Borders and Bodybuilding: Insights into life as a refugee in Europe (part 1)

by Debi Altman

When did we stop thinking of each other as human and start thinking of each other as numbers’?

Following the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine, refugees are in Western mainstream media and collective consciousness again. Arguably it has not been this way since 2015 with the so-called ‘Syrian refugee crises. Of course, whilst the news remained relatively silent on the subject over the last 7 years, hundreds of thousands of people continued to flee war and persecution in their home countries. But what actually happens when someone reaches safety on European soil? Where do they go? How are they treated?

Abbas, a young Afghani man, shares his experience with us to answer these questions. Abbas left Afghanistan when he was a child and spent approximately 20 years in Iran. He studied accounting and did theatre for seven years. However, despite living in Iran for most of his life he remained treated like a second-class citizen. In 2019 he made the unthinkable decision to leave everything and everyone he knew behind him, and he began a long and difficult journey to safety, to freedom, to Europe. For the purpose of this article his story here begins when he arrived on the shores of Lesvos, a Greek island 12km from the coast of Turkey.

In 2015 this small island community with a population of only 85,000 people hosted more than half a million asylum seekers with two locals nominated for a Nobel peace prize for their welcoming efforts. Lesvos was given ‘hotspot’ status meaning it was provided with EU funding and facilities. A ‘Reception and Identification Centre’ was created to process 3000 people as a short-term solution. This centre used to be a prison. At its peak, there were roughly 25,000 people waiting inside. The problem was that this was not a short-term issue, and these people are not supposed to be prisoners.  Seven years later and the local residents are exhausted, funding from the EU continues to be reportedly misspent and facilities on the ground remain grossly inadequate.

What happens to people who have experienced trauma, who do not know what it is like to feel safe, who do not have a home, who have left everything and everyone behind them when they are forced to live in dangerous, unsanitary, inhumane conditions for an undetermined amount of time? What happens when they are continually stripped of their freedom, their humanity?

Abbas said: “I was so happy to come to Mytilene (Lesvos’ capital city) it was a beautiful city with the sea and everything. And then the bus came, and I saw the camp and the fence. It was like a prison. I was scared. The first night the thief came, and they took my phone and my money – Really, I was scared. Every day it goes like this. I saw a lot of people that they had mental health ‘issues’ and a lot of diseases like skin rash. The people they took asylum rejections and they stayed for a long time in Moria. They became crazy. They become drunk and they fight, and they kill. The government didn’t care about them. And the police also. When they fight and killed each other the police didn’t come. It was really, really hard.”

What happens when these same people can access environments that actually allow them to thrive and not just survive? Abbas, like many others, escaped the hideous conditions of the camp and joined in with activities made available by Non-Government Organizations (NGOs); he describes in particular the work of One Happy Family and Yoga and Sports With Refugees. Both of these NGOs are made up of international, local and refugee volunteers who provide services together, creating resilient, diverse communities for everyone to enjoy.

One Happy Family is a community centre home to many projects that are created upon request and initiative of the refugee community. There is space for autonomy, initiative, and growth. Yoga and Sports With Refugees have an impressive amount of activities on offer, varying according to the passion and expertise of the refugee teachers. Sports can be unique in their ability to break down barriers and bring people together. As a volunteer there myself at the end of 2021, I can attest to the positive energy created in the gym and on the pitches as being utterly palpable.

“I went to One Happy Family, and I saw it’s a beautiful place with the community. With the people we have a lot of class like Greek class, English class and a lot of things like sports and a makerspace and a garden. We went to Yoga Sports With Refugees and I talked with the volunteers … I started to do body building and to join the running team. Slowly, slowly I meet a lot of people and we become closer, like a family.”

Abbas continues: “I was in Lesvos about three years and all my day I spent it in Yoga and Sports and One Happy Family, and I just sleep at night in the camp. I was happy that I go there for some sports and talking with the people and classes. The hard day was for me was Sunday. It was all day in the camp, and I couldn’t go anywhere, and One Happy Family and Yoga and Sports was closed, and I didn’t have anything to do. It makes me crazy, really.”

