At this point, with our journey half over (but barely a quarter so in the blog, at this point, we have yet to report on the profound experience we had in Rovies) we are taking stock, figuring out what we still need, and massaging our schedule to make room for new stories and opportunities as they come rushing at us.
It’s a good time to assess how we’re working together and to fine tune our process. In short, I cannot be happier with the quality of the work we are getting or with how we are interacting with each other and with the people we meet.
In The Republic, Plato says that “The beginning is the most important part of the work” and certainly decisions we made early on have proven to be the right ones and have carried us along with fair weather and helpful winds.
First off, none of us would be here if it weren’t for my wife Judy, whose idea this was. Her support throughout the project, as well as through our long marriage is humbling. Judy knew how important this subject is to me and pointed out that Zaphiris and I are in a unique position to tell these stories. In addition to having a long and fruitful working relationship covering three continents, we are the closest of friends and there is no one better for this project. His attention to detail and his commitment to making the greatest images counteract my tendency to go with the flow. His empathy for all people comes through at all times and without exception, he has managed to create trust with the people we are working with.
In case it hasn’t been clear, our project thus far is entirely self-funded. That has happily forced us into making early decisions that turned out to be very good ones. I’ve filmed many documentaries, under many different circumstances and have learned that especially when travel is involved, less is more. The smaller the crew, the more intimate the relationship with our subjects and less of a circus atmosphere. Three is the perfect number. We don’t overwhelm our subjects and become the main event, with three sympathetic witnesses, the focus remains on them.
With three comes another possibility, that of traveling in one vehicle (leaving room for our gear.) Adding another vehicle adds so much more confusion and communication issues. A number of worthy people offered to come and work with us for free as we told friends about the project, but right from the start we had to say no as a larger crew would add headaches in every area.
So, who would be the lucky third member of our team? Only one person came to mind, and that was Michel. We knew that we wanted to be able to speak with refugees in their native tongue and for Syrians and Iraqis, that is Arabic. Michel’s experience of living in Lebanon and teaching in Arabic as well as his years as a journalist specializing in the Middle East made him the obvious choice.
Long before I met Michel 30 years ago, I had heard of him. A young lady I was seeing back in the 70s kept telling me about her REAL boyfriend, this larger than life guy named Michel, who was living in Greece and Lebanon. When I finally met him and in the years since, he has certainly lived up to the hype. Capable in so many areas, even-tempered and eternally curious, he has been a pleasure to be with evevry moment. His day job for years has been as an IT specialist and computer consultant. If you like the functionality and layout of the blog, as well as some of its content, all glory goes to him. He spent hours wrangling it into the shape it is in.
It goes without saying that his contributions in terms of understanding of the culture of the refugees have been invaluable.
Back in the states, I had substantial pre-production support from Alan Barker and Scott B in terms of getting the most out of our primary cameras. Johhny Ahdout was very generous in guiding me in the VR world. Simon Fanthorpe graciously lent us a camera as our B camera and Alex Naufel lent us a GoPro.
To all, thank you for making this such a wonderful experience!
Evia is Greece’s second largest island, after Crete. Because it lies just east of the Greek mainland, many people don’t even realize that it’s an island. After filming in Thermopyles, our next destination was Hotel Rovies, on Evia.
We left Athens in the afternoon, driving 150km north on the main highway to Arkitsa to take the 45-minute ferry that crosses Evoiko bay to the harbor at Aidipso. From there, Rovies is a 20 minute drive. Waiting for the ferry, a rainstorm broke out, proving my decision to use this way instead of the winding mountainous road through Evia.
When we arrived at Hotel Rovies at ten o’clock at night, we were welcomed by Andrea and Antoni. I was happy to meet Andrea Vasiliou again, the owner of the hotel who responded to a call by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, for Greek hotels to host refugees as part of an accommodation program funded by the European Commission.
Hotel Rovies is a special place. It’s in the village of Rovies, a seaside resort with a population of about 1000 during the winter.
Andreas’ hotel has become a temporary home for asylum-seekers, largely from Syria, about half of whom are children who make noise all the time. The racket is a sign that these kids feel safe and happy.
Vasiliou and his staff, along with Antoni Grigorako and his team of 10 locals that are hired by SolidarityNow, a Greek NGO, help the refugees to rest on their long journey in a safe and friendly environment. Andreas and Antonis both live in the hotel and they are available on a 24 hour basis, creating a collective environment where refugees can eat, work and live all together – and learn from each other.
