Border Lives

–always some kind of map stretching be-/yond these lines: history, politics, progress… Memories dimmed to the quality/ of ancient murals… I find a new road I never knew existed or, is it an old/ street deprived of its landmarks?//

Jane Satterfield, “Landscape and Departure”


It’s Sunday and I’ve gone to the squat again, and it’s March, which means it’s been a year since many of the refugee families I’ve grown close to moved into the abandoned school building. Tonight there are different groups in the playground area, some cooking, some playing ball. I’m using the jump rope and the kids are taking turns. Last March we began visiting the squat, Alicia who started our “Central Athens Volunteers” group would often begin with stories and songs now most of the kids know by heart, like Four Little Monkeys jumping on the bed. Heniah sings it sometimes when she sees us. Last March there were people sleeping through the hallways, at the top of the steps, on the steps, people who had made it as far as Greece and Athens. I remember one scene when we had brought a slew of flip flops, one the young girls took me by the hand to show me her father asleep on the floor, to see if one of the pairs would fit his feet. They were the wrong color, probably better for a woman, he woke up and laughed, and gestured that it was okay, he didn’t need them. The intensity of how some of the children will ask for things for one of their parents, one of their brothers or sisters, someone besides themselves still stuns me; one young girl last week who might have been 12 put on my shoes when I took them off to sit on our spread sheet, and walked off with them laughing and showed me she wanted a lipstick for her mother in exchange for them because we had brought some and then ran out. One of the boys, maybe he was also 12 or 13 who was wearing a pair of sneakers that were torn was called over by some of his friends and shown the runners Alicia had brought because the pair didn’t fit them and his shoes were clearly a mess. I am taken with how the kids respond, always happy for the things we might bring them they also ask for someone else too. It seems basic enough until the realities of what dis-member them makes apparent the systemic disease of our time – that the dream of a Europe (let alone a world) in which populations could move between countries, and find refuge from the threats to their lives is fast shrinking, hostage to the neurosis and pathologies of the desires of the dominant. As I write this I realize it’s redundant to speak of neurosis and pathology and “the desires of the dominant” since desires that insist on dominating are by definition neurotic, if not pathological.

As northern Europe closed its borders last March, Greece in its own crisis of austerity found itself in yet another space of adjustment. Maybe Greece will be, as it has so often been, peninsula that it is, another crossroads for change and influence. Here where the borders are porous and the economy now devastated, maybe like the person who has lost everything, Greece will become the place for new narratives of survival. Like the refugee the country is also a body of the unexpected as institutions of power and hegemony are in their own crisis. These do go together. That is, it’s not by chance that Greece is where it is, nor is it that an institution like the UNHCR is feeling defensive of its protocols. Like any refugee, down to the grit of life, the answers are as basic as the questions. And this most recent story, of which there must be at least hundreds, is indicative. Fatima, a 26 year old Afghani woman on the run with her mother from the brutality of her father’s home, a powerful mullah in Kabul, is emblematic of how systems more wedded to their power than the constituents to whom their policies are meant to represent, become, like any hegemony, more interested in defending that power than the realities (and lives) its policies were created to protect.

Nadina Christopoulou, who was the Vice-President of the Council of Refugees, and is the co-founder of the Melissa Network in Athens is telling me Fatima’s story over the phone. She repeats her incredulousness at the way the UNHCR has reacted to Fatima’s tragedy. That they are so “wedded to their categories” while having such power; that the cost of resettling Fatima and her two sons in one of the countries they are proposing, such as Sweden, as opposed to Ireland where she has family, would be more costly, and that this “most humanitarian of institutions” is in fact being quite inhuman. Ireland has now backtracked on the EU “family reunification” policy that allowed for refugee families to reunite. It seems like a larger political agenda, if not a reflection of a general climate of paranoia. Brexit is now a reality. Hungry is hideously unapologetic about its Nazi sympathies. It voted to remove a statue of the Jewish, Marxist philosopher György (Georg) Lukács from a Budapest park. Trump is putting forward his nightmare agenda, and as Masha Gessen says, there are specific rules for survival under an autocracy, one of them being to take seriously an autocrat’s intentions, outrageous as they are.

Outrage is the moment we are living in as borders imposed on our humanity are dismembering us; and it is happening in very concrete ways. In her risk for a better life Fatima lost her legs in the accident when the van the smugglers were driving crashed in Serbia. Her mother Nadia, lost her life. Nadina tells me that when she went to visit Fatima in the Serbian hospital Fatima still didn’t know her mother was dead, that when she found out she had lost her legs she said it didn’t matter to her as long as her mother was alive, “because she is my legs”. When she learned Nadia had been killed in the accident, the woman who had made it possible for them to escape her father’s household, a man whose authoritarianism had resulted in her sister’s self-immolation, Fatima woke up in a country where she was now a cripple, with her mother dead, and her language inadequate. Perhaps Fatima is an example of where we have arrived, of what we have left to us, and how we might begin again.




About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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