As if conditions in the camp couldn’t get any worse, 2020 was coupled with the culmination of years of dangerous right-wing populism and a highly contagious and unknown disease spreading around the world. Local and international far right protesters journeyed to Lesvos to protest refugees arriving in Europe and residents of the camp were forced to stay inside Moria Camp. People were cut off from their lifelines. Abbas describes how initially himself and others created their own activities, finding space in the olive groves surrounding Moria Camp.

When the quarantine came and everywhere was closed, and they blocked the way, and we couldn’t go anywhere, and we couldn’t leave the camp. We decided to make with our friends a community like One Happy Family. We went with our friends to the jungle (olive groves), and we do sports like running first and some friends, they were teachers in One Happy Family, we made painting class, yoga class, boxing class. About three months we spend quarantine in the jungle, and we made a community by ourselves, and we went for example out of the camp to the olive groves at 7 in the morning and we came back around 7 at night and we were so happy that we spent the time like this.”

But then Moria was burned down. Roughly 10,000 people were forced onto a single 1.5km stretch of closed road. It was truly a terrifying and dark time for everyone.

I remember all my housemates went to the quarantine place (in Moria Camp) they didn’t have any Covid but it’s government and they put them in the quarantine place. The old Moria burned. I was alone there, and I came with two minors to Mytilene from the mountain. You didn’t see anywhere because the jungle and the mountain were dark and the police and fascists people, they blocked the way, and you are scared of the police. Old Moria completely burned.

We are now in 2022 and compared to this, things on the island have calmed down. A new camp has been built and there are currently 1700 people from the refugee community resident.The vast difference in numbers is due to an increasingly aggressive tactic of ‘pushbacks. Now, when you board a plastic boat with your children across the sea instead of being able to claim asylum when you reach safety, you are systematically and violently pushed back across the border.

In a very superficial sense this new camp may be safer, but people’s humanity has been stripped away. Residents state it is actually worse than Moria. Why? Movement in and out of the camp is highly restricted with the camp borders heavily policed. People are randomly assigned a number. As little as six hours a weekthey are allowed out. Otherwise, there are their bedroom’s plastic, white tent walls and 30 other faces to stare at for every hour of every day. I’ll repeat again, asylum seekers are not supposed to be prisoners.

“The new camp … when you want to go out … you have to pass three checkpoints of the f*cking police, and they control a lot – prison – it’s a camp. It’s hard to go out and do sports. I remember I talk to teachers who made cards (passes). The students when they show the cards to the police the police were kidding them, and they were laughing to them ‘they said’ that it’s not important that you have dancing class. The police didn’t let them to go out.”

Abbas’s example of the police mocking requests to attend sports classes highlights how the vital activities and communities created within NGOs are systematically denied and derided. Of course, attending a sports class is not just about playing a game; it is about reminding yourself of your passion, your identity, your worth. We all are made up of all the actions we do every day and to deny someone that is to deny their humanity. When did we stop thinking of each other as human and start thinking of each other as numbers?

This story of course does not end here. Next quarter we will hear more from Abbas and the situation happening on Europe’s borders.  In the meantime, check out the truly lifesaving work happening within the organizations Abbas mentions in the links below and continue to show your support and solidarity.

One Happy Family: Instagram @ohfcommuitycenter


Yoga and Sports with Refugees Instagram @yogasportwithrefugees


© 2022

This Post Has One Comment

  1. David Palmer

    Hi Debi, that’s a great insite into the plight of refugees. And an interesting observation regarding the importance of activities to maintain a healthy mental state.
    This is the first time I’ve really looked at one of your reports, and I’m really impressed. I’m sure that many casual observers, like me, are kept vaguely abreast of the headline numbers sensationalised by the mainstream news media. But this insite is a strong reminder that each number is a person, who can contribute to society.

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