“When an elephant is in trouble, even a frog will kick him.” Hindi proverb
When I left you last week I was starting to explain some of the factors that led me to write The Brink. Here’s some more of the genesis of my novel.
As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I lived in the neighbourhood in Athens in 2012, I describe in my novel.
I saw refugees and Roma from various countries on the streets of Athens and what struck me was the attitude of Greeks towards them. Some wanted to help and did so. Others saw the refugees as a threat to their already fragile country. You’ll recall that Greece was in its fourth year of recession by 2012.
The economy was shrinking further, unemployment was in the double-digit zone and young Greeks in particular had few opportunities. This was also the time when I saw the rise of the far right Nazi party, Golden Dawn (Chrysí Avgí) and attacks by this group’s followers on foreigners and the later murder of the Greek anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas. I wondered what had happened to filoxenía (Greek for hospitality). The Greeks are famous for it. In 1989, among all the countries in Europe, Greece was awarded the Eurobarometer (a set of public opinion surveys completed for the European Commission) award as the country most tolerant and welcoming to migrants.
I kept asking myself what had happened. What had changed? I also wondered how I would feel if I were in a refugee’s shoes. What would I do? I was an immigrant to Canada myself, when my family left Egypt because the government of the day was nationalizing foreign businesses in an attempt to get rid of Europeans and other foreigners. We were not persecuted or threatened, but my father saw the writing on the wall and applied for immigration to Canada. We did come on a boat into Pier 21. But we weren’t mistreated and my parents felt, with few exceptions, that Canadian immigration authorities treated us in a respectful way. No people smugglers involved, no dangerous, life-threatening crossings.
I wondered what my experience would have been like if I were a refugee today, trying to get out of a war-torn country. Or if I were an economic migrant, someone simply looking for a better life.
This was the true genesis of The Brink of Freedom. From there, it was important to me to talk to people, do research, and get as much information as I could about the plight of refugees. I didn’t want to guess at the circumstances or draw conclusions from the headlines and stories I read. I wanted to infuse my novel with factual information.
I visited a refugee detention centre, Amygdaleza. This centre, the largest such facility in Greece, which has since closed down, was just outside of Athens. I met with counsellors at the Asylum Service of the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection in Athens. I walked through the asylum seekers process, talked to an Afghani boy who spoke perfect English and was waiting for his parents as they met with their counsellor. Everyone was very generous with their time and information.
I visited some seedier parts of Athens, including areas around Omonia Square and Ta Prosfygika, the refugee neighbourhood where my characters Vijay, Saphal and Sanjit live in The Brink of Freedom. I spoke to Syrian refugees at a protest in front of the Greek Parliament. And I spoke to refugees from all cultures on the street and in front of their embassies.
I interviewed the editor-in-chief of the Athens newspaper To Vima about his research and book on the activities of Golden Dawn, and interviewed the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
And I made contact with groups that provide services to the Roma, interviewed several service providers and visited Corinth, where I was able to visit a Roma camp.
Along the way, I had my doubts about what I was doing. When I went to the detention centre, for example, there seemed to be some sort of communication breakdown about why I was there. When that was cleared up, or at least when I understood (in my bad Greek) it had been resolved, a paddy wagon drove up to the guard gate and two officers pointed at me and suggested I get in the vehicle.
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