Hotspots were created during the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015 and can be found dotting the coastlines of Greece and Italy.

Abdullah left the Leros hotspot for mainland Greece in July 2017. He boarded a ferry to Athens when his asylum application was approved and his travel restrictions lifted. Farhan followed Abdullah to Athens in the fall. I reconnected with Farhan and Abdullah in the winter to see how they were faring in their new homes.

Farhan and Abdullah’s stories can be compared side-by-side. While both men are 23 years old, Farhan is an Afghan refugee from Herat and Abdullah is a Syrian refugee from Aleppo. Farhan migrated with his sister’s family and Abdullah migrated alone. When it comes to accommodations, Farhan lives in an NGO-provided apartment in central Athens and Abdullah lives in a refugee camp in the port.

Through Farhan and Abdullah, I came to see how refugee communities of different nationalities took root in Greece. While Syrians submit the most asylum applications in Greece, Afghans constitute the third largest group of asylum-seekers (with Pakistanis in second place). I learned of the animosities between Afghans and Syrians through Farhan and then through Jamil, a Palestinian-Syrian friend of Abdullah’s whose story is recounted in the next chapter.

This chapter, “Domestic Life”, reveals the daily life of Farhan and Abdullah in Athens and the tensions that color their experience as refugees. Along the way, we meet Farhan’s sister, who I will name Fareeda. It is through Fareeda’s eyes that we see the underreported domestic sphere of refugee women.

Above: Abdullah looks for directions on his phone in the neighborhood of Exarcheia in central Athens.

Farhan’ Story

I spent three days with Farhan in January 2018. Like many of my interviews, Farhan and I began by meeting in public. Farhan chose Victoria Square in Athens as a meeting place. While Athens’s Omonia Square was known for its drug dealers, Exarcheia Square for its anarchists, and Syntagma and Monastiraki Squares for their performers and street vendors, I heard a sizeable homeless refugee population resided in Victoria Square. On our first of three days together, Farhan and I had brunch. We then walked to the apartment of his older sister, Fareeda, where I spent the afternoon meeting Fareeda, her husband, and her two children. Fareeda invited Farhan and me back to her apartment for lunch on my second day with Farhan. On our third and final day, Farhan introduced me to a teenage friend who brought us to Malakasa Camp, a camp in central Greece with predominantly Afghan residents.

Farhan’s proceeding story is divided by each day that I spent with him.

Day 1 with Farhan: The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan

Farhan is a tall, thin young man with a trimmed beard and kind eyes. Although Farhan and I met in Leros and connected on Facebook, I knew little about him other than his origins from Afghanistan. When Farhan and I reunited in Athens, we ate brunch at a cafe in Victoria Square. Here, Farhan gave me more details from his past.

Above: Farhan, a 23-year old Afghan refugee, picks up a child in Malakasa Camp.

Farhan was born in Afghanistan and raised in Tehran, Iran. At the age of 14, Farhan moved from the Iranian capital back to his native country. It was in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, where Farhan befriended a boy who later became kidnapped. According to Farhan, when he and his friend were 16 years of age, his friend was kidnapped by human traffickers and sold as a slave. In an attempt to locate and rescue the friend, Farhan himself became threatened by the criminals.

In Afghanistan, prepubescent boys can be kidnapped and forced to dance and sleep with “masters”. The masters may share their dancing boys with acquaintances or business associates. When these slave boys enter puberty, they are deemed no longer attractive and are retired to work as security guards or assassins for their masters. Never once do these sex slaves attend school. If the boys attempt escape, they are at risk of recapture and murder.

Farhan summarized the history of dancing boys in his country. He blamed Soviet soldiers for introducing the practice of keeping boy slaves to Afghans. Yet when I performed a Google search, I discovered that boys have been used for sexual entertainment in Central Asia long before the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. Farhan added that later under the Taliban’s strict gender roles, homosexual sex with underage boys became more common as men’s ability to meet women in public decreased.

Today, Farhan claims that dancing boys are most frequently kept by military commanders who are above the rule of law, and by older men in the north of Pashtun ethnicity. The veracity of this statement was outside the scope of my research. Farhan was quick to note that foreign militaries occupying Afghanistan today do not partake in the practice. In Farhan’s words, Pashtuns “hate Americans” and would never invite foreign soldiers into their homes were boys can dance and be shared at parties.

