‘No, somewhere else’: Witnessing the Refugee Crisis

David Tucker writes about how the personal and the political cross paths on the island of Samos, Greece, where refugees are still arriving daily
Photograph: David Tucker

At 2:30am on the island of Samos in the northern Aegean I walk through the main town in a sickly yellow streetlight glow. One end to the other and beyond, where three armed police eye me as I arrive at the old port. At this time of night I suppose I could be anyone; an innocent family member come to welcome new arrivals for sunny summer holidays, a people-trafficker looting wilted bones from wars stage east, or any shade of economy in between. White lights out at sea were vague and maybe just some far-off land but imposing themselves steadily they become industrial scale and the grinding metal bulk revolves a forty-five-degrees slowing stop. The cargo-door lands as a ramp, scraping at the edge of this land of bare skin, swimming.

Against the trickle-flow of people disembarking I head inside the gaping space, collect keys and go up a deck to find the car. Driving out of these boats is easier nowadays as fewer tourists visit and fewer Athenians can afford the holidays. The convoy I follow tonight is just three Red Cross trucks. I pass the armed police now searching an arrival’s bags and the trucks turn up the hill, presumably then to what is now called the detention centre. I am going back through town to the comforts of a bed and ceiling-fans. We are all going our separate ways.

I have been visiting this island for eight years, but my wife’s roots here run much deeper. The little house bequeathed by her grandparents is not only where she spent childhood holidays, it is also where those grandparents were married during World War 2, when such ceremonies were often performed at home, in shelter. Buried within an anonymous whitewashed wall beside the house I am told there is a Kalashnikov. Close to a hotel there are fig trees growing from a roadside ditch where the bodies of islanders shot by the Nazis fell. On the top of a cliff there is a monument to the monks of the monastery there who, with no unworldly options left, fought on the island. Looking down from that monument one-hundred feet below a small beach can be seen, now scattered with small fishing boats. It is possible for even a not very strong swimmer to venture out in the sea from this little beach and paddle around its headland to a pebbled cove from which nothing can be seen but sea and olive-tree-tipped land opposite, and it is typically upon reaching this cove, wearing only swimming clothes and carrying nothing, that one finally feels some kind of washed-out summer relaxation settle in.

“Sometimes it is only possible to tell a holiday photograph from an image of refugee flight by a facial expression.”

History and holidays have long coincided here, but in the past few years this cove, and other semi-hidden spots like it, have begun to show residues of more recent conflicts. The everyday rubbish of lives lived in transit, here in temporary shelters in the woods on the hillside. Mostly plastic – light, cheap, misleadingly fleeting. Sometimes it is only possible to tell a holiday photograph from an image of refugee flight by a facial expression. Playing and smiling in a dingy, relaxing in the water, or desperately flinging yourself and/or family over dangerous straights. At night the sea is black, not blue. During the day we come to it to soothe and play, everyday anointments from which we emerge a little renewed. At night it is a billion teeth, devilish, omnipresent.

Despite visiting Samos together regularly since 2008, two years before Greece first felt the advancing financial crisis, we did not come last year, 2015, when the refugee crisis was at its height. With our daughter born mid June in England, summer holidays were deferred. This year the numbers of refugees arriving have decreased dramatically, due in part to the EU-Turkey deal which leaves children shot dead on the Syrian border and the ever-present threat of instantaneous deportation. Back in the UK, vote.leave’s appropriation of the refugee crisis in terms of the threat that ‘Turkey (Population 76 million) is joining the EU’ tracks a line from those boats and bullets. Fear appropriated by fear. With resentment of immigration taking hold throughout the UK as well as other countries, the pressure and promised payments from the EU to make the Turkey deal stick have been significant. Aid workers and volunteers expect, and prepare for, the deal to collapse imminently.

“I look over her shoulder to the little island and I see those famous orange life-vests.”

We can visit this year, and with a car to get around when the sun starts to fade in the late afternoon we take our daughter to her first ever beach, Psili Amos, sandy and popular with families. Wading into the sea here the gradient is so shallow you can still be standing some thirty metres out. From there if you swam another one-hundred metres you would reach a tiny rocky island, Greek owned. But if you were then minded to try swimming a further fifteen-hundred metres or so you would leave Europe entirely and reach Turkey. This part of Samos, this sandy family beach, is—mainland border aside—where Greece and Turkey are closer than anywhere else. Closer than the islands nearby that have received higher numbers of refugees, Chios and Lesvos. But where those islands are near to urban areas of Turkey – and so deals can be done, faces and finances blend in – over the sea from here is national park, and so close it can look as if all the visible land is just one continuous mountainous mass, the sea instead a lake or wide river, even with the low-profile military bases spotting each other from each side, testaments to hundreds of years of animosity. I hold my daughter in the warm water at this fraying edge of Europe as she enjoys the gentle sploshing for the first time, padding her hands on the surface and trusting me. I look over her shoulder to the little island and I see those famous orange life-vests. Turning back to the shore I see the unoccupied sun-beds are also orange squares.

The refugee crisis has been building here for years. Driving past the port police station we would daily see groups sopping wet, rucksacks and face masks, in limbo. The story relayed by relatives in the early days was that boats came into Greek waters and were deliberately self-sabotaged, Greek coastguards then obliged by international law to rescue a sinking vessel. From a volunteer working with the refugees this year I hear tales of how the smugglers, after charging €5000 for an adult crossing in good weather, flat seas, or €1500 per adult and their children go free in high winds and treacherous waves, pay the Turkish mafia who in turn pay off Turkish coast guards or other port police. If these final groups do not receive their payment then refugees are made an example of. The volunteer, Andrew, has worked on a number of islands. He tells me how he took up smoking after burying people in mass graves when they had either drowned at sea or not survived the vital few minutes on shore available for insulation and dry clothes. And he tells me he has himself seen Turkish boats deliberately sabotage refugee vessels. One with a water cannon, another by stabbing knives at a dinghy.

