Afghan teenagers listen to lecture on the 1922 Catastrophe
By Iris Samuels
The Benaki Museum in Athens is an unlikely place to find teenagers on a hot summer afternoon. Yet on a recent Saturday, two 16-year-old boys were roaming amid ancient statues and Ottoman-era jugs, arms crossed awkwardly over gangly bodies. They were fascinated.
In their t-shirts and sneakers, they looked like nothing so much as Greek schoolboys on holiday. But Karim and Amir were refugees [GlobalReporting is not using their real names to protect their families abroad.]
They fled Afghanistan early this year because, they said, staying would risk pressure from ISIS or the Taliban to join their causes. They are part of a contingent of refugees younger than 18 who have journeyed to Greece all alone.
On the third floor of the museum, they came across an image of the city of Smyrna — modern day Izmir, Turkey — engulfed in flames in 1922. The painting depicts what Greeks call The Catastrophe, a war that sent one million Turkish Christians into small unseaworthy boats bound for Greece. For the boys, this was not the first time they had considered the parallel between this historical event and their own journey out of Izmir by boat, just a few weeks earlier.
By Iris Samuels
At the foot of Athens’ monumental Acropolis, many languages can be heard as foreigners take in the sights. The steps leading to the ancient Parthenon are worn slick from the generations of tourists who have come to marvel at one of the world’s most impressive landmarks. It is easy to forget that, a short distance away, refugees are treated to a far different welcome.
A child at play in the refugee camp at Piraeus Port (Iris Samuels)
At the Port of Piraeus, 20 minutes away from city center, a thousand refugees have found a temporary home. Ropes strung between highway support beams serve as both laundry lines and makeshift walls. In the heat, every piece of shade is put to use. Men and women sit at the entrance to their colorful tents, legs folded, doing nothing. Strollers are strewn next to empty water jugs. An underwear-clad child runs across the sweltering expanse of asphalt, clutching a water bottle. He stops in front of a makeshift encampment composed of tents, plastic barricades and blankets bearing the logo UNHCR, for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Yelling happily, he pours the water over his head.
As the tourist season revs up in Athens, the port docks glamorous cruise ships and large ferries that shuttle back and forth from the Greek islands. But between gates E1 and E2, the view is different: a row of blue portable toilets stand opposite a row of tents, pitched in the shade of an elevated highway. The sun beats down relentlessly, and the sound of cars from the highway gives a sense of restlessness.