Moria, Lesbos – Khalil Amuri, 28, is rooting around the burned-out metal structures of the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, pulling out copper cords from wiring boxes, his palms black and scraped from the sharp fragments he collects.
He wears a green T-shirt coated in soot, ash, oil and smoke, jeans rolled up to the knees and dark grey sandals as he moves through the wrecked metal graveyard, sending out loud, tinny echoes.
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Khalil was among more than 12,000 refugees and migrants who were left homeless on Lesbos after Moria was destroyed by a fire on September 8. Conditions were already bad before the fire, the camp only had an official capacity of 2,800 people. Most asylum seekers were camping in “the jungle” olive groves on the mountainside on the outskirts of the camp.
Authorities in Greece quickly set up a new temporary camp in Kara Tepe while TV crews from all over the world broadcast the pain and horror on the faces of the homeless men, women and children.
On September 17 Greek police launched an operation to move the former residents of Moria to the new camp, and EU countries, including Germany and France, agreed to relocate hundreds of the most vulnerable, while hundreds of others were transferred to mainland Greece. Today, 7,200 people remain in the new Kara Tepe camp, where the living conditions have been criticised by humanitarian organisations.
In the aftermath of the fire, however, an unknown number of people from the camp went missing. Some were detainees who escaped the camp’s deportation centre as flames closed in on the facility, and they were saved from burning to death by other refugees and migrants who came to their rescue and cracked open the lock. While some disappeared altogether, a few remain, scraping along in the burned-out ruins of the Moria camp and trying to stay off the authorities’ radar.
The small group of 10 men I spent time with here are not criminals, but they are unwanted in Europe. They are all rejected asylum seekers and feel they have nowhere else to go on a continent that, they say, is increasingly focused on rejecting asylum applications and processing deportations.
Living among gaunt cats, squeaking rats and the heavy, nauseating stench of decayed rubbish, they are now fugitives trying to survive by scavenging for metal in the ashes of the camp. For some time following the fire, Greek authorities looked the other way as refugees cleared the camp of metal, saving authorities the cost of doing so, but the police are beginning to turn their attention to apprehending failed asylum seekers.
‘They tried to recruit me as a child soldier’
After dinner is prepared on the fire and darkness settles, only the tents flickering in the wind and the bubbling of their shisha interrupt the buzzing grasshoppers outside. In the smoke from hand-rolled cigarettes, the men lie close together on their mattresses in a tent they dubbed “The Five Stars”. They are processing some of the horrors from their past together, as a group.
Three of them – Qasim, Talal and Zaza – do not want to give their full names because they are afraid of being identified by the Greek police.
“When I was 14 years old, I was standing in front of a cafe in Baghdad with two of my friends. A group of men in balaclavas descended from a car and opened fire. I woke up to the sound of my own screaming. I was covered in blood,” Qasim, a 28-year-old Iraqi with a long black beard and sunken eyes, tells his companions.
He is describing an incident in 2006 when criminal gangs and sectarian violence were ravaging Iraq in the anarchy left by the US occupation.
“A man pulled me from the ground. ‘Go wash yourself in the Tigris, you’ll be all right,’ he said. That’s when I realised it was my best friend’s guts blown out all over me.”
Talal, 19, from Al Bukamal, a former stronghold of ISIL (ISIS) on the shores of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, has dark eyes with dark circles underneath. He does not say much, content as long as there is enough tobacco and cold coffee with sugar when he is not out scavenging for metal.
“Every day a few years ago, ISIL would come and knock on my family’s door to recruit me as one of their child soldiers. My parents kept finding excuses to get around it, so their hisba (Islamic police) ended up arresting me for my hairstyle. They said it was illegal,” Talal recounts, taking off his cap to show he still cares about a stylish haircut.
“I was in prison in Raqqah for three months in 2016. I escaped one day when jets were bombing close to the prison and the guards rushed out to help,” he explains.
Twenty-one-year-old Zaza from Deraa, Syria, sits nearby, his fingers playing slowly with a green marble. In another life, he could have been a fashion model with his firm jaw, high cheekbones and yellow-green eyes.
His arms are engraved. Long, deep scars run from shoulder to hand as if he was locked in a cage fight with a tiger.
He brushes aside the harm he inflicted on himself with a razor while he was in prison with a shy grin. “It helped get my mind off the situation sometimes when I was incarcerated”.
