Greece | A Dark Dawn

The devastating economic crisis has turned Greece into a menacing place for immigrants

Ferste Najafi praying at the family’s home in suburban Athens. IASON ATHANASIADIS FOR THE CARAVAN
01 October, 2012

IN THE SUMMER OF 2009, Zahra Najafi’s husband, Issa, paid a smuggler $12,000 to transport their family from Iran to Turkey and then on a small inflatable raft on the Aegean Sea, to Greece.

As ethnic Hazaras, the Najafis had been forced out of Afghanistan by the Taliban in the 1990s, then lived in uncomfortable exile as refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Issa convinced Zahra that Europe would be a far more tolerant place for an educated Shia couple and their two youngest children. Hamidullah and Ferste could become important people—doctors or teachers, Issa told her.

“Issa kept saying that Europe is a paradise,” said Zahra, a small, elegant woman in her forties. “We had been driven out of Afghanistan twice. We did not feel welcome in Tehran or Quetta, though we had a better life than most Hazaras there. We wanted to find a home.”

Guided by a network of smugglers, the Najafis took buses and stowed away in trucks to get from Iran to Turkey. On the Turkish coast, the family stepped onto a small inflatable raft. Zahra noticed at least 30 people piling in, though the raft appeared to only have room for ten. She and her family huddled in a corner. None of them could swim.

They spent hours clinging onto the raft as the wild sea tossed it into European territory. Just before dawn, Zahra saw a large boat heading toward the raft. She saw bright lights. She heard men speaking a foreign language, then approaching in small motorboats. The men were with the Hellenic Coast Guard. They put life vests on Zahra and the others, then helped them climb a ladder onto the large boat.

The boat set course for the island of Lesvos. From the island’s port, border police drove Zahra and the others to a former storage facility that had become the Pagani detention center for undocumented migrants. Medics checked them for disease and dehydration. Zahra hated Pagani. It stank of sweat and urine and was so crowded, she could barely breathe. The family stayed for two weeks.

Greek authorities released undocumented migrants with orders to leave the country within 30 days. Most immigrants ignored the order: They took ferries to Athens so they could slip further into Europe. Frontex, the European Union border patrol agency, estimates that more than 80 percent of undocumented migrants to the European Union enter through Greece.

The Najafis settled in the country just as it was beginning to fracture. In 2009, Greece was already mired in recession. By the end of the year, the government would reveal that it was more than 300 billion euros in debt. Billions in bailout loans would follow, then severe austerity measures that prompted violent protests. At the same time, the number of undocumented immigrants in Greece, and especially Athens, had grown dramatically. Some had applied for asylum, but Greece granted just 0.3 percent of requests. Inefficient and often incompetent authorities sat on a backlog of more than 50,000 asylum applications.

As Afghans, the Najafis were eligible for asylum and applied for it in Athens. The couple had two older sons in Norway and hoped to join them in a few years. While they waited for their case to be heard, a process that often took years, they obtained temporary residence papers.

Issa found a tiny basement apartment in Aghios Panteleimonas, a central Athens neighbourhood named after a majestic cathedral that looks out of place amid the decrepit apartment blocks and broken sidewalks. The neighborhood had been a hangout for theatre stars in the 1960s but residents fled to the suburbs in the 1990s and 2000s, buying new flats on cheap credit. By 2010, many of the Greeks there were retired civil servants and schoolteachers living on small pensions.

Zahra noticed that most of the residents in Aghios Panteleimonas were foreign. Other Afghans lived there, as well as Nigerians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Zahra saw homeless immigrants, including a young Hazara man with an unkempt beard, camped out on the patch of dying grass next to the cathedral.

Police blamed illegal immigrants for a rise in crime in central Athens, especially in armed robberies, burglaries and muggings. According to the priest at the cathedral in Aghios Panteleimonas, immigrant men were ripping gold crosses off the necks of Greek grandmothers.

But other Afghans told Zahra the Greeks were the violent ones. They warned her about gangs of young men clad in black T-shirts who roamed the streets wielding wooden bats. They had been known to set fire to makeshift mosques set up in basements, even as men prayed inside. Human rights groups said the gangs were supporters of Golden Dawn, an extreme far-right party that wanted to remove the “trash of illegal immigrants” from Greece. In 2009 parliamentary elections, Greeks had dismissed the party as neofascist thugs and given them just 0.29 percent of the vote.

