Edited by Stavros Malichudis & Gigi Papoulias
It was ten past five Sunday morning on April 12th, 2020, and I was scrolling through my feed on Instagram, when the little paper plane icon in the top right notified me that I had a new message. “Emm, do you think that the quarantine will be over after the 27th?’’, Meraj asked with some hesitation in his words.
On April 10th, 2020, I received another message from Meraj.
He was clearly frustrated trying to adjust to the new conditions, and the fact that his everyday life had changed under the coronavirus lockdown. “I’ve had enough of staying home’’, his text said.
By lunchtime the same day, his good temper had returned. “Do you want to play League of Legends?’’ he asked. “It’s a good way to spend your time during quarantine’’, adding a grinning face emoji at the end of his sentence.
Like many of his friends, Meraj has, for the most part, endured the quarantine, by playing online games. The most popular among his age-range are Fortnite and the League of Legends, the new version, which he said cost him €52.
Meraj had to wait eight months to buy it and it proved to be good company for approximately 50 days of the lockdown.
Meraj lives in a central neighborhood of Athens, Greece. The 16-year-old shares a flat with three other young boys. They are all from Afghanistan.
The apartment is granted by an NGO, and is part of a support model to provide semi-independent living for unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors aged 16-18 living in the country.
According to the latest figures provided by the National Center of Social Solidarity (EKKA), on April 15th 2020, it was estimated that 5,181 unaccompanied minors are currently living in Greece. Out of this number, only 136 minors over 16 years old, like Meraj, are living in 43 shared apartments.
Meraj had lived for eight months in a safe shelter for unaccompanied minors in Konitsa, a small Greek town near the Albanian border, before being recently transferred to Athens.
That’s also where I first met him during the summer of 2019, when I was visiting the area for ethnographic training and research.
Although shelters for unaccompanied minors are considered among the best solutions for such a vulnerable population, according to EKKA’s data today just 1,290 out of a total of 5,181 (that means approximately one in five unaccompanied minors) live in such conditions.
When he first arrived in Greece, Meraj stayed at Moria camp on the island of Lesvos for eight months. Today, over 13,000 children are living in squalid conditions in overcrowded refugee camps like Moria in the five Aegean islands (Kos, Leros, Lesvos, Samos, Chios).
More than 1,700 of them are unaccompanied.
The dire living conditions and the environment there were very difficult for him to bear. “I have really bad memories and awful experiences living in a tent in the jungle,’’ he recalled the first day we met in Athens.
He also told me that his cousin and uncle had left Moria a few days ago and they were here. “You see this picture?’’ He showed me his little cousin all smiles in the back of a pickup truck. “This is my favorite picture. It was taken at Moria, on the last day he had to be in that place.’’
However, even from such a place, Meraj managed to retain something positive. “I found many good friends among volunteers from America and Canada,’’ he says. “I’m still in touch with them and I wish to meet them again one day.’’
After all, Meraj’s plans can barely keep him in Greece.
A world of destinations
It was January 19th, 2020, when he contacted me after a period of relative silence to say that he had been moved to Athens a few weeks ago. “How long will you be here for?’’ I asked.
“Two months, I think. After that I will move to Belgium.’’
On March 17th, 2020, when the two-month period was coming to an end, Meraj texted me on WhatsApp to ask for information on how he could book a flight online and, also, how far in advance he should book that flight.
“Where are you going?,” I asked.
“I want to fly to Amsterdam and then take a bus to Germany.’’
In the meanwhile, nations across the world had already started to impose travel restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, affecting flights and transportation. Meraj told me, though, that he knew that the border between Germany and the Netherlands was still open.
Why Germany? Less than a month ago he was examining the possibility of going to Iceland.
“Have you ever been to Iceland? Do you think it’s a good place for me to go?’’ he would ask persistently back then, trying to get as much information as he could that might be useful. Although it was obvious he had no clear image of the country, he seemed to know at least one thing – that in Iceland it’s always cold, “but I don’t mind.’’
