I Was a Stranger, and You Welcomed Me
April 29, 2022
This is a story about journeys. Mine started when a friend of mine told me: “Don’t just donate money to help the refugees. The refugees need lawyers. You’re a lawyer. You should go.” So I went.
My journey took me to refugees on the Greek island of Samos, where I volunteered with a refugee lawyer group. My clients took journeys too. But they were different from mine.
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark . . . I want to go home, but home . . . is the barrel of a gun . . . no one leaves home until home is a damp voice in your ear saying leave, run now.” The Somali-British poet Warsan Shire wrote this. My clients lived it. They left home. They ran. They ran from some of the deadliest places in the world. They ran from the worst things in the world— brutal and merciless civil wars, torture dungeons, and rape. They ran from the worst people in the world—dictators, terrorists, secret police, vigilantes, torturers, and rapists. They ran. Just like you or I would, if we knew horror would come if we stayed.
My pampered airline flights and my clients’ desperate run for their lives joined us together in the same place—the harborside village of Vathi on Samos. Vathi is a hillside town, a thicket of white stone buildings with red roofs cascading down a steep hill to nestle cozily, wrapped like a crescent, around a harbor that opens gradually to the North Aegean Sea. The center of town life is a large plaza; three sides of the village square are cafes and the fourth is the harbor, where brightly colored Greek fishing boats bob in blue water.
A hilly ringlet of land shelters the harbor, just two miles from Turkey. When you watch the sunrise, the orange sliver of daybreak over the water paints the hilly crescent in a black silhouette that gradually shades to purple. The extended crescent of hills hugs around the harbor like two strong, protective arms with the sun rising brightly between. The harbor turns from pitch to purple topped with bursts of orange, til finally the paintbrush of dawn draws the water to a deep, luminous blue. It’s beautiful.
A refugee greets the sunrise in Samos
At the top of a road that winds up the hill, tucked away so you cannot see it until you get there, is the refugee camp where my clients lived. It is not beautiful in the camp. It is brutal. The camp, run by Greek and European officials with United Nations support, was built for less than a thousand people, but over four thousand souls were crammed there. Refugees were forced to live for months and even years in tattered tents meant only for temporary shelter. The camp was so overcrowded that some refugees were forced to pitch tents outside the camp to live in the wild or, as the refugees called it, “the jungle.”
The December nights are freezing cold. The winter wind blows hard through the camp, which sits exposed at the top of the hill. Food is rancid and moldy. Though virtually every refugee I worked with seemed to have a serious trauma-related medical condition, there was exactly one doctor staffed to the camp.
You may well know the story of how refugees got to this desolate camp. The worst things human beings can do to each other were done to them. Their families were killed in brutal civil wars, they were captured and tortured by dictators and terrorists, they were persecuted and jailed because of their politics or religion, or for any reason so long as it hurt them or terrorized them. They were raped and their houses were firebombed to ashes.
They made their escape by land, dodging arrest and detention, barbed wire, and bullets, until they reached the water’s edge in Turkey. There they were crowded into leaky boats and rubber rafts and pushed offshore to Greece. Many refugees were swindled out of the last of their savings by sleazy boat-runners, who promised them a safe, uncrowded boat with an experienced captain only to send them to sea on their own in a vessel doomed to sink. My clients were among the refugees who survived and made it to Samos, or at least close enough to be rescued at sea and brought there.
Refugee painting on life in Samos
My job was to help these refugees get asylum in legal proceedings. If we won, they got out of the camp, off the island, were free to live in Greece and, most importantly, would not be deported to the country they fled or forced back to Turkey. If we lost, they would be deported. The difference between winning and losing was the difference between freedom and jail, between torture and sanctuary, between life and death.
When I got to Samos, I knew these parts of the refugee story. But there was so much I did not know.
I did not know I would meet a mischievous, brokenhearted orphan prankster whose work would save lives and whose humor would interrupt grimness with laughter. I did not know he would be a call to conscience and would call me out non-stop he thought when I was full of it. I did not know that I would join ex-political prisoners to help a refugee day-care round up rowdy kindergartners who had turned a hotel into their playground. I did not know that in one of those tattered refugee tents lived an artist who could paint miracles while living in a nightmare. I did not know I would meet a dad who told terrorists to get off his yard and a baby faced young man who somehow escaped their clutches. I did not know we would listen to music and comedy sketches, and that refugees would tell me about their girlfriends and favorite songs and Greek police-women they wanted to date.
I did not know I would meet expectant parents whose relatives wanted to kill them. I did not know that refugees would invite me to dinner and do the cooking. I did not know I would stumble across an oasis of a refugee center where volunteers and refugees taught half a dozen languages, music, swimming, fitness, and breakdancing. I did not know about illiterate grandfathers who learned to read in the refugee camp and young mothers who dreamed in the camp of being pilots so they could fly. I did not know I would take a moonlit walk to beaches my refugee friends loved. I did not know that my Muslim clients and I would joyfully celebrate a Greek Christmas at a nativity scene. I did not know my refugee friends would teach me how to greet people with a beautiful Arabic prayer. I did not know I would learn an Arabic prayer for a greeting. There was so much I didn’t know. Most of all, I did not know whether we would win, or how.
All this is part of the refugee story too. Come journey with me. Let me show you.
The refugee rights non-profit prepped me well. I knew what I would have to prove to win freedom for my clients—that they were refugees at risk of persecution or harm if they were deported to the countries they fled from, and that the reason they were at risk was because of their race, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, or some other part of their identity. Millions of innocent civilians all over the world meet this legal description of horror. In fact, just about every civilian in many countries is, legally, a refugee.
I was warned that the bad guys in Greece went after refugees and their lawyers. The Hellenic Police sometimes do a great job protecting refugees and humanitarians. But not always. I was told that human rights lawyers were put in a cage in the refugee camp, and hauled down to the town jail but shortly after released.
Violent extremist vigilantes took this a lot further. After my time on Samos, they mobbed refugees on another island and threatened to light them on fire, they threw bricks at lawyers trying to circle the refugees to protect them. We were alert to the possibility that anti-refugee extremists could be dangerous. So we were told not to go inside the camp. To watch carefully for people watching us. My time in Samos could not have been more peaceful. I received nothing but warmth and support from the Greeks I met there. Some of the Greek embrace of refugees was as heartfelt and moving as anything I’ve ever seen. But it is not always that way. Not in Greece, and not in any place where refugees and immigrants are targeted with hate. Which is in all too many places.
On my first day I met my law partner—Gina, a young lawyer from Germany. Our office was an A-framed attic with low ceilings and even lower wood beams, perfectly constructed for people to conk their heads. There was no heat, no air-conditioning, and little light. If you went too close to the edge of the room, you’d fall through insulation right into the offices below. We were grateful for the attic, lent to us by a Greek refugee support non-profit. Their director, Yiannis, a man with the demeanor and physique of a yoga instructor, has been targeted by anti-refugee criminals.
We were ready for our first client. He sent us a text: “I am waiting outside.”
We went out to bring him in, and I said, “come in and wait inside where it’s not cold.” “It is not always that easy,” he shrugged, “some people here are racists and refugees are not always welcome inside. So I wait outside.” His eyes twinkled as he told us, “I am Karim.”
Karim was more than a client. He was our Arabic interpreter who translated our many meetings with Arabic clients. He was our liaison in the camp, bringing us clients and building trust for us. Karim was a refugee who lived in the camp. We met every day, often more than once, and he almost always waited outside, until some Westerner gave him permission to come in from the cold. I’m 60 years old and I’ve never once waited outside in the cold. Something about the way he did it told me it was a protest and not submission.
Karim was handsome, charming, mischievous, and a great interpreter. He spent much of the next month teasing, taunting, and teaching Gina and me.
Karim lost his asylum case, so our job was to get him to sign the appeal previous lawyers prepared. The appeal was based on procedural mistakes and prior lawyers prepared all the papers, so all Gina and I had to do was get Karim to sign the appeal.
I introduced myself to Karim as “an American human rights lawyer” volunteering to represent refugees. He rested his chin on his hand, tilted his head, crooked a skeptical eyebrow and said, “if you say so,” adding, “if I were you, I would be getting paid.” Gina looked down and suppressed a laugh at Karim’s puncturing of my savior complex. Karim was fluent in American street talk and an enthusiastic dropper of F-bombs, world weary, sad– and brutally, sardonically, wildly inappropriately, funny. During our month together he never tired of pranking virtually everyone in sight. One of his favorite targets was me and my lawyerly control fetish of micromanaging other people’s responsibilities in our cases. This would be my first pranking.
“So, Karim, you have to file your appeal with the asylum authorities today because today is the deadline,” I lectured. Because of some of the controversy around prior human rights lawyers, we couldn’t go into the camp, so our clients had to file their own papers with the authorities. The pranking began: “Ok, I might do that, inshallah. We say inshallah all the time, it means, “if God wills it,” when you talk with us every other word is inshallah, because we know everything is inshallah. Perhaps I will file it today. Or maybe I will file it tomorrow.”
This was not how it was supposed to go. “No inshallah. It has to be today. You’ve seen enough of this process to know they will deny your appeal if you give them a chance. Don’t give them one.” I lectured again. “I’ll see, maybe I will do this for you, since you tell me you are a human rights lawyer,” he counter-pranked.
I’d had enough. “What do you mean you’ll see? It has to be today. Don’t do it for me—if you don’t file, they’re not deporting me, they’re deporting you. Please file the damn thing today.”
“The asylum people rejected my case already, so what chance is there?” He’d had enough too. “No chance if you don’t file today,” I countered.
“OK, you’ve convinced me,” the crooked smile returning, “I will file today. Inshallah.”
“No inshallah. Tell me when you file it.”
After Karim left for the refugee camp, I took a deeper look at his case file. Karim lived in a place ravaged by war and violence. One day he got home just in time to see that his house had been bombed, and watched as the bodies of his parents, brothers, and sisters were taken out of the destroyed house. They were all killed, except for a sister who escaped with her husband and child. Karim told the asylum officials that he was living to reunite with his sister and nephew. His asylum hearing record noted several times, “witness paused to cry.” He told asylum officials that border guards shot at him and other refugees as they fled, and that he had been beaten and robbed during his flight from his home country.
Karim is a talented and resourceful young man. He volunteered with us. He also taught English and Arabic with a local refugee support non-profit and was studying to qualify to go to college if he won his case. On top of that, he had paid work.
