Over the past 20 years, the Mediterranean Sea has become a graveyard as the EU’s brutal “Fortress Europe” policies unleash brutal hostility against migrants and refugees. While mainstream media has often sensationalized the problem as a “migrant crisis” or “refugee crisis,” little scrutiny has been placed on the role of Europe and other countries of the Global North in producing this crisis of mass displacement through the War on Terror or the historic underdevelopment of the former colonial world. Authors Helen Benedict and Eyan Awwadawnan join The Chris Hedges Report to discuss their book, Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees in Greece.
Helen Benedict is a novelist and journalist. Her previous books include The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, and Wolf Season.
Eyad Awwadawnan, formerly a law student from Damascus, Syria, is a writer and poet currently living as an asylum-seeker in Reykjavik, Iceland. During his four years in Greece, he worked as a cultural mediator, translator and interpreter for various NGOs.
Studio: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Adam Coley
Chris Hedges: There are some 84 million forcibly displaced people in the world, more than at any time since World War II. They are fleeing a combination of war, civil unrest, religious conflict, poverty, persecution, local violence, and the climate crisis. As conditions worsen, authoritarian governments are on the rise that denounce immigrants and refugees as contaminants, and impose draconian policies to turn them back, including at sea, where whole boats of refugees are drowned. Pope Francis calls the Mediterranean the largest cemetery in Europe.
The persecution and abuse of refugees is becoming policy, including in Europe, Australia, and the United States. It does not matter that the US bears a direct responsibility for the more than 37 million people who have fled the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan since 2001. Not to mention the US-backed wars in Central America. The US proxy war in Ukraine has only exacerbated the crisis. The EU is providing money to Greece and Turkey to detain and prevent refugees from seeking asylum in other European countries.
The EU is also testing sound cannons to blast at asylum seekers trying to cross into Greece from Turkey. The coast guards of Greece and the EU push refugees, including children, back out into sea, causing many to drown. Greece, which imprisons seven out of 10 asylum seekers, denies new arrivals, including Afghans, the right to request asylum unless these arrivals are Ukrainians. The increased hostility to refugees in the United States, Great Britain, Italy, Belarus, Poland, Croatia, Greece, Spain, and Hungary are the building blocks of a new and heartless world order. One where the wealthy industrialized nations of the earth wall off the destitute to suffer and die.
Joining me to discuss the crisis is Helen Benedict, who, with Eyad Awwadawnan, wrote Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees in Greece.
So you open the book, the preface, you write, Eyad, about your own experience, which is an experience that’s mirrored in many of the people you’ve gone to interview in the book. But perhaps you can just explain how you ended up in Turkey and your flight, or your entry into Greece, and just lay out what happened. Of course you lose family members. But just tell us briefly that trajectory.
Eyad Awwadawnan: First of all, thank you for having us, and I would like to start with the first reason that made me escape my country. No one wants to leave his homeland. No one wants to leave any of his memories, his friends. But I would say that when you have no life and when you are afraid for your life and the one you love, you will try so hard to protect them and protect yourself. So the first reason to leave was the war, and was the conditions of life that you cannot handle. Even though I wanted to make sure that for a few years we tried to move from one area to another, from city to city in Syria, to find peace. But in the end, you cannot. So we had to make a decision and to leave.
So we left for Turkey. Also, it is not an easy journey. Because when you leave from, for example, the area controlled by the government to the area controlled by the opposition, it is not something easy. You have to pay a lot of money, and there is a big chance that you will be cut, you will be imprisoned, and maybe you will lose your life. A lot of people I know, they have lost their lives.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. Can I just stop you there, because I want to go back to Syria, because there’s a lot of pressure at which you felt within your own family to join one side or the other in the conflict.
Eyad Awwadawnan: So I would say that, a lot of people, they try so hard to keep studying, but for small reasons, you have to be on one side either with the government or with the opposition. So it is not easy. For example, for me and for a lot of people, they don’t want to be part of this because we are just killing ourselves. My uncle, my cousin, my friend. Because it is a civil war, this is the thing. So I don’t want to be on any side. So it is a real pressure and stressful for us, the situation there. I have lost many friends. I have also lost two cousins, and many others.
So I think the easy way was for me to leave. But at the same time, it is not easy emotionally, because you are forced to leave your country, to leave everything behind you. And even though you are thinking whether you are going to make it or not, because I crossed the border alone from Syria to Turkey, and the only thought was in my head whether I’m going to receive the bullet or not, because a lot of Syrians who tried to escape, they have been killed at the border.
So we left from Syria. We stayed in Turkey for a year and a half. The situation was really hard there.
