Five years ago I met this guy in Athens… he was one of them… that dreaded “r” word… a refugee.
Up to this point, I only knew refugees from newspaper stories and images that had gone viral on social media.
It was easy to create biases in my mind about these people since my relationship with them was one sided.
I read newspaper stories or saw photos… but never had a chance, until now, to hear them, to meet them, to watch them cry.
Amr arrived in Greece on a raft… He landed on the island of Chios after war, destruction and death back home in Syria forced him and his family to flee to opposite corners of the planet.
He was denied entry in Qatar where his mother and sisters fled and headed west, walking across Turkey and ending up in Greece.
He was arrested, placed in various inhumane detention centers, was abused horribly by Greek police and eventually fled and took on a life in the streets of Athens. Eventually, some wonderful, compassionate Greek civilians began helping and offered him help and support.
Amr was a normal kid back in Syria… his mom was an artist. He and his sisters grew up not much different than most kids in the western world. Coffee with friends, movies, music, video games.
Then the unexpected hit. Civil War and destruction. His life was turned upside down for reasons he and his family had nothing to do with.
To make a very long story short, Amr became an integral part of my life. We spent days on end getting to know each other, and growing together with every passing experience we shared together.
I gave him the keys to my Athens apartment and tried to give him a push back to some semblance of normalcy, that everyone deserves in life.
Numerous compassionate friends along the way helped, especially Bishop Demetrios in Chicago, who immediately took Amr under his wing and offered material and spiritual support.
Amr was a man without a country, caught in limbo of the worst refugee crisis the world has seen in generations. He was damaged, having witnessed death and separation of loved ones, not to mention the trauma of a lonely journey to the unknown.
We struggled together when he missed his mom’s hug and knew it could be years before he would ever see her again.
We ate souvlakia together– comfort food. Our “go-to” place was Kalamaki Kolonaki, not too far from my apartment in Athens.
Amr became one of my biggest teachers in life. He taught me about the ills of pre-judging people or groups without knowing or having experienced the real story first hand– something so many people do, especially when seeing a story on their Facebook newsfeed and never having left the comforts of their smartphone screen.
“Send them back,” is the easiest thing in the world to say while scrolling through your newsfeed and reading about the influx of refugees in Greece, while sipping on your chai latte at Starbucks in New York City.
Until you meet one. Until you hear their story first hand.
He introduced me to numerous friends of his from Syria who made the journey to Greece and eventually to other countries in Europe– all hoping for the same thing– a chance to live and thrive.
Eventually, life in Athens became too unstable for Amr. Blatant anti-refugee discrimination prevented him from finding work and abuse and fear of authorities prevented him from even enjoying a cup of coffee out with friends.
The government was inept and not capable of handling the influx of humans– opting to place them in cages and treat them like cattle, instead of giving them the human dignity that they deserved.
The asylum process was bulky, complicated and even dangerous. On numerous occasions I waited in hours-long lines with him at the infamous “Katehaki police station” where refugees would gather every morning to try and register and obtain permanent papers.
Despite so many good, average Greeks who tried helping Amr build a life of his own, Greece wasn’t a hospitable and safe place for someone like him. So he left and has now been living in Berlin for the past two years.
The Germans placed him in a refugee program that teaches them the German language and helps integrate them into German life. They assist with housing, medical care and help them build their job skills for eventual placement in a permanent job and full integration into German society.
Today, Amr is thriving– working on his art and drawings and beginning to reclaim his youthful confidence and place in life.
He still hasn’t seen his mom. Syrians, he explained to me, are amongst the world’s most discriminated people– even the Arab countries want nothing to do with them and won’t permit entry, even for tourist reasons.
But his asylum papers that he received in Germany allow him to travel within the European Union and during my quick trip to Athens, I invited Amr to meet me for a few days.
Naturally, we returned to our go-to spot for good, old fashioned Greek comfort food– Kalamaki Kolonaki.