Refugees Got Talent – Al Jazeera Witness

I decided to make this film because I wanted to answer one question: What does a person do when they feel like the whole world has given up on them? Surprisingly, the answer in this case was to set up a talent contest.

The contest was organised by the four friends who run refugees.tv, an internet-based mock television channel through which they managed to humanise their often inhumane surroundings. When the borders to Europe closed down and people around them wondered why nobody would help them, they used satire to remind people that the European Union has an obligation to care. Once they acted out a United Nations crisis meeting and built a coffin to parade around, to mourn the death of European humanity.

While many mainstream media organisations spoke of refugees only in terms of numbers, refugee.tv set up a Facebook page with videos that reminded us that the people in camps were not just refugees, but artists, craftsmen, poets and chefs. Their videos went viral.

After seven months in a camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, feeling as though much of the world saw them as troublemakers and scroungers, the team behind refugees.tv decided the time had come to remind themselves of who they were before the war and bring some pride, happiness and dignity back to the people in the camp.

They got to work on their show Refugees Got Talent. They made buzzers out of camping lights, got a speaker, found a presenter, made a table for the panel of judges and then rounded up their participants and audience to watch the talent. It often felt weird singing and joking when there was so much to be sad and angry about, but the show was also light relief.

It is not easy living in the refugee camps. Conditions are often far from ideal and definitely not what I would want to end up in if I had just escaped war. But the conditions are not what caused the camp’s residents to become increasingly frustrated and upset. It was the waiting.

Living in the camp is like attending an outdoor music festival, but without the music.

You live in a tent or an isobox, pee in a portaloo and need to adapt to all types of weather. And it feels permanent — nobody tells you when you can leave. Many refugees in Greece have now been moved into hotels, but they are so remote it can leave them feeling isolated, unwanted and unable to mix with society. Europe has failed them in helping them to relocate and they cannot continue their lives and enjoy the human rights they are entitled to until this changes.

 

During the filming, the most precious moments for me were at the end of each of the talent show rounds. The organisers and participants would gather outside the tent, light shisha, play guitar and sing old songs from back home. Later when I’d look back at the footage, I’d see Mahmoud and Basil looking so lost in the music and so completely happy in that moment, despite everything they’d been through. There was such a vulnerability about them, but in that one moment it felt like they had completely forgotten their pain.

 

I believe that despite the frustration and protests in the camp, refugees.tv did succeed in its aim of creating some laughter and reigniting hope, dignity and the ability to dream in people. But it was a temporary happiness. And until Europe acts out the policy it speaks of, no real happiness can come to those staying in the camps in Greece.

 

Mahmoud says in the film that no matter what happens to them in the future, they will always have the talent show. At the very least, I hope their memories of it will always bring them some comfort and remind them of their ability to create lightness in the darkest of times.

A NYE blog post – choose love over fear in 2017

My Syrian friends have been living in a refugee camp in Northern Greece for nine months now. Small green UN tents have become their homes. Their old homes, the ones they think about every day, are mostly blown to smithereens now.

In one tent, a man listens to music and sheds a tear. It sets his brother off and then my translator too. Soon there are no dry eyes and everyone is thinking about Syria and the war.

“Perhaps it’s God’s will” the man says. “What can we do? We will just have to go back and re-build it.”

But rebuilding it or even returning to it is inconceivable to most in the camp, whose only option now to is to wait out the lengthy relocation process that seems to take forever. It is the waiting, the not being able to move on with your life that affects people here the most.

The man is an artist. A huge painting of a Syrian sunset hangs behind him. In front, a small tree chopped from the field outside, is decorated with toys and coloured paper.

A few metres down another man is expanding his tent to include an area to entertain guests. In the other direction a man has created an “office” to learn english. He sits in front of a huge London themed canvas, typing on a laptop and warming his hands by a cheap heater. It’s freezing outside and much of the day is preoccupied with trying to stay warm.

This is home now.

For many of us, the more we hear about the plight of refugees on the news the more helpless we all feel – posting about it, debating it but still not feeling like we can make any real difference.

