From the beginning of this project we had set as our goal to show the human side of the refugee crisis and not ignore, but leave in the background the politics involved.
For weeks, I had been asking City Plaza to give us a person from their legal support services to clarify for us the framework of the laws protecting the refugees. On our last day of principal photography the message arrived, with contact information for a very prominent lawyer. When I called, that lawyer was busy that day and she referred us to her partner. The partner turned out to be Vassilis Papadopoulos, former General Secretary of the Ministry of Immigration and after checking our blog he agreed to talk to us. It would be our last interview in this stage of the project.
A lot of what follows hinges on the EU-Turkey statement. Here’s some info about that statement, which was implemented on the 20 of March of 2016 and which crucially states in its first point “All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.”
Up until our interview with Vassilis Papadopoulos we had talked to two people who were very critical about the EU-Turkey statement and who linked the statement to the terrible conditions in the camps, but they were activists. We felt we needed a less ideological analysis to either support or refute these critiques.
Then came Mr Papadopoulos, who was just such a source. As a former government official dealing closely with the fallout from the EU-Turkey statement, he was fully qualified to offer the analysis we needed. We were all somewhat surprised when he largely validated what the two previous persons had told us.
Beyond that, he explained to us in detail the rights of refugees under the Geneva Convention and the implications of the geographical limitation imposed by Turkey on its unwillingness to abide by this convention. It turns out there is a good reason Turkey is not considered a safe country by many refugees. Basically Turkey gives refugee status only to people coming from Europe, the rest have none of the legal protection envisioned by the Geneva Convention for all persons, regardless of origin.
Pap 642 Turkey limited to Syrians from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
Papadopoulos made a number of very important points in our interview with him. Here are a few highlights:
The EU-Turkey statement is in direct violation of the Geneva Convention
Pap 641 illegitimate from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
The EU is knowingly using this statement despite its important legal flaws in trying to stop the flow.
Pap 641 stop flow long from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
The Greek government has imposed the restriction of movement inside the first entry islands as a way to stop the flow. The bad conditions in the Greek islands, are not due simply to a lack of resources or poor planning, but it is a policy of the Greek state in order to stop the flow.
Pap 642 stop the flow from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
Towards the end of our interview Mr Papadopoulos talked about the ongoing fight that goes on in Europe and the rest of the world, over the just application of human rights, and how the current refugee crisis is triggering conflicts and discussions that will determine the future of Europe as a democratic region.
Pap 643 from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
The idea that comes to my mind is that the rise of fascism is dictating the policy of the European Community. The extreme right is using the fear of refugees to appeal to their electorate and gain votes. Their success makes the rest of the parties uneasy and is slowly but surely forcing them to adopt the same rhetoric and finally the same policies.
There is fight going on in the whole world, a fight over the distribution of wealth. Migration is a part of this fight, as are those who are for it and those who are against it. People that support migration think of it as a re-distribution of wealth between the rich European countries, USA, Canada and Australia, and the poor countries of Asia and Africa, and they fight for it as part of a global vision of justice and equality.
City Plaza is a squat that houses refugees. They don’t accept funding from governments or NGOs and they are entirely supported by donations and volunteers in solidarity, from Greece and around the world.
It’s a seven-story building in the middle of Athens that used to be a hotel. It houses 400 people from 7 different countries. By contrast, most official centers are located either on the outskirts of towns or in rural or industrial areas.
People have privacy in their rooms, they live with dignity and City Plaza operates more like a hotel. Because it is located in a thriving urban environment, the residents live as close as possible to a “normal” life, with access to shopping, services and even work opportunities. They have three meals a day that they cook themselves, and have access to basic needs, language courses, basic health care and legal help.
To deal with EU bureaucracy you definitely need help especially if you don’t speak Greek or English. Refugees and volunteers live and work together taking shifts in the kitchen and cleaning the premises. All decisions are made in group meetings.
“We live together – solidarity will win” is the motto of City Plaza. The hotel demonstrates every day that even in a situation of crisis and poverty it is possible to welcome people with open arms and to create dignified living conditions for all.
The atmosphere of the place grabs you when you first walk in. It’s quite a contrast to the depression you see in the camps. Residents say that “City Plaza is the best hotel in Europe”.
We spent time with Behfar, 24, who left Iran with his parents and younger brother. After their long journey to Greece, they found City Plaza and rested for 4 months. Their goal was to make it to northern Europe, but they got stuck in Serbia and then Hungary. After seven months on the road they returned to Athens and City Plaza. It felt like home and they decided to stay in Greece. Behfar had one more reason to come back. He has fallen in love with an Italian volunteer, “the most beautiful girl in the world”. He is starting a job as a translator this week and goes to school every day. He runs the open air cinema that operates on the roof of the building.
In this clip Behfar talks about his decision to stay in Greece.
Behfar from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
On June 7th a rumor ran through the refugee community that the order was given to evacuate squats that operate in the city. Later in the day City Plaza published a defiant letter to everyone vowing to resist any attempt to evacuate the building.
Everyone is waiting to see what happens next.
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.
It was a pleasure to return to Thermopyles after my initial scout, this time for four days of shooting.
In 2016, when there was a mad rush to the northern border as it was closing, Giorgos Palamiotis, a journalist, managed to set up the Thermopyles camp in 48 hours, with the approval of the prefecture of Central Greece.
