In Patras, Greece, I met Taimor, a 17-year-old Afghan migrant camped out in an abandoned furniture factory. The boy already had the beginnings of a beard and, as the mother of a 17-year-old myself, I must have looked surprised when I heard his age. I don’t see a lot of beards among boys I know in that age-group.
Taimor touched the whiskers on his jaw and tried to explain. “Worry makes my hair come out,” he told me.
Taimor lived among some 150 men and boys, mostly Afghan and Pakistani, in this trash-strewn wreck of a building. He could have been lying about his age, but if he was lying then everyone was lying—the 15-year-old who looked 20, the 20-something who looked 30, the 38-year-old with the hollow cheeks and wrinkled brow.
Last year, I co-founded a small North Carolina-based volunteer team that funds aid projects for refugees and migrants in Greece. I met Taimor when we joined another team delivering provisions to the men in Patras. European immigration law gives Pakistanis and Afghans little chance of obtaining asylum, so these migrants look for alternate routes. In this case, they travel to the port of Patras, then try to sneak aboard ferries leaving for Italy. From Italy, they hope to find their way north through Europe and settle in countries with strong economies, like Germany or Sweden, even if they have little hope of receiving permanent residency there.
Unlike the government-run refugee and migrant facilities scattered across Greece, most of which provide basic accommodations and services, the Patras factory is more like a homeless encampment, a rough space where travelers might huddle in a tent or throw down a blanket. The place has no electricity, no sinks, no showers, one toilet, and a single power outlet, probably tapped from the city system, where the men charge their phones. A Swiss relief group provides one daily meal; otherwise, the men sleep on the ground of the derelict building, eat what they can scavenge or afford to buy, and dream of points farther north in Europe. In order to ease their hardship, at least a little, our group filled a car with socks, underwear, Middle Eastern flat bread, six supersized tubs of yogurt, and forty kilos of frozen halal meat, then drove it all to Patras.
At first glance, our list of provisions sounds straightforward, but it actually resulted from intense discussion between me and my friend Rando, who makes the trip to Patras from Athens every month. A few days before our trip, he and I met in a café on Acharnon Street to make a plan. The food requirements were easy enough: We wanted to buy things that are cheap, filling, and nutritious. Beyond that, however, our decisions became more complicated.
“In terms of clothes,” Rando said, “the men really only want dark pants and t-shirts. It helps them avoid the authorities at night.”
I looked down at the list that Rando had already begun to scrawl on a notepad: yogurt, socks, meat. This dark clothing suggestion, however, caught me by surprise.
“I don’t want to help them sneak aboard the ferries,” I said.
Rando, a German-born, long-haul flight attendant, spends all of his free time delivering aid in Greece. He manages this schedule, it seems, through copious consumption of cigarettes and espresso. Now, he put down his pen and looked up at me. “You’re giving them food, right?”
“You’re making it possible for them to stay there, right?”
“You know that the only reason they’re in Patras is to sneak aboard those ferries, right?”
I nodded again.
“So why are you drawing the line at dark clothes?”
Anyone who works with refugees and migrants knows the horror stories of smuggling: seventy-one migrants dead in a truck in Austria; three refugees drowned crossing a river between Greece and Macedonia; untold numbers lost in the Aegean and Mediterranean.
“I don’t facilitate people putting their lives in danger,” I said.
Rando closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. “This whole system,” he said, “puts their lives in danger.”
He was right, of course. War and poverty force people into untenable situations, making them choose between the violence at home and the violence they encounter as they try to get to safety. Still, I couldn’t budge. As volunteers, we are constantly assessing our actions in moral terms: Am I helping? Am I making things worse? Where do I draw the line?
And often, as was the case that day with me and Rando, we draw the line in different places.
“Fine,” he said. “You buy the meat and yogurt. I’ll buy the dark clothes.”
At that moment, sipping coffee in Athens, the issues remained abstract. They felt very real two days later, though, when we arrived in Patras. There, in the shell of the ruined factory, the migrants bided their time between ferries.
It was early evening, and the Swiss relief team had quickly turned the meat we’d brought from Athens into a stew to serve for dinner. A line of men stretched back from the makeshift serving area into the dark recesses of the building, waiting for their meals. In Farsi, someone had scrawled a line of graffiti on a nearby wall, its meaning reflecting the suffering these people had endured in these conditions: “GOD HELP US,” it said. “WINTER=HELL.”
The individual migrants arrived here, for the most part, through the aid of smugglers. Pakistanis had their smugglers; Afghans had theirs. The two ethnic groups didn’t have to mix, but they seemed to coexist, using English as a common language. Taimor was one of the ones who could speak it fairly well. The boy had a handsome face, a sly smile, and an easy manner—charming qualities that, in better times, probably caused hearts to flutter back in Kabul. Now, he found himself far from home, alone, and sleeping in a ruin. He wanted out of there.
“Why don’t you do something?” he asked.
I thought of mentioning our underwear, yogurt, socks, and meat, but those handouts seemed paltry in the face of such need. “Like what?” I asked.
“Give me a certificate so I can get out of here,” he said.
Did he think I could get him papers to make his journey easier? I wasn’t sure, and, in any case, those food and clothing deliveries pretty much marked the limit of my power. “I don’t have a certificate.”
Dusk was falling. From where we stood, we could see across the coastal road dividing the city from the port. The derelict building offered a good view, in fact, of approaching and departing ferries. The migrants could stay here for weeks or months on end, plotting their moves or watching those vessels glide toward Italy without them.
Taimor told me that he had left Afghanistan because of “the Taliban and Daesh”—the term they use for ISIS—and because he had no hope of getting an education back home. Like so many teenage boys, Taimor saw the future as a mix of grand dreams and hazy uncertainties—“Maybe I’ll study journalism. Maybe computers.” There was nothing hazy, though, about his ambition. It seemed to strike him as crazy that any government would want to hold him back from this pursuit.
By the time I met him, in fact, the boy had already accomplished the extraordinary. Not even 18, he had left his family, fled Afghanistan, evaded border patrols, traversed Iran and Turkey, crossed into Greece, and settled into this abandoned factory where he spent his days trying to jump fences (“Jumping is our physical fitness routine,” one Pakistani migrant joked).
Taimor said, “Tell your people about us.”
We talked about Trump. We talked about asylum requirements and border regulations, but all of that seemed incidental to Taimor. Immigration law doesn’t deter people who feel they have no other option.
Once the sun set, the factory turned completely dark. The men had eaten their simple meal and, without electricity, there was nothing for them to do but duck into their tents, lie down on blankets, or try to get aboard the evening ferry. None of the choices were safe. The morning after our trip to Patras, in fact, police raided the factory at dawn and arrested migrants who had no papers. A few weeks after that, a roof fell in and killed someone.
That night, though, Taimor chose to head toward the port. He hoped to jump the fence, then sneak aboard a departing ship. “I’m going to try,” he said. He may have been embarking on the next great leg of his journey, but he carried nothing besides a bottle of water.
As I watched him amble off, his orange-and-white striped shirt practically glowed in the dark. If he’d acquired one of Rando’s black T-shirts, he hadn’t bothered to put it on. When we said goodbye, we agreed to friend each other on Facebook, but, as of now, he hasn’t replied to my request.