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 18th: Majidparchekni, Amir Ali, Reka, Sarrad and Hadi
Written by Diana Valdecantos and photos by Nickie Mariager-Lam
Five men who were born and raised in the same Middle Eastern country meet, against all odds, in a small Greek island. From this unexpected encounter a close and solidary relationship has developed, which helps them through the life in a refugee camp, which can be off-putting, unkind and depressing. That’s why Majidparchekni, Amir Ali, Reka, Sarrad and Hadi have become a warm and uncommon family at Souda. Their home is a small tent flooded by grey UNHCR blankets. On the walls, on the floor, as cushions, as beds… Everything is grey in this house except their owners. Despite the dark decoration and sad stories, they smile, make tea, share their food and are kind enough to take the time to tell their life experiences. Remembering these experiences that they would much rather, yet cannot, forget, clearly opens up a few wounds…
They all, more or less, arrived at Chios four months ago. They are all seeking for opportunities, and they all came running away from a suffocating Iran. “I’m 24 years old and I don’t know how to live. I’ve never lived, not a single day”. Reka speaks slowly and although his mouth shows a smile his eyes drill with despair. “I just want a normal life”, he says. By ‘normal’ he means being free to speak what he thinks, find a job, to be able to play and listen to music, have a girlfriend, own a house and choose his religion.
The five of them agree on the appalling circumstances Iranians suffer every day back home. They describe a corrupted and over-controlling Government, which intervenes in every little aspect of day-to-day life. The police officers overlook and harass the population who is unprotected against indiscriminate punishments. It reaches a point where you are not only prohibited from drinking alcohol – you are likely to get beaten and thrown into prison from 3 to 8 years if they can smell it in your breath.
Religion is a mainstay and not following Islam can be very dangerous. A woman not covering her hair or even a man in short trousers can be physically punished, no questions asked.
Their experiences are similar and while they exchange sad memories they look into their phones and search the web for filmed examples of what they are putting into words. Devoured bleeding bodies with the clear picture of the lashes on their backs. A couple hanged in a city square as a threat to the rest. A woman battling to throw off a crowd of agents because she wasn’t wearing the imposed hijab. Real life nightmares and a solemn and simple message: Beware.
No wonder everything must be done in secret in Iran. From thinking out loud to falling in love. Secrecy is the norm every day, every hour. Once in a while, Amir Ali recalls, “we abandoned the city and went swimming. Just to relax, to forget our present, to be able to talk and not be heard”.
The only escape route in Iran is money. The difference between a wealthy family and its antonym is the distinctiveness of surviving with or without dignity. You can study, find a job, and pay your way out of the uncountable stumbles with the Regime. They still have to hide, as all of them, but money on the side can save you from prison, from a beating, from a trial, and ultimately, it can save your life.
Money is also the main catalyst in a silent battle of hate and rancour between the wealthy and the poor, as they explain. The famous: “Divide and conquer” describes perfectly a polarised Persia where everybody suspects and distrusts everyone.
Amir Ali is the eldest of the bunch. He is married and lived with his wife until things started to get worse. “It’s impossible to find a job. No one has a job, only the people with connections. My whole life the only thing I dreamt of, even when I was a kid, was to have a bike. I walked on the street and watch the rich children riding their bikes. And one day I thought I wanted my child to be able to have a bike. That’s also why I’m here. I want a brighter future for my kids”.
Dreams seem to wait in a far and away land for these Iranians. As they put it: “If 98% of your hopes and dreams were unreachable. What would you do?”
What they did was finding the strength, bravery and money to leave behind all they knew. Families, friends, homes. A not so shiny past in order to achieve normality and freedom in Europe, and it’s not as easy as it seems. If you’re caught trying to flee the country, you can really say goodbye to everything – The Government can punish you with a death sentence, end of the story.
Nevertheless, these endearing five comrades tried their luck and paid a smuggler to fly from Teheran to Turkey. They were promised otherwise though. Reka was supposed to end up in Germany, Majidparchekni in Italy and so on. Instead, for a couple of months, they stayed in Izmir spending the little money they had and hiding constantly from the Police. The fear of getting caught didn’t abandon them, not even at the doors of Europe.
The dangerous boat trip to Greece was also a tough moment. “I tried seventeen times before I got here”, says Hadi. “I tried twelve”, Reka remembers. And they were scared. But they had to continue. Two days before Amir Ali got to Chios, sixty people died on their way. The next day, 120. In spite of the extreme risk of death, he decided to try. What was he supposed to do after everything he had already gone through? There was no going back. No second chances.
Fortunately, they survived their sailings in one piece. But danger is not over yet – They still fear Souda’s uncomfortable cold nights with its fights and late riots. “We close the door when we go to sleep hoping nothing will happen. But we are still frightened”, they explain. The camp’s conditions are also a problem for these Iranians – In the middle of the winter, with a rough freezing wind, there’s no hot water in Souda. Therefore, even basic hygiene has become a problem for them, and without this, they fear that they will end up sick in a never-ending line to see a doctor.
Electricity comes and goes during these days too, which implies a different way to spend the day with no phones, therefore no internet, no communication with families and friends, no light, no kettle for some tea to keep themselves warm and a loooong etcetera.
Even under these circumstances, they try to live an as pleasant as possible life on the Chios island. After all, it was here, in the middle of the Aegean Sea, where some say Homer was born, where they met and became friends, a symbiosis, which for now, is all they have in this unwelcoming, cold, and dark Europe.