“I filed the appeal Charlie” texted Karim later that day. “I’m glad, Karim. I hope you win. C U tomorrow,” I responded, relieved. And worried, so worried, for him.
“They did this to the boys.”
The text came from Karim: “These guys are always late. One of them is praying or something. I am telling them we need to meet on time.” We were about to meet our new clients.
Mohammed and Abdul were cousins in their late 20’s. Handsome if not dashing, they were, by refugee standards, fashionably dressed—short hair, neatly trimmed beards, stylish sweaters, and designer jeans. Most refugees wore whatever clothes were given to them by volunteers. Mohammed was tall and lean, with arms and legs from here to forever, with a big smile and personality that lit up rooms we shared with him. Abdul was shy and quiet, more athletic.
They were also lucky to be alive.
We met at one of Vathi’s many coffee joints. We ordered, and Karim reached for the check. Our lawyers were told never to let refugees pay. The few with money needed every cent. Those of us who could afford to fly to Greece and rent places had money beyond their wildest dreams. “Thanks Karim, but I can get this,” I said and tried to block him. “I said I got it,” Karim insisted with a stare. Suddenly this seemed bigger than who paid for coffee, and more about reclaiming stolen human dignity. I was about to say some uptight thing about the rules. But Mohammed saved us.
He reached two long, lanky arms between me and Karim, and poked his head in after them, first looking sternly at us, as if breaking up a fight, and then broke into his sunbeam of a smile as he gently nodded to each of us. Mohammed didn’t speak much English, but he translated that tense moment beautifully. He had us all laughing together about our tussle over who would pay the check. The little things are big things when they set the tone, and Mohammed set the tone.
“Cool Karim, and thanks. I got next, ok,” I conceded. “Deal Charlie—I cannot support your coffee every day.” We were back on track.
We moved to our attic office and met first with Mohammed to interview him about his case. The cousins were from one of those countries where good people are between a rock and a hard place. The country’s leaders were good at two things—endless war with neighbors and brutal repression of their citizens.
Mohammed was an apprentice journalist. Man, could he tell a story. His trouble began when he reported a story that the regime did not want told. The government was concentrating people in war zones to cause high casualties, which the regime would exploit to turn international public opinion against its enemy. Mohammed and his team were taking photos and interviewing witnesses. Mohammed and his family opposed the regime. Journalism and political opposition are everyday things where many of us live. But they can get you killed where Mohammed is from.
Secret police arrested and jailed Mohammed over 20 times. Between arrests, they tried to force him to work on an illegal and dangerous military project, but Mohammed evaded this. Eventually, Mohammed dropped his career and abandoned his dream of being a journalist. “Why,” I asked. “If this was how it started, I didn’t want to see how it ended,” responded Mohammed, bowing his head and nodding grimly. “I hope one day you will be a journalist again,” I told him. “You are great at telling a story.” His smile came back a little.
“They beat me up and yelled at me,” Mohammed told me when I asked what happened in regime detention. I had done some research on the brutality of this regime. There was more to this story.
Now we get to the hard part. To win asylum, you have to show risk of persecution or harm, and that means the more evidence you have that you were treated horribly, the stronger your case is. The authorities will reject your case if you are too vague. You have to go into detail.
I had to ask. “When you say they hit you, what do you mean? Can you describe that to me?”
“They put a hood on me, and they asked me over and over what side I was on. I told them I wasn’t on a side. They kept hitting me and yelling and calling me a liar. Sometimes they hit me in the head through the hood.”
I took a breath. “Mohammed, I am going to ask you questions about things I know are hard to talk about. They might be some of the worst things that ever happened to you, some of the worst things people do to each other. I am not doing this to hurt you, or make you relive things that I know are very painful. I am doing this because the way the law is, it is important to your case. If this is hard for you, or painful, and you want to stop, let me know.”
Mohammed nodded. I added, “I’m your lawyer and I’m on your side, ok?” He nodded again and mustered a bit of a smile. “He says ok, Charlie,” Karim translated.
I took another breath and asked, “did they do anything besides hit you?” Mohammed began to speak fast, and he stood up, walked to the wall, held both hands behind his back, clasped his wrists together and raised them up. I did not need the translation. I knew what he was telling me.
The secret police tortured Mohammed. They tied his hands behind his back and hung him on a wall. It’s a brutal, painful torture, impossible to endure for more than a few minutes, deadly if it lasts longer. It’s so common that it has a one-word name that varies, depending on which country you are in that tortures that way.
And it’s right out of a sadistic torture playbook. I knew that if the secret police did that to Mohammed, they did many other horrible things from the same playbook.
“Did they hit you in some other way?” “They beat the bottom of my feet and made me stand up. They kicked me when I was lying down. Sometimes they hit me with a big rubber thing, like a rope but a lot thicker.”
“Did they make you stay awake and stop you from sleeping?” “Yes.”
“How often?” “All the time, sometimes every hour.”
“How did they do it?” “Sometimes they poured water on me.”
“Was the water cold?” “Yes, it made me shiver.”
“Did they do anything else to keep you awake?” “They came and yelled at me all the time.”
“What did they say when they yelled at you?” “They kept asking what side I was on and telling me I was a liar, they said they had my father and brother too.”
Mohammed had been jailed and tortured like this for days at a time. I asked him if he’d been arrested without charge– that is another human rights violation that could help him win asylum. He said he wasn’t sure what that meant. The idea that a government can’t arrest you without charging you with a crime was news to Mohammed. Due process was not a thing in the countries my clients fled from.
Abdul’s story was shorter but also harsh. He’d been targeted by the regime after going to a party, which the regime forbade. They forced him to work on the military project Mohammed escaped from. Abdul shook his head, “none of the people they forced to work were from the government-just a few supervisors. They don’t do it because it’s too dangerous. The enemy might attack. They don’t do the dirty work; they make their opponents risk their lives.” Martyrdom was not for management. Abdul suffered a severe injury. He was held captive by the regime for weeks and forced to promise he would not reveal how he was injured. He’d been kicked and beaten in detention.
Later, I asked Mohammed if he was persecuted for religious reasons. He was very observant, and we scheduled meetings around his daily prayers. “These people are not religious, they are not men of God,” he said, shaking his head. “They are criminals, they are a gang, they are disgracing Islam. Islam is a religion of peace and love. Jesus is a great prophet in our religion, we hold him in a place of great respect.”
The cousins and their family agreed it was not safe for them, and so they fled. Later, their home was destroyed by bombing in the never-ending war. The cousins made their way to the border of their country, normally blocked off and heavily patrolled. The cousins hemmed and hawed about how they got through. “Just ask them how they got across,” I told Karim. He translated the answer, “They bribed their way through,” pausing to add, “you know, like Americans do.” It had been a long, hard interview. But this was funny, and Gina and I laughed. I caught myself, realizing the cousins didn’t understand what had happened and why we thought it was so funny. “Please tell them we are not laughing at them or their troubles, we are laughing because you made fun of Americans and that was funny.”
Karim had another job, so we had to finish our interview later. I tried to squeeze a few minutes more, but he had a class to teach at the refugee center. “Charlie! I have to go. I am not a student in the class. I am not attending the class. I am teaching the class. I must be on time. I have to go!”
We all stood—and most of us except Karim conked our heads on the low ceilings and wood beams in the attic. “I’m glad I’m shorter than you,” he laughed. This had been a really hard meeting, but an important one because the cousins had strong cases. All of us except Karim were rubbing our heads, and this slapstick ending returned some much-needed humor.
The cousins left us with an Arabic gesture of greeting and farewell. They touched their hands to their hearts several times, then extended their hands toward Gina and I, and then they bowed slightly and smiled broadly. It’s a simple, warm, beautifully expressive gesture we would see again and again during our time with our refugee friends.
We’d meet often with the cousins. We had to finish their interviews, then write their formal asylum papers to submit to the authorities, then prepare them for their asylum interviews with the authorities. We’d also see them in the streets of Vathi. Every time, we’d get the hand from the heart gesture, which we’d return. They referred several of their friends to us and we worked on their cases too. They would invariably refer to the new client as “this guy”— “there’s this guy we know, he needs to come see you.”
Despite the horrors they’d experienced and shared with us, the cousins brought a kind, warm, happy presence to our work, and Gina and I looked forward to seeing them. After all that had been done to them, they were so sweet to be around. “Are the boys coming tomorrow . . . when do we see the cousins again?” The boys. The cousins. Our clients. And every time, after we were done, Gina and I would go to the nice places we lived. The cousins went back to the refugee camp.
One night, Gina and I were working late in the attic, and she was reading a report from a leading human rights organization on torture. We planned on using the report to support the cousins’ testimony that they were tortured in their country. On the cover of the report was a photo of a man in prison garb, shackled and chained, wearing a hood. She laid the report down. “I know we need to read this for the case, but I just can’t right now,” she said. She bowed, then shook her head as if to say “no.” With a voice full of pain, she turned to me and said, “they did this to the boys.”
The Safe House and the Crazy Boat
“Come see us at the Alpha House—lawyers are welcome, just as are refugees!” I was having coffee with Maria, an Italian humanitarian and head honcho for a miracle. That miracle is Samos Volunteers. The place where that miracle happens is the Alpha House, bought by a big international organization and lent to Samos Volunteers. Maria graciously agreed to let me tell the volunteers what our legal group was doing, so they could send refugees who needed lawyers to us.
After coffee, Maria and I winded our way through the stone streets of Vathi to the Alpha House. Shopkeepers, café waiters, refugees all shouted out greetings—she knew them all by name. “You’re going to your classes today, right?” she reminded the young refugees we saw. Boundlessly energetic and charismatic, she had that leadership vibe of a great coach or teacher who you worked hard for, because you wanted to live up to their expectations and could not bear letting them down. Maria was like your cool aunt from the old country. You couldn’t wait for her to be around, and when she was, she ran the show.
Samos Volunteers lives up to its name. It is a group of volunteers in Samos that works to improve the lives of refugees stuck on the island. The volunteers visit the camp every day, bringing clothes, supplies, serving tea, and offering precious things in rarest supply: friendship, respect, dignity, and presence full of heart. The Alpha House is three stories high, built narrow and straight up high like a tower of hope.
The place was packed as we walked into a lobby with sofas and chairs, refugees playing backgammon, some just kicking it like young people do. Most of them looked like they were in their twenties, and the energy was a lot like a college dorm. The refugees and volunteers, both from all over, mingled happily. We walked back through a kitchen where people were taking a cooking class and made our way upstairs.
