Welcome to Prison: A Day in the Life

Each summer, students from SGPIA spread out across the world as part of the International Field Program (IFP) and Studio Programs! Students conduct independent research, contribute to the vital work of local non-profits, NGOs, and government agencies, and gain invaluable international experience. This summer, our students are living, working, and learning in Argentina, the Balkans, Colombia, Cuba, Ethiopia, and South Africa. The IFP and Studio Correspondents will be the eyes and ears in the field to help us tell the stories of the summer. Check back to learn about each of the field sites.

0600. I open my eyes and look at my phone for the time.  Ah! An early start! I’ll just blink real qui…

0800. Huh? Quick shower, a glass of water. Black jeans, brown boots, blue denim short-sleeve collared shirt, black backpack, and my signature round dark sunglasses. Check! Off I go, out the door. Five minutes later I am sitting at an outdoor table at my favorite corner cafe for a solo breakfast. Greek coffee to sip, bread with an olive tapenade, local honey, olive oil with sesame seeds, and a smooth tahini to nibble. I check my notebook in preparation for the day ahead, reading through my proposed interview questions. He said to come back at 10am…  “Derek!” I hear, seeing Emmanouil, the local lawyer we are working with, zip up on a scooter. “Kalimera! I am going to the courts,” he says. “Good luck! I’ll see you later today in the camp,” I reply. Wiping breakfast crumbs from my beard, I pay the bill and make my way up one of the main streets to another corner cafe where I wait for two others.

0940. Zuzanna, my New School colleague, walks up first. Maroon shirt, dark green pants, tan sandals and her own signature oversized sunglasses. “Kalimera!” we say to each other. One of our contacts, who I shall name Taksim, walks up from the cross street and we exchange morning pleasantries. Taksim is a volunteer for a non-government organization, or NGO, inside Moria refugee camp, working on individual cases. We are to shadow him for the day as he goes about his business. We walk over to his car, get it, and he starts it up. Turkish music cranks out of the speakers as the engine comes to life.

1000. The road leading to Moria camp becomes increasingly congested with refugees walking the street the closer we get to it. “Welcome to Prison” is prominently spray-painted on the first wall of the camp we see in what seems like a modern poetic twist of Dante Alighieri. Just above it there is the fencing and concertina razor-wire of the repurposed military camp and adjacent to it are fruit stands and several parked vehicles. We park and make our way to the entrance.

1015. Although the three of us do have official access and permission to enter, we stroll in unimpeded by security. The main roadway is wide and made of concrete and carries with it a slight stench of sewage. My objective is to sit down and talk with the coordinator of the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or KEELPNO as a Greek acronym and colloquially pronounced “Kelp-No”. His office is located inside the Registration and Identification Center, or RIC, portion of the camp, itself gated and access controlled by members of the EuroRelief NGO who act as physical gatekeepers. His office is located in the usual small container-sized building with a gaggle of people vying for the attention of the person at the door. I approach apprehensively, aware that my want for an interview pales in comparison to their need for medical attention as well as the fact that my status as an English-speaking westerner may also easily grant me access. “No, he’s not here. Check over at New Arrivals,” the person at the door says to me and points across the small courtyard-like area to the sectioned area where police were conducting what seemed like customs work. Others in blue vests with FRONTEX written on the back were hanging around on the sides and chatting. Concerned with being too intrusive in this area, I go with Zuzanna to a shaded area by the side of New Arrivals. Let me hang back a bit and see if I can spot this guy.

1030. Not spotted. “Hey Zuzu, you remember what he looked like, right?” I ask. “Yes, bald with glasses. I think,” she responds. Damn, I can’t trust my own memory anymore. I ask one of the FRONTEX-vested people. I’m referred back to the office where I began. When asking there, a different door person tells me, “Oh, he’s in a meeting over there,” and points vaguely to a third part of the courtyard but to no specifically discernable place. Taksim, also now in this area talking to several people, comes says hello. We decide to sit with him while he plans his day, hoping to also catch a glimpse of this apparently elusive and increasingly mythical figure. Taksim refers to his notebook, written with words of at least three different languages.

1045. “OK, are you two ready to start this day?” Taksim asks. I’ve gotta check one last time. Approaching the same building a third time now, and still wary of my privileged status as a not-asylum-seeker, I insert myself carefully into the gaggle before the all-power door person. When I inquire, the door person tells me he is in his office and disappears inside. She returns two minutes later, “He’s with a patient at the moment. Perhaps it is better to come back tomorrow morning when it is less busy.” RIght. Someone in the gaggle waves their papers in the air exclaiming, “I’ve been waiting for four hours!” A bit of a stretch for almost 11am, but I decide it is indeed time to move on.

