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On the Waterfront, a Mysterious Fate

by on March 04, 2020 5:00 AM

 

THESSALONIKI, Greece -- It was a brilliant winter afternoon in northern Greece. I sat down on a long empty bench on the seafront to bask and listen to the singing fisherman – a busker who, when he’s done singing, trades his guitar for his fishing rod and joins the men of the waterfront who reel in grey mullet from the Aegean Sea.

I laid claim to one end of the bench, so it wasn’t unusual or awkward for someone to come along and claim the other end. I noticed he was a brown-skinned man. We neither spoke to nor acknowledged each other.

After 15 minutes or so two motorcycle cops rode up and stopped in front of our bench. They bristled with guns and armor and helmets, looking more like soldiers than peace officers. I couldn’t hear what they said or even what language they spoke, but it was soon clear that they had asked my benchmate for his papers.

While one of them examined the document, the other gave the man a thorough pat-down, including between his legs. Apparently, he checked out.

Then they went over to the bench next to ours and gave the same treatment to a handsome kid in a red-and-gray fleece cap who had been looking at his phone. He passed muster also. 

I wanted to say to the cops, “Hey, I’m a foreigner! Why don’t you check my papers?” 

I said nothing.  

The cops rode off. I wanted to ask my benchmate what that was all about, but he walked away before I had the chance. So I turned to the kid. 

He told me he spoke English, but he relied heavily on a voice recognition app on his phone to translate my questions and his answers. 

My questions were rendered as English text on his screen, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. His Dari answers were delivered by a female voice with an English accent. Some of her translations were baffling. Some were weirdly eloquent. 

I explained that I was an Αmerican journalist and was curious about what had just happened.

Here is what I learned:

Mohammed is 18. He left Afghanistan – alone – three years ago. He spent two years in Iran working construction. He left that country because he was frequently harassed by the police. 

He spent two months in Turkey, then traveled by smuggler’s boat to the Greek island of Samos, where he spent an awful seven months in a refugee camp.

He’s been in Thessaloniki for one week. During that one week he has been stopped by the cops four times. 

“I would like to live freely like other people,” the robo-translator said.

I asked him why he left Afghanistan. He said something about war and danger. I asked him why he was alone. He said his family couldn’t afford to send anyone else. 

His mother sold her jewelry to finance his trip. He has three brothers and three sisters. I assumed he must be the oldest, since he was the one who left, but he said he was somewhere in the middle. 

My question, why him and not an older brother, never got answered, but I suspected if he was 15 when he left, he was at the age when the Taliban began pressuring him to join them.

“Taliban bad,” he said.

The only people he knows in Greece are his apartment mates, whom he just met. I asked him what he intends to do now that he’s here.

“I want to study to be a useful person for myself and my family,” the translator said. “I don’t like wasting time in the community.”

I think he meant that he didn’t want to be a burden to the community.

When I tried to find out what, specifically, he would like to study and what work he would like to do, the translator said, “We do not have a clear future here.”

It was a little like talking to a Magic 8-Ball.

Of the journey that brought him to Thessaloniki, the translator said, “Many in this way lose their lives, even their families.”

I told him I was planning to write about people in his situation and asked if he would be willing   to talk to me again. The translator said it “shouldn’t be OK,” which I assumed was a mistranslation because he then gave me his phone number.

“I hope you and I can help with this mysterious fate,” the translator said.

He didn’t quite understand why I wanted to ask him all these questions. I tried to explain that I was in Greece to write about refugees.

The translator said, “I would love to help refugees. I hope we can all live together as one human being and have no problem together. I hope these days go by as these bad days pass.”

 

Russell Frank teaches journalism in Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications. He is spending the 2019-2020 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Thessaloniki, Greece.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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