There we found a music class with refugee guitarists, and language classes where teachers were teaching English, Arabic, French, and Greek. This was where Karim taught his English classes. Refugees learned here, but they also taught, and led, just like the mostly Western volunteers.
The buzzy goodwill of human decency at the Alpha House felt like oxygen after the horror stories of torture we’d heard. Just to see that people from all over the world could be kind together, it brought tears to my eyes. “Maria, this is just amazing, it’s just a miracle that this is here,” I managed to say.
We stopped at the end of an English class taught by Becca, a tall thin blonde in her 20’s who taught her English with a Texas twang. Like all great teachers, she radiated affection for her students and authority for how class was run. As we walked the halls, talking about Texas music joints, she greeted others in Arabic, Farsi, and Greek. “I’m just sort of working on my Farsi and Greek, I’m not that good yet,” she told me.
I was blown away. “Becca, do you realize that, maybe, half a percent of the people in the world can do what you just did?” “Well, I hope when I get home to the States I can get an internship on foreign policy,” she said. “Becca,” I objected, “when you get home to the States you should be Secretary of State.”
Becca spent several years teaching and living in an Arabic country. She was culturally and linguistically fluent. “It’s important how you serve the tea in the camp,” she told me, “you have to do it with love, you have to do it with respect. Tea is when people talk to each other, and spend time together, so you offer the tea with friendship, you spend time with the person you share the tea with.”
Because of this soul-force, Becca was beloved by many of the refugees. It soon became clear that whatever doubts the refugees had about me, I was friends with Becca, and that meant I was legit—and could be trusted. We went to the Alpha House basement. “This is where we have dance classes” she told me as two refugees worked on their breakdancing.
It was also where Samos Volunteers held events for women. The camp was a labyrinth of country, religion, culture, and ethnicity, and in that labyrinth lived some hostility towards women. The Alpha House provided a safe place from this. But then, the threats to women—violence and oppression—are everywhere in this world, from the dirt floors of the refugee camp to the red-carpeted hallways of power.
The next day I ran into Becca in the town square, at one of my favorite hangouts—My Falasophy, a Middle Eastern café with great hummus, kababs, wraps. They served hookah pipes with flavored tobacco, a social mainstay—you pass the pipe for hours as you smoke and talk and drink mint tea. Becca was with Najem, an asylum seeker from a country beset by civil war and a brutal dictatorship. He didn’t speak much English, so she did a lot of translating.
Najem greeted me with the heart to heart gesture I learned from the cousins, and I knew it well enough to return it. This brought warm smiles from them both. Becca told me what the gesture meant. “It’s a lot more than hello and goodbye. It means, ‘my brother, my sister, my friend, from my heart to your heart, you are sacred.’” Najem added, “I know that you are a good person, I can feel it from your heart.”
There is a tradition of beautiful, poetic expression to Arabic people and culture. The heart to heart gesture was part of it. Gina and I received that prayer of a greeting from our friends. As word got out that Gina and I were the refugee lawyers, we started to get the greeting from total strangers.
Arabic poetry extended to names. Najem means “star.” “So I am star!” Najem told me in English, arms extended, with a joyful smile. “What does your name mean?” he asked. “Najem, Charlie is a name only, it does not have a meaning.” His brow furrowed with concern, “but a person’s name should not mean nothing.” He was truly sad for me that my name did not mean anything.
Najem was waiting to hear about his asylum case. He was tortured and shot by the regime, and was hobbled by a bullet he still carried in his leg. “Perhaps the doctors can take it out?” I offer. “No,” Najem said, suddenly turning hard, “I will keep that bullet in my leg forever to remember what they did to me.”
Becca scored me an invite to spend a Sunday with a group of ten volunteers visiting a Greek artists’ village, Karlovasi. Set in the hills, Karlovasi is an impossibly charming set of artists’ bungalows and cafes. The bungalows are full of pottery, and prints of boats on the sea, and stray cats lolling on benches. Over the water, you can see Turkey. It’s that close. But a lot of refugees die in that short crossing.
We made our way to a tiny little nook full of art, called “the Crazy Boat.” Hanging from the ceiling were brightly colored paper folded boats, and one of them was a lot like a tie-dye—splashed with reds, blues, and purples. I loved it. “What is this?” I asked the owner. “I call this the Crazy Boat, just like our shop,” she said. “We have a story in our mythology, about a hero who had to take a dangerous boat trip through many perils to come home. We call that ‘the Crazy Boat,’ because one of the dangers he faced was that he would be driven crazy.”
I thought of the trip my refugee friends took to come to this place, a trip of many perils, a dangerous boat trip, a trip that makes people lose their minds. A Crazy Boat. “I would like to have this, if I may.”
The Crazy Boat
We drove home as the moon rose over Vathi harbor, a spectacular full moon, on fire with orange and yellow. It rose so large, like it was too big to be the moon, like something from heaven full of power and fire, something from above that people had never seen before, something the gods were sending to humanity as a sign. You wanted to kneel in the presence of this moon.
So we did. We got out of our cars and just watched it, and then we just silently knelt.
The next day Gina found out she was a lawyer—she passed her German licensing exam. We walked to the town square and saw Becca and Najem. They had good news too. He won his asylum case. We all shared our news, there in the square by the sea with a blue Greek sky smiling its love down on the four of us.
Najem was joyous. “This is the best day, this is such a happy day, Allah has willed this for us, he has willed us to be together for this!” He asked that we have a picture taken together for this moment. Our rules were strict about pictures with refugees. We were prohibited from asking refugees if we could take pictures with them. But if the refugees wanted to take the pictures, as far as I was concerned, that was ok. It happened a lot and was one of the joyful memories of my time there. It turns out selfies are the universal language.
“But there is a friend I am worried about,” Najem confided. “He is not doing well at all. He tried to hang himself last night at the camp, but I stopped him.” Death’s never far off in the refugee camp.
Later, I visited Alpha House to meet the cousins. Najem and Becca found me— “This is my friend, the one I told you about, the one who tried to kill himself,” Najem told me. I was face to face with the most hopeless person I had ever seen. Way too thin, his eyes rolled, his body had no life. It was as if he was already dead. I stopped my meeting with the cousins to hurry to the office of an international medical non-profit in the hope they could help. I told the director I had a friend who just won asylum, but his friend was suicidal.
“I wish we could do something besides offering treatment,” she said, “but we cannot keep watch over this person. The law says that suicidal people are to be put in protective medical facilities, but we have no such facilities here on Samos. This man would end up in jail, which is worse than the camp. Keep him in the camp, keep him at Alpha House, keep people watching him all the time. That is the best you can do.” As she walked off, she turned and looked over her shoulder at me and said, “and tell your friend who got asylum congratulations for getting out of that shithole.”
I visited Alpha House for one of Becca’s classes. The subject of the day was “what would your job be if you could do anything you want?” An eighteen-year old woman was first up. She was a refugee from Afghanistan with two young children. “I,” she started, pausing for dramatic effect, and holding out her arms like wings, “would be a pilot!” Becca laughed with joy and the class roared its approval.
An older man was last to speak. Or at least I thought he was older, he looked to be in his 70s, but Becca told me he was in his mid-50s. He was illiterate when he got to the camp. Becca taught him to read and write. In the countries and cultures that fill the camp, there is great honor for the wisdom of elders. When this man stood to speak, the class fell silent.
“I am old, and my working life is over,” he began. “My job now is to be a father, a grandfather, and an uncle. But if I were to work again, I would be an architect, and I would build houses for poor people.” The room full of people, who lived in tents in a refugee camp, nodded and bowed with respect.
Barney and The Guaranteed Victory
It was getting close to game day for the boys. We had another meeting with the cousins. We were to finish up their application for asylum and prepare them for their interview with asylum officials. This was win or lose, life or death, for the cousins and all refugees. Win and you get asylum in Europe. Lose and you get sent to Turkey, or even worse, back to the charnel house of blood and war, torture and death, hate and rape, bombs and jail, that you risked your life to run the hell away from.
But there was some good news. The hotel I was staying in let us use their giant dining room for our meetings. Daphne, the front desk clerk, took me aside in the office one day. “You are from America, and you are here for a long time in the winter, when no Americans come here–are you working with the refugees?” “Yes,” I said. “Good,” she smiled, “I would like to help them, it’s about the humanity, they are just people like us trying to have lives. We have to help them. What can I do?” I thought about the cold attic and our many bumped noggins there.
“Can we have meetings here?” “Yes,” she lit up, “we also have day care for the refugee children.” It turned out that Samos Volunteers had a kids’ camp in the hotel dining room. There was enough space in the dining room for us to have our private human rights meetings and for the day care to play games and teach the children. But humanitarian worlds would soon collide.
I invited the cousins, Karim and Gina to the relative luxury of our hotel. “Hey Charlie,” Karim texted, “we are outside waiting.” Not inside, where it’s warm, where people like me just walk in because we know we belong. Outside. In the cold. Because they didn’t know if they were allowed in.
Once in, we had to get each of the cousins to review the asylum applications we drafted to be sure we had the details right. Everything must be true. Everything must be right. Karim translated what we’d written, word for word, and the cousins let us know if we had it right. So much of what we’d written was so hard. Jail. Torture. Threats. Karim stopped translating, shook his head with disapproval and waved the back of his hand at me with disgust. He called me out: “The beatings, the beatings, always with you it’s the beatings.”
But that’s how you prove asylum. You must prove your client is at risk of harm or persecution, and you have to show it happened before when it did. You must tell the whole brutal story because details matter. The officials fly-specked refugees’ stories, looking for the slightest kink. To be fair, the authorities grant asylum a lot—they have given refuge to tens of thousands of people. But they also deported people to certain violence in places where people can be killed at any second, because their stories were “vague,” or “ambiguous,” or “inconsistent.” I’ve seen cases where persecuted refugees were sent right back to places where people are waiting to capture them, torture them, or kill them.
Everyone at the table knew this was tense, even the cousins who couldn’t speak much English. I stepped into the pause: “Karim, I hate the beatings too, but we have to talk about them. That’s what you must prove to win. You know how it works—the asylum officials will say the story is too vague or not convincing. My job is to help you win. We win when we tell them about the beatings. It’s not my fault these savages beat up the cousins. It sucks, the whole thing sucks, but it is the law, and it sucks a lot less when we win.”
Karim had actually turned his head to look away from me, but now he turned back and looked me square in the eye: “Are you sure?” “Yes Karim. I am sure.” Actually, I wasn’t.