Aris, co-adminstrator with Giorgo of the camp gave us an interview. Aris thought he had seen in a lot in his life, but he admitted he learned a lot more being at Thermopyles: primarily that the refugees are people just like us who since leaving their homes are carrying their own painful stories. He also told us how the local community embraced the refugees the first six months, before the international aid came in.
Aris is grateful to be able to help in what he considers a historical moment and takes pleasure in the thought that some day one of the children might return to visit and think of him and the others working there. He especially remembers Patata, who always asked for potato chips, who became the camp mascot and has sent him a photo and voice message from Finland, s’agapo poli, I love you. He will also never forget when one family, mourning a death back home, invited him to take part in their memorial.
Natasha, a civil engineer who was out of work because of the Greek financial crisis, was asked to supervise the restoration of the two abandoned buildings and decided to stay there after she finished her job. Among her many tasks is to ensure the children make it on to the buses that take them to school. On their first day of school she followed them into class to help them overcome their fears.
It is the humanity that these people show in their daily work that impressed me the most, that even when they yell, as Greeks do often, they do it with love.The refugees we talked with had only good words to say about them.
Kosta Bakoyanni, the head of the region of central Greece in our interview with him explained that Greeks are familiar with immigration as nearly every family has members abroad or their grandparents were refugees themselves.
In the sulfur hot springs that are near by, children were having fun jumping and playing in the water. The locals believe that it’s only safe to stay in for 15 minutes, either because of the chemicals, or the heat. When the kids stay in longer, out of concern, the adults yell at them to get out, but the children don’t leave, as they don’t understand the language and the source of the concern.
Happy Caravan, an NGO from Holland founded by a Syrian who left early in the war and now is a Dutch citizen, has turned the old restaurant into school giving English lessons to 25 scarfed woman who pride themselves for being able to use English in the local market. They also teach men and children.
The most striking moment was meeting Hiyam, who greeted us with a beautifully decorated cake that she had amazingly made in her room. She had been a baker, pastry chef and hairdresser in Iraq when a missile hit her home and killed her husband, brother and parents. Though she was willing to share her story with us, it was very hard emotionally on her and her 17 year-old son Laeth to revisit the past. Hearing her story and seeing their pictures of charred bodies brought home to me the magnitude of pain these people carry.
At the beginning of February I got a phone call from my friend Bill Megalos in Los Angeles, asking me if I would like to make a documentary with him, about the refugees in Greece. I’ve known Bill since 1989, when I worked as his assistant for four years. We’ve stayed close friends and have worked on a number of projects around the world. We had had our first contact with the refugee crisis in 2015 when we covered it in Lesvos, for the International Rescue Committee.
Being in Greece gave me an advantage. I said yes right away and started to prep by calling friends.
The first was Matoula Papadimitriou, senior investigator for the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights in Greece. She started feeding me with information: the number of refugees, where they are located, what the situation is today and pointed me to the three sites we decided to visit. They are City Plaza in Athens, Thermopyles, and Hotel Rovies in Evia.
I visited City Plaza, a squatted abandoned hotel in downtown Athens, first and got the green light.
The second resource was Vicky Liondou, a journalist who helped open the door to the camp in central Greece located in Thermopyles. She introduced us to Ioanni Mouzala, the Minister of Immigration Policy. At that point, I started to believe that we might actually pull off this project.
The third location, Hotel Rovies, I found on my own and went to visit.
We decided to bring as part of our team Michel Bolsey, a journalist friend of Bill’s who had lived in Lebanon, travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic. When Bill and Michel had booked their tickets, I started the scouting trip.
In Thermopyles, a camp administered by the prefecture of Central Greece, located in an old abandoned resort next to hot springs I found George Palamioti and Ari Soho running the show. On their desks were the nameplates Baba George, with a picture of a bear and Uncle Aris, with a picture of a dog, gifts of the 400 refugees living in the camp.
People were living 4-5 in a room in bunk beds, where they cooked their meals, passing their days in boredom waiting for their papers to move to the next country.
I drove next to Hotel Rovies, located in Rovies in northern Evia, a hotel that was rented by UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to house Syrian families on programs for relocation and reunification. There I met Antoni Grigorako from Solidarity Now, the NGO that administered the hotel. Previously he had been a volunteer in Piraeus in 2015 and 2016, when there were more than 5,000 people living in the port. Together with Andrea Vasiliou, the owner of the hotel, he works around the clock helping 100 refugees have a close to normal life in a safe environment.
We immediately clicked and I saw what a great job they were doing over the next two days.
Driving back to Athens, with these prime locations in my pocket, I realized that I had taken on the task of being a producer for a big project and actually was delivering what I had promised to the rest of the team. I was excited to share my scout experiences in our first skype conference call where I met Michel, whom I liked immediately.
Christos Stefanou, a coordinator of the educational program of Eleonas, a large refugee camp in Athens, with 2,000 inhabitants pointed us to the Tavros elementary school. Some children from the camp attend this school. Vicky again proved her value when she got the permit for us to visit Tavros from the Ministry of Education. Doors continued to open that I could not have imagined when we started.
George Moschos, the deputy ombudsman for children’s rights, agreed to give us an interview, along with Philippe Leclerc, the representative of UNHCR in Greece.
The day after the team arrived in Athens in the middle of May, the telephone rang. It was Katerina Poutou, the head of Arsis, an association for the social support of youth. I had been trying to get in contact with her for two months. We rushed to her office where we had a three-hour meeting with her and her staff and they promised to help us.
Tomorrow our journey begins without us knowing where it will end.