Chios is a beautiful island, harboring such deep pain. I am, as I sit here attempting to process this, numb. Here, you can see both the worst parts and the best parts of humanity. A warning though, this post will discuss suicide, perhaps ad nauseam. If you need to stop reading, I understand.
Like I said, Chios is beautiful. Really, breath-takingly beautiful. It has charming medieval villages, emerald-like waters, cliffs that look like the surface of Mars.
Gorgeous sunrise right? That landmass the Sun is rising over? That’s Turkey. If it looks awfully close, that’s because it is. In some spots, Chios and Turkey are separated by merely a few miles. A popular tourist destination among Turks, Chios is a quick ferry-ride away from Turkey.
That proximity to Turkey also means that it is one of the easiest islands to access when you’re escaping from Turkey.
Most of the people we met yesterday and today had come across the same waters you see above, in flimsy rubber boats that take hours to cross a channel that the Turkish ferries cross in 20 minutes. They were fleeing violence in Eritrea, Morocco, Palestine, Algeria, Lebanon, and of course, Syria. This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a few countries.
Refugees in Chios have two “options”: Souda or Vial. I say “options” because it’s not like arrivals get to choose where they go; after they land on the beach, they get brought to Vial detention center for registration. Now, they go to Souda, because Vial–which is managed by the Greek military–is beyond capacity. Souda is beyond capacity too, more than three times over capacity, so the tents extend beyond the gates onto the shoreline.
Souda fills the narrow moat of an abandoned castle, pictured in the feature image at the top. Our guide, Newton, MA resident and independent volunteer Leslie Meral Schick told us that when she was last here in February, you could enter the camp no problem. But now, we weren’t allowed inside the camp, so we climbed to the top of the castle wall, also pictured in the feature image, to snap these photos.
Here, overseeing the whole camp, is where members of the fascist Golden Dawn stood and threw large rocks and molotov cocktails on the people below in November. It’s also where a 16 year old boy stood yesterday, minutes before we arrived at the camp, as he attempted to jump to his death.
This boy was not an anomaly. I lost track of the number of people I spoke with who had attempted to commit suicide here. The first man I spoke to at Souda was from Algeria; in a mix of Arabic, French, English and gesturing, he told me he had attempted to slit his throat the day before. On March 30, 2017, a young man set himself aflame in the Vial detention center. Salem, one of the men we spoke with, had a video of the incident.
Would you like to see it? he asked. لا شكرا, I respond, shaking my head. No thank you.
Salem later told us that if he was denied asylum a second time, he would consider self-immolation as well. Regardless of the method, he would without a doubt kill himself rather than be deported to Turkey.
See, the process goes something like this. Syrian refugees who arrive in Greece can apply for asylum or re-unification, if they have family members in the European Union already. If their application for asylum is rejected, they can appeal it, up to two times. But once those appeals are exhausted, deportation to Turkey is likely next, due to a deal struck between Turkey and the EU on March 20, 2016. Here’s a quick summary of the deal, per Politico:
Under the agreement, Ankara will take back Syrian migrants who reach Greece illegally in return for the relocation in Europe of Syrian refugees now in Turkey. Europe hopes forcing refugees back to Turkey will dissuade them from crossing the Aegean, while also upending the human-smuggling trade. Nearly all the refugees arriving in Europe from Syria do so via Turkey.
In return for Turkey’s agreement, the EU will grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens, as soon as this summer, accelerate Ankara’s EU membership application and increase financial aid to help Turkey manage the refugee crisis by €3 billion to €6 billion.
Mind you, this deal only applies to Syrian migrants; everyone else is deported back to their country of origin. Why did the EU strike this deal? Well, apparently Turkey is safe for refugees!
We also spoke to a woman today, Haifa. She told us that she wishes she had died in Syria with her family, because death together would be better than not being able to see her children who were separated from her. Standing next to her, holding a microphone, I didn’t know what to say in Arabic, but perhaps it’s for the best. I don’t know how to express it in English either. What is there to say but,
I pray I will never know the horrors that the people I’ve spoken with over the last 24 hours have gone through. But I do know the despair that leads to suicide. I know too well the inability to see past the misery. I want to roll up my sleeves and point to my scars, moi aussi, mon ami Algérien. But I don’t, because while the desperation of suicide forges an unbreakable empathy, our situations are incomparable. How dare I compare the two?
And I know it’s not about comparison. Don’t compare, identify. It’s about bearing witness to the enormity of the situation. But the survivor’s guilt that comes with the empathy is intense. Back in Thessaloniki, I sat on the balcony and sobbed into the phone, Molly on the other end of the line in Boston.
As the title implies, this is not my only post on Chios. This despair doesn’t stand alone; it is against the backdrop of darkness that the bright spots of humanity glow the most. Salem, the man who talked of burning himself alive? He hand-packs bags of food and clothing to bring to refugees in Vial who have nothing. A man who, by all rights, is in no place to help others spends every damn day trying to make life better for those around him. If that’s not heroism, I don’t know what is.
Salem is not the only one doing work like this. But those heroes deserve their own post. Until then, I will remind you that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.