And then the children saved us. Cutest kids you ever saw, around six or seven years old, all brown wavy hair and big brown eyes full of expression, playing and laughing and just being kids. The volunteers were playing one of those sing-songy English language lessons for kids. “Do you guys have Barney in your country,” I asked Karim, “this sounds like Barney.” “Big purple dinosaur. Hate’em,” said Karim. Then he mocked Barney with a sing-song sneering version of the Barney sing-along, “I love you, you love me,” tilting his head side to side to physically express his contempt for the purple dinosaur.
“Barney!” exclaimed Mohammed—with a wide smile as he pointed at Karim. Mohammed did not know much English. But he knew who Barney was and he knew the Barney song. So we all started singing it, tilting our heads side to side to let Barney, wherever he was, know we were making fun of him. Somehow, this was hilarious. We were doubled over laughing, spitting out parts of the Barney song when we could catch a breath.
The Samos Volunteers came over, with furrowed brows. “Uh, you guys OK? What are you doing?” “We’re working on asylum and goofing on Barney,” I replied, ridiculously. But it was true. That was exactly what we were doing.
Our meeting got serious again. We confirmed the cousins’ stories with them, stories full of brutality and suffering. The daycare was playing the kid’s movie “Megamind,” with the heavy metal band ACDC blaring “Highway to Hell” as we asked the cousins to let us know if we’d described their torture correctly. At one point, one of the children wandered over to us, smiling innocently and obviously wanting to hang out with the grown-ups. I looked at Karim, nodded toward the child and said, “Can you, uh, he can’t hear this and . . .” Karim shooed the child off in Arabic. We took a stop to rest.
When we got back, the children saved us again. The kids outnumbered the volunteers, and while we were gone, there was a jailbreak. The kids got loose, and they were running around all over the hotel. There were kids walking out of the kitchen, teetering precariously while carrying giant empty water bottles bigger than they were. There were kids in the basement taking laundry out of the laundry machines and running around the hotel victoriously waving soaking wet clothes like giant flags. There were kids gleefully running the elevators up and down. What great toys!
“Can you help us round them up?” asked one of the volunteers. I looked at Karim, and he nodded yes, then spoke to the cousins in Arabic to sign them up for the mission. They both smiled and nodded. Gina was in too. What a relief to scramble and gather these joyous rebel kids. “Are there any rules about how we are supposed to handle them,” I asked, ever the uptight lawyer. The answer came fast. “No. Just grab them, scoop them up, and bring them back.” Off we went, some of us successfully negotiating children back to class, some carrying them.
Back to work. We were translating a part of an asylum application where I wrote that the secret police kicked one of the cousins. Karim giggled. “What? How is this funny?” I was losing patience. “It’s just, Charlie,” he said, unable to stifle laughter, “the way you say it does not translate. That is not the way we say it.” I was impatient and insisted: “Let’s try it and see.” “OK,” Karim shrugged, and then he tried it in Arabic. He and Mohammed were laughing before he finished, and collapsed in laughter, slapping each other on the shoulders. They spoke Arabic fast, laughing hard, and then started pantomiming as if to throw shoes at each other, raising their voices and speaking with a high pitch and wagging fingers at each other, all the while laughing themselves to tears.
Gina interrupted. “What is this all about?” Apparently, what I’d written somehow evoked an Arabic tale about old women who, when they got angry at people, threw shoes at them. So we changed that part.
Abdul asked me earnestly, “Have you ever been to our country?” “No, Abdul, I haven’t.” I did not add that the country is a no-go zone for Americans. Our State Department just about ordered us out years ago, when the regime took over. And it wasn’t much safer for Americans before that. Abdul followed up, “It is a nice place, the people are good there. It’s not all bad things, it’s not all bad people.” “You guys are showing me that Abdul,” I answered. “I hope things get better.”
Our final step was a brief exam by a psychologist. Many refugees are traumatized, and under Greek law, an assessment of disability, illness, or other medical disorder can be grounds for preliminary asylum—and release from the camp. I should not have been listening to the psychologist interview the cousins, and mostly I wasn’t, but I heard Karim translate from across the dining room: “He says he does not want to talk about it.”
Damn! The cousins were clamming up. Later the psychologist told me it was pretty common for people not to share their psychological trauma with someone they hadn’t built up a relationship with. This is particularly true for young men. But they had to get over it. If they shut down in their interviews with the asylum officials, they would lose. And be deported back to the people waiting to jail them, torture them, or even kill them.
It was time to finish. The cousins’ asylum petitions were ready to file. We’d prepared them for the asylum interview. The interviews are intimidating—they’re done in the refugee camp, a place of dehumanizing, demoralizing disempowerment for the refugees. They depend on asylum officials for everything. Almost all the interviewers are white, well-to-do Europeans, living in hotels or houses, with jobs and money and an unspoken expectation that they will not grant every request for freedom. The interviewers have all the power.
The refugees have learned the hard way that official proceedings can get them killed in their home countries, and many don’t trust them in Europe either. And the interview is a lot like an interrogation, which is the first step to torture in the places the refugees fled. Refugees are powerless when they walk into that interview, except for one thing–the power of their truth. The power of their story.
The cousins had that power. They had good cases and they were great witnesses. I wanted them to be confident, so I gave the pep talk I give witnesses when I think they’re good. I wanted them to walk into that room and own their interviews. I did not want them to get pushed around by the interviewer or, worst of all, decide they “didn’t want to talk about it.”
“You are ready for your interview,” I started. “It is not the interviewer’s interview. It is your interview. I know things like this can make us nervous, so it’s ok to be nervous. I get nervous when I’m interviewed, too. But also be confident.” I was winding up for my pitch.
“You have a strong case. I believe in you, and I believe in your case. I cannot say you will win, because sometimes even strong cases are rejected. But you should know your case is strong and you should believe in it too, just like I do. You tell your story well. Tell it in the interview just like you told it to me. Listen to the questions carefully and tell the truth when you answer. The interviewer’s job is to find out the truth and you can help the interviewer by telling the truth about your story. Tell them everything that happened to you. Don’t end the interview until you do. Don’t walk out of that room until you tell your story. You convinced me. I know you can convince them. You can win.”
After translating, Karim turned to me, smiled, and nodded his head triumphantly, said “I told him you said he would win.” “What?” I said incredulously. That was not what I said. We lawyers are taught from day one you can’t tell a client they are going to win no matter how strong the case is. Anything can happen, and when you are a refugee, anything is often anything bad. Most cases are rejected.
“What did you tell him, Karim?” “I said you are the lawyer and you have guaranteed a victory,” he said, smiling, unfolding his arms in a very self-satisfied way, extending them outward as he emphasized “guaranteed.” I hit the roof, wagging a finger at Karim as I lectured him. The Karim show was funny, but this was serious. You can’t give a client false hope. Especially a refugee client.
“Well you need to untell him that right now,” I blew up. “You know from your own case the system can deny you even when you should win. What happened to inshallah, ‘nothing is certain’. Dammit Karim, what the . . .”
Karim and Mohammed burst out laughing at my fit, which they skillfully engineered. They had executed the perfect prank. Recovering, I humbly asked Mohammed, “So you’re good for tomorrow, right?” He nodded yes, extended his hands out, smiled and gave me two thumbs up. “Am I mothering this case?” I asked Karim. “A little bit,” he said, still smiling in the glory of the prank.
We weren’t on equal footing, me and Karim and the boys. They were younger, funnier, good looking, charming, quick witted and confident—and they could more than hold their own with me in our talks. But I was free, and they were not. And I was worried sick about them.
I decided to wander my worry about the cousins away, so I took one of my favorite walks in Vathi, around the crescent harbor to a port where a big crowd of about 30 people gathered in the sharp cool of December. “Hello, hello,” I heard, and I saw a familiar face approach. She was a refugee woman who worked at My Falasophy. “I am of Syria from the café where you come with your son.” I smiled and thought I’d tease Karim about this–I must be quite handsome if people think I’m his dad. Then I remembered his dad was dead, killed by bombers. So really, I can’t.
“I am free today,” the woman said, starting to cry. “Today I leave the camp. I am starting everything now.” She won. The authorities granted her asylum, and she was leaving now to take it. The whole crowd of people at the port were refugees who’d been granted asylum. They won, and they were about to board a boat to freedom.
We needed to get Karim and the boys on that boat.
We’d made plans to meet to debrief at a coffee café after the cousins’ interviews. Karim rejected one of our options. “Not that one, they won’t serve refugees.” I nervously asked Mohammed how his interview went, worried that he clammed up like he did with the psychologist. “They told me I didn’t have to tell them so much,” he said with a smile. We all raised our coffee glasses. I told Mohammed he was a great journalist and that he really knew how to tell a story. If he told his story and they listened, he’d win—or at least have a very good shot, since everything is inshallah and nothing is guaranteed.
I waved at other refugees as they passed. “You wave like the president in my country,” Karim mocked and laughed. The presidents of our clients’ countries are war criminals, dictators at worst, incompetent with dubious legitimacy at best. “That can’t be good,” I replied. “It’s not,” he dunked. I remembered that the culturally correct greeting was the heart to heart gesture, and that’s how I greeted refugees from then on. “My brother, my sister, my friend, from my heart to your heart, you are sacred.” Becca was right, it’s more than hello or goodbye. It’s a prayer, one person praying to the holiness of another.
Karim spoke with great pride about the tradition and culture of his country, and then told us he was working on an American high school equivalency course online so he could go to college in Greece if he won asylum. “I’m studying your history,” he said with a skeptical shake of his head, “it’s different from our history.” I remarked on Mohammed’s ring, metal carved with an elegant design. He smiled shyly, “it’s from a girlfriend.”
As we celebrated Mohammed’s chance for victory, which of course was not guaranteed, least of all by me, a tall attractive blonde walked into the café, drawing the attention of our young friends. “She’s a cop,” Karim told me, translating to Mohammad, who said something that made Karim smile and shake his head no. “Mohammed says he would like to join the police.” All wildly inappropriate, I know, but fellas gonna fella worldwide, even in refugee camps. The Greek police aren’t always kind to refugees and they wouldn’t be hiring refugees anytime soon. Mohammed’s romantic thoughts of joining the police and courting his new love interest were ridiculous, hopeless, tragic, irreverent, and funny. It was like that with Karim and the boys.
We began watching music videos and comedy sketches. When it was Karim’s turn, he played one of his favorite songs, Lukas Graham’s “7 Years.” As the song played, Karim held up a hand to command attention and said, “here’s the most important part.” The song played:
Most of my boys are with me
Some are still seeking glory
And some I had to leave behind
My brother I’m still sorry
Karim bowed his head. We stayed quiet for a while.