As our meal came to an end, I asked Farhan if children can be voluntarily sold to human traffickers by destitute parents. Farhan affirmed that no parent would do such a thing. I then inquired why boys were preferred as erotic dancers and slaves over girls. Farhan chuckled, “they (the masters) do not like girls”. We wrapped up our brunch and were off to meet Farhan’s older sister, Fareeda, with whom I spent the afternoon meeting her family and neighbors. Fareeda would invite me back for a family lunch she’d prepare the next day.

Day 2 with Farhan: From Tehran to Athens

On the second day that Farhan and I met, Farhan had previously spent five hours in line at the Greek asylum office. This was Farhan’s fourth attempt to pick up his residence card. He was finally successful. In Athens, there exist only two asylum service centers, one in the port of Piraeus and another near Katechaki Metro Station. Lines are notoriously long for submitting applications, picking up documentation, and attending asylum interviews. Farhan gave me an anecdote of how overwhelmed the asylum service centers are. A friend of his had once slept by the doors from 10pm the night before the asylum office opened just so that they could be third in line the following morning.

Despite Farhan’s morning at the asylum office, we took up his sister’s offer for a family lunch. After arriving at Fareeda’s home, Farhan flashed his new residence card. It was met with admiration from Fareeda and her husband. Farhan translated from Dari so that I could understand Fareeda and her husband. I discovered that Fareeda was married in an arranged marriage when she was 16 and her husband was 22. Their oldest child had been smuggled into Switzerland more than a month before we met. The multi-family apartment I was invited to now was a temporary accommodation established by the UNHCR, the EU, and a collection of NGOs.

Above: Fareeda, the sister of my Dari translator Farhan, prepares kabuli pilau for a family lunch I was invited to. Kabuli pilau is an Afghan steamed rice and lamb dish. The kitchen Fareeda uses is shared with other Afghan refugee families in an apartment rented by the UNHCR, EU, and local NGOs.

When I met Fareeda’s husband, he was returning from speaking to smugglers to see if he could bring the rest of his family to Switzerland. Before leaving for Greece, Fareeda’s husband worked as an architect in Tehran. While Fareeda prepared our lunch in the kitchen, Fareeda’s husband showed me photos of his work on his phone. We scrolled through apartments and garages with stone facades and intricate lighting. The architect beamed with pride when displaying the home he designed for his family but had to leave behind.

I learned from Farhan that his brother-in-law moved to Tehran for better opportunities a decade ago yet two years ago, his brother-in-law’s clients began to refuse pay for contracts. Farhan’s brother-in-law had little power to enforce contracts as a foreigner in Iran. As the money ran dry, the family decided to leave for Europe. It was then that Farhan travelled from Herat to reunite with his sister’s family in Tehran before the group set out for the Iran-Turkey border. The last set of photos shown to me were taken during this desert trek. In one photo, I saw Farhan’s brother-in-law pour tea from a kettle in a makeshift fire in the sand. Farhan looked over my shoulder at this photo. He chuckled, “We Afghans can’t live without tea”.

Above: Fareeda sets the dining table in front of her younger brother, Farhan. Fareeda, her husband, and their two toddlers live in a single room with sparse furniture but many stuffed toys.

Day 3 with Farhan: Tensions between Camps

As with the two days before, my last day with Farhan began in the same meeting spot: Victoria Square. I was waiting for Farhan at a corner store when a boy with a friendly smile approached. The boy asked if I was waiting for Farhan. He introduced himself as the friend of Farhan’s that would be taking us to Malakasa Camp. After a quick lunch of chicken gyros, the three of us boarded the train to Malakasa.

Malakasa Camp is a UNHCR-registered refugee camp situated 42km north of Athens. As of March 2018, it hosted 733 residents, 62% of which were Afghan nationals. Malakasa struck me as the Afghan equivalent of Ritsona, the predominantly-Syrian refugee camp which I volunteered at for three weeks in July 2017. In March 2018, Ritsona refugee camp hosted 581 residents, of which 74% were Syrian. Ritsona was located 74km northwest of Athens, which meant Malakasa and Ritsona were closer to each other than they were to Athens. I knew from my time volunteering that camps attempt to accommodate refugees of the same nationality together. I had also heard of the antagonism between Afghan and Syrian refugees, a likely motive for separating the groups into different accommodations.

The Afghan-Syrian divide was evident when I met another friend of Farhan’s living in Malakasa. The young man told me he requested to relocate to Malakasa after being initially placed in Ritsona. When I asked why he requested the change, he claimed that he “did not like it there (in Ritsona)” with a look of disgust. During my conversations with Farhan, he himself stated matter-of-factly that he despised Arabs. Arabs represent the ethnic majority in Syria. Farhan admitted he chose not to hang out with former volunteers from Leros when the volunteers also invited Syrian friends for reunions in Athens.