Most refugees staying here are among those who may eventually find new homes elsewhere in Europe under the reunification and relocation program. Two groups have already left and the ones remaining wait for their departure, as the accommodation program in hotels is about to end and the UNHCR is oriented towards renting apartments. However, not all have permission to leave Greece and I wonder what will happen to them.
In the morning, Manar, a Syrian refugee herself, has created three classes teaching English to the little ones in the reception hall. Children attend classes in German, English and French, taught by the Solidarity Now teachers in a nearby shop that has been turned into a classroom. On my initial research into this place I found some reports of big opposition by the locals to the presence of the refugees. Whatever the case, it seems resistance was smoothed out when the refugee children cleaned the 1 kilometer of beach in front of the village, along with creating mural paintings on the wall of the local school and other activities.
We spent four days at Hotel Rovies, getting to know the residents and the staff, and letting them get to know us.
We met Salam, a 10 year old girl, who takes care of her 25 year old blind brother and her 23 year old developmentally disabled sister, on their long journey to reunite with their mother in Sweden.
Manar and Andreas discuss Salam’s papers from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
Malak is Syrian Kurd who fled his home with his wife and his six children. A non-citizen in Syria due to his Kurdish origins, he was “offered” an ID in return for joining the Syrian Army and Assad’s war against the rebels. He refused, which meant almost certain retribution, making it impossible for him and his family to stay in Syria. He is a handyman who, in the course of a difficult life has acquired many skills, and works every day in various jobs in the hotel and the village. On several occasions he baked delicious Middle Eastern pastries.
Manar and her family were rejected for asylum by France and she and her husband and their three children are now stuck in Greece, probably for good. According to the refugees, when somebody is rejected by any country they no longer have the right to apply to another country and are dropped from the asylum program. They then are officially blocked in Greece and normally have to move to a refugee camp. In talking to the refugees, we realized that we need to explore and better understand the details of these procedures, which we will be doing now that we are back in Athens. In the case of Manar’s family, Andreas stepped in and helped them find work and housed them. Manar is working as a translator and teacher for SolidarityNow and her husband works as a doctor, while their children attend the village public school. Amazingly, the children already speak fluent Greek. In some ways, their story is a success story, despite the upheaval, the danger and the disappointments, and in our interview with her Manar spoke eloquently about the importance of acceptance.
On our last day in Rovies we met two brothers, Khalid, 19 years old and Ali, who is 17 years old. Their family is scattered in four countries. The father is still in Syria, due to age and infirmity, while their mother and a younger sibling are stuck in a Turkish refugee camp because the family didn’t have enough money to pay smugglers for all of them to pass. At the other end, in Germany they have an older brother and an uncle, and the plan was to reunite the family in Germany. However, Ali, the younger one, was rejected by Germany, and Khalid won’t leave without him, so they are now faced with the possibility of never being reunited with any of the rest of their family. They spoke to us in their humble room as the light was fading, Khalid recounting their story in a soft shy voice, made the Arabic sound like a prayer.
Later we played clips from our Rovies footage on the TV in the reception hall, including footage of the refugee women cooking their traditional meals in the bustling collective kitchen and it was a big success.
There is a saying that if the head of a fish stinks, the entire fish stinks. The other side applies, as well. The goodness that exists in Rovies begins with Andrea.
Andreas from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
We returned to City Plaza for a few hours shooting. Here are some scenes from the kitchen.
After that, we went for an in-depth interview with George Moschos, Greek Ombudsman for Children’s Rights. He was one of the first people Zaphiris contacted at the beginning of the project and we had been looking forward to meeting with him.
He proved to be all we had hoped for and more. We discussed the special needs of unaccompanied minors, the responsibilities of the state towards children and how his office independently reviews the conditions and measures taken and advocates for the rights of all children, Greek and refugees. He will be featured prominently in the final film. In this short clip you can see what a warm and caring advocate he is.
In the next few days we will see him in action as he visits refugee facilities.
Right after our interview, we left for Rovies in Northern Evia where in our contact with many people, we gained a broader and deeper understanding of our endeavor.
The first thing we saw when we entered the room was the cake, sitting on the floor. A beautifully decorated cake, worthy of a pastry shop display….sitting on the floor of a tiny, disheveled room with bunk beds, a tiny sink and a small dresser. This is how we met Hiyam and her son, Laeth.
