A Deafening Silence: On World Refugee Day, Refugees Did Not Celebrate.
Athens, Greece: Yesterday, June 20, 2016, was World Refugee Day. News outlets and social media were splashed with images of hope and proclamations of solidarity through campaigns like UNHCR’s#WithRefugees petition that followed Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s visit to Lesvos and Médecins Sans Frontières’ #LastRefugeeDay, challenging the dangerous implications of the EU-Turkey Deal. The already simmering public awareness of the global refugee crisis bubbled over with the renewed sense of urgency injected through newly reported numbers: 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons, one in every 113 people on the planet, 24 each minute–the time is now for world to act, to share responsibility and show support for the highest recorded refugee population in history. Here in Athens, though, the shocking numbers released by UNHCR were dwarfed by on-the-ground realities of just another day of suffering for refugees. While the world pledged to “commemorate the strength, courage, and resilience of millions of refugees,” Yonous Muhammadi, the president of the Greek Forum of Refugees (GFR), woke up to a desperate 4:00 am phone call from someone on a boat of men, women, and children, begging for help to reach the coast of an unknown Greek island. He advised them to call the emergency number 112, and then listened on the news until he heard confirmation of their
rescue by the Greek coast guard, giving 40 more people the freedom to join the other nearly 60,000 asylum seekers waiting in limbo in Greece. Yonous, or “Dr. Yonous,” as he is widely known throughout the communities who trust and rely on him, has become more than just a community leader and activist during his 15 years in Athens since seeking asylum from Afghanistan–he and the entire GFR staff are increasingly considered the first responders by refugees, authorities, media, and NGOs alike. Yesterday it was no different. He went into the GFR office, despite it being closed for a Greek national holiday, and soon received another desperate call from the weeping father of a 10-year-old boy who died in the Elliniko Camp last week, asking for news about the possibility of transporting his son’s body back to Afghanistan. The GFR has been trying to raise funds to help the family return to the country they fled. The boy’s mother explained in an interview, “We left our homeland to save my children from the explosions and attacks, but I lost him here in Europe. There is no reason for us to stay here anymore. At least in my homeland we have a mosque and graveyard to bury my child.” There are no Muslim cemeteries in Athens. Later in the morning, the phone rang again, this time from a doctor seeking help translating for a 25-year-old woman who had attempted suicide in the Eleonas Camp. She had been in the hospital for a couple of days, and the doctor implored Yonous to ask whether she still wanted to harm herself, and he had to report back her response: “I hate everything, I hate myself, I can’t suffer any more–I wish to die.” The woman was told to stay in the hospital, where she would remain without regular translators, an all too frequent problem for refugees receiving local medical care.
What mattered in Athens on this World Refugee Day were not the celebratory rhetoric of official speechesor “emotional” celebrity videos “exploring the plight of refugees,” but the tragically normal issues that made yesterday no different than any other day for the GFR and the refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. An international holiday to raise awareness and honor forcibly displaced people worldwide is important, and so are all of the promotional activities and campaigns meant to encourage
support and advocate better policies, but for many, every day is World Refugee Day, and it is nothing to celebrate. Click here for the UNHCR site profiles for camps in Greece to learn more about the different camps where GFR works. Author Mattea Cumoletti is a 2016 Advocacy Project Peace Fellow volunteering at the Greek Forum of Refugees for the summer.