Before I left the camp in October I took a trip to a department store near the centre and in a panic, filled a trolley up to the brim with toys for the children. I didn’t know what else to do. A smile for a day is better than none at all I thought as I watched 10 year old Mohammed shaky, but excited on his new roller blades. It’s hard to make a difference. A real difference. For no toy or goodwill gesture could ever bring them what they really need – and that’s a future.

As I watch people washing their clothes in UN buckets and queuing at the outdoor toilets, it strikes me that life in the camp is like a trip to Glastonbury, but the trip is a permanent stay and there are no cool bands.I suddenly realise I’ve missed four calls from Aaref and his wife who have invited me and the film crew to their tent for lunch. When we get there they make us all a strong cup of coffee.

His wife has a ring on, which looks like a digital watch and she keeps clicking it. The numbers are going up and up. I ask her what it is.

“It’s a prayer ring,” she says. “With every click I say a prayer.”

“How many prayers this week?” I ask.

She shows me the front of the ring.

Nine thousand one hundred and twenty six.

Aaref tells me they’ve all been finger printed by the authorities and had their initial relocation interview but according to him the UN representative is full of empty promises. The graffiti on the wall mirrors his statement. In 20 days they’re supposed to leave. But everyone knows that will never happen.

A bowl of yogurt and cucumber gets pride of place in the middle of a cardboard box “table”. A heart made of oregano sits on top of it.

“Aaref made it,” his wife says. “He likes to be the artist. I’m the cook.”

We all laugh.

We laugh and I think about how much effort they’ve gone to to host us and make us dinner – Kabsa. A Syrian chicken and rice dish with peanuts. It’s delicious and after half a day of filming, I eat two plates.

Aaref keeps topping up my dish.

“We have an expression in Syria”, he says. “Eat as much as you love us.”

But I am stuffed.

As I’m eating I notice that two tents down a guy is putting gel in his friends hair and spraying it with hairspray. He is sat so still, so as to make sure not a hair falls out of place. His friend is concentrating hard as he holds the strands of hair and sprays.

Our translator Hadi rushes off to find out where they are going.

“They’re leaving today,” he comes back and says. “For Athens.”

Immediately I feel as if my heart has sunk to the camp floor and my eyes fill with tears. Because when your old life seems so far away – like it never existed, when you live in a cold tent and are down to your last few euros, it’s easy to feel as if you’re losing your dignity or self respect. Yet here these young men were.. wanting, trying, to look their very best.

And why? Not because, like every other man in Europe of the same age they are heading out for a night on the town, but because they are heading out in search of their future. Heading out into the cold dark night to the bus stop for Athens. Armed with just a ticket and a plastic bag full of their only belongings .

And after everything they’ve been through.. this was the moment they wanted to look and feel respectable for.

How much I look up to them for that, they will probably never know.

I rush to hug them.

They are so much skinnier than when I first met them during filming months ago. I’ve seen them laugh and cry.. sing with the most beautiful and hypnotising voices.

Such good looking young men. Such good looking young men, ruined by Europe

As they leave, a fight kicks off just in front of us in the camp. It’s apparently between two thieves.

“If you think that’s bad,” says Aaref’s wife. “Normally there are knives.”

We wait for the commotion to die down, before picking up our equipment and beginning the second half of the day’s work.

As I sit later and watch news updates about Aleppo on tv.. some people at the camp message to say they will demonstrate in the city centre. Their signs read: Russia destroyed us. Blood drips from the edges of the paper. A tent in the camp has been transformed into an artistic protest studio that churns out banners and placards. I suppose they too feel helpless when it comes to saving those left behind.

Before I leave for London, Mohammed’s father tells me wherever he ends up, he will come to visit me. I hope he does. His family, like Aaref’s and so many others, are still waiting for a relocation interview. 160,000 refugees were supposed to be rehomed in Europe by the end of 2017. But little more than 7,000 have been, so his chances don’t look great. Luckily a bunch of us have managed to find a place for him to stay that’s empty for xmas and his family won’t have to suffer the cold winter months.