Oddly enough, although Meraj doesn’t have any relatives or family there, he still considered Iceland to be a wise option. Why?
Because, according to him, there are not many refugees there and this appears as a positive factor. In what way? “Some refugees are doing bad things,’’ he explained. “The more refugees there are in a place, the more likely to have people acting in such ways. And then people will treat all of us the same.’’
I was not really in a position to understand his reasoning, he thought. “It’s most likely that you cannot understand me, because you’re Greek and our perspectives are different.’’
But now Meraj had given up this plan as well, (if the choice of any destination was ever really planned). “I think Germany is the best option.’’
I advised him not to put the cart before the horse and, before planning things, he should first see how the situation with the global pandemic would progress. “OK, I will wait for two weeks,’’ was his response, which felt more like a final notice.
Contrary to the case of Iceland, Meraj does have relatives in Germany, and also in France. They’re uncles and aunts. Also, his sister is in New Zealand and his brother in Australia. But these places seem to be too far for him to really consider them as an option.
We were up to twenty-five days under quarantine when another text came. The plan had changed again. This time the destination was London (with a short stop in Spain).
Whether it’s Germany or Sweden (another possible destination for him that came up in another discussion), Meraj believes that there is only one thing for sure: there is no future for him in Greece.
And that’s because, according to him, there are many refugees here and low chances to get a job.
Navigating the way through the pandemic
While continuing to come up with different destinations, since March 23rd Meraj was staying home, like everyone else, and if he went outdoors, it was only for 1-1.5 hours per day.
On April 23rd, (four days before the date that had been announced as the end of the lockdown), the lockdown was extended until May 4th. According to the measures taken by the government, movement outside the house was permitted only for certain reasons summarized into seven categories.
Everyone had to fill in a form or send a text to 13033 before going outdoors, indicating the reason for being outside.
In addition to this, Meraj and the other three boys who live in the flat, had to carry with them at all times, a permission form from the NGO, saying that they are allowed to go out at a specific time during the day for reason #6, that is “for outdoor physical exercise, individually or in pairs, maintaining a distance of 1.5 meters apart.’’
His flat mates would go out quite often, but Meraj became lazy, he says, and many times he preferred to stay home and do something else such as gaming.
While still being on lockdown, he also created a gaming channel on Youtube featuring reviews and playthroughs for his favorite video games like Call of Duty, Fortnite, League of Legends (LOL), PUBG and World of Worldcraft (WOW).
Gaming is also a way for Meraj to meet new friends and, in some cases, an online friendship turns into an offline one. “I have met friends from gaming. They are Greek and they speak very good English actually,’’ he explains. “I also have friends from Instagram, boys from gaming and girls from Instagram. We arrange meet ups in the area of Acropolis.’’
During quarantine, he also is in touch with his friends from school. “Last week I went to a birthday party of one of my classmates who lives in Patision. There was only five of us due to coronavirus.’’ He had been going to school only for one week before “holidays” began.
When he wasn’t playing video games, he enjoyed watching movies or working out at home. And when he got bored, he would try to call his friends.
There were other days that he felt more creative and, then, he dedicated some essential time into trying quite complicated recipes. Baqala Polow is one of them, an Iranian dish with rice as a base, a mix of lima or fava beans and dill, served with lamb or fish.
He cooked it by himself watching and following the instructions on a Youtube video. “It was very complicated but delicious.’’
Later the same day, he lined up outside the closest Lidl store, keeping the proper coronavirus social distancing and waited patiently for his turn to walk in. He was there to buy popcorn and Coca-cola. He might have exceptional culinary skills, yet he is also a teenager craving snacks.
When I ask Meraj his thoughts about the new realities COVID-19 has created, he might glibly complain about gaining weight but, in fact, he seems to be troubled by the ways the pandemic is challenging his life. “Corona really affected my lifestyle. At first life here was fun but then everything changed, because of the coronavirus spreading and the lockdown.’’
