From Athens to Lesvos

Whenever I begin a photography trip, I take time to reflect on how the ethos of my environment relates to the narrative of my story. This time, I am in Greece for five weeks, working on various photojournalism assignments documenting the European refugee crisis. In order to raise awareness about the persistence of the issue, I’ll make images for a photography exhibition and panel discussion at two universities back in New York, while shooting video material for online media. I’ll also use this material to participate in the International Communication Association’s Prague round table discussion: Addressing the Role of
Communication in Refugee Crisis and Settlement Processes.

I invite you all to stay tuned for blog posts documenting my musings on this journey ✈️

Greek Flag, Acropolis. © 2018, Kate Schoenbach

I’ve spent the first two weeks in both Athens and Mytilini, and the air is rife with anecdotes of the immigration situation. Due to its border with Turkey, Greece has been forced to accommodate tens of thousands refugees, with the highest numbers received at the apex of the crisis in 2015. Since then, both locals and foreign activists, disheartened by EU immigration policies that make it exceedingly difficult for refugees to pass on to Europe, have stepped in and created numerous NGOs to help refugees. However, these NGOs are but a drop in the bucket for the systemic issue which plagues places like Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos. 

The Sea Between Two Borders. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach

While the inflow numbers are simmering, overcrowding at camps, like Moria, is increasing as longer waits for asylum are embedded in the infamous 2016 EU-Turkey deal, which aims to stem the flow of refugees into the EU. And naturally, domestic sentiment is wavering. Some of the locals I spoke to, both in Athens and in Mytilini (on Lesbos), expressed empathy towards refugees fleeing war-torn places like Syria and Afghanistan. However, they are becoming fed up with both the migrant crisis and the EU, which has all but closed its doors to refugees, leaving them stranded in unseemly and overcrowded camps on the Greek Isles. The war is not stopping in Syria, and people are still coming. When does it stop? What does the future hold? What’s the plan? The uncertainty is gnawing at people in this cash-strapped country – how can they continue to support thousands of refugees looking for a better life in Europe, when they cannot even properly sort out their own? The refugee crisis is causing a wave of xenophobia across the country, and overcrowding in refugee camps leading to fights within the refugee communities themselves. 

Waiting in Athens. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach

Pause for Thought at the Athens Botanical Garden. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach

Near Syntagma Square. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach

I feel it essential to embed myself in my new environment and its history to understand comprehensively what I am photographing. So, before I look at the present crisis to add to the visual narrative for the future, I look to the past.  Being in Greece, naturally, this means exploring the ancient ruins of my space – the space which is the cradle of democracy. 

Athenian Stadium, Acropolis. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach

Clouds over the Erechtheion. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach.

Acropolis. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach

Refugees are nothing new to Greece. In ancient times, Athenians sent their wives and children to the Greek city-state of Troezen during the second campaign of Persia in 490 BC. The Troezens welcomed the Athenian refugees, offering them currency to sustain themselves and allowing the children to study with their teachers. Fast forward to the end of the Ottoman Empire, where Greece welcomed Orthodox refugees from Turkey in 1922 as they fled religious persecution and genocide. And after the fall of communism throughout eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Greece welcomed hundreds of thousands of economic refugees and immigrants from Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Romania. Whether because of its compassionate character or simply because of it’s strategic location as the doorway to Europe, woven into its history Greece – the cradle of democracy – has served as a port to many of the world’s refugees. 

Temple of Zeus. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach

Ibrahim Khalil Poem at the Temple of Zeus. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach

But as I sat watching the day set over the Temple of Zeus, I couldn’t help but wonder if this ethos of democracy had crumbled along with its Corinthean columns. On this trip, I feel the people I’m covering are subjected to anything but democratic mores. The conditions of many of the refugee camps are abysmal, and thousands of able-bodied individuals lay idle without work. And this is not to fault Greece. Shared blame can lie at the feet of any EU country or member of an international institution to which Greece is a party. The idea is not to point fingers, but rather to call to action any and all who can help facilitate these refugees into the fabric of humanity.

The stories I’m coming across are tragic, but need to be told. Though, reportage is hindered – and rightly so – by the need to protect certain refugees’ privacy. They have travelled thousands of miles and have spent even more in Euros to make the dangerous journey across treacherous terrain, for a better life in Europe. Many have fled the likes of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, IS, and Houthi rebels, and must maintain anonymity to protect themselves and their families. So, those who I specifically name will have given consent. 

So, throughout my writing, I’ll weave in stories of refugees who have shared their journey with me. For now, I will end this post with the story of Masoud Qahar. 

Masoud worked for both NATO and the United Nations as special ops intelligence for years, helping western powers locate the Taliban in his home country of Afghanistan. In 2012, Taliban fighters attacked his home in Kabul, killing his 26-year-old sister in front of his mother, and severely injuring both his father and brother. The message was loud and clear: stop working for western powers or face the consequences. His belief in freedom did not waver, and he never succumbed to the pressure of the Taliban. He continued to work for the west for two more years before increasing threats from the Taliban forced him to flee his country in 2015.

For months, he made the perilous journey, oftentimes on foot, through the harsh winters in the Afghan and Iranian mountains, through to the Turkish border. After many months and thousands of Euros paid to smugglers, he wound up in Greece. The once affluent special ops NATO personnel now lives in a small container, with several other people, in Athens’ Eleonas refugee camp. Despite his lauded service to the west, he has been denied asylum on several occasions - from Greece and other NATO members - but refuses to give up hope. 

While Masoud’s journey is harrowing, his strength is inspiring. 

…Greece is now filled with far too many Masouds. 

Sundown in Eleonas Refugee Camp. ©2018, Kate Schoenbach.

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