I can’t give them new lives. None of us on our own have the power to do that. But we can demand it and we can support them… with solidarity, with charities, with finding shelter but mostly showing the same kindness to them which they have shown to me and letting them know that they have not been forgotten.

If 2016 has been the year in which I lost my faith in Europe, and for a moment my faith in humanity… it will also be the year in which I found it again.. in my Syrian friends who have welcomed me into their new “homes” and hearts, offering me everything when they had nothing. But also in those standing with them all across the globe – who everyday make the most crucial of decisions and choose love over fear.

BBC: Greek media upheaval hits Mega TV channel

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It has been a nerve-wracking week for staff at Greece’s oldest private TV channel, Mega.

On Tuesday, after going for two months without pay, staff were told the channel’s owner could go bankrupt, shutting down the operation for good.

But at the eleventh hour, shareholders agreed to prop up the company. So for now, at least, the 500 staff are breathing a sigh of relief.

Burdened by bank loans estimated at €116m ($129m; £88m), the channel’s future has been unclear for a long time.

Since the financial crisis hit Greece in 2010, many media operations have had to shut down. One of the most memorable was Alter TV, whose owner was charged with tax evasion and imprisoned, and 700 staff suddenly lost their jobs.

Six years on, the country is still suffering. Its economy has shrunk by a quarter and the unemployment rate is the highest in the EU at 24%.

A slump in advertising has made it harder for media outlets to survive.

The turnover of Greek advertising firms fell from €1bn in 2007 to just €250m in 2014. And the turnover of the surviving private TV channels halved over the same period.

To read the full article on the BBC click HERE.

Little Atoms: Life inside Idomeni

When I visited the makeshift refugee camp at Idomeni this month, it felt like an organised community. The tents may have been broken, the water cold and the queues for the doctor endless. But the thousands of people living there (at its height more than 20,000) had turned what was an empty muddy field into the beginnings of a village. I bought my morning coffee from a Syrian man for one euro. My lunch from another who’d just set up a mini falafel stall. If I’d stayed longer I could’ve visited the local hairdresser for five euros.

But this week after the Greek government ramped up its efforts to remove people from Idomeni, that infrastructure was torn apart.

Seven hundred police officers were sent into the area in an operation that’s set to continue for a week. So far around 2,000 people have left peacefully. Roughly 8,000 remain.

According to Greece the refugees have to move for a number of reasons. They have no legal right to be there – the land is private; they are blocking the train tracks costing freight companies thousands of euros; the conditions are dire; but most importantly they say, they must leave for their own good. At Idomeni, they are not legally protected and can’t be formally registered unless they stay at the official camps. It’s logical.

But for many of the refugees remaining, logic went out of the window two months ago when Europe closed its borders, essentially washing it’s hands of the biggest refugee crisis it’s seen since World War 2. Last year one million refugees fled war, risked their lives crossing stormy seas, spent their entire life savings just to reach a safe place only to discover that Europe did not want know.

Now their biggest fear is if they leave the Macedonian border at idomeni, they will be forgotten. Their fight for safe passage will not be heard and it will be all too easy for the world to pretend that they didn’t exist.

Mustafa, from Aleppo, is documenting the arrival of the army on his Facebook page, refugees.tv. He says he will stay for 10 years if that’s what it takes – despite the squalid conditions. He is determined to stay put.

More than 50,000 refugees are now stuck in Greece. In camps across the country, where despite the Greek government doing its best to accommodate people, there are rising tensions. Fights every night over phone chargers, over meals that include chicken or any meat all. There have been reports of sexual abuse. So, many – fearful of the unknown –  choose to stay at idomeni thinking at least they’re close to the border, should anything change.

When we left Idomeni people were packing up, not to leave for Athens but to try once again to get through the border with the help of smugglers. Many had tried a handful of times but were always unsuccessful.

