Friday, October 3, 2008


The Süddeutsche Zeitung published a story this week I worked on with a writer, Philipp Mattheis, about an Iraqi refugee who was deported from Germany to Greece. The story was beautifully written and can be seen here (along with a photo gallery from me) for you fluent German speakers out there. At some point I may post a rough translation, with Philipp's permission.

This story was a real heartbreaker.

Ziyad, the refugee, is 25 and comes from a Christian family living in Baghdad. He and his brother Petrus, 21, fled to Germany in August 2007 because of death threats their family received from Islamic extremists. (The number of Christians living in Iraq is dwindling: many have been killed and/or kidnapped since the American invasion in 2003.) The rest of the family had to stay behind: it cost $9,000 to smuggle the brothers to Germany.

Two of their sisters have been living in Munich with their husbands and children for the past 10 years, so Ziyad and Petrus naturally also fled to Germany. The brothers traveled together from Baghdad to Irbil to Istanbul. From there they traveled for hours by car and foot and finally boarded a plane for Germany.

They arrived at the Munich airport without a single piece of identification and were immediately put in jail for 70 days. Their sisters, who hadn't seen them in 10 years, were only able to visit them for half an hour, twice a month. Upon their release, Ziyad and Petrus were transferred to a housing complex for refugees in Baden-Württemburg, one state to the west of Bavaria. They were together throughout the whole journey.

Then on March 25, 2008, Ziyad was awoken from sleep by German police, who put him in handcuffs, took him directly to the airport and sat him on a plane bound for Athens. They had orders to deport him, they said. "I've never been to Greece. I came from Turkey," protested Ziyad to no avail.

Since that day, Ziyad has been homeless in a completely foreign city where he doesn't speak the language (or even English, for that matter--he and Petrus only attended school through 4th grade), sometimes spending a few days at a time in jail, but mostly just wandering the streets deeply depressed. Why one brother was deported and the other is allowed to remain in Germany is a mystery.

That Ziyad was sent to Greece at all, relates to a growing problem: It seems Greece and other European Union border states have become dumping grounds for Europe's unwanted refugees. According to a 2003 European Union rule, called the Dublin-II Convention, refugees are only allowed to apply for asylum in the first European Union country they stepped foot in. For many refugees, especially from Iraq and Afghanistan, that country is Greece.

One of the major problems with the practice of deporting refugees to Greece is that Greece has absolutely no social safety net for this influx of people. No housing allowance. No Greek language classes. No type of assistance of any kind. Refugees receive a red card, valid for 6 months at a time, upon their arrival, which does allow them to work and to receive medical care at public hospitals.

In practice, finding a job when you don't speak Greek is going to be nearly impossible. And refugees have enough trouble navigating bureaucracy in a place like the United States, where they do receive some assistance. Refugees in Greece are simply turned out to the streets.

Ziyad receives enough money from his sisters in Munich to keep him afloat. Money is not actually his problem. A couple weeks before Philipp and I paid him our visit, Ziyad attempted to secure a hotel room, if only for a few days. Ziyad's only piece of identification, the red card, identifies him as a refugee, and the hotel owner didn't want refugees staying there. (He apparently thought Ziyad would be dealing drugs from the room or some nonsense.) The red card is difficult to renew, and if a refugee doesn't renew it, he can be jailed for up to three months, or even deported to Iraq.

Ziyad's red card expired on Sept. 30.

We started our visit with a sit-down interview complete with interpreter, which helped us all get started on the right foot. The interpreter accompanied us until about 11 p.m. and was extremely helpful and nice. (Thanks Moaez!)

Ziyad walks all day long, he said, so he doesn't have to think. The walking also tires him out so that he can get some rest at night.

Eventually he finds a park to sleep in.

Philipp and I came to Greece prepared to stay with Ziyad wherever he slept for the night. Initially Ziyad agreed, but awhile later he had second thoughts, because he was worried about our safety. We assured him that we would be fine and that it was important for us to see how he lives. Not that I think I could ever fully understand what he's going through.

I think he was glad for the company.

Ziyad finally falls asleep around 3 or 4 a.m.

I can't believe he's been sleeping outside for six whole months, totally vulnerable to all the junkies and anyone else who could harm him or steal his few belongings. Totally alone.

It was not a restful night. Traffic was loud and the park was full of people partying. The ground was rock-hard. I was thankful that the place was well-lit, but every time the wind blew, the leaves would rustle and I would think someone was coming up behind us. I was happy there were three of us.

And, to put it bluntly, I have never had to pee so bad in my life. It was finally quiet enough around 4 or 4:30 for me to find a relatively dark area surrounded by bushes and trees. (Sorry Mom.)

I woke up early: 7, I think. Ziyad had gotten cold and covered his face and upper body with his coat. Not sure what he's going to do when winter arrives.

Washing up.

Ziyad said he wears his shirts until they are too dirty or full of holes, then he buys a new one.

I didn't know it, but the building we were sleeping outside of was a church.

On a side note, my Arabic started to flow just a little easier the next day, which helped us connect. I was thankful, because we didn't have a translator. I could still only ask the most basic of questions, but hey. When you add language skills of a 4-year-old, pantomime and non-verbal cues you still get: communication!

Ziyad reads the Bible in the morning.

He doesn't eat often or much. It's not that he doesn't have money, he just doesn't have an appetite. His family remarked that he had lost a lot of weight when they saw these photographs of him.

Ziyad begins his daily walking regimen. He hasn't made any friends in Greece, partly because of the nature of living a transient life: people drift in and out of the city and it's hard to find someone to trust. But Ziyad also said he wants to be alone. All he wants is to be with his family in Munich.

At the foot of the Acropolis, among tourists.

"There is no hope here at all," said Ziyad. "Conditions are very bad. The only thing I want is to go back to live with my sisters and brothers in Germany. That’s the only thing I need and that’s the only thing I think about."

It was a really quick trip and we spent less than a day with Ziyad. I hope to continue to follow this story.

I'll post some images of Ziyad's brother Petrus next.


Erin said...

My God Holly, this is a heartbreaking story. It must have been surreal to live his reality if only for a day... Thanks for sharing this.

And there is no understanding why he was deported & not his brother? Incredible.

Lido Vizzutti said...

Sorry - I had some issues with my connection while trying to leave my last comment. This is what I wanted to say:

Wow Holly - Sad story - Beautiful Images. Really nice job. I can't imagine how challenging that was. Thank you for sharing. I won't even let Billy W. give you a hard time about the tilted horizons. :)

Holly said...

Thanks Erin and Lido for your comments.

Yeah, they don't know why one was deported and the other was granted the right to stay in Germany. The brothers were together the whole time until Ziyad was deported. Looks like a paperwork mishap.

Yes, it's true. I do have a couple tilted horizons. I did notice most of the tilts were in the pictures where Ziyad was moving. Not sure if I am doing it subconsciously to try to show that he is in motion or what. Also kinda hard to photograph someone straight while walking right beside him.

Nicole said...

Hi Holly,

I'm a friend of Challiss and she sent me your post...I live in Athens and have done some stories about refugee issues here too but thought this one was really amazing. I wish I could read the German.

I wish I had known you were passing through... let me know if you're ever here again.

Nicole Itano

Lotus Reads said...

Came to your blog via Nicole. THank you so much for posting this story and for making us aware of the plight of some of these refugees. Zia's story is terribly sad, what are the chances of him being reunited with his family in Munich?