In order to give people outside Chios the possibility to understand how it is to be in a refugee camp on the island, A Drop in the Ocean will present an alternative Christmas calendar this year. Each day until Christmas, we will post 24 amazing stories about the people we are so blessed to spend our everyday with.
December 14th: David
Written by Kristin Sørsdal and photos by Nickie Mariager-Lam
Trapped by Tradition
“I was that baby”, David says and holds out his hands to show me the way his grandfather held him in his hands, one day thirty years ago, in the village in the West African country where he was born. That day, David was forced to inherit something he has never wanted: he was born into a very strong religious tradition, a tradition you can’t just say no to, but have to escape from to be free.
That day, in the hands of his grandfather, David’s destiny was decided. Since his grandfather was the Voodoo Spiritualist of his village, David was the one who would inherit this role after his grandfather died. “Automatically you are born into the cult”, he says, and that day everyone in the village gathered around the baby and their spiritual leader and celebrated David’s destiny: to become their spiritual advisor in a religion that David will never believe in.
David is sitting in front of me in a small fish restaurant next to Souda refugee camp. Only the day before, there was a bloody fight between rival groups of young refugees outside. The frustration of being trapped on Chios for months is being exacerbated by the EU’s perceived favouritism towards certain nationalities.
David points at a scar just underneath his eye and says: ”This is not a scar from a fight. This scar was given to me the day my grandfather held me in his hands as a proof of my obligation to the village and to the Voodoo Religion”. But having chosen to follow Christianity, and being a young man with a University degree, David could not accept becoming a spiritual advisor within a tradition that includes practicing witchcraft and preaching an ancient way of thinking at odds with his Christian beliefs.
”One day I left, he says. I left without telling anyone. If my village had known I would have been punished very harshly for not obeying the elders, for not obeying my forefathers’ religion”.
David got a visa for Turkey and took a flight directly to Istanbul. His plan was to claim asylum in Turkey. He wanted to stay in Turkey, that was his destination. Not Europe.
He landed in Istanbul in May, 2016. But Turkey was not what he expected. He did not experience racial discrimination, instead, he struggled with the language barrier and suffered from religious discrimination; and after a certain point he began to fear for his life. Each time he went to a police station to apply for asylum the police officers just shook their heads and said: ”Go, go, go”. Eight or nine times he went, and was sent away each time.
”And then it was the bombs”, he says and looks down with a small laugh. ”First the bombs at Ataturk Airport in June, then the military coup in July. Turkey was not a safe country for me. I lived near Taksim Square, the place where many foreigners live, and when I saw that the Syrians were starting to leave I asked them if I could join them”.
The ”Syrian friends” as he calls them, said he could go with them. They would call him on the phone as soon as they heard from the human trafficker who would arrange the trip from Turkey to Chios, a first toehold in Europe.
”The Africans follow the Syrians”, he says to me when he sees that I don’t understand the logic of the migration routes. ”The Syrians know everything about the journey. We just follow them. They contact the trafficker, they know what to do”. “I gave my iPhone to pay for the trip, which was a very expensive phone”, he says and laughs again: ”I knew nothing of the trip. I just followed. I had no idea how wide the crossing would be. I thought we would just be crossing over a small river. When I saw the ocean I was really afraid. The boat was just a rubber boat, it was all very risky”.
But the biggest shock, he says, was reaching the shores of Europe. “On Chios we are like hamsters in a cage, and the wheel is spinning very, very slowly. I have been here for six months, sleeping on the floor, walking in mud on rainy days, breathing dust on sunny days. There is tension between people in the camp, nobody feels secure, there have been attacks from Greek fascists and walking in the streets of Chios is not something you do lightly. This camp is getting on the nerves of the locals. There have been some individuals from the camp stealing from shops. The fights are escalating quickly, and EU does not seem to care”.
The asylum officials tells me to bring documents, he says, and one more time he points to the scar under his eye. “But how can I document that I am persecuted by the religion that I was born into? How can I document that I was forced to inherit a role against my beliefs, and that my village could kill me if I don’t follow my ancestors’ religion. Today it seems that Europe only considers refugees the ones who are fleeing from open warfare, that is Syrians. All Africans are told that they are no more than economic migrants”.
“Many people are so frustrated by life on this island that they just want to give up, David says at the end of the interview. They just want to say: Let me go back to my home country, even if I risk being persecuted. But the absurd thing is that they don’t even dare to say that, they are afraid. Because if you give up your asylum claim, the police will handcuff you, send you to Athens and lock you in a detention center as if you are a criminal.”
“I so much regret having tried this route to a better life”, he ends. “It was a very big mistake.”
(David has not told his family or his friends that he is in Europe, and he did not want his real name, or the name of his home country to be mentioned in this interview.)