The Marble Life: a Year of Limbo on Lesvos

News coverage of the situation at the border often focuses on isolated events. But those who have made dangerous crossings and become long-time residents of camps have their own accounts to share. On Lesvos, this past year has been a particularly turbulent one.

Nazanin Froghi

October 14th was my 1-year anniversary on this island. When I think it, our first arrival feels like many years ago and far, far away. It took us six weeks to get to Lesvos, and I remember all of it very clearly. The long and tedious walks in the cold, with rain and pure darkness. Taking every step with skepticism in total silence. Even the sound of your breath can be the loudest thing in those mountains and valleys. The fear of a child crying or an old person coughing from the cold being a giveaway to your presence. I was terrified of losing my family, getting lost or being separated. I knew this journey would not be easy, that anything could happen without warning, that our decision to go could have devastating and permanent consequences. I was thinking that somehow, by holding their hands, I could ward off the dangers, prevent the terrible from happening.

Our entire journey, the 20 days living in Istanbul, playing hide-and-seek games with police, forces me to recall an excerpt from Erich Maria Remarque’s “The Night in Lisbon” where he describes what he calls the “marble life.” I read it years ago. The “marble life is the life of a man who cannot stay anywhere, has no right to settle down and is constantly moving like a marble. The summary of the life of an immigrant!” Now I understand him more than I could ever have imagined. I have lived every part of it. Now these days are a part of me too, and that will last forever.

After a long time waiting, it was time to heed the smuggler’s commands and move. We had to walk quickly, hide ourselves in the alleys and streets, with big backpacks and big bags full of life jackets. I was ashamed for the people on the streets, for myself and my disgraceful situation. I felt like a criminal, but whose crime was simply to live! And in the end of the quick run I find myself in an alley full of people looking and feeling  like me… hesitant, worried, full of fear. Everyone was hurrying up to just wait again. The smugglers waiting on an update, waiting on the van, all of us waiting to be transferred to the closest spot on the sea. The van arrives. Around thirty people have to squeeze in. No matter how impossible, we were forced to fit. Standing, sitting on the floor, crouching in a ball, just get in and as quickly as possible. Here, I am an animal, no longer human.

Then the big sea was in front of us. And a small rubber boat. And again too many people to logically fit. I panicked.

I’ve seen the smugglers’ dirty looks, how they took advantage of an African lady traveling alone, how they did what they wanted. I could see and feel it all, but was unable to say or do anything to stop them. I’ve also seen how the police would humiliate and beat the single men without cause. They are primary targets for police and smugglers, and now governments and politics, too. But they have also parents and families left behind, who are all looking to them with hope. For the smugglers, families are more valuable – the bigger the family the more they make. But at every jeopardous turn and awful moment, there are these single men moving forward with the weight and hopes of their families. They face grave discrimination from everyone in every place, but still they remain dedicated and focused. They know their priorities.

The air is suffocating, and I feel pain in my legs and body. The heat, the weight of another body on us. It all just made this path that much more insufferable. The driver was racing down the road, speeding along uneven roads, terrifying us all. We’d heard the stories, and the probability was high for an accident to befall us. It was not in our hands. For six hours like this. Six hours, not feeling my feet. Six hours in the speeding darkness, to where we could not know.  That “where” was a jungle close to the launch point. And there we waited for not one or two hours, but nearly a week without having enough food, water to drink, nothing to clean ourselves. No lights at night. No phones to tell anyone we’re still alive. Nothing but stress to keep silent and hope the police don’t find us.

Then the big sea was in front of us. And a small rubber boat. And again too many people to logically fit. I panicked, and thoughts raided me from every side, all with a common theme of “death”. Is this where we end? Once we’re out on the water the possibility of being pushed back by the police is so high. We’d heard the stories and knew that it was most likely.  Once you’re pushed back it is truly a return to the starting line. You go through all this again and again, each time becomes harder and harder. The average for families were eight or nine attempts, and for some single men over twenty. Somehow it only took us two. 

We just looked at each other with surprise. Our whole afternoon was spent there. Then, finally, the barrier was opened for us to enter the camp.

I had no picture in my mind of Greece. We’d heard stories, and I knew it was going to be difficult, still no expectation or image of what a refugee camp would look like in Europe. I knew it would be hard, but not to this extent. I was very wrong in thinking all our hardships would end once we arrived in Greece. In our second try the distance seemed shorter somehow. In the end we were caught by the Greek Coast Guard. They took the small engine and the gas for our small rubber boat and pushed us back toward Turkey. But luckily a humanitarian team came to rescue us and they took us to a big tent. We received dry clothes, hot tea, and something to eat. We were so happy. We had finally succeeded, and most importantly, somehow we were all safe and alive.

After we arrived they directed us to an open area surrounded by containers, fenced off, quarantined from everyone else. We waited for many hours and were interviewed by personnel there, and registered as asylum seekers in the camp. While we waited we saw people gathering along a fence, a connection with the world inside the camp. Lots of people were just outside, checking the number of new arrivals, looking for acquaintances, friends or family, but others were just looking for a familiar word. We also met our friends and companions from the Turkish dormitory. It was really weird and somehow funny to see and be seen through the fences, it was like a meeting for prisoners.

I was still excited about the world out there. I do not remember what my imagination of the world beyond the fence was exactly in that moment, or what they were thinking about. We just looked at each other with surprise. Our whole afternoon was spent there. Then, finally, the barrier was opened for us to enter the camp. We received some blankets and things for our future tent homes, and were sent on our way. But just as we took our first step out, a sudden horrible fight erupted between two guys. We retreated back inside, horrified, as one man stabbed the other. The wounded man was eventually taken to the hospital. We heard later that he died.

