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.
In the last year, Izmir has been the launching point for more than 1 million refugees headed to Greece, their gateway to Europe. The city became a fertile ground for smugglers, who promise refugees a safe 6-mile crossing of the Aegean in return for thousands of dollars, providing small rafts that are often unfit for the journey, overloaded with five times their intended number of passengers.
These days, about 100 refugees make the crossing each week. But at the migration’s height a few months earlier, this route saw the departure of hundreds of boats from the Turkish coast every day.
Amir arrived on the island of Chios late one March night, landing on a deserted beach after a terrifying journey through high waves. In the inky darkness, he said he and the other refugees were without bearing or direction. Amir dialed 911 on his smartphone. Ultimately he followed the sound of barking dogs through the blackness to find a nearby town. He spent two months on the island before finally traveling to Athens by ferry.
The images seared into Amir and Karim’s memories from their sea crossing bear a remarkable resemblance to those of countless Greeks who pushed off the shores of Smyrna nearly a century earlier. “They have sympathy for us,” Amir said. “We appreciate the Greek guys.” Many locals explain that today’s sympathy for Muslim refugees is a repaying of sympathy extended to an earlier generation on refugees now considered part of the nation’s roots.
Even so, Dimitra Adamantidou, project manager at the Society for the Care of Minors in Athens, which has provided a home for the two teenagers, said that the truth is, when refugees arrived in Greece in 1922, “they were not that popular.” The new arrivals then were seen as foreign, despite their historical connection with the Greek people and their shared belief in Orthodox Christianity, a fundamental pillar of Greek society.
To this day, Greeks tend to be divided socially into those who lived in Greece before 1922 and after, and many grew up with the stories of their ancestors’ difficult relocation.
Kostis Karpozilos, a Greek historian, explained that when the “new Greeks” first arrived, they were perceived as a “social threat.” Similarly, refugees residing in Greece may find themselves the subject of societal concern. According to a report by Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Greeks have an unfavorable opinion view of Muslims in their country.
Until recently, Greece was merely a transit point for migrants on their journey to northern Europe, where job prospects were better. But now that the borders within Europe have closed and most countries have effectively canceled their participation in the European relocation program, the 57,000 migrants stuck in Greece are beginning to realize that this may be their new home.
“The real challenge for the Greek,” Karpozilos said, “will be to live with the new population.” Greece’s test is “not a refugee crisis, but a reception crisis.”
After their museum tour was over, Karim and Amir quickly pulled out their smart phones, like typical teenagers. Summer wears on, and the boys said they were looking forward to school in the fall. Adamantidou is already in touch with one of Athens’ multicultural schools, where they will likely enroll come September.
Yet the boys still hope to eventually leave Greece. Amir wants to join his older brother in Germany, while Karim wants to join his uncle in Holland.
Over sweet coffee drinks, they described their hopes for the future. Amir excels in English, and wants to become a journalist like his older brother. Karim’s favorite subjects are math and physics. He describes himself as a budding computer scientist.
Despite their plan to soon leave Greece, they have already begun learning phrases in Greek. Instead of ‘yes,’ they say ‘ne,’ the Greek equivalent. “A person should know a lot of languages,” said Karim, who is already fluent in Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Urdu and English.
If their journey so far has taught them anything, it is that they must be prepared for the unexpected. For now, they seem resigned to life in Athens, where they like spending their free hours in the city’s bustling Syntagma Square.
Leaving Greece might mean the boys will separate, after traveling all the way from Afghanistan to Turkey together. Their bond was evident – they wore matching bracelets and occasionally finished each other’s sentences. They also shared a longing for their mothers back home, and difficult memories of evading border police as they trekked across Iran.
Amir and Karim live in a shelter with 15 other boys from countries that include Eritrea and Pakistan. The house is colorful, its walls decorated with murals and its shelves laden with board games. It is run by the Society for the Care of Minors, which was founded in 1924 to provide support for the refugees from Asia Minor. While its target population has changed drastically, its mission has remained the same: to protect Greece’s newest residents.
The boys said they were content, for now but missed their childhood homes. “One time I saw the flag [of Afghanistan],” Karim said. “It was very emotional. I wish I could do something for my country.”
In Afghanistan, Amir lived in Kabul, the capital city, while Karim lived in Wardak, a rural district, where he was the only one among his friends to have a computer. In his village, many believed Karim should become a policeman like his father. Karim’s response, he said, was “I want to help my father, but with a computer, not with weapons.”
For now, Greece will be Amir and Karim’s new residence. Only time will tell whether they remain, like those who blazed the trail in 1922.