In the corner, Ayham Motlaq, 24, from Aleppo, is watching a social media video, his face lit up in the dark by a smartphone screen. He comments on the frivolity of what he is seeing.
“A Saudi man has decorated his camel with one million dollars worth of gold, while we are displaced in Europe and no Arabs are helping us,” he laughs indignantly. “Have you seen our [Arab] leaders? They spend billions bombing Yemen, while we are here running out of bread, onions and tomatoes,” he whispers to himself, shaking his head when he realises that nobody is listening.
Not everybody stayed at The Five Stars. Some have given up and moved on to Kara Tepe.
Others are not even trying for asylum, however, feeling that their chances are low-to-non-existent. Some of them left for economic reasons; others left countries now deemed “safe”, such as Iraq, and cannot show they are being persecuted for political, religious or social reasons; and others came here via third countries deemed safe, such as Turkey.
Rather than running the risk of being detained by police and deported back to their home countries, they prefer to live off the radar and not re-register in Kara Tepe.
Last week, Mustafa, a 22-year-old Moroccan who lived here for a time with the others, managed to sneak on to a truck by the harbour in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, which was waiting in line for the ferry to Athens. It was the only way to leave the island and kick-start life as an undocumented migrant on the European mainland.
At the moment, Khalil Amuri is still hanging on in the ruins of Moria. Khalil and I are both 28 years old. Our fathers are both from the Amur tribe, spread across Syria and North Africa. We are the same height, brown hair, brown eyes and we both love cooking.
Maybe it is our common ancestry that makes us feel a bond. Maybe it is knowing that if destiny had decreed otherwise, I could have been Khalil and Khalil could have been me. If my forefathers had stayed in Syria and Khalil’s branch of the tribe had migrated to Morocco in the eighth century. Or if Khalil’s father had come to Europe in the 1980s and my father had stayed on the other side of the Mediterranean.
In contrast to my comfortable childhood in the suburbs of Copenhagen, Khalil grew up poor in the suburbs of Aleppo. He dropped out of sixth grade to sell scoops of lemon ice cream in tiny plastic bags to his former classmates. The ice cream became cigarettes as time passed. When the war came in 2011, Khalil was already a hardened working man while I was finishing my last year of high school.
By then, he owned a billiards cafe in the Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood in northern Aleppo, then the bombs began to fall and his family was forced to flee north to the village of Hreitan. Eight months later, they returned to a forsaken ghost town, Khalil recounts, as he forages in the ruined camp with his friend, Ayham Motlaq.
“Back in Aleppo, I started scavenging for copper cables like here,” he tells Ayham, hands sweeping the floor of a burned-out container in search of melted aluminium scraps.
They look like miners from a bygone era with their shredded clothes, sooty faces and bruised legs. They are not digging for gold, they are pulling down barbed wire, tearing loose copper cables and wriggling metal bars off the ground.
But they are in a race against the clock. Every day, the camp is stripped by local Roma people filling their cars to the brim with metal, and Greek authorities clearing the camp with excavators, trucks and cranes. There is little copper left to sell to the local scrap dealer, so now they are collecting aluminium. Soon there will be no more of that left and they will move on to iron.
“So you love this kind of work?” the younger Ayham asks, uninterested in Khalil’s tale, while he searches the ground further ahead.
“What are you talking about?! I did it to feed my family, bro. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat,” an irritated Khalil replies. “You know full well how prices exploded and people went hungry during the war. We did what we had to do to survive.”
He suggests they move on to search containers deeper inside the camp.
‘A hair between us and death’
In 2014, Khalil’s home was struck during one of the Syrian regime’s aerial bombardments of Aleppo.
“I was in my room with my father. My mother and sister were in another room and my brothers in a third room. When the missile struck, the roof collapsed and the bricks crushed my father’s skull,” Khalil says.
“Half of my mother’s body was paralysed, her hand skewed and she can’t walk properly. I was hit by a fragment in my stomach,” he says, pulling up his t-shirt to reveal a deep scar next to his navel.
The family was rushed to Turkey for medical treatment and, thankfully, all survived. When released from the hospital, they found refuge in a deserted country house on the outskirts of Iskenderun, a coastal town in the Hatay province of Turkey.
“For a month and a half, we only ate eggplant; we didn’t have any money,” says Khalil. “We found mouldy bread in rubbish containers. It was in the month of Ramadan, so we fasted but thank God we had that bread. We ripped off the mouldy parts and ate the rest with eggplant.”