In those early days we were bombarded by the stories and experiences – the fights, the fires, the food lines, the number of months stuck waiting. I was terrified.

We crossed the blood shed on the ground, set foot inside the camp. We arrived in Moria. All of us were shocked by the huge number of people moving around, and by the welcome slogan used by the people “Welcome to Moria Hell.” In those early days we were bombarded by the stories and experiences – the fights, the fires, the food lines, the number of months stuck waiting. I was terrified.

It was late evening and it was getting dark. The NGOs weren’t working at that hour to give us a place for shelter. We spent that night cramped in a container given to us by a friend. The rest of the new arrivals had to sleep that night in the cold, between the crowds, the drunks, the war on the streets of Moria.

Many things were clear and needless to say. I had no idea what to do or how to live there. I started to live in a container, which seemed better than the tents in the jungle. But the neighbors described how they were quick to catch fire and burn even faster than you could have time to run. In those first nights I was afraid of sleeping, always looked at the frame, drew an escape plan in my head, of how and from where we should flee when the fires came.

Sensitive to the slightest sound, I expected anything could happen. Life in the camp forces you to always be on full alert, stressed and anxious. Even if you live just with your family, you always need the time to be alone with yourself, have some privacy. But in Moria you share your place with many other families separated only by a curtain or a thin wall. You can’t help it, inadvertently you become involved in other people’s life problems too. The loud noises, forced to tolerate people whose lifestyles and thoughts are different from yours. All this makes you a nervous, aggressive, bored and impatient person who no longer even has the patience for their own. I remember after we settled down in the camp, I never went to see the newly arrived people from behind the fence, because I did not see anything interesting or fun in it. This arrival experience was enough to understand the depth of the catastrophe we were entering. 

After two weeks of living in Moria I was directed by a friend to a local support center. We walked 40 minutes to get there, but it was the best possible place for anyone who hasn’t seen a safe haven, recently. Hundreds of people, lots of joy, color, and respect. It was unique because it had been made over time with lots of love by a variety of talented people, and offered activities for people of every age and gender. The classes there were the best option to make up for the total lack of school for everyone.

This is where I started teaching adult students in the morning. It was definitely a huge responsibility for an inexperienced person like me. I saw students in front of me who were passionate about learning, no matter their circumstances. They walked miles in the rain, the cold and stormy weather of winter, and the hot summer, to be in class every day. Living in the camp and all the difficulties that come with it – no electricity on most nights, lack of concentration due to the overcrowding, and all the challenges to their mental health – all these directly affected the quality of their learning, but they did not give up. I had a lot to learn, even if I was afraid. But I was not alone. I was surrounded by lots of people who generously helped me to be better each day, and it was worth all the fears and challenges because it gave me a sense of being alive and useful.

Then one day, by chance, I saw a poster on the school wall. A photography class! At that moment I could not believe there would be such a cool class for refugees, that I could pursue my biggest interest under some of the harshest circumstances of my life. The first half hour of class interfered with my own teaching, but I registered with a friend who was also my colleague. The classroom was small but warm and friendly. It was here that I met two of the most influential and amazing people, Sonia Nandzik and Douglas Herman of ReFOCUS, who patiently and tirelessly educated us in every creative and fun way possible. The attention and respect we received as human beings in this classroom took us away from the camp atmosphere and problems.

At that moment I could not believe there would be such a cool class for refugees, that I could pursue my biggest interest under some of the harshest circumstances of my life.

Weeks passed and we continued our classes. After photography, we followed filmmaking courses, and were in the process of starting our second short film. But then the attacks by the fascists on the island led to some very tense times, with a lot of demonstrations and clashes – it was not safe to have the classes for some days. Then, after a few days of the center being closed, on March 8th exactly, we heard about the fire that destroyed the center and our school. The news was sudden but very familiar. The Taliban did the same, the only difference was that this time it was not happening in a war zone, it was in Europe! 

It felt like the final blow came with Moria’s complete lockdown. We had to stand in crowded lines for hours and get permission for everything necessary. We were officially stuck inside Moria for the sake of public health and safety, yet none for us. Despite all the challenges, our ReFOCUS media classes continued, and I was led to report on conditions and current events inside Moria during lockdown. I had never thought about being a journalist before, but now I found it essential to raise our voices, especially since other journalists were not allowed on Lesvos or in Moria.

The quarantine never officially ended for us. Although some restrictions had eased for a while, there was still control over us and the camp continued to be under lockdown. Then at the end of the summer, six months after the lockdown started, a positive corona case was found inside Moria. The pressure on the people increased from all sides. By this time my family and I had already been transferred from Moria to a house in Thermi, a coastal village. But I was still teaching and working inside Moria, spending every day inside. After all these tensions, Moria was destroyed by two consecutive nights of fires, and 13,000 people were displaced to the streets. There was no safety for any of them, not even the children. They say it was fortunate the fire did not harm the people, but ten days of living on the street with all supports being blocked by police and army certainly did.

Living in this camp, in this horrible situation, is not something to get used to. Yet, we see the people adapt themselves. But why should they? Accepting what politicians have made for us means a loss of our freedom. For those leaders, and the citizens of the EU who claim to stand for human rights and European ideals, there’s a quote I cannot attribute that keeps rising in my mind, “everything you do not change, you are choosing it.” Is this really what Europe is choosing?

Nazanin Froghi, a native of Afghanistan, earned her bachelor of educational science from Tehran University. Currently residing on Lesvos, Greece, Ms. Froghi is a senior member of ReFOCUS Media Labs photojournalism program. She has contributed to reports on the refugee crisis in Greece with mainstream international partners including Aljazeera, Bloomberg, BBC Newsnight, DR, Guardian and SBS Dateline. 

Photograph: Kostas Papadakis