Last week’s shooting schedule began in Athens, but ended at the Refugee Center in Thermopyles, in Central Greece. Thermopyles is located about 15 kilometers outside the city of Lamia, and is the site of the historic battle between the allied Greek tribes and the Persian army under Xerxes.
Hallway at Thermopyles Refugee Center
The refugees are housed in an abandoned resort, re-purposed just over a year ago as refugee housing, as Zaphiri explains in one of his posts. From the looks of it, some light touch-up was done, small convection ovens and other equipment were brought in for the communal kitchen and bunk beds were placed in the small rooms. Other than that, the general state of dilapidation Is still quite evident.
It’s in these conditions that the refugees live, often 5 or 6 to a single small room. Certainly better than tents – but for many, only just.
Hallway at Thermopyles Refugee Center
We were walking these hallways, looking for someone willing to be interviewed, and having little luck. One of the biggest reasons for this is that many refugees still have family back where they came from and are trying to protect them from retribution. This is particularly true of people from Syria, several people asked directly if their faces would be seen back home and there was no way we could promise otherwise. So we lost a few interviews simply because people are afraid of being discovered and of the consequences to their loved ones.
After several refusals we encountered a woman standing in her doorway who immediately invited us in. This was Hiyam. Here’s a picture of Hiyam and Laeth in the room they share.
Hiyam and her son, Laeth
Hiyam and Laeth told us they had come from Adla, in Iraq, via Idlib, across the northern mountains to Turkey, then across Turkey – largely on foot – into Greece. From the Greek-Turkish border they headed north towards Germany, again on foot, where they have family. They made it as far as Serbia before being deported back to Greece, and have been here ever since. After about 6 months in Athens, they were relocated north to Thermopyles,
Hiyam is a baker and a hairdresser. Laeth was going to school and also working as a barber. When the war came to their hometown, Adla, it exacted a terrible toll on her family – her parents, her husband, and four brothers were all killed. She showed us their pictures; then she showed me a picture of her husband’s body after the attack that killed him. It’s not a picture one gets over easily.
After this, she and Laeth fled to Idlib for safety. However, there was nothing for them in Idlib, so they decided to try to make it to Europe, where Hiyam has relatives in Germany. They hiked over the mountains into Turkey, crossed Turkey into Greece – largely on foot – and made it all the way to Serbia before being caught. After some months back in Greece they gave up trying to get to Germany and applied to stay in Greece. However, with no jobs in Greece, with no resources of their own, and without significant help to start their new lives, the road in front of them is uncertain, to say the least. Hiyam said several things that I will remember long after this month is Greece is over: among them, she said, ‘we’ve seen everything there is to see. We’ve seen hunger, cold, misery. We’ve been ill-treated and abused. Things you can’t imagine – we’ve lived through them. After all that, all I want is to start a new life. A house, a job, and somewhere for my son to finish his education, that’s all we’re looking for.’
We’ve seen hunger, cold, misery. We’ve been ill-treated and abused. Things you can’t imagine – we’ve lived through them.
After our interview, once the cameras had stopped rolling, Hiyam and Laeth cut each of us an enormous piece of their cake, which turned out as delicious as it was decorative.
After a bit of a regroup on Sunday in Athens, when we finally met Vicky Leontou (a journalist who has opened so many doors for us and is our Associate Producer) at a wonderful dinner at her home, we were back at it on Monday, at Hotel City Plaza. We will be going into much more detail about Hotel City Plaza, one of our primary locations in the coming days, as we continue to film there and speak to more of the residents. This was our second visit, our first one filming there. (Zaphiri had visited a number of times before we arrived.)
We filmed one interview with a 16 year-old Afghan refugee living there, who goes by the name Abbas. Although he gave us his permission to film him, we seeking to get permission from his mother, as he is underage. Once we have that, we will talk more about him and show some video.
We also spoke with several volunteers, here Maria Karagouni, who works in the storeroom where residents can come for food, coffee, pampers, etc. tells us about why she volunteers and what is different about City Plaza.
We filmed in the kitchen as refugees and volunteers (many of whom live at the hotel, along with the refugees) prepared meals. We also filmed at lunchtime the following day and to say that it was lively is a great understatement. We are hoping to post videos of the common spaces, but are still in discussion with everyone at City Plaza as to what they are comfortable for us to show. Many residents are in legal limbo, they also have fears about retributions to their families back home. We are walking a fine line to show their lives while still protecting them.