“In Turkey there were 40 of us in a small, covered truck”
We met Raz in the afternoon of Sunday, January 21, 2020 at the We Need Books in Kipseli, Athens. He had gone to arrange Greek lessons, which he intended to start. “I am forced to. For my papers, for the language test. So as to bring my wife here,” he told me in fluent Greek.
I was 19 when I left Nepal and went to Jordan. I went through a company which recruited people to work in factories abroad. I had a contract for two years, but the boss was a cheat. Six hundred people worked there. The salary wasn’t good, and at some point, they left us completely stranded.
I looked elsewhere for work and was employed at another small factory. There I met someone from Bangladesh, who told me that for $3,000 we could go to Europe, Italy. I didn’t know Greece. To be honest I haven’t gone to school much. I went up until I was eight years old.
My childhood wasn’t easy. A single mother, alone with four children. We had big problems. To this day, no one has ever given me money to live or do anything. I’ve done everything by myself. I raised my siblings and still take care of my mom. OK, my brothers have grown up and have their own jobs, but my mom is my mom. I miss her, and although she doesn’t want me to send money, I do… Without a father, it’s difficult… My father is alive, but he doesn’t live with my mom. He found another mom and left. But we talk. When I got married, I invited him. After all, he’s my father. Isn’t that right?
I came here in 2004, from Evros, I crossed the river. It rained for 24 hours. We hid near the river. There was an area, like a deep pit, and there were 40 of us huddled there, like ants sitting in the rain. We couldn’t feel our legs from the cold. We stayed close to each other to keep warm. We rubbed each other’s legs, to try to straighten them, so we could run. When it became dark again, we crossed. And then a lot of running. We ran, we ran, we ran. Anyone who was walking would get beat up, the police would catch them and they’d get a beating… From the border to Didimoticho, three months in jail in Orestiada, then I went to Thessaloniki and later to Athens where I stayed for 3-4 months.
I didn’t know anything or anyone. I lived on the street with some Pakistanis I met here. Then an acquaintance knew some other people in Crete and said to me, “Come on, there are jobs here.” And ok, I wanted a job, so I went.
There’s a park in Rethymno, near the old town. We’d gather there and wait. The locals, the Greeks, would pass by in cars or on motorbikes and say, “You, come. I have a construction job. Do you want to work?” Back then, we didn’t even know the language. All I knew was “What kind of job? How much money?” That was it. If the money was good, let’s say over €30-35 I would go. Whatever the job was. I did that for about six months. I’ve worked in construction, carpentry, as a glass fitter, at a supermarket … I’ve learned to do everything. And I’ve cleaned stairwells in apartment buildings, I’ve done everything. However, out of all the jobs I’ve done, I’d like to be a cook. That’s what I like. But here in Athens it’s not easy. Long hours and little money.
Back then in Crete, there were a few of us. Imagine, I was the only guy from Nepal. There were some Afghans who had come to Rethymno and a small group of Pakistanis. They knew us one by one. If the police caught us, they’d let us go. I would tell the truth and then everything would be ok, they’d let me off …
“Where do you work?, they’d asked me.”
“Where do you live?”
“Are you alright?”
“Do you have any problems with the police?”
“You won’t be bad, otherwise we’ll put you in jail.”
“No, I’m not like that,” I’d say and leave. They were good people. Now, of course that’s not the case.
I left Crete and came to Athens at the end of 2007. I met some Nepalese people here and lived with them. I got a job in a printing press. We’d print boxes, like pizza boxes, things like that. I would work the machine. I would cut the molds. I worked from 2008 to 2013. Then the crisis hit me too. I was unemployed for two years. It was hard. I got jobs here and there. For a while. Some people didn’t treat me well, others wouldn’t give you any work or others would make you work for 12-13 hours. Then I went to Corfu. I worked there for six months. I came back here and was out of work for another six months. Then I went to Kos. To Kardamena, where I learned to be a cook in an Indian restaurant.
