A View from the Street: The Young Men of Athens

According to the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy, the largest demographic group of asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece are 18- to 34-year-old males (data between June 2013 and March 2018). The prevalence of young male refugees is evident in Athens. This chapter includes photographs of unaccompanied minors and young adults taken in Athen’s public spaces. From bus stops to squares and parks, migrant teenagers and men are transforming the social fabric of one of Europe’s oldest cities. The text of this chapter tells the story of Jamil, a 23-year old Palestinian-Syrian from Damascus. Jamil is the alias of a friend I met while volunteering on Leros.

Above: Refugees wait at a bus stop on the highway near Skaramagas Camp. Public buses connect Skaramagas Camp, in the port of Piraeus, to central Athens in 40 minutes.

I met Jamil when volunteering for a refugee charity on Leros island between May and June 2017. Jamil was residing on Leros’s “hotspot” migrant detention center and took classes at my charity’s community center. During my second week on Leros, Jamil departed for Athens after his asylum case was processed. The last time I saw Jamil was in the port of Lakki as the volunteers bid farewell to refugees heading to mainland Greece.

When I reunited with Jamil in Athens in December 2017, he had attempted to leave Greece three times in the period between his arrival in Athens and my return to Greece. His most recent attempt occurred a week before my return. Jamil had tried to board a plane heading to Brussels, without success. His next and fourth attempt at departure occurred during my first week in Athens. After our brief reunion, Jamil left for Patras, Greece’s westernmost port, on a brisk Thursday morning.

All of Jamil’s attempts to leave Greece were illegal. Born a stateless Palestinian in Syria, Jamil has never been issued a passport and was mistaken as Syrian when he landed in Leros by boat in November 2016. A few days after Jamil left for Patras, I was surprised to see him again in Athens’s Omonia Square. Jamil was downtrodden—he told me he had been detained by the port police in Patras for two days, after which he made his way back to Athens.

Should Jamil have been successfully smuggled out, he would have taken a boat from Patras to Bari, a port city in southeastern Italy. From Bari, he would’ve attempted to hop a bus from Rome to Brussels and apply for asylum in Belgium. But Jamil never made it out of Greece. The Patras port police discovered Jamil travelling without a passport. Jamil was slapped with a 30-day probation period in which he would be sentenced should he commit further offences in Greece. Jamil’s fingerprints and headshot were taken at the police station, and Jamil was issued a criminal record that would complicate any of his future applications for legitimate travel documents.

Above: Three teenagers support their unconscious friend as onlookers pass by on a street near Victoria Square. Jamil and I were walking between Omonia and Victoria Squares when we caught sight of a possible drug overdose. A group of boys seemed to be discussing what to do with a fourth boy whose body was limp. Jamil commented that undocumented migrants are unlikely to report crimes or check into hospitals. Undocumented victims fear seeking help for the risk of being deported should authorities discover they lack papers.

Being now grounded in Greece, Jamil confided that he would focus on “living rather than leaving”. Jamil hoped to work as an Arabic to English translator. While on Leros, Jamil passed the final level of English proficiency in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. He wished to further certify his English in order to be employed by one of the many refugee NGOs in Athens.

While employment is the goal for many refugees, expenses are today’s harsh reality. Beyond handouts from the United Nations and occasional remittances from family, refugees face daunting unemployment due to language barriers and a lack of skills. During my final week in Athens in January 2018, Jamil called me one night with urgent news: his landlord threatened to evict him and his roommates in three days if they fail to start paying €100 more per month. The landlord claimed Jamil’s apartment had a high electricity bill. Jamil’s news reflects the tenuous living situations, and the low bargaining power, of refugees in Greece.

Above: A group of young men warm themselves by a fire in Exarcheia Square. A group such as this one called me “my friend”, a common address to English speakers, and cautioned “no photos”. When I asked that group why I couldn’t take photos in a public space, one teen replied with a smile, “Because it’s Exarcheia”. The neighborhood of Exarcheia was described as the “heart of the political uprising in Greece” by a PhD philosophy graduate I had met at the National Technical University of Athens. I was told to put away my camera twice during the night I was in Exarcheia Square due to fears that I would capture the violent activists active in the area.

The second stranger who approached Jamil and me to stop shooting said he was “telling us nicely” and others, such as the anarchists, may “break your camera”. Photographing Exarcheia Square was as dangerous as it was emotionally intense. Jamil and I had visited Victoria Square on the same evening where I captured the unconscious boy in the photo above. That morning, I visited Eleonas Camp where I photographed a Pakistani man who had lost his fingers from frostbite while crossing Turkey. It was on this day of shooting that I felt the most predatory during my 25-day trip to Greece and Lebanon.