Then we followed through on our plans, days in the making, to visit My Falasophy, play some backgammon, and smoke a hookah. The café was closed, not to reopen until after dark. So no hookah. “Inshallah, as I have explained to you many times,” nodded Karim, “nothing is certain.” The cousins had many virtues, and one of them was business development for the pop-up refugee law firm me and Gina were running. The boys sent us clients. As we walked back from the failed hookah trip, they pointed at an approaching group of refugees.
“There’s the guy! The guy we told you about who needs a lawyer!” Gina and I sprung into lawyer mode: “When is your interview,” she asked. “Monday afternoon at 1 pm,” our new client told us. It was 4:30 pm on Friday. Our new client, Mahmoud, came in the next day to our hotel office. We had less than two days to get his papers written and get him ready for his interview.
Mahmoud was all business. He reminded me of my corporate clients during my time in law firm practice. And like those clients, or at least some of them, Mahmoud had his files together. He’d been arrested by the regime and shot by police during a protest. Mahmoud had receipts. He had arrest warrants; he even had a hospital emergency room note confirming that he’d told doctors he’d been shot during a protest.
The regime went after Mahmoud because he would not let them launch missiles from his front yard during one of its wars. Mahmoud knew that allowing this would have been his death warrant. If his house was a missile launch site, the enemy could legally bomb it. And they would. “I told them, get that shit off my yard, I have a wife and kids, and I can’t have missiles in my yard.”
Imagine having to say such a thing to your government.
It was a relatively fast interview and preparation. Mahmoud had left his wife and young children behind because he feared the trip would not be safe for them. His plan was to win asylum and then free his family. As we closed, I thought it appropriate to ask about them. Our relationship did not have the warmth we had with the cousins, but I still wanted to let Mahmoud know I cared about him. “How are your wife and children? I hope they are well,” I offered. And then he cried.
This big, tough man–who stood down terrorists with missiles in his front yard and cursed them as he ordered them off, who was shot at a protest and had the presence of mind to ask emergency room doctors to give him a doctor’s note after they took the bullet out–he cried. He cried so hard, he bent over and shook, and he wrapped his arms around his knees to try to make himself stop. “I’m sorry, I miss them, I . . . I just had to leave.” He cried like you would cry if you knew you would never see the people you loved most again, if you knew their fate was in the worst of hands.
And then he went back to the refugee camp.
“A Beautiful House”
“I am Jean Freeman, I translate with the lawyers when they have clients who speak French.” Many of them did, coming from central African countries. Jean specifically asked for his pseudonym for this Essay. He wanted to be called “Freeman.” And now he is just that. A free man.
But then, Jean was a refugee and he lived in the camp for a long time. One of the many brutal hardships of refugee life is how long we force people to be refugees. Sometimes it’s years, sometimes it’s someone’s whole life. What if that happened to you?
We met at a coffee cafe, our favorite one in town, with a harborside patio where we could go when it was warm enough. When it wasn’t, the upper floor had a spectacular, sunken cockpit-style seating area, under a cathedral ceiling, and a glorious bay window view of the harbor. This was not only beautiful, but private. Refugees were welcome there. For Jean and me, the coffee place was our office.
Jean is an artist, a painter and sculptor. He’s a physically striking person, so much so you wonder if he is a famous athlete or actor, and he radiates kindness. He shared with us his brush techniques, and how he managed to paint even in the deprivation of the camp. “I find frames, I use newspapers as my canvas.” He sculpted from metal, and stone, and walked us through the craft of working with each. “It is a blessing to make things, to make a shape out of nothing, to make it say something.”
Jean was from an African country, and had a studio there full of his art. That country is riven by war. Jean tried to stay out of it. He refused to join armies to fight in the war. One night he got a call with horrifying news—his studio was on fire. It was firebombed. Jean got there just as the fire was finishing, just in time to watch the fire destroy everything he worked his whole life to create. A crowd watched, and a man next to him turned and said to Jean: “We did this.”
Jean was a man of many good deeds. He translated for us and was the camp representative for African refugees. Like Karim, Jean taught at Alpha House. He taught art to adults and children— “I love to watch the children learn.” He also taught fitness.
“I have learned so much here Charlie,” Jean explained as we sat by the harbor on a sun-splashed day. “My art studio is a camp outside! My canvas is a newspaper. My friends give me paint, brushes, and frames, so I learn to be grateful for this kindness.”
“To run, I do not need a track! This is my track,” he said, sweeping a hand at the walk along the harbor. “I do not need a step machine! The stone steps are my machine—even more—the hills and mountains are my steps!” This made me want to run with him, but I knew he would crush me. “I do not need machines—the ground is everywhere for me to do pushups. I do not need bars for pull-ups, the branches of the trees are my bar. This beautiful island is my gym!” He smiled, “I learn here that I need very little and can do very much.”
Jean’s art is mesmerizing. Some of it illustrates this story. I was first captured by his painting of a family trekking toward a distant light, which Jean titled “A Journey with No Return.” Another he entitled “Samos in Spring.” It looks like a Japanese masterpiece landscape, full of blooming flowers, flowing rivers, mountains, and gentle trees. Jean painted this when Samos was, for him, a hellhole refugee camp and one of the worst places in the world. But this is what Jean saw:
Samos in Spring
Jean and I worked together on a hard case for a client named Sinah. She fled her country because men brutalized her with sexual violence. Men did this again to her in the camp, so she fled the island without permission to Athens. She wanted to know if she could return to Samos and resume her asylum case. We spoke to her by phone.
All I could tell Sinah was this. If she returned to Samos, it was possible that the authorities would be lenient if they believed she fled to escape abuse. Our lawyers could not represent her in that case; she would be represented by Greek lawyers who are part of the Greek legal system. Once any criminal case was resolved, our lawyers could help her in her asylum case. It was possible the asylum authorities would hold it against her that she fled the island without permission. It was also possible they would grant her preliminary asylum status because she was vulnerable, a category of asylum for those who suffered abuse or some physical or psychological medical condition that places them at risk. We did know that some refugees who fled the island without permission won asylum later.
The hardest part was whether she would be safe back in the camp. I could not tell her she would be. If she came back to Samos, we offered to connect her with the non-profit that lent us the attic space, as they had emergency housing and support that could help. But there was a waiting list for the housing, and there was no way to know whether the authorities would detain and jail her. It was also possible the authorities would be lenient and allow her to continue her asylum case in Athens. But there were no guarantees. Since we were not Greek lawyers and not qualified to give advice on Greek criminal law, we also connected her with Greek lawyers we knew who were experts on criminal law and could advise her on that part of her legal and personal crisis.
Jean and I were quiet after talking with Sinah. Men violated her horribly, and it was infuriating and heartbreaking that in all of this, with all she suffered, she was the one at risk of jail, she was the one society might consider a criminal. “She has suffered very much,” Jean said, nodding his head. “She has a very hard decision to make. I think she is brave no matter what she decides.”
Jean is possessed of such deep peace that you feel it too when you are with him. His generosity of spirit, his gentle wisdom, his deep compassion for others—they fill the room, they lift everyone around him. There is a Sanskrit word, shantih, and it literally means peace. But it is much more than that. It means peace beyond understanding; it means “I am peace.”
Jean is shantih. He is peace. Every few days I’d meet up with Jean at our coffee joint, even if we didn’t have a case, because he brought me peace, and he lifted my spirits. He still does.
One of those times we were outside at the coffee shop talking about music, and I played a version of Tracey Chapman’s “Revolution” sung by Mermans Mosengo, a brilliant musician originally from the Congo. Jean nodded and smiled, “I love Tracey Chapman and that song!” We were off, and moved through Michael Jackson, African blues, and folk. Someone listening in the street came over and asked if we could play some James Brown.
Jean smiled broadly and gestured affectionately at the computer from which the Godfather of Soul now rocked. “It is amazing that we can have this music, these instruments, these voices, from the Congo, from Los Angeles, from the past and the present, voices with us and some that are gone. But we use our technology to bring them right here where we sit. We can even bring them back to life!”
Jean was interested in the law—he asked about human rights law, about family law. “It must be fascinating to know how these laws work, and how they are created, and how they may help people.”
One day, Jean climbed to the top of the highest peak in Samos. When he got there, he held out his arms in a transcendent gesture of strength and freedom. Though he was not yet free in the eyes of the law, he possessed a freedom of soul that no camp or captor could ever cage. Jean reached his arms out, like the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, and he did this:
Jean asked to meet the day before I left Samos. As always, I was glad to see Jean and looked forward to what I knew would be a joyful and uplifting time with my friend. But my heart was heavy because I was free to leave, and Jean remained. When we met, Jean handed me a package, and I opened it to find two paintings. One was about music, with pictures of musicians and instruments all flowing through a lap-top, just like they were when we listened to music that day in the coffee shop. The second was about law and mentioned all the areas of law we talked about.
This man who lived in a refugee camp and had nothing made a gift for me. He made me a gift about our friendship, a gift of art that we shared. Materially, Jean had nothing. Spiritually, he had everything, riches so great that he could create gifts from the nothing this world stuck him with.
“Jean, this is so kind, and so beautiful. Thank you,” I managed to say as I stood in the light of his smile one last time. “You help so many people, you do so much good, in our cases, in your art, in your teaching, I just don’t know how to thank you. It is amazing to me that you are able to do this.”
His parting words to me were these. “Charlie, I have to learn and share. If I do not learn and share, I am like a beautiful house with no one inside.”
“What Child is This”
It was Christmastime in Vathi, a time many celebrate the cherished story of the birth of a sacred child. While there, I thought of a pregnant mother and her husband, a couple of modest means, forced to make a long and perilous journey. There was no room for the couple in homes and inns, so they must stay in a scarcely sheltered place in the wintry cold. As the family prepared for the joy of new life, murderous enemies schemed against them and forced them to flee for their lives.
Except the family I was thinking about was not from long ago, nor was I reading their story in the Bible. The soon-to-be mother and father were right in front of me. They were our new clients. For them, there was no stable or manger, but instead a tattered tent in a squalid refugee camp which had three times more people than it could safely hold.
The couple was terrified. We sat together in our makeshift attic office. The couple unbundled and told their story. They had made a long and life-threatening trip to escape violence in their country, including death threats for having married across religious sects. “Who threatened you,” I asked. “Our family and others,” the husband responded, with weary sadness in his eyes. They described their harrowing trip to the island, overland through several countries and finally by sea in a flimsy raft that almost capsized.