For the next couple of years, Khalil mucked out cow stalls, picked parsley in a field, worked at a butcher shop and later at a restaurant, working 12 hours a day to provide for his siblings and disabled parents.
Last year, he had enough savings to pay a human smuggler for a seat on a boat to Europe.
His family remained in Turkey in hope of joining him in the future. But, in the middle of the sea, the engine stopped. Khalil, having taken on the responsibility of captain, pulled the starter cord to make the engine growl again. The cord snapped.
“The smuggler – may God never make him successful, that son of a b**** – gave us a boat for 20 people and we were 75. It was pouring down, the boat rocked in the wind. The women and children were crying. There was one hair between us and death,” Khalil recounts.
“For five hours we struggled, taking turns trying to crack open the engine’s cover. I borrowed a knife from an Afghan man and I kept banging like a maniac. Finally, I succeeded and I fixed the cord with a piece of bendable metal. I tied the cord around the motor wheel and pulled again. The engine started,” he says.
“Moments later we saw lights on the horizon.” That was when they finally reached Lesbos.
On the run from the police
Every day, Khalil gets up before sunrise, performs his morning prayer, lights the coal on his shisha, prepared with pomegranate tobacco, brushes his teeth, feeds the cats and prepares breakfast for the rest of the men in the commune of 10. When the sun disappears below the horizon in the Mediterranean Sea, he lights the fire again to prepare dinner. They bought food from a grocery store 15 minutes’ walk away with some of the proceeds of the metal they scavenged.
“I can cook 225 Turkish and Syrian dishes,” he brags with a chef’s pride as he stirs the pot with a plastic spoon, the fire lighting up the entrance to the tent.
“Then why do you keep making the same three dishes for us?” Ayham asks with a goofy smile, making the other men around the bonfire chuckle.
“Oh, do I miss the food in Syria, the atmosphere in Aleppo. Kebab, barbeque skewers, flatbread sujuk, mjaderra (rice with roasted onions and lentils)…” Khalil continues counting the dishes of home.
Suddenly, two flashing white lights appear in the dark. Khalil rushes into the tent, warning the others to hide. Qasim and some of the others sneak out of the tent, disappearing quietly into the dark.
“What are you doing here?” an officer asks, flashing Khalil and Ayham in the face. “Why are you not in the new camp? Show me your papers!”
Ayham begins stuttering. Khalil pushes him aside, pulls up his blouse to reveal his scar.
“I’m a sick man. The new camp said I could stay here,” he lies in broken English.
“I’m Syrian, not Afghan. I don’t want problems,” he attempts instead.
An alarm sounds on the officers’ and Khalil’s phone simultaneously. “CIVIL PROTECTION GREECE. ALERT. MOVEMENT RESTRICTIONS APPLY,” the text message says, a corona lockdown curfew warning.
The two officers talk to each other in Greek.
“It’s OK, you can go,” the dark-haired officer then says, to Khalil’s surprise.
“I made food. Come eat,” Khalil smiles hesitantly pointing to the bonfire.
They thank him, declining his offer respectfully. Khalil does not ask twice.
‘Like cattle and dogs’
The next day, Khalil talks to his mother in Turkey in one of their daily video calls. He tells her he cannot take it any more, that he wants to leave Lesbos.
“We live in rubbish like cattle and dogs. I went to the harbour seven times to escape to Athens, but the police stopped me every time, yelling ‘Yalla, go!’. They curse us and beat us. They don’t let us leave this place. Am I supposed to stay here all of my life?” Khalil asks.
“It’s tough here, mom. I work for 4-5 euros a day,” he says, showing her a deep, inflamed wound on his middle finger.
“What happened, honey?” his mother asks.
“It’s from working with copper,” he replies, pausing.
“Look at the two of us, mom. We don’t have a country or anything else left. Look at everything we lost when that missile struck. There was nothing left after that, we were buried. We even lost our health. We only have God left now,” Khalil says.
“Yes, we still have God,” she answers. She looks at her son with concern and Khalil cuts off the conversation abruptly. Back to work.
“I just want to get away from this island. I want to help my family, build a future, get married and have children. I want to work in a restaurant and live a life,” he tells me before rising to his feet, setting out for the metal graveyard once again.