HUFFINGTON POST

A Day In The Life Of Afghan Refugees In Athens' Victoria Square

Scenes from a way station on the long migration route through Europe.

ATHENS, Greece -- Afghan refugees have flooded Victoria Square in Greek's capital city in recent weeks. Gathered either in families or in big groups of men, they spend their time sitting on the grass or the benches of the square.

This past Wednesday, angry citizens forced the cancellation of a Red Cross food handout in the area. On Friday, however, the atmosphere was noisy but peaceful and safe. Two police cars were parked nearby, and officers discreetly kept an eye on things. Two elderly people said they'd been talking with refugees "on their bench" for years now. A good disposition and sign language were enough to overcome the language barrier. 

"People are in great need," said Arash, a member of Athens' longstanding Afghan community.
"People are in great need," said Arash, a member of Athens' longstanding Afghan community.

Arash, a member of Athens' longstanding Afghan community, is helping the refugees who have just arrived. 

"There is no problem with the residents,” Arash said, referring to the people living in the neighborhood. He said that occasionally tempers flare when women living in the area come to bring the refugees food and clothes, as everyone is trying to get the supplies they need. "People are in greet need," he said. "The ladies are surprised, but they understand." 

As HuffPost Greece spoke with Arash, a middle-aged Greek woman approached. She asked how she could help, saying she could take in a whole family and put them up at her home if they want.

Arash thanked the woman, but explained that everyone who was on the square now would be gone in two or three days at most.

Everyone wants to leave for northern Europe. The Afghans on Victoria Square are waiting for relatives in Afghanistan, Europe or Canada to send them money. The funds are transferred through currency exchange desks or through local Afghan shops whose owners charge a “commission” for their services.

Many of the neighborhood's residents have come to offer help. 
Many of the neighborhood's residents have come to offer help. 

 

Asked why there were only Afghans on the square, Arash explained that Afghans usually stop for longer in every country than the Syrians who are making their way to northern Europe. The Afghans are usually poorer, and for safety reasons, they don't carry as much money as the Syrian refugees.

"They carry money on them from the start and move fast," Arash said.

Part of that money is spent on food and transportation, but the largest share is given to traffickers. On Victoria Square, traffickers are mostly seen at night, “scanning” the place, approaching families and bargaining.

Every nationality has its own traffickers, and they are organized in networks. The smuggler in Athens will put the migrants or refugees on a bus or train to the city of Thessaloniki. He will give them basic instructions and the phone number of his partner there. The partner will meet the travelers at the station, take them to the Macedonian border and tell them how to contact the next link in the chain. It goes like this, until the travelers reach Germany.

In Victoria Square on Friday, a group of 30 or 40 Syrians, walking single file, approached carrying their luggage on their backs or with their hands. They looked tired, in a hurry. They didn't speak to one another. At the head of the convoy was a man with the air of one who knows his way around. Middle-aged and poorly dressed, he gave the impression that he might have once been part of a procession like the one he now led.

Two young people -- one with crutches and his leg in bandages and one, a girl of about 7, carrying a bag of bread -- stood out. They were smiling, though the man with the crutches was struggling to walk. He stopped, drenched in sweat, and his friend carried him. It was like something you'd expect to see on a battlefield -- but it was happening in the heart of Athens.

The Afghans wonder why the European press considers Syrians "refugees," but Afghans "immigrants." They say that in reality, A
The Afghans wonder why the European press considers Syrians "refugees," but Afghans "immigrants." They say that in reality, Afghanistan is still a war zone. 

The line of people stopped at an Arab coffee shop, where a bus was parked right outside. It was a brief pause, only long enough for the people to drink some water, leave their luggage for a minute and check their papers and money. A child told HuffPost Greece that he was 14 and traveling alone. A man looked over a document the Syrians had received from the Greek authorities -- a residence permit, or perhaps an asylum application.

Upon learning that he was talking to the press, the 14-year-old smiled and said the gentleman doing the checking was his uncle.

Syrians are more welcome in Europe than Afghans because they are considered to be more skilled.
Syrians are more welcome in Europe than Afghans because they are considered to be more skilled.

Back at the square, Arash was expressing a complaint held by many of the Afghans. “Your colleagues describe only the Syrians as refugees -- which they are -- but they call the Afghans immigrants," he said. "It is true, the civil war in Afghanistan is officially over, but in reality it is still a war zone, a very dangerous place to live. Violence, clashes and victims of killings by local warlords and clans are an everyday occurrence. There are days or whole periods of time when dead civilians are more than even in Syria."

Syrians are more welcome in Europe than Afghans -- in part because they have established their refugee status due to the war at home, in part because of the brutalities committed by the Islamic State group and in part because they are considered to be more skilled workers. In places like the oil platforms in the North Sea, where expertise is required, they are sought after.

Those who can't bring up the sum to pay the traffickers stay in the square or the Eleonas refugee center.
Those who can't bring up the sum to pay the traffickers stay in the square or the Eleonas refugee center.

Nearby, families and groups of people continued to wait in the square, close to the traffickers, the exchange bureaus and the train and bus stations, for their ticket out. Those who needed more days to get the money, or who were simply very tired, would eventually go on to Eleonas, the temporary refugee center the Greek government has erected in the capital. 

This post originally appeared on HuffPost Greece and has been edited and translated into English. 

 

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