“Here is our problem,” the husband continued. My god, I thought, this gets worse? “I am pregnant,” the wife said, “and the asylum office let me leave the camp and island to live elsewhere.” Good, I thought, as the law permits temporary asylum relief for vulnerable refugees. “But the asylum authority does not recognize our marriage,” the husband added. “We gave them this paper from the Imam who married us, but they say I need an official license. We do not have the paperwork. We left most of our papers when we fled, and we lost the rest at sea.”
“The authorities will not let me leave with my wife. She has been allowed to leave next week but I must stay. We will be separated, and if my asylum case is rejected, I will be forced back to our country, and we will never see each other again.” The couple fell silent, and the husband buried his head in his hands. “It would be better if this child is never born,” he said bitterly.
“Don’t give up,” I responded. “There are ways you can stay together.” My first recommendation: Go to city hall and try to get a marriage certificate. That would keep them together, as policy dictates that married couples are not separated. Karim asked me to come along to get the marriage license, adding, “Sometimes these things go better when it’s not just us, and we have one of you.”
Karim was street smart about the system, and just about everything, so I listened to him and went. “Do you have any documents about your situation?” I asked before we left. The wife reached gently into a folder and handed me an envelope, cradling it as one would hold something fragile and priceless. In it was a sonogram picture of her unborn baby. A sonogram is so often happily shared at joyful baby showers as a beautiful portrait of the miracle of new life, but here in the attic, the sonogram was cold, hard evidence in a legal case.
I smiled and told her “my dad would have loved this – he was a doctor and he delivered babies, and one of his favorite things was the sonogram. He called it ‘baby’s first picture.’ I wish he was here.” The couple smiled back, and for the first time since we met, they looked like a happy, young married couple about to have a baby.
Off the four of us went to city hall to get our clients married. It was a crisp and sunny day, and we could hear Christmas carols peeling from the town square nearby. The words were sometimes Greek, sometimes English, and the music was always familiar to those of us who grew up with it. O Holy Night, What Child Is This, all joyfully announcing the birth of an innocent child.
At city hall, we waited, the wife in her head scarf signaling us as likely refugees. When an official approached, I spoke first– “My friends would like a marriage license,” everything about me saying “American lawyer.” It worked. “Come right this way,” the official politely responded.
It’s not always like that for refugees when it comes to paperwork. Refugees get arrested for not having identification cards. Working with refugees is a constant lesson in how the happenstance of birth, privilege, and circumstance mean that some of us can come and go safely where we please, and that everyone will speak our language, while others can be deported to certain death if they aren’t carrying the right papers.
The officials had bad news. They were trying to change the rules so refugees could get marriage certificates without the usual paperwork, but the changes had not yet been made. There would be no marriage license.
As we trudged back to the office at dusk, musicians played Silent Night in the town square next to a nativity scene. My heart sank at the thought that the couple’s child would be born in squalor worse than what greeted the baby Jesus. Their baby could be born in a cold, dark refugee camp. The mother might bear the child alone, thousands of miles away from a husband she would never see again. Just as the holy family fled as refugees from King Herod’s murderous intentions, the couple fled from death threats. Though I could only hear the music, not the words, the hymn’s lyrics haunted my mind: Mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.
We regrouped in the attic office. I gave the couple three options. One, contact UN refugee officials, who manage camp departures, and ask that the couple be permitted to leave together due to their special circumstances. Two, inform the Greek asylum officials that the couple’s situation called for them to be transferred from the island together. Finally, the humanitarian group lending us the attic space had a small emergency housing program for refugees at risk. We could apply for housing so the husband and wife could stay together until his case was decided. I recommended we try all three, but asked the couple what they wanted to do.
The husband smiled and said, “We are sorry our case is so hard, it must be making you very tired.” I returned his smile, “Please don’t apologize, I am glad to help your family. It is what I came here to do.” This fell short of the couple’s battered, beautiful humanity, so I added, “You are trying to do such a wonderful thing. You are being a good husband and wife to each other, and you are bringing a child into the world. I am sorry it is so hard for you. It should not be this way. I am honored to know you.”
The couple joined hands and shared some words in Arabic, and then said to me, Gina, and Karim, in our cold, barely lit attic, “Since we left our home, you are the first people who gave us choices and asked us what we want to do. You are the first people who cared about us. You are the first people who are on our side. Thank you.” They were so alone. So alone with all this. Sometimes I think the most important thing we do for our refugee friends is just to be with them in their struggles, and just to tell them that they are not alone, that someone is on their side. But then I remember that as good as that all is, we have to win.
Later, I learned asylum officials agreed to transfer the married couple out of the refugee camp and off the island. They are together with their baby. Sleep in heavenly peace.
A Journey with No Return
The International Food Festival, the Greeks, and the Hoochie Coochie Man
Gina and I had friends in high places. We were in with Maria, of Samos Volunteers, Yiannis, from the refugee non-profit, and Daphne, from the hotel. Our friends invited us to the International Food Festival. The Festival was a meal put on by some of the refugees.
The refugees were good citizens of Vathi. They held a Refugee Olympics and invited everyone in town to watch and compete. When they put on a refugee talent show, they invited and entertained everyone. No one had to file an application or go through an interview to get sanctuary from the refugees. No one got rejected and sent away. The refugees welcomed everyone. No questions asked.
And now they were welcoming us to the Food Festival. Maria, Yiannis, and Daphne teamed up with refugees to buy all the food they needed to cook up a global feast. Daphne threw open the hotel kitchen and dining room—the same dining room we’d used for our case preparation with the boys, the same dining room where Samos Volunteers held day care for the refugee rebel kids.
All day, the hotel kitchen buzzed with the energy of great chefs preparing a big meal. Precious packages whisked in, and our chefs clasped hands and cried out with joy when just the right meat, just the right chicken, and just the right spices arrived. The whole hotel was full of smells so good you could taste them.
Finally, the big night came. A crowd of over 60 people crowded into the dining area. Maybe a half dozen of us were English speaking humanitarian workers. The rest were refugees and families, including some of the runaway rebel kids who boldly took over the hotel just days before. The table was full of carefully prepared, artfully presented food—kebabs, hummus, tagine chicken, roasted vegetables, the sweetest dessert pastries you ever had, all sticky with honey that you got to lick off your fingers.
Beneath this treasure were bright blankets, and colorful wraps. The flags on the table weren’t flags most Americans see a lot at dinner parties—Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Iran, Yemen, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Somalia. Each flag stood proudly in front of its country’s food, like a little ambassador, as if to say, “Try our food! You will like it best of all!”
Our refugee hosts dressed up for the night such as they could. When the meal was ready, they blessed it. And then, they gathered and for a while, they just looked at what they had prepared. They waited; they did not rush to eat. Some nodded and smiled, some wiped tears from their eyes, some put arms around each other’s shoulders. It had been a long time since they’d seen a meal like this, a meal that was full of love and care, a meal that would gather family and friends for hours. They looked at that meal like a prodigal child they hadn’t seen for years, who they might never see again. They looked at that meal like it was home.
Word got out that Gina and I were the asylum lawyers and soon we had a crowd of friends. We and the refugees could not speak each other’s language, but soon we were speaking in that beautiful language beyond words, where what is in the heart finds a way to come out. We shared the heart to heart greeting, we smiled, and bowed, we pointed at the food and gave thumbs up, we patted our own bellies in gratitude, we laughed. Our eyes danced as we let each other know how warm this moment felt. Enthusiastic gestures about the food went a long way.
And there was the universal gesture of remembrance—the selfie. Gina and I followed the rule prohibiting us from taking pictures. Our refugee hosts weren’t subject to that rule, so they joyfully selfied away, happily sharing their pictures with us. There was lots of that selfie gesture that means “everybody smush in a little closer.”
The refugees treated meals as cherished acts of communion, and they were reverent about their food. They had much in common with their Greek hosts. Vathi was full of delis, outdoor food stands, cafes, and coffee shops, all brimming alive with talk and family and friends and just great food. My favorite deli was staffed by neatly dressed workers, all wearing white shirts, black pants, and blue and white-striped aprons. Food was an important occasion and in Greece you dressed up for it—just like our refugee hosts did. The deli workers remembered what I liked— “you must try this—you will love it!”
And the coffee cafes, they’re like little chapels, neatly cared for and kept. Greeks take their coffee strongly and seriously. Like food, coffee is an event, and you talk around what’s on the table to eat or drink. “So,” I was asked, “do you want American coffee?” No, I didn’t. Too weak. I wanted the good stuff.
If you’re ever in Vathi, do yourself a favor and go to Epikairo. It’s a wonderful place to eat, all full of quirky little things, like a picture of a Volkswagen van with surfboards on the roof cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway. Everything on the menu is great, but get the chicken with apples, raisins, and prunes in a brown sugar sauce. It’s so good, it’s “how do you make this?” good–-you want to ask the chefs how they do it. They’ll smile thankfully when you ask. But they won’t tell you.
Epikairo was the expatriate hang out in Vathi, one room cozy and intimate and a second big enough for birthday parties and music. I went to several Samos Volunteers staff parties there, and one night stumbled into a party for the asylum officers—the ones who decided our clients’ cases. On Friday nights they had bands—good ones. One duo dropped soul, R&B, and the blues classic “Hoochie Coochie Man.” They were great. I told them, “I’ve heard this in Chicago and New Orleans, and you were just as good.” It felt like home.
But the main event was when the duo swung into a bunch of Greek folk songs. That’s what the crowd came to hear. Tables got cleared and people got up and danced—in big circles of up to ten people, everyone circling and kicking and spilling wine all over just like some movie about a wedding on a Greek island. When you’re a Westerner and you go to Samos, you’re a tourist or an expat, and they play your songs. When you’re an Arab or an African and you come here as a refugee, they don’t.
One sunny afternoon I made my way to the town square. A group of women had an arts stand, and as I shopped, I learned they were mothers of disabled children and that the children made all the art they sold. The women were raising money for a special education school. One of my brothers has a disability, and the women and I shared a long talk about challenges and triumphs.
Eventually the women asked what I was doing in Samos, always a tricky question to answer, because you never know how people feel about refugees. But it was sunny, and it was Christmas season, so I told them. One of the women paused and said, “My daughter is autistic, and I go to the camp very often to help. I know there are mothers there with autistic children too, and they have nothing, they have nobody, and I just . . .” She bowed her head and wept.
Running errands, running for your life.