“From a volunteer working with the refugees this year I hear tales of how the smugglers, after charging €5000 for an adult crossing in good weather, flat seas, or €1500 per adult and their children go free in high winds and treacherous waves, pay the Turkish mafia who in turn pay off Turkish coast guards or other port police. If these final groups do not receive their payment then refugees are made an example of.”

Other signs there was crisis in the air were literally signs. For a time back on the mainland in 2014 billboards beside the road to Athens airport were co-opted by strange messages. The boards spoke, pleaded and admonished, in a broken English across borders and cultures. One such was written in capital letters seemingly by two people who had been struggling a little to accommodate the space which the other’s lettering was taking up. Reading like some kind of subverted movie tagline, it stated:


The board was very striking, but the categorical opener ‘No,’ particularly so. A ‘no’ alone, before its comma pause, wilfully stranded. A ‘no’ perhaps to where you are, which is on the road, in transit, en route, moving decisively within your world, between your origin and your destination. The stumbling but assertive capitals went on to point out that somewhere else some alternative is also as much a world, a world in which there are those who are other to you as you might be other here sometime, even for a moment now, suddenly wavering in your own world. But the fractured English also produces an ambiguity. The board also says that this somewhere else is in fact already right here, your world, as if the words were a legend told among those who carry their dead like we industriously carry trees: ‘Trees instead of bodies. Imagine. Let’s go.’ As if it were post-apocalyptic sci-fi dialogue, ‘There also also others’, survivors, somewhere else, another world. And it is your world. You are a survivor, and you do not even know it.

The refugee crisis does not, of course, begin only in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria or elsewhere, and nor does it end only on these shores. In 2014 Greece voted a ‘No’ to further austerity measures but that was reversed in a matter of days. The vote, despite the protesting syllable left over after ‘Yes’ was reserved for the status quo, was a call to shift policy in a different direction, towards ‘somewhere else’, with investment and broader stimulus rather than retraction, cuts. The UK has also effectively voted a ‘No’, a no more, against a ‘somewhere else’ of – and contra to what those who aligned the European integrationist project with the Third Reich might now like to claim and even while the ‘No’ is also against the ‘somewhere else’ of Westminster as seen from Sunderland or wherever – Europe and the world, not only against a single structure within it. We are already, have always been essentially somewhere else, the Brexit vote stated amid mass identity-anxiety. And the refugees arriving in Greece, on Samos and elsewhere, many hoping to move on to places such as the UK, have also said a ‘No’ to war in home countries, and are forced to search for a ‘somewhere else’ where, perhaps, there is new growth and work rather than, as they might have undertaken, as have volunteers in the Aegean, the tasks of burying many dead. In all three cases, and in different but interrelated ways, ‘No, somewhere else’.

Of course many parts of Samos can seem unaffected by the refugee crisis. The tourist villages still sell their labradorite jewellery, olive-oil soaps and hand-thrown pottery. The open-air cinema serves its dumplings during intermissions and although taxes on almost everything have increased there is fresh fish, watermelon, and the dark sweet ‘Doux’ wine is manufactured next to the port and exported worldwide. But the hard lights of the detention centre shine from the hillside in the evening. Women in headscarves smile in the street, men sit alone or in small groups hunched over phones where there is free wifi. Calls are made, routes and destinations planned. The line is to not admit to being a refugee, but rather to be ‘visiting a friend’. George, from Nigeria,  makes a call with my phone. I see from his own phone the number belongs to ‘Maria, Greece’. I become ‘David, England’. Christian names and countries. I see that there is a deftness to the manoeuvres required, a swiftness and decisiveness as well as a friendliness, all now necessary parts of survival and self-defence.

“I feel naive stating it but somehow this part of the situation’s thrown-ness seems to hold together. It is not the image of refugee crisis appropriated back home.”

In the town square the locals, holidaymakers and refugees are at their most mixed in among one another. Refugee boys play football with the locals and visiting Athenians. The first children my own daughter plays with on the island are Syrian. The tables of the cafes and restaurants surround the square’s lion statue, a monument to resistance in wartime, but this current peace does not seem to be one that is drawn from strength of will, or even fragile. And I see it over a period of months. I feel naive stating it but somehow this part of the situation’s thrown-ness seems to hold together. It is not the image of refugee crisis appropriated back home. I do not expect someone to angrily interrupt an overheard conversation to request that someone who is not from here speak the native language, for instance, as happened once to my wife in Brighton. There are tensions, of course, such as if refugees wander into local or private events trying to sell items, or between local families and the refugees using the newly-constructed playground, which is located at a free wifi spot. I hear of non-white volunteers being refused service at an ouzery, and there is occasional violence among  different groups and nationalities of refugees at the detention centre, dubbed the ‘hotspot’. On the island of Leros a large group of Yazidi women and children were attacked by locals concerned for their businesses with aid workers also forced to flee, suddenly frightened for their lives alongside those they had come to help relieve from that very sensation. Somehow, though, at times, the refugee crisis can seem more peaceable here on one of its front lines than it did back in the UK, where it barely really touched. But of course, woven among the care there is also ever-present loss and trepidation. We walk home beside an aid worker looking after unaccompanied children, those who most likely have a family member already in another European country who the children hope to be reunited with. He tells these children how if he didn’t work with the people here maybe he’d like to work with animals. He tells them humans are animals too.

About the Contributor

David Tucker teaches in the department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is currently co-editing Samuel Beckett’s critical writings for publication in 2018. See goldsmiths.academia.edu/DavidTucker

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