Chris Hedges: Well, you say, “We live like animals”. This is talking about Turkey.
Eyad Awwadawnan: Yes, yes. I would say, just saying that life is hard there is not enough, because sometimes, okay, life is hard everywhere. But what do you mean by hard? I would say when you just work all the day from seven to 12, sometimes till midnight, and for almost no money, no pay. If you cut your finger at the work, there is no security, there is no health insurance because in this case you lost your job and you lost your finger, and no one will care about this. So just like animals, you work, you eat, you drink, and that’s it. I lived there for a year and a half, and I only went to a cafe one time.
Chris Hedges: You worked repairing trucks, you worked in a shoe factory. But you write, “Employers would often refuse to pay our wages, and if we asked for them, we were fired. We were insulted by the people, the police, and the army. They said, you are traitors, you fled from your country and come here to hide like women behind us.”
Eyad Awwadawnan: Yes, we hear this a lot of times. But even though I tried to explain many times, I tried to explain and explain, but in the end you will say, okay, if no one is hearing me, why say anything? Just keep silent. They think that we are there to just steal their jobs, and this is not the truth. We had lives in Syria, we had a future there, but the war forced us to leave our country and to find a safe place to live. The treatment was really bad. I’m not going to say that all of them, no, I cannot generalize this because a lot of people also, they are good. In any place on this earth, you will find good people and bad people.
I remember when I was working in a shoe factory, less than $1, but for me it makes something, it’ll provide me with something. I told him I have 10 Turkish lira, and he kicked me from the vehicle.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about Greece. So you pay a smuggler $500, that’s a ton of money.
Eyad Awwadawnan: Yes.
Chris Hedges: For passage to Greece on a rubber boat. You’re paying, you think you’re getting on a boat with no more than 33 passengers for a crossing that’s no longer than an hour. That doesn’t turn out to be the case. Talk about that passage off the Turkish coast towards Greece.
Eyad Awwadawnan: As I said in the book, the smuggler will make the sea honey for you. You will just go there with a few, with a maximum of 30 people on the boat, and you will spend less than one hour. And when you get inside the vehicle, the bus, it is a mining bus. Okay. You find yourself surrounded by 45. In my boat, there were 67 people. 67 people, including old people, young children, women, pregnant, everything, you will see the screaming. A lot of people, they start vomiting. It was not easy. And one of the scenes and the memories of the boat still, when we saw the Frontex boat, we started carrying our children, holding them up. High to the sky, because we heard a lot of stories that if you don’t have children in the boat, they will send you back. And this is how it’s going now.
Chris Hedges: You land in Greece. I’m just going to have you fill that part in. And within the book you describe the conditions. But talk about what happens after you land in Greece.
Eyad Awwadawnan: I just want to say something. I remember the moment when I got on the Frontex boat, when we saw the beautiful yellow buildings of Salamis, it was really beautiful. So when we landed at the port, they brought us, they put us all together, the 67 people, they held us like a piece of paper and they wrote numbers on our hands. After that, they brought small mini buses and took us to the camp. Just seeing the entrance of the camp covered by the garbage, and the fence, seeing the people looking, lying in a long line, waiting for their food, shouting, the police all around the place. It was a shock for me. And after that, they put us in an area where… I would say an animal cannot live there or stay, because there are no clean toilets, even there is no water at that time. So it was a disaster. It was a disaster.
Chris Hedges: So Helen, in the book you talk about the change in attitude, especially after 2015, towards refugees coming into Europe. Can you talk about that process and where we’ve… And I didn’t know until I read the book there was such an aggressive effort by the EU to essentially trap people in Greece or push them back.
Helen Benedict: Yes. So we often see these initial waves of sympathy when refugees are first fleeing a war. And even though the war started in Syria in 2011, the biggest rush out was in 2015. And at first there was some sympathy and there were, even on the islands, a lot of people were being welcoming, making sandwiches, opening their homes. Not everybody, but a lot of people. And then in 2016, the EU made this deal with Turkey called the EU Turkey deal. They put, the fed, 3 billion euros into Greece and Turkey to basically make sure that all the procedures that any refugee would have to go through, any asylum seeker would have to go through, would be slowed down, slowed down, slowed down. And these temporary camps that were supposed to just be processing centers suddenly became holding pens.
And people got stuck there for year after year after year with no schooling, one doctor for the entire camp. And the horrible sanitary conditions and filth and overcrowding that Eyad describes. And then the islanders, as more people came, as the islanders began to get more and more fed up with it and more and more distressed – Even though, I might say, are also making money off it. And this was fed by the new government that came into Greece in 2019, which was an overtly right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee government. Using that platform so many authoritarian governments are using today.