Karim was a man of many gigs. And now he had one more. A humanitarian non-profit in Vathi needed an Arabic translator, for a happy reason—their current translator won his asylum case.
“So, Charlie,” Karim asked, “ok if you come along tomorrow while I get my papers for this job?” I remember what he’d told us when we tried to get the couple a marriage permit: “Sometimes these things work out better if we have one of you with us.” “Sure Karim—glad to come.” I was, for a bunch of reasons. I wanted to make sure Karim got to the front of the line. My job was simple—to obviously be an American lawyer, to do this first thing at every stop, and to linger around like at any minute I might petition the United Nations on his behalf or create an international incident.
And I was worried about him. Though Karim was tough as anyone I ever met, and a survivor, he carried with him this sadness and vulnerability that was as deep as the sea. “Sometimes, I just run and run, even into the night” he told us once, “it’s my only escape.” How much can a person take? And finally, Karim was just great company—smart, funny, flirty, challenging, charismatic. It was great to be with him and I was honored he asked. Not everyone got to be Karim’s body man.
We started in the morning and stopped by one of his many favorite coffee and pastry shops— “Get this one,” he said, pointing at a giant pastry glistening with sweet glaze. “Sure Karim, but can we split this, it’s as big as my head.” Karim laughed, “Get the whole thing Charlie, we are walking all over this island, you can work it off.”
After an appointment or two, it was off to check in with the non-profit. All our ducks were in a row. But there were complications with the paperwork, and hold ups, and people telling us to come back next week, or the week after, or whenever. Karim and I looked at each other with a “WTF” look, but we were polite with the non-profit. How could this make sense? There were 3,000 Arabic speaking refugees in the camp. Why not get this done?
We were disappointed, but when we got outside again, I said “Maybe they are delaying because they are pulling out in four months.” It was widely reported that the non-profit was ending its work on Samos.
Karim was having none of it. “If they aren’t going to do shit, why don’t they leave now?”
As we walked away, after about 15 minutes Karim realized he left his refugee ID card at the non-profit. “I’ll go back and get it,” he said. “Cool, how ‘bout I come with,” I asked. This was a dangerous, dangerous thing. Refugees got arrested if they were caught without their card, and that might be the end of their asylum case. I was on Karim’s side on the walk back like a celebrity bodyguard. Thankfully, they had his card.
As we trekked around, we ran into the translator Karim was going to replace. He did not approve of the humor Karim brought to his work—”You have to just translate with them—none of this joking around!” Unsurprisingly, Karim again was having none of it. “My job is not just to translate; it is to bring cultural and emotional fluency to everyone at the table and help them understand each other.” I didn’t quite buy that–I think Karim just likes bringing stuffy people down to earth–but I was glad he could make us all laugh. And think.
Karim played a rogue of a bachelor and shook his head at people getting married and having kids: “This is not for me—that is the end of it!” But as we made our way down a beautiful stone walk back to the town square center, Karim smiled and pointed— “Here come my students. The children! Watch out, here they come!” I heard children shriek “KARIM” and turned to see a dozen young children running joyfully at Karim as fast as they could with arms outstretched. They embraced Karim and wrapped their arms around him like a giant scrum of love. He wrapped them back; they were all tangled in his arms and legs, swaying back and forth in the center of this old Greek village.
Those kids loved Karim. He walked and worked shoulder to shoulder with the Americans, the Europeans, and he talked back to us. He took no shit from the Westerners, and he taught these kids just like the Westerners do. He was their hero. And those kids knew he loved them back.
After we finished with the errands, at the café, I took Karim aside to tell him something I’d been trying to find the right moment for: “We should add more to your appeal.” “But what would we add? Can we do that?” he asked. I explained, “The first appeal was about technicalities in the procedure, and we were right to do that. The authorities got some of the details wrong.”
I paused, thinking about what I prepared to say. “But we have to go past the details of the hearing to the main thing. I read your transcript. We need to tell them your story. We need to tell them what happened to you. You have a great case. They decided wrong. I know all that you talked about in the interview hurts.” I thought about how much he hated it when I focused on how the cousins were beaten. I took a breath. “You don’t have to talk about it again. I promise. But we must appeal about it. All you have to do is read the appeal and sign the paper if it’s right.”
“Are you sure Charlie?” he asked. “Yes Karim. I’m sure. I’m your lawyer and I care about you. And I’m sure.” This time I really was. He nodded, “OK. When will it be ready?” “It’s ready now Karim. I already wrote it.” We were taking another shot at winning.
Later, when we were playing backgammon with Gina, I shared with Karim yet another theory for adding to his appeal—one element of his ethnicity might make him a target in a country full of ethnic strife. “Perhaps,” said Karim, nodding his head and stroking his chin, and then adding, smiling, “but I am so handsome that all groups think I am one of them, and I speak their languages flawlessly . . .” Gina and I were shaking our heads and laughing. I finally stopped long enough to say, “Dude, can you just get over yourself until you win asylum?” I probably shouldn’t have said this—this was not human rights protocol–but either way, we had one less argument for appeal.
A few days after he filed the new appeal, Karim found out his nephew was sick. He was afraid the child would die. Karim spent a lot of time with Gina and I those days, even when we didn’t have a case for him to work on. He was so sad, and so vulnerable, and we were an escape. We weren’t the camp, we weren’t the non-profit slow rolling his application, we weren’t the asylum system that rejected his claim.
So we played a lot of backgammon. Karim was one of those backgammon players who makes your moves for you if he thinks you’re making mistakes–“No, why don’t you do this,” he would say, and then rearrange your pieces. Mohammed joined us, at first protesting that he didn’t know how to play–before winning seven straight games, his smile growing with each win of his seemingly improbable streak. Karim stopped making moves for Mohammed at win number three–“Enough of you not knowing how to play,” he grumped.
Karim wanted to see if we could get him special leave off the island to see his nephew, but we knew that the answer would be no and that asking might hurt his appeal. Asylum authorities want to prevent refugees from getting off the island. The authorities wanted refugees to stay on the island, and wanted to stop refugees from leaving without permission to make a run for it. I was not allowed to help anyone do this, so I was told I had to tell refugees that I could only help them through the legal process. If anyone wanted to run for it outside of the system I could not help them.
I couldn’t help them, but I can’t blame them either. Life hasn’t played by the rules for my refugee friends. Now we tell them they must. Power has tried to kill them. Now we tell them they must trust it. Power has killed their parents, their brothers and sisters, their friends. It has firebombed their houses and raped them and left them for dead. It has tortured them and shot them at protests, and shot at them at the border as they desperately tried to escape. Now we tell them power might see it their way and give them a chance. Why should they believe that?
I can see why they might think running for their lives is a better bet. It’s the only thing that worked for them so far. They ran for their lives and now they’re alive. Other people they knew didn’t run– and now they’re dead. Or stuck for years in the hellhole of a refugee camp, waiting for an immigration system that might deport them, that might tell them they’re not at risk of getting killed back home when everyone knows going home is a death sentence.
If you were a refugee, what would you do? Would you sit there and wait? Would you trust the system? Would you obey the law? Or would you run, run, run for your life?
“I don’t want to kill anyone, and I don’t want to die.”
The boys kept sending us clients, right to the end. By this time, we already knew the clients from seeing them with our refugee friends. We had coffee with them and shared the prayer greeting. It was nice we already knew each other.
Gina wanted to take one of the new clients herself. Usually we teamed up. This was a tough one, too. The client, Mustafa, was a gentle young man, and was one of the most fastidiously groomed and dressed people I have ever met–in or out of a refugee camp. He almost always wore the same thing– a neatly pressed white dress shirt (though heaven knows how he pressed it), and a brimmed black hat. Mustafa had a sharply groomed beard, and a kind, but almost physically awkward, bearing. All this made him look very formal, like some sort of religious novitiate.
Mustafa had a lot of friends, but we were warned he was “flaky.” “He’s a good guy, but he’s all over the place, you can’t understand him.” Mustafa was a translator for Westerners in his country, and this made him a marked man. Insurgents beat him badly. Gina sensed there was more to Mustafa than his confusion. She was right.
“I think he suffered a brain injury when he was beaten,” she explained after spending time with him. “I looked up the symptoms and checked with doctors I know, and he’s a classic case—very bright and social, and then he loses focus.” She had her case set. “Under the rules, if he has a diagnosed brain injury, the authorities have to grant him preliminary asylum because he is physically vulnerable. He gets out of the camp and off the island, gets to go to the mainland, gets more time for his asylum case.”
Gina was right again. She somehow got Mustafa to the Vathi hospital for an examination—a miraculous feat and one that took a lot of haggling. It was hard to get a refugee into the hospital who wasn’t bleeding or broken badly. Mustafa was diagnosed with a brain injury and granted preliminary asylum status. Everyone gave up on Mustafa but Gina. She won his case. She saved him.
Our last client was Jamal. He was one of the sweetest kids in the world. Jamal was a slight, baby-faced guy, and he always wore a hoodie. He told us he was 20. He could have passed for 14. The boys sent him, and we’d seen him a lot in town. When Jamal saw us, he gave us the prayer greeting, a big smile, and then he ran across the street to give me a hug. Hugging Gina was not allowed, strictly prohibited for religious reasons, but Jamal would give her several bows and smiles to make sure she knew he was her friend.
Jamal was from one of the bloodiest battle sites in the world, and like so many young men he got caught between killers. The murderous regime stopped him from going to school because that meant that he could be drafted—students have an exemption from military service. Both sides tried to force him to fight in the horrific civil war. Sweet, shy Jamal looked like someone who should have a girlfriend with braces and boyband posters in her bedroom. He wouldn’t live five minutes fighting terrorists and hardened war criminals in that merciless war.
Jamal was first jailed by rebels affiliated with terror groups when they held the city. Later he was jailed by the regime’s army when they retook control. In the regime’s dungeon, he was led past people tortured by the hanging inflicted on Mohammed. He could hear their screaming and wailing even when he couldn’t see them. What happened to them? “I think they died,” he said quietly, “because every time we walked past the torture place, we never saw the same people.”
After Jamal was released, aircraft bombed his neighborhood. He was on a balcony and was nearly killed when his house collapsed on him, crushing his chest and leaving him with injuries he still suffered.
“What would happen to you if you were forced to go back to your country?” I must ask every refugee that question. “I can’t go back,” he shook his head, “I was captured by both sides in the war and they tortured me the same way. I don’t want to kill anyone, and I don’t want to die.”
Sometimes all you can do is bow your head.
