Victoria Square

Victoria square is in central Athens and is connected by Metro to the port of Piraeus where refugees arrive daily after they have been screened and recorded in the various Aegean islands. The square is a resting, meeting and travel connection point for Afghan refugee families who wish to reach Northern Europe. Extended families of often twenty people, of three generations camp in the square during the day. Most of them are waiting for money transfers from relatives back home and around the world in order to continue their journeys. When money does not arrive, they spend the night in one of the makeshift camps in Athens and return back to the square the next day.

Zarmina is eighteen years old. She is sitting on a blanket on the pavement holding her three month old baby girl, her first child. She is travelling with her husband, her sister in law and her five nieces and nephews. The baby girl is suffering from severe nappy-rash. Zarmina is scared because her baby is constantly crying and seems unwilling to eat.

Chargul is travelling with his wife, his mother and their six children. The youngest is two years old. He is telling be about his journey from the area of Kunduz, through to Iran, Turkey and then Greece. Passing through Iran is apparently the toughest part of the journey. He does not know where exactly he arrived in Greece. He is telling me about the Taliban and how he had to flee from Kunduz. He is showing me his sons and daughters. He would like them to go to school, to learn things, to be educated. Like most other Afghans I have interviewed in the square he wants to go to Germany.

Most refugees in the square have a final destination in mind. Most of the times, this destination is chosen on the basis of relatives and acquaintances who are already established in various European cities. All of them report having one or more relatives killed in Afghanistan where terror and violence continue to form the context of everyday life.

Changiz is eighteen years old – or so he says. He is travelling with is younger brother. Their family sent them away after loosing two more boys to the Taliban. He is telling me how the militia demand from local people money and young men to join their forces. Changiz and his brother are definitely a family but they do not receive as much attention as women and children. Very young men are often the most unprotected and vulnerable transitory subjects.

The conditions of hygiene in the square are despicable. Humanitarian NGOs offer a space to take a bath and lunch. Although crucial, these relief measures are hardly enough. Local people keep bringing clothes, food, biscuits and sweets for the children but the waiters and owners of the local cafes forbid the refugees from using their facilities and constantly complain to the police about the ‘damage to their businesses’.

Journalists come everyday in the square. They take photos and short interviews. Afghans –who have arrived several years ago to Greece and have established shops around the square- sell bus tickets and facilitate money transfers (with a fee). Around three o’clock every afternoon, those who managed to buy a ticket walk to Acharnon street where the buses pick them up for a long, over eight hours journey to the border. On their way to the bus Farshid and his wife enter the pharamacy across the street from the square. Their three year old son –one of four children- is feverish. The pharmacist hands them out an ibuprophen-based syrup for children. She is trying to persuade them to take the child to a doctor before they leave Athens. “We cannot” says Farshid. “We have been hearing that the borders might close. We cannot risk it. We have to board the bus today. While we still can”.

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