Passing Notes with Refugeesby Ilana Simons
The Iranian refugees in Calais sewed their mouths shut and went on a twenty-five-day hunger strike, after authorities destroyed the tents they were living in while they waited for asylum.
This gesture—sewing the mouth—says more about losing your voice than it does about hunger. Their camp was violently dismantled without their being told why. “We had no time to pack our few belongings,” they wrote in an official statement after the fast.1 “We lost everything but the clothes on our backs. We had been given no warning and no interpreters to help understand the process.” Loss of information—of any honest attempt at communication—was the real dehumanization. The image they turned their mouths into—the unclean thread, the pinched lips, the makeshift surgical equipment—was a statement about what it means to lose your peaceful influence on another, to lose the leverage of your logic, your power to argue.
I have just returned from a volunteer trip to the refugee camps on the island of Lesbos, Greece. I was part of an NGO offering psychosocial and medical support in three camps accepting people fleeing violence in Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Between January and September 2016, 95,000 refugees landed on Lesbos alone, which is one of eight Greek islands absorbing the human migration. The refugees in Lesbos live in tents in crowded abandoned olive groves while they await refugee status in Athens. Refugees have no choice about the country they get relocated to. Almost all will land in countries whose languages they do not speak, with no access to formal education.
Refugees wait months for their “papers” without knowing how long the papers will take, what information is privileged there, or who’s working on them. Some of this information is withheld intentionally to make the camps as uncomfortable as possible, to deter more immigration.
On my first day at the camp, I got my warmest introduction from a Palestinian named Mari who seemed to dance when he walked, flip-flops flapping in below-freezing temperatures that a New Yorker like me doesn’t expect in the Greek autumn nights. I met him three days before he would go on his own hunger strike, but at that point he seemed optimistic about social action, about the power of discussion. He had the social charisma to lead community meetings among the Palestinians there, and as I passed by his tent with the glazed and tired look of a new volunteer, he pulled me in by the wrist to offer a cappuccino. He had set up a café inside his tent—a waterheater, packages of Swiss mix spread on cardboard—and he could talk. “Sit.” He had explained the landscape to other volunteers before: “Do you know why the Iraqis are fighting the Kurds are fighting the Afghanis are fighting the Russians are fighting the Americans are fighting the Iranians?” He gave me my coffee and gestured for me to drink. “Because either the train is fast or the tower is tall,” he said. “Which?—Is the train fast or the tower tall?” He positioned me in the sort of unreasonable dilemma that he knew so well. “Neither. The river is big.”
When I went to his tent three days later to talk a bit more, he’d started his own fast. There was just a handwritten sign on his tent. “Palestine. Hunger Fast. November 16.” His faith in language had submerged into some riddle too, his particular surrender into silence.
To sew your lips shut is to underline the connection between losing your home and losing your language, to signal the dead end that comes when negotiations are at a standstill, to stage how hard it is to put your life in the hands of a community that doesn’t want you. It also means turning violence inward instead of turning it out. Two days have passed since I started writing this article, and in that time, a second fire and protest have broken out in Moria, in which two people died. Moria is one of the worst of the camps on Lesbos—a former detention center built for just about 2,000, it houses over 4,500 refugees, with tents ill-equipped for the freezing nights and poor sanitation. Since the EU-Turkey deal signed on March 18, which limits the migration from Turkey to Greece,2 many boats still arrive every week. There are currently four refugee camps on Lesbos, and the refugees finally outnumber the local citizens.
Amad is a photographer in his twenties that I know from the Art Therapy group I facilitate two times a week in the Kara Tepe refugee camp. The first night, he shows me some of the photographs he’s been taking on his iPhone, then a picture of himself back in Mosul, dressed beautifully, holding a camera he had to abandon there, with its impressive expansive lens across his chest. He had a photography business back home. ISIS tried to recruit him, and he moved three times to avoid them; they broke his arm, and when they promised him assistance at a hospital, he assumed they intended to amputate his arm, and he did what others did—paid a smuggler to get him to Greece. Hiring a smuggler is entrusting yourself to a person who won’t tell you anything more than you absolutely need to know to get from point A to point B. From the stories I’ve heard, smugglers often don’t speak your language, and you can’t ask questions, or you can be booted from the group, which means being picked up by police or dying in the mountains. Smuggling costs anywhere from $1,800 to $5,000. You walk with minimal food and water for three to five days through the mountainous terrain of Iraq or Afghanistan. You board a bus to the Turkish coast, then board a lifeboat to Greece. The trip across the Aegean Sea can take anywhere from two to six hours, but many spoke of being turned back anywhere between four and ten times due to bad weather or police intervention. You need to pay again for the next trip. Some spend their savings to get to the camp, and even though they have little evidence of an opportunity beyond the camp, more than one refugee told me he’d stick it out because once you’ve invested so much money in a course of action, it is hard to believe it won’t work out.
