The Refugee King of Greece

In the village of Ritsona, 50 miles north of Athens, razor wire dissects vineyards on a hillside. Inside the perimeter, crumbling concrete buildings and open fields, long abandoned by the Greek military, are now home to 700 refugees — some of the 50,000 or so trapped in limbo in this debt-ridden country since Europe slammed its borders closed a year ago.

When I enter the camp, a young man approaches, smiling. “My name is Bassem Omar, the King of Ritsona,” he says. His Majesty, a 20-year-old refugee from Qamishli, Syria, offers a tour of his realm, and as we walk he’s greeted by friends of all ages.

“I’m a good man, I’m reasonable,” King Bassem says wryly. “I’m not like Bashar Assad. I told the people, ‘I want to make Ritsona great again!’ and the people agreed.”

The first person we stop to talk to is a girl gathering rapeseed flowers for her 2-year-old brother.

“He loves them,” she tells us.

The girl, Aida Elawi, 12, has lived here for a year. We accompany her to her family’s trailer, where her brother is delighted by the flowers. The two dart inside to find a cup for the arrangement.

“Yesterday she was crying in the night because of this place. It is too awful here. We fled Syria because of the war, and we came to Europe on a dangerous ship. All of that so we can live in a camp in Greece? She can’t study. She is sad.”

Ritsona is one of dozens of camps administered by the Greek government and aid agencies throughout the country. Refugees and migrants used to spend just a few days in the camps before traveling elsewhere in Europe, but in March 2016, the European Union put an end to that. All those who arrive in Greece are now indefinitely contained or sent back to Turkey.

Conditions in the camps are unpleasant at best. Families are packed into tiny rooms; only a fraction of the children are being admitted into government schools, where classes are conducted exclusively in Greek; and the eagerness of volunteers to help is waning.

At Skaramagas camp, in Athens’s port area, there are toilets inside the trailers, instead of out in the freezing cold; it’s one of the best-appointed camps in the country, I’m told. But one rainy afternoon, I saw children throwing rocks into rivers of raw sewage. A truck drove around, fighting a losing battle to empty the overflowing toilets.

“Welcome to my life,” says Azhar Khalil, an 18-year-old from Kobani, Syria. She left home, she tells me after a glance at the clock, “exactly 29 months, 19 days and 4 hours ago.”

Ms. Khalil’s school had closed down as fighting drew close. She traveled to Aleppo to sit for her exams, but the war followed her there.

“We studied in the daytime and listened to bombs in the night. I risked my life for something great, and the first thing I packed when I left was my diploma.”

“In my books, my study, I can feel freedom,” she says. “But I’ve lost so much time. There is so much I want to do, but I can’t do it here.”

Ms. Khalil’s predicament is not caused by a lack of funding. According to aid experts, more has been spent on the humanitarian response in Greece than on any refugee crisis in history. “Every year, Greece hosts 25 million tourists,” a frustrated aid worker told me, “and to date we have been given 800 million euros in funding for this crisis — but we can’t find proper accommodation for 50,000 people?”

The crisis is, instead, the result of deliberate political choices.

According to Louise Roland-Gosselin, the advocacy manager of Doctors Without Borders, “Europe has said: ‘We have had enough of this. It’s no longer our problem.’ There are too many elections in too many countries. Politicians are pandering to the right and saving their skins at the price of the refugees.”

As part of the deal with Turkey, the European Union agreed to relocate the refugees who were already stuck in Greece. But only 10 percent have been settled elsewhere, and member states are trying to weasel out of taking more. A family reunification program is supposed to be more effective, but the number of people being resettled under that program is shrinking, too.

When Rosa Hamry, 28, fled Raqqa, Syria, with her husband and two children in 2014, the city had already become the capital of the Islamic State. Stonings, beheadings and crucifixions were taking place daily. The family made it to Turkey, where they hoped to find jobs and wait out the war.