1100. We’re on the move now, leaving the RIC and turning right into the rest of the camp. Another small container-sized building with another gaggle on the right. A small makeshift shop selling coffee on the left. Just next to this is the asylum processing area. A large courtyard with benches for those waiting for their asylum interviews encircled by many container-offices for various purposes. This is all surrounded by a perimeter of double fencing sandwiching vertically layered concertina razor-wire to the top where another four rows of the razor-wire flower out. In case anyone makes it over this elaborate defense, the entire area is ceilinged by more fencing. This looks more secure than the Delta Force headquarters. Having lost their offices and asylum documents in a fire the year prior, this is all apparently necessitated. We push onward further into the camp.

1105. Passing by another makeshift shop, this time half cafe half barber, we come up along the left side of a large building. The pathway is maybe ten feet between the wall and the opposite chain link fence, but most of this space is consumed by a hodgepodge of tents held up by a complicated network of string and wire that also, quite efficiently, serve a second function as a clothesline. The three to four feet of space that is left is taken up by African men talking to each other, looking at their cell phones, listening to music or, as in one case, peeling potatoes. After about 50m Taksim opens a door and calls out a name. The glimpse I get of the inside reveals one large room full of bunk beds and drawn blankets.

1110. An African man comes to the door and he and Taksim greet each other warmly. This man is to be Taksim’s unofficial interpreter for the day. He introduces us to his two sons who are there with him, the older of which he laments does not currently have the ability to work on his already exquisite soccer skills due to the poor living conditions of the camp and lack of space. Taksim makes a phone call and asks the interpreter to speak French, giving the name of the person on the receiving end. There is a short conversation and off we go again, traversing the maze of tents and containers until we reach our destination. I wonder how many languages he speaks? Along the way we witness children using garbage can lids to slide down the concrete street that is a small hill.

1115. We come to another door attached to another large building full of bunk beds and blankets, but this time our contact is waiting for us outside. Zuzanna and I sit aside while the three discuss the pertinent matters of the individual’s case, taking in the view of the camp in this elevated area. When they are finished I ask the interpreter how many languages he speaks. “Five!” he tells us. Five? How do so many people speak so many languages? How is it I only know one!? “OK, next phone call. Lingala this time,” Taksim requests as he dials and hands his phone over to the interpreter, who takes it and says, “Bonjour!” Taksim reminds him, “Lingala!” After the short conversation, we begin to make our way back towards the RIC, but not before saying a quick and lively hello to an African man who is a client at Emmanouil’s law office.

1130. We are now back inside the RIC area. I made sure to over-pronounce my gratitude in English to the gatekeepers almost instinctively to avoid any problems with my from-anywhere face. We enter the KEELPNO portion of RIC where our interpreter is told his services cannot be used because he is not “official.” Often, many appointments with the authorities must be rescheduled at a date weeks or months in the future because no official translator is available that particular day for a certain language. Is there no wiggle room considering such a deplorable state of affairs here? Apparently not. We say our goodbyes to him and wish him luck.

1200. Zuzanna and I wait patiently as Taksim enters one of the gated living areas within RIC for the people identified as “vulnerable.” These areas, overcrowded yet again, are designed for their own safety from the general population of the camp. Vulnerability status is sought after by many as it permits movement off of the island and to the mainland sooner by a factor of months. This, unfortunately, may perpetuate an economy of self-harm. He returns and asks us jokingly, “Are you ready to go to jail?”

1215. We approach yet another gated and razor-wired area, but this time access control is conducted by actual police. Taksim has easy access due to the nature of his work, but Zuzanna and I must hand over our IDs to be held while we are inside this area. We pass through another two gates until we reach the final gate, that is not to be opened. Taksim is bringing someone tea, a pound of sugar, and a pack of cigarettes. Is there a nail file hidden in the sugar, too? They talk at the gate and the police pass the items through a hole cut into the chain link fence. Behind them we see two rows of containers with a very clean area between them, indeed the most clean area of the entire camp. Each container here houses about 20 people, all men, who are waiting to be deported back to Turkey or their home country, most involuntarily. They are only permitted out of the containers for a short time each day, and are only permitted to use their cell phones for a short time every Wednesday and Saturday. A prison inside of a prison-like camp on an island that acts as a prison itself. Prisception. Zuzanna strikes up a conversation with one of the policemen, who laments what the migration crisis has done to both the asylum seekers as well as the locals of Lesvos. “It teaches a person to be inhuman,” he says as he recounts how the situation progressed from emergency to routine. Sympathizing with both sides, he gives us insight into how complex this all really is.