And began to feed all these lies to the people of Greece, that these are not real refugees fleeing for their lives, these are economic migrants coming to try and make money off us and take our jobs. And so which of course works, especially with the help of social media to foster more and more and more antagonism. And that’s what I saw each time I went back. I would talk to Greeks and I would talk to the people living in the camp, and they were having more and more hostile encounters with locals, and especially with the local police who became very brutal.
Chris Hedges: So, Eyad, one of the themes in the book is this, all those people who prey on the vulnerable for profit, not just the smugglers, but everywhere because you’re defenseless, because you have no legal rights, even though you’re poor, you are just fleeced at every turn. Can you talk about all the ways that these refugees are preyed upon, often through scams, even?
Eyad Awwadawnan: Yes. I would say, for example, let’s start when I was in Salamis, a lot of asylum seekers had been rejected. So they try their best to find smugglers to get them out of the island of Salamis to the mainland, either the smuggler will make a deal with a truck driver or just to put them in the back of a truck. And there is a danger to this. The other thing also, let’s say that you are not an asylum seeker anymore. You have been recognized as a refugee. But here you are going through a nightmare of the long procedures. For example, I have been waiting when I was there just for my ID card for six months.
So when you want to leave this country because you say, I want to study, and here I cannot. So I’m thinking of going to another country to follow my dream. Sometimes if I don’t have an airplane attacking me, that doesn’t mean I am living life, because life is many more things than just being safe and having food on the table. So you are trying to get your documents as fast as you can. So you will go to a lawyer asking him, and he will take advantage. A lot of people, they pay a lot of money. One of them, me, and there is a lady also who is in the book. I guess a lot of people, they will hear and know more about this through reading the book. I would say everyone will take advantage because they know that you want to leave as soon as you can. So the police, the lawyers, I’m not saying all of them, but I would say a lot of them.
Chris Hedges: Helen, I want to talk about women. Rape is, of course, unfortunately common among women and girls who flee. And then I wondered if you can also, which I didn’t know until I read the book, but once you’re granted asylum, oftentimes you’re bereft of any financial support. But can you begin with the situation for girls and women?
Helen Benedict: Yes. Well, in the camps, for example, they are vastly outnumbered. It’s about five to one men to women. And it’s especially dangerous, of course, for women who’ve come alone, or for young unaccompanied minors, girls, because they’re seen as prey by everybody. The smugglers, they come across during the journey, and once they get there, so it’s not just the smugglers, it’s also police, soldiers, anybody with power. And sometimes also the men in the camp. So an awful lot of women that arrive in Greece having already endured terrible assaults and violence through the wars at home. So they’re already traumatized, and then they get there and there’s no special place to live, that there’s no protected housing. There are, as I said, one doctor, one psychiatrist, one psychologist. There’s nobody to help except for a handful of very tiny NGOs.
So a lot of women have no help. And then if they’re targeted again and they’re repeatedly assaulted or raped, they might be targeted by a particular man who knows that the woman has no protection, it can just go on. This nightmare goes on and on with no recourse. And it’s a very distressing story. Really, if it weren’t for the NGOs, there’d be no help at all.
Chris Hedges: Although I wanted, it’s in the book, there’s all this effort to remove the NGOs. So there’s a lot of –
Helen Benedict: Most of them have been, yeah. Yes. So two of the things that the Greek government that Néa Dimokratía or the New Democracy government did was one is once you get refugee status, you get kicked off of every kind of help that you are entitled to. So in a way, it’s the opposite of being protected. Your money’s taken away, subsidized housing is taken away. You’re evicted. You’re not allowed free medical care anymore, let alone any kind of care for sexual assault and rape and war trauma. And the other thing is that most of the NGOs were closed down and taken away, the very places that were the only ones that were offering any kind of help.
Eyad Awwadawnan: And sometimes I would say it is the only place where you can get away from the camp.
Chris Hedges: So Eyad, I want to ask you about trauma. In the book, you write about a man named Hassan, and his twin brother Hussein is killed. He says, “He was my twin, my brother, part of me. I sat alone in my room with the blinds down and the curtains lowered, the lights off. I wanted to stay away from everybody. The summer humidity filled the ceiling, the walls, the floor, until the smell of mold was everywhere. On most days, I stayed awake until dawn and only ate one meal, always the same: milk mixed with olive oil and salt. A piece of bread. A cup of tea. After several months like this, I began having health problems.” So you carry, I mean, probably most of these refugees carry tremendous trauma, and I wondered if you could address the effects of that trauma and what it does to you.
