Afghan refugees face frustration in Greece

Sami Popal, 38, struggled to bring his family, including his 1-year-old son, Murtaza, to safety away from the fighting in Afghanistan. Now he and thousands of other Afghan refugees find themselves stuck in makeshift camps in Greece.
Sami Popal, 38, struggled to bring his family, including his 1-year-old son, Murtaza, to safety away from the fighting in Afghanistan. Now he and thousands of other Afghan refugees find themselves stuck in makeshift camps in Greece. For the Centre Daily Times

Sami Popal held his 1-year-old son, Murtaza, tightly in his arms as he recounted the past month of his family’s life, and the ordeal that brought them from their comfortable home in Kabul, Afghanistan, to a makeshift camp on the sidewalk outside a ferry terminal south of Athens.

Popal, 38, recalled the storms on the night he and 15 members of his extended family crossed the Aegean Sea by boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Samos. That night, he said, everyone on the boat accepted that they would die.

But the storm passed and the small battered boat arrived in Samos, one of Greece’s most popular tourist islands, now also a destination for thousands of desperate refugees fleeing the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

When the group finally left Samos and arrived in Piraeus last week, Popal was relieved, thinking that at last the most difficult portion of his family’s journey was behind them.

But upon arrival in Greece’s major port, 8 miles south of Athens, he learned that Afghans were no longer permitted to cross the Greek-Macedonian border — the main route for refugees seeking to settle in Northern Europe — along with refugees from other countries such as Syria and Iraq.

“We are the forgotten people,” Popal said. “The European leaders already forgot about us. They don’t think we are human.”

At the Piraeus port, where thousands of refugees have turned three ferry terminals and a warehouse into makeshift camps, Afghan refugees have been growing increasingly frustrated. On Sunday, they held peaceful demonstrations, blocking traffic and chanting pleas for the border to be reopened. 

Leaders of Sunday’s demonstrations, including 23-year-old Afghan migrant Asef Fraiz, are threatening more severe measures, including a campwide hunger strike, if the border remains closed.

They had hoped discussions at Monday’s EU-Turkey summit would yield good news for them. Instead European leaders delayed an official decision for at least 10 days.

Afghans stranded in the camps in Greece say that they have become frustrated by the differentiation between refugees from Afghanistan and those from Syria and Iraq, who have been the focus of most of the European Union’s refugees efforts. At one point an estimated 5,000 Afghan refugees were in camps at the Macedonian border, with thousands more backed up further in a pipeline extending back to Athens and the Greek islands.

“Afghanistan has had 14 years of war. Syria has had four years of war,” said 18-year-old Ahmad Farhad, an Afghan refugee who spent two weeks walking through Turkey before boarding a small, overcrowded fishing boat.

Popal said that an Iraqi family and a Syrian family had camped near his family one night, but on the next morning they were picked up and given transport to the border while his family was left behind. Popal said he has seen many other Syrian and Iraqi families leave for countries to the north during the week that his family has been camped at the port.

Popal said he is not certain how long his family will remain here. But in a family meeting the other night, they vowed not to return to Afghanistan, no matter what happens with the Macedonian border.

“I promised my children safety and a good education,” Popal said. “(If we return,) how can I explain that to my children?”

In Kabul, Sami Popal and his wife, Farzani, had a two-story home, a nice car and good jobs. He worked as a financial adviser for the United States Agency for International Development. She was an internal auditor at a bank.

Popal said he had never thought about leaving Afghanistan until he began to receive calls from an unknown person, who told Popal that if he did not reveal private USAID information to them they would harm him and his family. He changed his phone number, but the person continued calling, he said.

One day, one of his children’s friends was kidnapped from the front yard of Popal’s home. He said he believes whoever had been threatening him had mistakenly kidnapped the child, thinking he was one of Popal’s sons.

When that occurred, Popal said, he immediately quit his job, sold his car and left everything he had in Afghanistan. In order to find a boat to Greece, Popal’s family had to walk to Turkey from Iran.

One of the most difficult days, he said, was when his family had to wade through a freezing cold river to cross the border between Iran and Turkey. It was snowing, he said, and painful for them to wade through the icy water.

During the journey, Popal said he was constantly worried for his children’s safety, but he was determined not to show it.

“I don’t show them that I’m worried, that I’m scared for the children,” Popal said. “If I lose my hope, then what will happen to my children.”

Since arriving at the port last week, Popal, his wife and five children, who are between the ages of 1 and 10, have slept in one tent, which was given to them in Samos. They have not showered, Popal said, as there are no bathrooms at the camp. He has been wearing the same pair of jeans since he left Kabul a month ago.

Ultimately, Popal hopes to end up in Germany, where he can get a job and his children can receive a good education. He would stay in Greece, he said, but he worries about the language barrier. He said he does not know how his children, who speak Farsi, could continue their schooling in Greece.

Popal’s main priorities for his children, he said, are education and safety, two things that are rare in Afghanistan. He spoke of his journey stoically, getting emotional only when discussing what he would do if the border does not open for them.

“This is a difficult question,” he said, his eyes watering.

Ayren-Marie Kelly, a volunteer at the camp who leads a team of interpreters trying to provide refugees with resources, said they have been advising Afghan refugees to take the subway to a nearby town where they can claim asylum in Greece.

Kelly, 25, of England, has been working at the camp since December, when news of the escalating crisis made her cut her European backpacking trip short and stay in Greece to volunteer.

When Kelly first arrived in Piraeus, most refugees spent only a few hours there, she said. They would arrive on the ferries from the islands and quickly be bused to the Macedonian border.

As border controls became more severe, and conditions worsened, buses for the refugees stopped coming to Piraeus as frequently, she said. More refugees chose to stay at the port out of fear they would be turned away or face violence at the Macedonian border.

Kelly worried about the possibility of the border’s closure. “It’s going to become a black hole here,” she said.

If he could speak to European leaders, Popal said, he would stress to them that Afghan people are human, just like Syrians and Iraqis. All they want is a safe life for themselves and their families.

“When you pass through dangerous areas and think you might die, you’re not coming here for the sightseeing,” Popal said.

He said he and other Afghans at the camp became angry when they heard word that Monday’s summit had resulted in no decision on the border.

“When we started the journey, we said, ‘Let’s go to Europe. They’re kind people,’ ” Popal said. “When we got here, we saw the (volunteers) are kind, but not the government.”

Erin McCarthy is a student in a Penn State journalism class that is spending spring break in Greece covering the refugee crisis.