I try to talk to Amad with the iTranslate app on our phones. He speaks Kurdish, and I wonder what gets distorted by our app—something meant to be kind can be aggressive in translation. Trying for precision, I let my language slip into the broadest tones, the simplest grammars. “I want X.” “You are Y.” In our app-conversation, I encourage his art—I tell him to keep taking pictures. I tell him, maybe inappropriately, to start emailing me photos—maybe we could launch an art show in New York. He did this one, of the street outside the camp:
Of a boy:
Of the coast guard:
He sends me some typed words with his pictures, like the story of how he landed in the camp:
this is my story i live in mosl is city in iraq and one time 2 men isis hit me and broken my hands
in the mosl every day my family is Eased for me because isis every day speaking me came with isis but for me i don’t go and in the one day me and my family going in the kurdstan
2 months in the kurdstan but in kurdstan is no working no live every thing for Official and men he have money
The fractured grammar of the iPhone is an opaque veil hiding felt experience. “ISIS every day…came.” Was it violent? My own language sends him crooked signals of my private life, too. I made a very odd unconscious choice for this trip and packed only one sweatshirt, a give-away from my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah with Hebrew letters declaring “the best party ON EARTH” on the back. Each day, I try to cover my back with a volunteer’s vest, or stand with my back very close to the tent. For my whole time there, no one ever mentions the Hebrew letters. But our potential misreadings are probably too odd to talk about.
In Art Therapy group, Kurdish Amad cannot talk with the members from Afghanistan who speak Farsi or the Iraqis who speak Arabic. We have two hours to kill, though, and we all sit together sharing these wordless hours of art. We play music; we draw pictures. One girl holds up her drawing of a cluster of houses on a hill, and we accept the one rule that binds us: They cannot build a life “outside.” We stream music videos they suggest on youtube: Miran Ali, Sameera Nasiry, and Ahmad Zaher.
When I was twenty-one, in college, I fell in love with a poet from the Lower East Side, and I repeatedly skipped class and took the bus from Providence to New York, went to his poetry slams, and wanted to consume his presence, to live in the music of his language—I begged him to leave his wife. One night I chased down his van after a show, and he pulled it over and beckoned me in and told me how to tie my expectation to an anchor so that it didn’t kill me: “Love poetry. Not people.” That was advice that actually affected me for a lifetime: rely on your poetry and don’t ask anyone else to help. But it is a sloppy translation across circumstance and culture for me to keep telling Amad he might also find security in snapping pictures. “I want you to take photographs. You are a photographer.” I allude, again, to some future art show.
The night in which I organize “movie night” inside the trailer, it is below freezing outside, and Amad waits outside at the door all night until I come out, and then asks to talk about the “art show.” He imagines, perhaps, I hold a ticket. To New York? Our broken conversations through a phone feel dangerous—I plant expectations I haven’t thought through, or which I feel compelled to promise, to rush the pace of things. These conversations offer infinite opportunities for misreading. I wonder how he registers our eye contact, given his cultural background, or how he interprets this transaction with a woman without a headscarf, a woman who has more power than him. “I don’t know if we can have an art show.” And then, why not. One night he sat in art class and sharpened pencils the whole time to make himself useful. Slavery is theater in which you might make yourself useful under the possibility of freeing yourself. I type into our app, like the old man did for me when I was twenty: “My only message was that I wanted you to make art. Love art.”
Whatever communication we’re trying for also gets swamped under the fact that neither of us can change much about what’s going on. This is a land in which you might as well go on a language fast because governments make decisions that individuals hardly affect. I guess at why the Greek government refuses to take the very easy steps to make Moria more livable, like cleaning the toilets. We live in some protected space in which individual human actions matter, but only a little, and our governments operate on a grand scale like projected shadows that we don’t control. I have the instinct to perpetually say “I’m sorry” for my country. When I’ve asked, most Iraqis and Afghanis here have told me that they feel that the US is responsible for their homelessness. An Afghani told me that the US has kept its military presence in Afghanistan simply because we want to occupy land close to Russia. We will perpetually keep the land at war in order to justify our military presence. Many of them think that 9/11 was organized by our own government as an excuse to invade Iraq. But for the most part, people in the camps tell me, “You are not your government.” They are ready to interact with me as a person whose government speaks loudly, but not for her.