Eyad Awwadawnan: A lot of time when I was in the camp, as I have written, the only thing you can do is, I was saying that lighting cigarette after cigarette and going back to your memories, to the people who were living with you, to your memories with them. And the only thing, sometimes listening to music as well, takes you back to the time when you were together. But one day you just have a picture of them where there is a bullet, for example, in their neck. Like one friend, his name Mohammed, he was sitting with us many times playing cards together, and one day we woke up hearing the story that he is dead. And a picture of him, the last picture of him was his neck was open because of a bullet. So I don’t think that war can give you anything.
Chris Hedges: And there’s very little opportunity for any kind of treatment for this trauma, is there?
Eyad Awwadawnan: I don’t, personally, I would say that I think this will be permanent. This feeling like something has been changed. For example, today I am safe. I am in a place where there is everything, like a nice country, and the people are really nice. But still, because of what happened, because of what I have experienced, I would say that there is something that has been changed inside me. And worries, I guess. I would say being afraid of tomorrow, you will stay afraid of tomorrow. And being a refugee… It’s a hard topic.
Helen Benedict: I would add that the people I talk to, sleep is very hard. Getting to sleep, staying asleep. When your defenses are down, all the memories and the images haunt you and haunt you. Never feeling safe no matter where you are, never knowing whether you’ll have a future and what it will be. I mean, I think one of the hardest things that happens when you have to flee your country is that all control over your life is taken away. You’re shipped around by the authorities like a packet of socks. You don’t get to choose where to go or which camp you’re going to be sent to or whether you’re going to be kicked out on the street or not. The only place I’ve heard of that’s really managed to help people is MSF, Médecins Sans Frontières, The Doctors Without Borders, for those who are lucky enough to get access to it there. But yes, it lasts a long time and it erodes people in all kinds of both obvious and subtle ways.
Chris Hedges: I want to begin with you, Helen, but I want to address racism, because the influx of refugees has fed this white nationalist movement in the United States and Europe. But can you deal with that issue of race? And then, Eyad, I’ll have you also speak to that.
Helen Benedict: Yes, sure. Two of the people in the book are African, one from Nigeria and one from Cameroon. And there’s plenty of racism against Arabs in Greece, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. But it’s even more extreme with Africans. And you could see it. I mean, I walked around with Evans, who’s one of the people in the book, just trying to help him open a bank account. We were kicked out of one bank. They said, come back in three months. I said, but don’t you want his money? Just to see what they would say. Whoever heard of it, banks turning someone away like that. We were kicked out of phone shops. He was trying to get a battery for his phone, and then they’d let white people in. It was very, very overt. There were certain restaurants you just didn’t go to and cafes you didn’t go to because the people were so hostile. It became known.
And then landlords won’t rent to refugees often, and a lot of that is racism. Some of it is, a lot of it is also Islamophobia. In the case of the two Africans in the book, they’re both Christian. But I interviewed others who were Muslim. But what mattered most to people was that they were Black. So it’s very extreme. And of course it’s being used, as you said, Chris, everywhere to drum up xenophobia and hatred and suspicion. And this myth that refugees are dangerous, whereas all the statistics show that they actually commit less crimes than civilians do in any given country.
Chris Hedges: Eyad, can you speak about that? The racism and Islamophobia?
Eyad Awwadawnan: A story happened with me when I was working with an organization called SolidarityNow. So I was living in a far area from the camp, so I tried to move close to the camp anyway. I asked some of my colleagues to find a house for me, and there were many houses. And every time they know that this man or this woman who wants to rent this place is Syrian or is a refugee, they will say, no, we just want to rent this place for someone European, if not a Greek, then someone from Europe. This happened to me. I would say I have seen and heard a lot of stories about racism, but I’m not going to say that all of the people there are racist. No, as I mentioned in the book, you will find good people.
Like an old lady who treats us with a smile. Sometimes a smile is more than enough. So I would say yes, I have seen a lot of racism, but at the same time I have seen some kindness from normal people. If we want to talk about the police, I would say no. None of them I have had a nice experience with. Some of them, on the beach, they will try to kick us. I remember my brother had been taken from the beach with a large group of refugees, and what is their crime? That they were walking next to the harbor front of everyone as cows.
Helen Benedict: Yeah. One thing I saw one of the times I was going there to Greece was right in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement here, and we were talking a lot about racial profiling in the US, and I saw the police stop refugees randomly all the time and search them, make them take off their backpacks and search and pat them down. They’re just walking along minding their own business. So it was very raw. But I, of course, Eyad’s right in reminding us to say that we can’t overgeneralize about a whole country of people. There are plenty of very kind and generous Greeks who really care about this situation as there are people like that everywhere. Thank goodness.
Chris Hedges: Great. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.co.