“However much work we got,” Ms. Hamry says, “it was not enough to pay rent, feed the children. We didn’t have enough money to all get to Germany, so my husband went ahead.”

Last year, Ms. Hamry and her children, Arin, 2, and Mohammad, 6, tried to follow. After 10 months of being shuttled between camps in Greece, they were only recently settled in a plywood box inside a former factory near Thessaloniki. Soon after, she had the first of a series of interviews that could lead to reunification with her husband.

She says her children are tired and stressed all the time. Arin wakes up in the middle of the night, crying for her father.

“I am scared that we still have eight months to wait, but I don’t have the strength to wait that long. I don’t know what I will do.”

The family, like thousands of others, arrived traumatized by war. Now they are being traumatized again, this time by European politics.

Europe is doing this on purpose. It wants to dissuade other refugees from making the journey. But desperate people will keep coming, and will simply take greater risks than ever before.


Even the King of Ritsona has tried to escape. “I’ve tried to get away 13 times, and it’s enough,” he says. “I’ve spent 3,000 euros, all my money, on fake IDs. I’ve tried to fly to Holland with passports from France, Spain, Italy, Greece, and every time the police at the airport catch me.

“The last time, the policeman said: ‘No. Try again,’ ” he remembers, “but I said, if I fail at this again, I will kill myself. I have to stop trying. So now I await the decision of relocation. Nobody wants to stay here. There’s no opportunity here. Even the Greeks leave Greece to find work. What’s here for us?”

Up north, in the industrial outskirts of Thessaloniki, I’m looking for a train yard behind Softex, the infamous camp that once had the worst conditions of any in Greece and is now only marginally better. The directions lead me past a prison, an autopsy facility and abandoned factories. Take the next left, I’m told, and park the car.

A dozen Algerian boys are trying to stow away on a freight train, searching for tiny openings they can squeeze themselves into.

Between the brakes and wheel of one carriage, I see a hand emerge. It belongs to Jalwan, 16. His bony spine arches painfully over a wheel.

“No risk, no life,” he tells me, before shimmying out to look for a less precarious spot.

Security officers arrive, not to remove the kids, but to advise them: “If you go on top,” they say in English, “be careful of the electrical wires”; don’t hide above the wheels, you’ll fall and die. But the kids speak only French and Arabic, and besides, fearful of giving up their hiding spots, they refuse to make a sound.

The train takes off. As the last car, a flatbed, rolls by, I see Jalwan riding it like a giant surfboard. He shouts something that I can’t understand.

Odds are, these boys will be back. They are usually caught at the Macedonian border and have to walk the 50 miles back to Thessaloniki, before trying again.

By refusing to resettle refugees, Europe is whittling away at its commitment to human rights. But Europe promised to protect those rights in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in other treaties, charters and national laws.

“These states are undermining their obligations — and these are the same states that created the human rights laws and ratified conventions,” says Sari Nissi, who heads up the International Committee of the Red Cross mission in Greece.

How can we, as members of the developed world, look Bashar al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Vladimir Putin in the eye and lecture them about the importance of human rights when we can’t honor them ourselves?

My tour with the King of Ritsona ends at a rusting water tower. He leads me up the stairs to the top, where we can see the camp spread out beneath us. Smoke from cooking fires snakes through the pine trees, and people mill about between trailers and tents.

“The government of Ritsona is very poor because no government of the world supports us. The Germans used to support us, but they closed their door. So we built a new country. The smallest country, a kingdom of 700 people.”

In two days, he tells me, he will have been stuck in the camp a full year. “We will host a royal party at Cafe Ritz to celebrate,” he says, referring to the food distribution center. “You are welcome to come.”

His Majesty extends his hand.

Ashley Gilbertson is a photojournalist who works regularly on assignment for UNICEF and whose most recent book is “Bedrooms of the Fallen.”

Produced by Umi Syam, Jeffrey Henson Scales, Honor Jones, and Taylor Adams.

Source: The New York Times