And what does he say when I ask him about the future? “I think that the hardest part of quarantine is being patient and trying to imagine how this will end. The first months after the coronavirus our lives will be much harder than before, because now we’re running out of everything.”
The “unforgettable” times at the hotel “Dendro”
Meraj left Konitsa at the end of December and, at that time, most of the boys were still back there. Today nobody has been left behind.
The ARSIS’s Safe Shelter in Konitsa started in 2018 and operated until April 30th 2020, just a few days before the publication of this article. The program, which was funded by the International Organization of Migration (IOM), came to an end and the boys were transferred to other shelters.
During its operation, the hotel “Dendro’’ hosted more than 130 unaccompanied minors under 18: 32 in 2018 and 105 in 2019.
Meraj is still in touch with the boys from the facility on social media, especially those who he considers to be his best friends.
“Fortunately,’’ he says “six of them are in Athens.’’ Meraj recalls his time there and the activities in which the minors participated as “unforgettable, the time seemed to pass without me noticing.”
During a second visit to Konitsa, I got to spend a day with the boys and their teachers at the facility in which Meraj lived.
Having spent a short time with the boys in Konitsa, I glimpsed what the conditions for these teenage asylum seekers should look like. Or more precisely, one of the several possible ways the state could provide them a more complete protection system with.
I have visited Moria camp and other facilities in the country. This experience has made me believe that, anyone with an idea of the conditions in the refugee camps, would agree that Greece needs more places like the hotel “Dendro” for minors. And this is something they seemed to acknowledge themselves.
During their time in Konitsa, all the teenaged asylum seekers residing at the shelter were offered ten free tickets every month to take the bus to Ioannina, (the capital of the Epirus region) which is about 65km from the town.
For many of the young boys, the ability to take the local bus to the nearest biggest city, was a way to explore the potential of a place less “isolated’’ as they said, than Konitsa.
At the same time, and unlike the living conditions at the Greek camps or their experiences from Turkey, the teenagers admitted that Konitsa offered a calm life and a sense of security. They would often say that they couldn’t have been in a more beautiful place than this.
Despite their awareness of the fact that they had been, in many ways, excluded from local community life, they would also say that Greek people had treated them with kindness. “You people are nice. In Turkey they are not like this’’, Sakhi told me the second time I was there, implying what he had been through in Turkey.
Sakhi had been in the Zeytinburnu district in Istanbul, Turkey for almost a year. Zeytinburnu is a refugee neighborhood and the main entry point in Istanbul for Afghan refugees and a place where Kurds from Syria are clustered. “In Turkey I had to work for little money under very difficult conditions. There were many children there like me.’’
In Konitsa, the boys would also visit the city along with the NGO’s employees on certain occasions, participating in local events like the Ioannina Lake Run and Bizanios Run. A few of them were very keen on running, and almost everyday they’d go on runs on the path along the river that led to the monastery of Panagias Stomiou.
The river was their favorite place, especially in summer, when the heat during the day was unbearable. They would go there to swim, (to the extent that they knew how to swim or to the extent that the depth and the rushing waters allowed it), always keeping a certain distance from the other groups of local teenagers. They also played football every Friday morning.
While his friends used all the free tickets they had in their possession, Meraj would only take the bus to Ioannina two or three times a month. He preferred to stay in Konitsa and take pictures of the landscape, and write stories to post on Instagram.
Also, he had unlimited internet access at “Dendro’’ and, thus, he could play games for hours on his phone, such as the PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which was very popular among the minors.
But even for Meraj it was clear that this is just temporary.
He was looking forward to moving to Athens, the Greek capital, which he knew from his friends could offer him more opportunities.
And when he made it to Athens, it then very quickly became clear to him that in Greece he doesn’t actually have “access to what other refugees have in other European countries.’’
“But then it’s hard to leave,’’ he said during one of our discussions, putting aside, for a moment, his plans about a future in another European country. “I’ve found many friends here.’’