‘We cant compete with the people smugglers.
They sell hope’

The government spokesman says the smugglers are the biggest problem. “We can’t compete with them. They sell hope.”

One of my new Syrian friends was lucky enough to make it to Northern Europe. She made it to Sweden, where her brother was already living.

She’s just sent me a photo of her old tent at Idomeni, bulldozed by Greek police. Her old home. Her home that became my home when I stayed there, where her mother made me rice and aubergines. Where we chatted to the neighbour whose baby was scarred by Isis, where we drank tea,  played with the children and  sheltered from the rain..

“Does it make you feel sad?” I ask.

“Yes..” She says. “Because it’s the end of people’s dreams.”

“What’s is the dream?”

“For the borders to open” she says.

Until they do, or until Europe can come up with a better solution than the current deal with Turkey that has managed to resettle a measly 177 Syrians into the EU since March, I see little hope. The deal doesn’t even apply to the 50,000 refugees left stranded in camps across Greece – a country in its sixth year of financial crisis, struggling to look after its own people.

I’m reminded of a comment by Lord Dubs, who came to Britain on the Kindertransport for Jewish children fleeing the Nazis before World War 2.

When asked about Europe’s response to the current refugee crisis, he replied:

“Those of us who believe in humanitarian values and traditions must speak out. We’re a modern advanced continent. This shouldn’t happen”.

This article was originally published HERE at Little Atoms.

 

BBC: Big Greek wedding for Syrians in muddy refugee camp

It has been a tough week for the refugees camped out on the northern Greek border with Macedonia.

First some were hit by tear gas as they tried to cross the border into Macedonia, then the stormy weather played havoc with their fragile tents. Most of the tents here were donated by charities but they are not fully waterproof.

Despite the squalid conditions, the makeshift camp of Idomeni is witnessing something of a marriage phenomenon. In the past few days, a handful of couples have become engaged and the camp has become a wedding venue for the first time.

To read the full article on the BBC click HERE

BBC: The Greek grandmothers

Eftratia Mavrapidi (left) Maritsa Mavrapidi (middle) Militsa Kamvisi (right)Image copyrightLEFTERIS PARTSALIS

When a Syrian mother arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos, drenched and struggling to feed her baby, three grandmothers, or yiayiades stepped in. Militsa Kamvisi, 83, gave the baby a bottle of milk while she and her friends sang a lullaby. The photo, taken by Lefteris Partsalis in October, immediately went viral and there was a flood of admiration for the “three grannies and a baby” on Twitter.

“Thank goodness,” said one tweet, “there are the grandmothers of Lesbos who are able to wash away our shame.”

The photo reflects the strength, courage and down-to-earth attitude Greeks associate with yiayiades, many of whom have lived through a world war, a civil war, a dictatorship and now a financial crisis. In today’s Greece it is often their pensions and positive approach that keep entire families going.

Grandma Militsa has said she does not think her response was anything extraordinary. As a child of a refugee herself she saw her act of kindness as a moral duty. Her mother fled Turkey with nothing in 1922 at the end of the Greco-Turkish War and also ended up on the shores of Lesbos dependent on its residents for help.

She is among three people nominated for the Nobel prize to represent the behaviour and attitude of Greece and volunteers towards the refugee crisis.

Last week Greek grandmothers were again the ones taking the lead handing out food to refugees in Athens. One was 92 years old. Her daughter said it was she who had made them pack a car full of sandwiches and cake and go to Victoria Square.

For the full article click HERE

Without Swift Debt Relief for Greece, The Last Five Years Will be the Prelude to More Chaos

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If my childhood could have a soundtrack it would be my Dad’s conflicted thoughts and inner debates about whether to go back to Greece. He left there for the UK the year I was born. Twice he packed us up ready to go back..

Once in a Volkswagen camper van and we even stayed for a year. But, ultimately he always came to the conclusion that life in the UK would be better.

Probably the most tragic thing he’s ever said to me is that “Greece is a great country, but only for holidays.” I can see why he would say that…

To read the rest of my HUFFPOST article click HERE.