Farhan’s thoughts on religion seemed to be the cause of his animosity towards Syrians and Arabs. During the train ride from Athens to Malakasa Camp, Farhan and I discussed religion. Farhan initiated the conversation by asking for my faith. I acknowledged that while my friends have invited me to church and that I would occasionally pray with my Christian roommate, I did not adhere to a particular faith. I then asked Farhan for his faith. Farhan described that he was Sunni Muslim and that his friend, the Afghan teenager with us, was Shia Muslim. I listened as the two spent some time asking each other about how they interpreted various teachings.

Our conversation then took a turn to Farhan’s view on Islam. Farhan was convinced that Arabs were responsible for the “Islamization” of Afghan culture. Farhan explained that prior to the spread of Islam, Persians (ancient Iranians) and Afghans were of the Zoroastrian faith. Farhan believes that modern Arab countries install mullahs (Muslim clerics) in Afghanistan to spread ideas and control the Afghan population. He contrasted the Arab’s ideological soft power to that of former Soviet hard power in Afghanistan. If military occupation can suppress dissent through hard power, Farhan reasoned, brainwashing by religion is cheaper to subdue a country’s citizens. Religion is at the root of Farhan’s acrimony towards Muslim Arabs. Farhan feels deeply that radicalism and terror in Afghanistan is spawned by outsiders, and that outside influences seek to undermine Afghan authority and autonomy. 

I was fortunate to hear both sides of the story. During my summer in Leros, I had met a 23-year old Palestinian-Syrian Muslim Arab by the alias of Jamil, who like Farhan, I reunited with in Athens. Neither Jamil nor Farhan knew of my conversations with the other on their thoughts of the other. Jamil, whose story is featured in the next chapter “The Young Men of Athens”, was born near Damascus into a Palestinian Sunni family. Jamil thought that Afghans viewed themselves as ethnically superior to Arabs. From Jamil’s viewpoint, Afghans associate themselves as ethnically Persian, thus originating from the Persian civilization from Iran. I ran a fact-check online on ethnicities in Iran and Afghanistan. While there are overlaps in the ethnic minority groups between the two countries, there are also clear ethnic majority groups that differ between the two neighbors. This fact renders the Afghan ethnicity argument void—the majority of Afghans are not Persian. Even if Afghans descended from Persians, I did not understand why Jamil would think Afghans consider Persians better than Arabs.

Farhan and Jamil confirm that hostilities exist between Afghans and Syrians, even if the hostilities may be baseless. When it came to tensions between refugee groups, Jamil pointed out further antagonisms between additional refugee groups; namely, between Arabs and Kurds and between Syrians and Palestinians. In the first case, the Kurds, an ethnic minority inhabiting southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Syria, and northwestern Iran, believe that Arabs are “all talk and no action”. According to Jamil, this Kurdish view is prevalent on issues like the containment of the Islamic State (the US armed predominantly Kurdish, not Arab, militias in Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIL). Then in the case of Syrians versus Palestinians, Jamil portrayed how both sides had blamed the other for “flooding” Europe and thus forcing Europe to set up migrant quotas that benefit neither Syrians nor Palestinians.

Farhan and Jamil’s grievances counter the stereotype of a singular refugee identity. Whose views you believe in these skirmishes depend on your religion, country of origin, and ethnicity.

Above: A family of Afghan refugees invites Farhan and I to their container for tea. I was asked about my interest in helping refugees and about my family, including the number of siblings I have and if I were married at my age.

When Farhan and I departed at the end of our time together, he had one month left on his 6-month apartment lease. Like his sister, he was staying in temporary urban housing for vulnerable refugees, although he did not disclose to me why his case for asylum was considered especially vulnerable. Adding to his stresses, Farhan estimates that his UNHCR-issued cash card only cover his expenses for the first two weeks of a given month. In the gaps between when he receives deposits from the UN, Farhan increases the share of eggs in his diet to make up for lost meals. I cautiously asked Farhan what he would do when his free housing ended. With employment for refugees being rare in Greece, refugees without a source of income turn to the informal sector or return to the camps. Some resort to sleeping on the streets, squares, and parks where I have seen tents and sleeping bags.

The next chapter explores the streets of Athens accompanied with photographs of public spaces and Jamil’s story. Means of employment in the informal market are discussed in my final chapter. I now turn to Abdullah, a Syrian refugee who recounts his journey from Aleppo to Athens. Abdullah is frustrated at how Greece and Syria’s neighbors treat Syrian refugees.