On my second day in Athens, I met with my friend Bev from LA. She told me about her Tunisian friend Chokri, she met in the Chios refugee camp last year. Since Tunisia is labeled as a safe country, Chokri is considered an economic refugee and therefore not eligible for asylum or refugee status. Therefore, he also doesn’t get any of the “privileges” refugees do. He has no right to receive financial, medical or social aid.
Chokri lived in the City Plaza, an abandoned hotel that was overtaken by refugees and activists in 2016. The seven floors of the hotel house about 400 refugees, most of them are families. When Bev and I visited, we noticed groups of children on each floor running around and playing. Posters on the walls announced upcoming arts and crafts, language and music classes for children, lead by volunteers.
We spent the afternoon in Chokri’s best friend’s room – Rida, a Palestinean refugee from Damascus, Syria. His room was bright and colorful. He decorated his walls with paintings and self-crafted paper cranes in different colors. The corners of his room were filled with ceramics.
Rida was a ceramic artist in Syria, who owned a big factory with more than 40 employees. He said he was always busy with his business and never found the time to learn English. Chokri translated for us. Rida has a pregnant wife and three children living in Frankfurt, Germany. He was left behind because the family couldn’t afford the plane tickets for everyone. His goal is to save money to make it to Germany on time for the birth of his fourth child.
Chokri and Rida, both in their late thirties/early forties, are an example of solidarity and friendship when everything seems hopeless. Even though both men have a different background, religion and even “social status,” Chokri said they spend every day together, making each other’s lives more bearable. Chokri has been translating for Rida, and in return, Rida taught Chokri a new way of coping with negative emotions – creating art.
Rida showed us the ceramics in the corners of his room. The delicate pieces illustrated distinct themes of war and flight – soldiers, boats, naked people, mighty animals weakened by chains. Other pieces illustrated hope, yet vulnerability. Flowers, trees, the light of a candle – all susceptible to human disruption.
The pieces were just as vulnerable as what they represented. Rida wasn’t able to harden them in an oven. He and Chokri used to teach some of the children in the facility how to do ceramics. However, the generous volunteer who donated the clay had left the City Plaza and no more clay was available anymore.
While Chokri and Bev caught up, Rida made tea for all of us. He cleared a little stool to use it as a table for our cups. We sat on the floor around the stool and Rida washed some grapes, placing them on a plate next to the stool. Everything felt like a get-together of old friends. After the first two rounds of sweet tea, Rida stood up and dug through one of his drawers. He pulled out a big white plastic bag and started to take out big folded pieces of white cloths. By unfolding them, he revealed paintings.
After the first two rounds of sweet tea, Rida stood up and dug through one of his drawers. He pulled out a big white plastic bag and started to take out big folded pieces of white cloths. By unfolding them, he revealed paintings.
Later, Rida showed me more of his artwork. This time, pictures he drew on paper. The drawings were painted in dark and somber watercolors or pencil. The beautiful impressions of the artistic pictures were accompanied by an unpleasant flavor.
A naked man struggling to carry a gigantic peace sign and almost breaking down from the weight of the sign; A spider web with an eye in the center, from which numerous flustered routes led out of the web; A mighty wolf with tears in its eyes; A delicate bird in a cage in addition to being chained to a stone.
Rida said the pictures are personal and asked me not to take photos of them, which I respected.
Even though Rida and I weren’t able to communicate too much, I kept trying to talk to him about his family in Germany and his children. Rida kept showing me the address of his family’s place in Frankfurt on Google Maps.
“Family here,” he would proudly say with a big smile on his face.
Bev, Chokri, Rida and I talked a lot about the objective of my project. I tried to find out what refugees would like to tell the world if they had a voice the issue of separated families came up for the first time. I would hear about this issue many more times in the days to come.
“In your project, let them (people in the western world) know that children are being separated from their siblings and that parents get separated from their families,” Chokri said and shared numerous stories of refugees he met in Chios and Athens, who were separated from their family members in the resettlement process. “Our culture values family,” he added. “It is torture to live (separated) like this.”
“Uhmm okay, I will try to include it somehow,” I stumbled, not even knowing how I would actually implement this topic.
Chokri translated what I said to Rida. He immediately looked at me, bent his head down and said, “thank you thank you.”
Given their reaction to me potentially cutting on the topic of family separation, I sensed it was important. After visiting the Skaramagas refugee camp two days later, I realized how important and disruptive the issue actually was.
When I visited Chokri and Rida again on my last day in Athens, Rida gave one of his ceramic pieces as a gift – a little brown water well bucket.
“Like the bucket, you bring the water,” Chokri translated Rida’s words. “Water is hope.”