1300. We leave the detention area and head back towards the asylum processing area. Along the way we pass something that looks like it is designed to be a waiting line for an amusement park ride, but with completely caged sides and ceiling the whole way. When I inquire Taksim tells me this is for the food line. He meets with another asylum-seeker and tells us that he is going to enter the asylum processing area and that this will likely take some time. We part ways with him for the day and head over to the next opening in the fence a little further down the road where our colleague is volunteering with a legal NGO. Clothes hang to dry on the razor wire that continues to line the area. Ingenuity at its finest. The EuroRelief gatekeeper greets us and lets us in without a problem. We sit and talk a bit, reflecting on the conditions of the camp we have seen so far.

1330. Time to move on. The cantinas just outside of Moria camp on the road are where we are to meet Taksim when he is finished in the asylum area. They are all full of African men waiting to watch the soccer game, and Taksim is nowhere to be found. I decide to pop on over to the Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, site just across the street. A young woman greets us with a British accent. Zuzanna and I explain to her our research and she invites us to stay for the book reading ceremony that is about to begin. Her and the children’s psychologist had run a program over the previous three months, culminating in stories written by the participating children that encompasses their real-life stories in fictional characters. These stories were made into books with accompanied pictures drawn by the children. This was all to be presented by the children to their families and the MSF staff. Two groups would present, the first with children aged about 7 to 12 and the second group aged 14 to 17.

1400. The stories begin by depicting life before conflict. Playing with friends and having hopes and dreams of the future. The stories then take a turn for the worse with the introduction of conflict and the beginning of their journey that would lead them to Greece. The third part is descriptive of the present moment, being trapped in a limbo state in the camps of Lesvos. Finally, they turn once again to hopes and dreams for a future in Europe. The stories are heartbreaking to witness. They describe harrowing moments of vulgar violence. People being burned alive by the Islamic State, resorting to eating cats, finding a friends hollow body that was harvested for organs, seeing young girls traded for cigarettes, watching a sister fade away into the sea due to a capsized boat during a night crossing from Turkey. Their hand-drawn pictures hit home that these stories are forever ingrained in the minds of these young people. Yet almost just as heartbreaking are their hopes for the future, such as marrying and buying a plot of land to farm like the family had done in the old country. If only they knew how difficult the road ahead may yet be for them.

1800. After the book reading ceremony we have one hour to get meet with the rest of our group at Kara Tepe refugee camp (fashioned “Kara Tepe Hospitality Center” by the camp director) to attend a refugee-participant concert in celebration of World Refugee Day. With the camp only 5 km away and the sun well-hidden behind plenty of full, fluffy, grey-tinted clouds, we decide to walk the route. Moria, the town just adjacent to the refugee camp and its namesake, is small but still stands beautiful despite proximity to and association with what is considered one of the worst refugee camps in Europe. It begins to drizzle a bit of rain. “Derek, we can run until we shave off five minutes ,” Zuzanna suggests. OK, doubletime!

1900. We make it to the front gate of Kara Tepe a sweaty mess. The rest of the gang arrives a little more freshened and Emmanouil updates us on the court proceedings from the morning. We make our way into the camp. Kara Tepe is designed to house much of the population of asylum-seekers identified as “vulnerable” for one reason or another and so, its access is more tightly controlled. The conditions of Kara Tepe stand in stark contrast to those of Moria; everyone has an ISOBOX shipping-container domicile with air conditioning and heat, bright vibrant colors adorn many of the walls, and there are kids everywhere. So many kids. Ugh, so many kids! I say hello to a few residents whom are familiar faces from my time here as a volunteer this past January. Still here… Didn’t I tell them I hoped not to see them when I came back!? The concert ensues, a mix of everything from Beethoven to traditional Greek and Middle Eastern songs, to a full set from a musical group from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

2200. We make our way back into town in fragmented groups, some headed home and others out to eat and drink. Naturally, I’m part of the latter group. After eating a quick souvlaki with two friends we go to one of the local hangouts for a drink and to say hello to another old volunteer friend who is in town for the week. Old friends and new friends intermingle this night as they have before and will again in a town where everyone knows each other and many are striving towards a similar goal. Alright, just one more beer…

0300. Huh? 3am already!? Thankful for only a five minute walk home and no possibility of MTA delays, I quickly snuggle up for nearly five hours of sleep before a 0800 wake up for a new day full of new adventures.

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