Maybe that’s what we mean when we say we are helpless—we assume governments don’t listen to us, and that they lie. The Afghanis tell me it would take the US military but a day to take out the Taliban but we do not want to, because of that precious base close to Russia. Iraqis blame Obama for being two-faced, pledging goodwill but then withdrawing US presence promptly, so that the Muslims would devour each other, prompting ISIS to be born.
Feeling like a victim to government is like feeling a victim to our nightmares—the shadows we cast that are made from us and represent us but do not respond to us when we want to direct them. If this is getting confusing, perhaps that’s the point—that the descriptions we put on things can fail to root us, or to capture what we mean.
Something like this deep disorientation happened back home on November 8. I was abroad when Trump was elected, but I got the sense that around the morning of November 9, the Left awoke to realize how detached our language had gotten from reality. We have talked for so long about “income equality,” “corporate interests,” “Wall Street,” but this talk, that helps us feel clear or rooted in liberal identity, showed itself to be some empty puppetry with language, some opiate to soothe us while we lost touch with the real world. Through all of our claims about betterment, our Democratic government supported corporate interests in its nonresponse to protestors at the Dakota Pipeline,3 funded torture while denouncing it,4 and has done drastically little to repair the joke of the “American Dream.”
I like a recent article by Timothy Snyder,5 in which he says that one challenge of the coming time—perhaps of the coming revolution?—is to try our best to beat back our own clichés—to become poets, to invent a language that actually speaks about the world in new ways. “Be kind to our language,” he writes. “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.” We’ve written a thousand Facebook posts that say, with self-righteous glory, that we should treat each other better; we state a thousand “shoulds” about the wars in the world—the prejudice, the fear, the landgrabs. But those posts now feel like the thumping of rainfall—some highly predictable music that has a soothing pattern, but all washes away to the shore. When Snyder talks about reclaiming language, maybe he’s also saying that one consequence of our current crisis is a chance to write deeper ideas about what it means to relate to one another.
Poets have always known that a strong personal relationship to language is a way of building self-esteem. To be able to organize the chaos of circumstance into a trail of words that impacts another is to feel connected to others, to feel dignity. In contrast, to be a refugee awaiting asylum, without any translator telling you where your papers are, without speaking the language of your host country, without being granted the dignity of good education to learn the next language, is to have a bedrock of humanity stolen. A few days a week, we offered English language lessons at the camp, but they were hard to keep organized, because families came and went according to asylum status, and each classroom was filled with people at radically different language levels. One family I taught did try to make English class a sort of sacred space. They all showed up on time and sat together and prodded each other to learn. I go to bed still somehow impressed with one of the sisters who tended to stand close, who leaned forward when she knew a word—Soraya, who asked to be called Jessica, her pimples close to my eyes like eruptions of power on a child’s face, red at the base and white at the tips; they shoot into my mind late at night before sleep, a closeness of being, the breath of her desire to share information.
A Syrian man kills time with me by playing a patty-cake game outside the medic tent. When I have the medic tent shift, my job is to take names while they await their short session with the English-speaking doctor. It’s freezing, and the Syrian’s fat hand feels warm in mine; the fat is surprising. I wonder how he hoards food here (they are fed three meals, but most of it is pasta). Our hands settle down for a second in a clasp. He was born in Aleppo, he says, and he performs some surprisingly animated sing-song phrase which I remember vaguely as a war cry from youtube videos. He asks me, in a few shared words, if I understand. I nod with my best “I’m sorry” on my face. He shakes his finger at me, “America!” Then, as if to gesture to the ridiculousness of a fight, to give into the need to waste time together, or to revert to childhood in which prejudice was less pronounced and language less divisive, we resume our patty-cake.
To contact Kurdish Amad, please go to his Facebook page.
ILANA SIMONS is an artist and clinical psychologist currently based in New York. She produces short animations, featured in Hyperallergic, Electric Literature, and the Sundance Film Festival, and is the writer of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. She wrote and performed the one-woman play All Together Now in the 2006 FringeNYC festival, an exploration of love, divorce, and freedom, which prompted her first volunteering trip to Greece.