My wife’s name is Manila. She’s a hairdresser in Nepal. If she can’t come here, I’ll have to leave. Otherwise how will we live? I’ll be here, she’ll be there. How will we have a family? And I don’t just mean kids. It’s a lot of things. She should come here and be my wife, together. That’s what I want.
Two years ago, we got married. I went there. We met through Facebook. I had a cousin and she told me she had a friend. “Talk to each other,” she told me. And that’s how it happened.
Here? I had no relationship with any girl here. I was always a little behind on that subject. I was shy. I don’t know what was to blame. My luck? My words? I never found a way to say anything. I wanted to, but when I’d try to talk to someone… And what should I talk about? I didn’t know the language. And first of all, if I’d approach, they’d turn their backs or they’d avoid me. And you can’t get to know each other that way, on the street. If there were girls in our social group, it would have been more natural. But there were none. We were all guys. And not Greeks.
I had Greek acquaintances, mostly coworkers. Not for hanging out, they were not friends … I had invited people from work many times but they’d never come and from that point on… It is true that it’s because I’m Asian… I’m a foreigner … They won’t hang out much with me … Only for work things. Because we work together. They’re forced to. Whether you want to or not, you have to talk to each other.
I’ll tell you a story. When I came to Greece, there were 40 of us in a small, covered truck. It would take us from Izmir to Istanbul. It was about a 12-hour drive. There was a problem at the border and we couldn’t cross by boat. The truck left us at a big bus station, something like a Greek KTEL bus station. There next to it, there was something like a big pit in the ground. The driver left us there and he took off. We waited, hiding in the dark. At certain points in the distance, there were lights around us, but where we were, there were no lights. In our group there were Pakistanis, Afghans, Arabs … Those who had money left. Me and another guy – we were left behind.
We didn’t know anything, we didn’t have anyone to help us. We had a bag of some clean clothes. You know, in case you have to run, you’ll get dirty… I always had a pair of shoes and socks with me, and a change of clean clothes. And I was careful not to get soaked by the rain so that if I needed to go somewhere, at least I would be clean. Did you understand? Everyone left, we stayed behind. I changed my clothes and got out of the ditch. The other guy was crying. I told him not to be afraid. Whatever will be, will be. I said, my God, help us. I got out and there was a big road. Huge! About 3-4 lanes of cars, so big.
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I didn’t know where to go. Right? Left? I said I’ll go in the direction the cars are going. And so I started walking. I walked, I walked, I walked, with my friend. He was shaking. What will we do, what will happen? I said don’t be afraid. I was scared too. But I’d tell him not to be scared. As we were walking, a red pick-up truck passed us. A little further down he stopped on the side of the road. He tried to start the engine, but it wouldn’t start. It’s as if he was expecting me. When I approached, I said we’ll help. My friend said no, no – we already have enough problems. Just leave it. But I insisted. No, I’ll help this guy.
I knew a little English. “You want help?” Come on, he motioned to me. I started pushing. It didn’t start on the first try, nor on the second. The third time I used all my strength and it started. I thought he was going to leave, but he stopped. He came out and motioned to me again, come on. OK. I was a bit scared but what could I do? Whatever will be, will be. I went. Problem, phone, brother, Istanbul. That’s what I knew in Turkish. I meant that I wanted to call a Pakistani guy in Istanbul. So he gave us a ride to a gas station. And he said something to them, blah blah, and then he told me to call. I called the smuggler, the dealer, and told them what happened, that the truck dropped us off at a bus station and left us there. My friend, he says, I’m glad you called. Go back to the bus station, I’ve sent tickets. There’s a bus in two hours, get on it and come back.
If I had not helped that stalled car, nothing would have gone like this. But I helped him and in turn, I was helped, too. Otherwise things could’ve been very different. So, we went back and only then we managed to calm down a bit. The bus arrived, we were given the tickets and everything was fine. I said, you should never give up on what your gut is telling you. If I had listened to my friend, I don’t know what would have happened. So, by bus, we returned to Istanbul. We stayed there for a month and then I came to Greece.