In her first few months in Athens, Zahra saw the gangs many times. She and her children, Ferste, 10, and Hamidullah, 15, took detours when they spotted them.

In late March 2010, one detour took them to Kato Patissia, another run-down neighbourhood. That’s where the children spotted a new-looking black satchel in a dumpster. Hamidullah, who liked restoring discarded toys, reached into the satchel and pulled out what looked like an old-timey bedside alarm clock. “I told him to leave it alone but he was a curious boy and wouldn’t listen,” Zahra said. She was still arguing with him when she heard the explosion.

“I thought, ‘I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming, this is not true,’” Zahra recalled. “Even as I felt my own flesh peeling off, I didn’t understand that the clock was a bomb, and that my son was dead.”

The blast caused Ferste to lose most of her sight and hearing. Ashamed at the tragedy, the government quickly gave the Najafis asylum. The Greek Orthodox Church put up the family in a roomy apartment in a suburban neighbourhood where Greek refugees from Smyrna (now Izmir in western Turkey) settled nearly 90 years earlier.

When I visited the Najafis last year, Zahra had decorated the new apartment with photos of chubby-cheeked Hamidullah. Ferste, her round face framed by a pink headscarf, squinted through her damaged eyes and drew flowers on construction paper.

Police have not found who left the bomb at the dumpster, though they privately suspected careless copycat anarchists who wanted to damage a nearby trade industry building. The government paid for Ferste’s medical care, and hundreds of Greeks sent money for the family’s living expenses. “The other Afghans here say we are lucky because we have a home here and we are safe,” Zahra said. Her eyes filled with tears. “But I feel guilty. My son is dead.”

Grappling with her personal tragedy, Zahra did not realize how deeply the devastating economic crisis had turned Greeks against undocumented immigrants. Gangs attacked migrants on the street, sometimes in broad daylight. Once again, human rights groups pointed to Golden Dawn supporters as the culprits.

In elections this June, more than 420,000 Greeks voted for Golden Dawn, about seven percent of the electorate. The party now holds 18 of the 300 seats in parliament. Greek analysts are still struggling to explain how a parastate party rebranded itself as a patriotic movement and won over mainstream voters. But Kostas Tzas, a 37-year-old winemaker from the southern city of Corinth, says he knows why. “Politicians talk and talk but they do not solve problems,” he says. “Golden Dawn sees a problem and solves it. No talking. Just action.”

I met Tzas this summer. Tall, bearded and handsome, he wore the party’s black T-shirt, the back of which is printed with an ancient Greek symbol called a meandros, which resembles a swastika. In Corinth’s main town square, he and other Golden Dawn members handed out bags of potatoes, rice, spaghetti and olive oil to unemployed Greeks who could prove their ethnicity by showing identity cards. Soft-spoken and polite, he stood out among the aggressive men in army fatigues.

Like Athens, Corinth has also seen a spike in robberies and burglaries. Tzas blames the hundreds of undocumented migrants in Corinth and says the police did nothing to kick them out. He used to hire Pakistanis to pick his grapes, but now only gives work to Greeks, since nearly a quarter of the workforce is now unemployed. He also says illegal immigrants are bringing in diseases like HIV, malaria, West Nile and tuberculosis.

“I no longer feel at home in my own country,” Tzas said a few weeks later, when we spoke at his friend’s house near a lively Corinthian beach. “I decided to do something about it.” He joined Golden Dawn this spring.

Tzas had voted for mainstream parties in the past, but he said these politicians ignored Corinth’s problems. He dismissed acquaintances who said only neo-Nazis joined Golden Dawn. He liked that party members paid homage to ancient Greek heroes like King Leonidas of Sparta, who stood up to “foreign barbarians”.

Tzas says he’s never beaten an immigrant and looked hurt when I asked him if he’s a xenophobe. He introduced me to his wife, a pretty, blond Russian woman with whom he has three young daughters and a fourth child on the way. As we talked, his three little girls clung to him.

Later that day, away from his family, walking past some deserted railcars in Corinth, he noticed a group of skinny young Afghan men washing their clothes in muddy water.

One of the men walked past us. “Why did you come to my country to make your life?” Tzas said, his voice hard with anger. “Get out of my home,” he said, as the man cowered. “Go back to your own.”