“Happy Christmas!” –A Walk in the Moonlight
Inshallah, inshallah, everything is inshallah. Our quest for a hookah again inshallahed. My Falasophy’s quirky charms included episodic hours and they were yet again closed. Gina, Karim, Mohammed, and I were turned away again. Karim had an idea— “I know a great beach—let’s go walk there.”
We walked the curvy beach road under a bright moon, all full of twists and turns and old stone walks and breezy beach houses. We walked under the beautiful moonlight, shining glorious across the harbor, and casting the old fishing village in gentle silhouettes in the night. The four of us talked and talked.
Mohammed is a big soccer fan and spoke about his favorites—and shook his head no at those players on opposing teams. rival stars. He’s also a car aficionado—he called out every car we saw, moving and parked, in our walk. “Ford—Detroit! Toyota Yaris—they are all over here!” And then, with an approving nod to Gina, “Mercedes.” We talked about Volkswagen convertibles, and Teslas, and driving along the California coast highway, me and this devout Muslim ex-journalist from a war-torn place. Karim showed us videos of him trying to paddleboard (and tipping over) in happier times.
“This is it—this is the beach—we come here all the time in the summer.” Karim led our way to a cove beach, right next to a once grand hotel stripped open like it was hit by a bomb. Like one of those buildings you see torn halfway apart in a war. Like Karim’s house and the boys’ house and Jamal’s house, all bombed wide open, with their insides all out.
We went exploring in the wrecked hotel. This could not be safe. There were wide open spaces with four story drops straight to the beach. Debris was all over and there were holes in the floor. Party and disco rooms, all ripped wide open, so the moonlight shone on us like God was looking for us with Her spotlight, Her light shining on us through holes in the roof and the gaping space where a wall used to be.
I got so lost in this that it was minutes before I realized Karim, Gina, and Mohammed were gone. Damn! Two young men and a young woman were alone in the night “Karim! Mohammed! Gina! This is Charlie, I lost you, where are you?”
I was suddenly bathed in ghostly blue light, like a stage light that might have shined on the hotel music stage before the hotel got its guts blown out by whatever tore it open. I heard Karim’s voice from above–“We are up here.” I looked up and through a hole in the roof I saw the smiling faces of Karim, Mohammed, and Gina, all shining their cell phone lights on me.
How weak and untrusting was I to suspect trouble? But then, trouble comes. That’s why we were all there in Greece, together in the night in that hollowed out shell of a grand old hotel. Trouble brought us there.
But there would be no trouble tonight.
I made my way to join my friends on the roof and saw why they took the perilous climb to get there. A hundred feet high over the beach, the whole harbor was lit bright under the moon and sky full of stars. It was so clear and clean, it was like a miracle, like you could reach up in the sky and pull down a star for yourself if you wanted one.
The crescent hills, dotted with their own lights, were curled up against the harbor, the clear blue water shimmering with silver thrown down by the moon and stars, all this beautiful light dancing brightly on the water. Gentle waves sounded softly on the shore, whispering peacefully in the night. We looked at this, the four of us, we looked at each other and smiled and we nodded, and then we looked again at this glorious painting that God made for us. None of us said a word. We took very different trips to see this, but for now, we all saw the same beautiful thing.
Our beach walk home led us happily back to the town square. Mohammed had never seen a full out Western Christmas–much less a Greek one. It was a few days before Christmas, when the songs and celebration were full of tidings of joy. Lights draped across the scenic stone streets and shops. Mohammed took picture after picture, and his eyes danced with joy like an American kid on Christmas morning. His lanky arms made him a human selfie stick, and he snapped one of him, me, and Gina in one of the streets. He pointed at his phone and mine and Karim translated— “He wants to know how to friend you on Facebook.” Not what refugee lawyers are supposed to do, you might say. I know. But it’s Christmas, Mr. Scrooge.
We made our way to the town square, packed with Christmas revelers and full of the joyful music of the season. Mohammed watched this, taking it all in, and then turned around, beaming his smile, and stretched his two long arms out, as if he was reaching out to hug the whole world, he raised his head to the sky and exclaimed to us: “Happy Christmas!”
Later that night I checked Facebook. The lawyer in me was nervous as to how this all got reported. Mohammed posted several pictures—including the selfie with me and Gina. This was greeted by dozens of comments from his friends, all in Arabic. I pulled out the translator and saw that someone asked him “who are those people with you?”
“They,” Mohammed responded, “are my lawyers.”
Inshallah finally let us have our hookah the night before I left. Me, Karim, Mohammed, and Gina passed the pipe and smoked a bowl and told stories about our old countries.
My last day in Samos was here, and I was packed and ready to go. Before I caught my ride to the airport, I checked in with Karim, Jamal, and Gina. They were finishing Jamal’s asylum application. I hugged them all, and one last time, we touched our hearts and reached out to each other’s hearts. The refugee prayer greeting, one last time. My brothers, my sisters, my friends, you are sacred. One last time. And then I said goodbye.
My ride was a Greek couple we’d befriended during our stay, so though I had a plane to catch there were many stops on the way—“You must see this—it is a statue of Pythagoras!”—“This seaside café is my favorite-we must have lunch here!” We arrived in the airport, about five minutes before my plane took off. My driver was triumphant— “See—I told you we would not be late!” That night I was in an Athens bar listening to American blues and jazz with a well-dressed group of boho Greeks dancing the night away, the lights of the Parthenon watching over us.
I just walk through airports and go anywhere I want. Samos, Athens, the Acropolis, a jazz bar, London, America. All in two days. My refugee friends would go to jail if they tried that and it might get them deported and killed. But me, I go anywhere I want, and everyone speaks my language when I get there. I go right to the front of the line. They go to the refugee camp.
Power is invisible to the people who have it, but it looks like Mount Everest to the people who don’t. Can’t remember where I read this, but I can’t stop thinking that it’s true. As Syrian refugee filmmaker Hassan Akkad said, “The only difference between you and us is luck.”
Some good luck came my way. As I left for the Athens airport, my cab lost control and skidded across the highway, smashing a concrete barrier and careening back, spinning wildly across three lanes of highway. Mercifully, no one else was on the road. We were lucky. We could have been killed.
But I was still five miles from the airport. My cabbie, stunned and staggering, pointed to a van at a gas station near where we crashed out. “They can take you the rest of the way,” he muttered. I hopped onto the van to find it full of police in tactical gear. “My cab crashed and I’m looking to get to the airport. Can I ride with you/,” I asked in my best chipper American accent. “Of course, my friend.” For a month I worried that Greek police would toss me in a cage. Now they were taking me home.
But where was home for my friends? Who would take them there? What was freedom? What happened in their cases?
A few months after I left Greece, the cousins posted a video. They were on the cruise ship I’d seen leave Samos, and as the video played, Vathi got smaller and smaller off the back of the boat. This was either really good (they won and were off to Athens) or really bad (they snuck off the island without permission and were off to Athens). “Hi Mohammed, GREAT video of the boat-what’s up, where are you guys,” I messaged.
“We won our cases and are going to Athens. You should see the video we did at the camp before we all left. It is great–I will post it.” Mohammed posted a 45-minute video—the UN and the asylum officials announced the names of those who were granted asylum, and the video was the camp’s goodbye party. The cousins, Mahmoud, Jamal, Mustafa, and several others were on the asylum list. They won their cases, they won their freedom, and they videoed their celebration.
It was all in Arabic. I didn’t understand a single word. The only thing I can compare it to is a locker room celebration when a team wins a championship, and each player takes a turn talking (except no champagne). The cousins were the hosts, there was a speaker blaring Arabic party music, everyone was dancing, and a series of asylum winners took turns giving shout outs. At the end of each speech, there was a roar from the crowd and the music seemed to get louder. The cousins, Mahmoud, Jamal, Mustafa, hands held high. Free. We won.
Jean is free too. He has a studio, and he is exhibiting his art. Some of his work tells the refugee story. Jean told me, “I want my art to free people from their chains.” Jamal’s free too. We won.
About nine months after leaving Samos I received a text from Karim: “CHARLIE!!!!! I got my white card. !!!!!” And that meant we won. And his baby nephew recovered from his illness.
We won. If you do this work, you know those are the most beautiful words. We won means an artist is free to paint and sculpt, to travel and live free. We won means an orphan will see his nephew and his only living sister, and continue his pranking, his teaching, and his multilingual service to humanity. We won means a journalist is free to write. We won means an expectant couple won’t be torn away from each other forever, and that their child will have a mother and a father. We won means a shy, sweet young man won’t have to kill anyone and won’t have to die. We won means a dad who chased terrorists off his front lawn might again see his family. We won means no jail, no torture, no death. We won means freedom and justice.
So to the dictators, to the terrorists, to the torturers, the jailers, the liars who turn these precious souls into hate objects. We won, we won, we won, we won, we won. Take that, you bastards. We won. We won because some way, somehow, we were brothers, sisters, and friends–just like the prayer greeting, across the miles of our differences, because we were a team and because the same sacred thing mattered more than anything.
“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” So says Jesus in the Gospels, in a passage people often quote to prove it is God’s will that we welcome refugees. And perhaps that is true. Inshallah.
But in Greece, the refugees flipped the script. We were the strangers and they welcomed us. They cooked us meals and warmly urged us into their selfies. They painted beautiful dreams as they lived through the ugliest nightmares. They made us laugh, even as they told us truths that made us think and lived horrors that made us cry. They taught us about justice, and freedom, and hope, and how to be a good human being, when just being human at all is almost too hard to bear. They showed us that the most beautiful way to greet friends is by praying to their sacredness.
I struggled with whether it was right to tell this story. I leave you with Jean’s words of advice to me about that:
“My dear Charlie, tomorrow, we won’t be on this earth anymore, but a story of us should be left for the next generation, and that story should be the truth.”
This is that story. This is the truth.
[*] Charlie Martel will be an Assistant Professor of Lawyering at Lewis and Clark School of Law starting in June 2022. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. He has taken several steps to protect those mentioned in this Essay. The events happened several years ago, and the cases have long since been resolved. The names of those in the Essay have been changed, some facts about identity have been changed or not revealed, and some institutions have not been identified. Samos Volunteers, My Falasophy, and Epikairo are the real names of great humanitarian organizations and restaurants on Samos.
The Author thanks the editors of the Harvard Human Rights Journal for deciding to share this story and for their edits, which improved the Essay. This Essay is dedicated to every person who has sought peace and sanctuary, everyone in search of peace and sanctuary now, and every person by their side in that sacred journey.