Behind the scenes, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism, Stories

Fluency and Empathy

community-centre

The refugee Community Centre, Athens. ©djnorwood 2017

Part two of  three part post…

The following day I met up with Sophie again after she invited me to an Arabic film at a community centre. I made my way across the city just in time only to be told it was a women’s only screening. No problem, I thought, I’ll sit in on an Arabic class instead.

One of the volunteers stood in while we waited for the usual teacher, Raman to arrive. We were all there for our different reasons, and not all because we had nothing better to do. Olga’s Iranian husband always spoke to her in Russian, but she’d never been able to reciprocate in his native tongue, so this was her big chance. She seemed touchingly determined to change this discrepancy in one go.

Our three British classmates were there in various capacities to fill the void for aid and services – English language classes, community aid and social work – each providing a link between charity groups and displaced peoples. I was beginning to get a sense of the roles carved out by the arrival of migrants and, equally, the diversity of those who choose to respond to their calls.

Raman helped us wrap our mouths round unfamiliar words and phrases, laughing with every failed vowel and mispronounced glottal stop…

Kefak/Kefek – How are you? (Male/female)

Alhamdulillah – Praise (be to God)

Taman – Good

Sho ho Esmak/Esmek – What is your name?

Ismi – My name is…

Sophie’s interactions in Arabic had impressed me, but also reinforced how fluency builds trust between the displaced people Safe Passage was here to help. This brief Arabic lesson only reinforced the sense that a language barrier can lead to antipathy, then perhaps inexorably on to more obvious physical borders, boundaries and ill conceived walls. An obvious question now seemed to hang in the air: would we in the west be so xenophobic if we shared the ability, or even the desire, to communicate on equal terms? I left the centre with a new sense of empathy wondering how long it would last.

Tonight was the night I had promised to hook up with Ahmed and Akram and I couldn’t help wishing I’d postponed the meeting till later in the week. It was now 5, so I had to kick around until they surfaced at 10. I wandered back towards Exarchia, pausing to stare in through bookshop windows, admiring the exotic beauty of the Greek alphabet. I had no real desire to decipher the many titles on offer, my eyes just luxuriated in their foreignness: aesthetically accessible but resolutely incomprehensible – like some kind of enigmatic code.

Eight O’clock came round and I was beginning to flag. My gut, now full of greasy Gyros said this was voyeuristic, given that I had no real reason to be at the squat full of asylum seekers, yet the toothbrush in my bag told a different story and weighed more heavily on my mind than its diminutive size might suggest. The whole escapade now felt vaguely surreal. Everything was set apart from my conviction that this was a good idea. I wandered back across town, back to the apartment and spent a couple of hours with my host and his friends playing snakes and ladders of all things, feeling guilty about my lack of commitment. Were they really expecting me to spend the night with them?

In the morning I logged in to the house wifi and picked up the WhatsApp messages from Ahmed.

‘Where are you?’ hit me like a punch in the side. I apologized, then hurriedly arranged to meet them the following night. I promised I wouldn’t let them down again.

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Behind the scenes, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

Ahmed & Akram

exarchia

A corner of Exarchia District, Athens, during a gathering of political activists. ©djnorwood 2012

‘If you stay there one night, you will want to kill yourself.’

I was sitting outside a bar overlooking Exarchia Square in central Athens, scoffing pizza with some new acquaintances, two of whom happened to be Syrian refugees. We’d been talking about the journey the sixteen and eighteen year olds had had to endure to get to their current place of residence – a squat in an abandoned school close to the centre of Athens.  Ahmed was describing in great detail what it was like to be living persona non grata in a foreign country. The pizza had come as a welcome distraction from the more pressing thoughts of an uncertain future.

‘If you like you can stay the night with us,’ he continues, giving a cheeky smile across the table to his friend who is occupied with a particularly large and unwieldy slice. Akram smiles with his eyes, knowing exactly the hospitality his friend has in mind. His mouth is far too busy with the pizza to reply.

Just before my week long trip to Athens I’d been mulling over ideas about how to interpret questions of social cohesion, economic depression and individual discontent. It put me in a reflective mood, but already this encounter was helping to understand the truth about what it was like to be displaced, miles away from home. I got the impression Ahmed was making the most of his last year of boyhood, and was enjoying some aspects of his pioneering adventure. He wore his displacement on his sleeve, and my subdued reaction to the thought of spending a night there only seemed to bolster his sense of pride and resilience, with a smattering of school-boy excitement thrown in.

I’d been to Athens before, in the summer of 2012, again for a frustratingly short amount of time, but had returned with something approaching a visual style and a vocabulary of themes. Then I had stayed just down the road from this spot, in a small apartment with a friend from Estonia, and had walked these same streets in an effort to understand the symptoms of the financial crisis facing the country. Exarchia Square and its surrounding neighbourhood had become something of a safe haven for demonstrators – the Police unwilling to venture into a space where the consent between the agency of the state and the population had been repealed, and I found that nothing much had changed.

In my peregrinations this time, I find myself sitting outside a smokey bar, a favourite haunt for left leaning literati, overlooking the same tree lined Square I got to know four years ago. Lost in my own thoughts, I’m asked in English ‘do you order drinks at the bar, or is there table service?’ I thought I fitted in quite well as a local, but obviously not. Strangely, I felt my cover blown. Sophie, an Arabic speaking charity coordinator working for Safe Passage, was out at the end of the working week taking the pulse of the city. As we sit together overlooking the Square, she is recognised by the two boys, whom she had helped when they were both living in a camp on a nearby Island.

‘Where is this place? Where are you staying?’ I ask, trying to get a sense of whether staying a night in the squat is a good idea or not.

‘It’s only just around the corner, just up there,’ says Ahmed pointing over his shoulder and lifting his chin at the same time.

‘We can find a place for you, no problem. But no pictures.’

‘How many people are there,’ I ask.

‘About one hundred and fifty.’

Sophie, peers over in my direction.

‘What an opportunity,’ she says. ‘Are you going to do it?’

‘Err…Yes’, I reply hesitantly. ‘Why not? My project isn’t primarily about refugees, but it’s part of the broader picture, and I can put it down as research.’

Those last words make me feel uncomfortable, like some kind of disaster tourist, but I push these thoughts aside, together with Ahmed’s rather dramatic warning, and resolve to get in touch with them both the following evening.

We exchange numbers, friend each other on Facebook (of course) and dissipate into the night, the cold Athenian air tinged with the taint of tear gas.

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Behind the scenes, Environment, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

In Transit

athenian-vans

These graffiti covered vans seen recently in Athens seem to distil many of the arguments about the economic woes of a country coupled with the migrant crisis we hear so much about in the media.

I spent a day walking around the neighbourhood near the flat, which happened to be close to Athens China Town. If ever there was a success story of economic migration, surely this was it. Nothing glamorous about the location but the fashion draped over mannequins on pavement corners had more than a hint of glitz. One wondered how the dark warehouses behind, full of sequinned dresses and racy underwear could sustain themselves, yet business seemed to be booming. In harsh times a little bit of luxury seemed to go a long way.

Keeping watch like sentries outside the store fronts were dilapidated vans, mostly white and mostly adorned with a livery of spray can tags. The tipping point of resistance to this criminal damage had long been surpassed, and now these most utilitarian of vehicles were slowly morphing into their surroundings.

The vans show something of the industrial heartland of commercial Athens, away from tourist attractions. They are a modern symbol of what the Ancient Greeks termed ‘Polis’ – the agents of citizenship which help drive, literally in this case, the economic well-being of a city.

 

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Behind the scenes

Adventures in Athens

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