Jamil’s story is one of countless refugee stories in Athens. Jamil, 23, arrived in Greece in November 2016. He floated to the shores of Leros in an inflatable plastic boat with approximately 30 other refugees. Jamil’s migration began from his home in Rif Dimashq, the governorate surrounding the Syrian capital of Damascus. His family paid for the agricultural chemistry student to be smuggled into the north of Syria and eventually through the Turkish border. At the Turkish border, Jamil attempted multiple border crossings with a group led by a smuggler experienced in evading border police. After spending two weeks in Turkey, Jamil was on his way to Greece by crossing the Aegean Sea.

When Jamil arrived on Leros, he was informed of his rights to asylum in the yard of the Leros hotspot. Hotspots are island detention centers operated by Greek police to process asylum-seekers before transferring asylum-seekers to refugee camps. Jamil had his fingerprints taken on his first day in Leros and was ushered into a prefabricated container to live with six other asylum-seekers. Jamil spent his first 25 days in Europe inside the barbed wire fences of the hotspot where all migrants arriving by sea are detained. Jamil would go on to spend seven months on Leros while he awaited the results of his asylum application.

“I want to disappear.”

A 23-year old Palestinian-Syrian in Athens on the evening before his attempt to reach Belgium via Italy, December 2017.

A notable incident in Jamil’s memory of Leros occurred on the night of a soccer match in the spring of 2017. After watching a Real Madrid versus Barcelona match at a Leros bar, Jamil with approximately 15 other Arabic-speaking men were attacked by Greeks on the roadside to the hotspot. A group of local men had ridden motorcycles to club Jamil and his acquaintances with metal and wooden bars. The group sustained injuries on their backs, heads, and faces ranging from bruises to wounds that required stitches. Jamil himself obtained a bruise on his jawline.

Adding insult to Jamil’s injury was the police’s response to the hate crime. After being attacked on the street, the group knocked on the door of a nearby Leros home, where the homeowner alerted the police. The police arrived to escort about ten members of the injured group to the hospital while those with minor wounds returned to the hotspot on foot. After the hospitalized group was attended to, the police escorted the hospitalized group to the police station while also collecting the individuals who had returned to the hotspot earlier. The police then informed the entire group once reunited of the procedure to file a complaint, but according to Jamil, the officers left the group outside the police station to wait for an appropriate officer to arrive. Jamil’s group remained outside between 3:30am and 7:00am in the cold, with injuries, for an officer to come who could handle assault complaints. Despite requests to wait inside the station, Jamil’s group was only brought inside in the morning.

The group filed an assault complaint. A few days later according to Jamil, the police entered the hotspot announcing that the persons responsible for the attack have been briefly jailed. The police also suggested that the asylum-seekers should drop their complaint, lest the court proceedings involve travel between Leros and Kos, a nearby island holding the court that administered several Aegean islands. Travel between the islands for court proceedings would be “difficult” because of the asylum-seekers’ travel restrictions. The attack on Leros left Jamil with an impression of injustice by Greek police against asylum-seekers and refugees. Jamil believes the reprimand handed to his Greek attackers was too light.

Above: Men and women lounge and smoke at Monastiraki Square. Monastiraki Square is a busy touristic and commercial area located within walking distance of the Acropolis. I passed the square several times during my stay in Athens and I used the square as a meeting spot for some of my interview subjects.

Today, Jamil is an outsider residing in a country mired by two ongoing crises: debt and refugees. As a visible minority, Jamil faces barriers to integration in ways that were less palpable when he was a Palestinian Arab in Syria. When Jamil and I and entered stores in Athens, I sensed the occasional hesitancy directed towards Jamil by native Greeks.

“A real Greek tragedy.”

A recent philosophy PhD graduate from Greece’s on his country’s refugee crisis.

Jamil’s story differs from other Syrians in that he is twice a refugee. Jamil fled forced military conscription under the Assad regime as a young man nearing the completion of his university studies. Yet, Jamil is not a Syrian citizen. As a grandson of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Jamil was born stateless in Syria without Syrian citizenship. Jamil told me that in 1948 after the First Arab-Israeli War, Jamil’s grandfather left Jerusalem to settle in Syria. At first, Jamil’s grandfather believed, like so many other Palestinians, that displacement would last a matter of months. By 1956, Jamil’s grandfather re-established the family house in Rif Dimashq after losing hope of returning to the homeland. Jamil’s voyage echoes that of his grandfather’s half a century ago. Two generations later, war has yet again uprooted a young man at the start of adulthood.


Works Cited:

“Statistical Data of the Greek Asylum Service (from 7.6.2013 to 31.03.2018).” Hellenic Republic Ministry of Migration Policy, Asylum Service, 31 Mar. 2018. asylo.gov.gr/en/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Greek_Asylum_Service_Statistical_Data_EN.pdf.