I’ve been here many years now and I feel that Greece is my country. I’m scared sometimes, but not like someone who doesn’t know anything. I’m afraid of some places. Like Omonia. I’m afraid that if I come across any trouble, I might find myself mixed up in it. You never know … And when I’m on the metro or walking down the street and going to work, people hold their bags close. A few times, I’ve said, “Don’t be afraid.” And as soon as they hear me speak Greek, they’re surprised. When they look at me in that strange way, I feel really bad. Do you understand? I’m human, too.
Everything else is good. When I work, everything is fine. The only thing I don’t like here is the bureaucracy. If I had papers from early on, as I should have had, I would’ve managed to do something good with my life. To get ahead. I’m 37 now, I’ll be 40 soon. It’s too late for some things …
Notes from the field
The economic migrants from Nepal
According to a report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), about 400,000 young people from Nepal enter the international labour market every year. A lack of agricultural development as well as educational opportunities are the main factors driving them to immigrate and seek work abroad.
It is very common for workers to be exploited by employers, agents and recruitment companies. For more read the relevant report from Amnesty International or read the articles from Telegraph and Reuters. Raz’s story about his experience in Lebanon is an example of such a case.
Despite efforts made by the state and other initiatives to address the systematic exploitation of workers and to minimize their risks by providing information on workers’ rights, the risk still remains high for both male and female workers, especially in cases of informal work such as domestic service.
Much of Nepal’s migration flows are “absorbed” by India, but the flow is partly directed towards Europe, and often follows illegal means of entrance into the EU, with the help of traffickers and with uncertain prospects of remaining in a country.
Since 2006, when we have the oldest data available by the Greek Police, not much has changed to date. In other words, compared to other immigrant populations in Greece, the Nepalese immigrant population is very small.
According to the data for 2006, the total number of arrests for illegal entrance and residence in Greece was 95,239; of that number 17 were migrants from Nepal. The total number of deportations was 17,650; of that number three were migrants from Nepal. In addition, two Nepalese migrants were granted asylum in 2006.
In more recent data for the first half of 2019, 35 migrants from Nepal were arrested for illegal entry into the country (Nepal is 36th on this list), and there were nine deportations.
According to official 2011 census numbers, 41 people from Nepal, (31 men and 10 women) were registered.
“It’s too late for some things”
When I met Raz in early 2020 he was employed at a fast food establishment, working the grill.
He was happy that he had a job. However, he worried that the long hours and commute left him little time and energy to devote to finding an appropriate home which covered the needs of himself and his wife – as specified by laws regarding family reunification. He also had little time to attend Greek lessons, another requirement necessary for obtaining long-term residence.
He had told me many times that what he’d really like to do is be a cook. But because of the countless difficulties he faces with his paperwork, along with the stress and uncertainty, he must set very specific priorities in his life.
The papers. This is the priority of all the people I’ve met. From asylum seekers in Moria, like Ghulam and Ghulam Ali, (who always carried their papers with them in their inner jacket pockets), to people like Raz, who after 14 years of living here, Greece is the country he knows, not Nepal, as he told me, but because of the situation with his papers, he’s unable to follow his dreams.
“There are no words to describe the situation with the papers,” Keita, (from the Ivory Coast) told me recently (his story forthcoming in Portraits).
About a month ago, I was outside, in front of the office when I saw Raz walking down the street. “Hey there, where are you off to?” I asked, “aren’t you working?”
He replied, “I’m on my way to work. I opened my own restaurant. Indian. It’s owned by a Pakistani man, and I pay him a small fee to let me run it. Come for lunch.”
We went the very same afternoon.
In a semi-basement space on the corner of Feron and Acharnon, with a TV playing Bollywood movies in the background, and a large outdoor garden patio at the back – it’s the flip side of the coin. Perhaps it’s never too late for dreams to blossom alongside the struggle to obtain papers, to deal with a reality imposed on you in which “there are no words to describe”. I promised Raz I would return soon to his outdoor patio to sample more of the dishes, including his Indian pickled amla.
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