“At the best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” Aristotle
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the various quotes I’ve used over the past three weeks in this blog and wondered about them. They are all quotes at the beginning of my novel, The Brink of Freedom. Each provides some insight into the themes of the novel or at least that was my thinking when I chose them. But enough about that.
Last week I left you hanging: two officers pointing at me, a paddy wagon just behind them. I did wonder for the umpteenth time, what the heck I was doing. Here’s the rest of the story.
I was whisked away, seated between two gun-toting officers who didn’t say a word to me. I wasn’t exactly sure where they were taking me because the centre is also part of a police academy and had various entrances and identification checkpoints. At the time, I can tell you I was thinking: why don’t I just make it all up? How much reality do you need in fiction anyway? But they eventually took me to the commander of the detention facility, who was very hospitable, and I was given a tour of the facility and spent a couple of hours there with various commanding officers, who seemed quite proud of the work they were doing to help asylum seekers. They were all incredibly open people. I even met an officer who so reminded me of the Christos character I had created in The Brink of Freedom; it felt as though I was meeting him in real life. That officer confirmed everything I had created about Christos’s personality and disposition, i.e., his need to help.
I may have made the police in my novel far too negative, although seeing those refugees behind a high fence with razor wire didn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy about their plight.
On the cab ride back into the city, the driver asked me lots of questions (including why I was out in this place so far from the centre of Athens). When I told him, he said as a Greek he was ashamed of how refugees were treated. He was talking about the bars, fencing and razor wire too. He said he didn’t trust what the government and the police were reporting about the refugees and their treatment.
And a few days after I was at the Amgdaleza detention centre, a 26-year-old Pakistani man died in custody there, after a police beating. I wrote about it to try to understand my feelings. Even though I had never met him, my heart broke, reading about his death. I don’t know what happened to him or why, but having run a jail myself in a previous life, I know how difficult it is to do this type of work so I can’t make any conclusions, except to say beatings can never be part of running a detention centre or a prison.
You might wonder why I chose to use a South Asian national and a Ukrainian Roma to highlight the story of refugees in Greece as opposed to a Syrian or an Afghani. It’s a good question. Under the Geneva Convention, anyone who might die if he or she were returned to his or her country is automatically provided with asylum in the country of entry. This is not true of other nationals and yet they too have a story that needs telling and that’s the story I wanted to share. It’s a little more complicated and of course, there is less sympathy for those who flee in search of a better life.
Throughout my time in Greece (I made two lengthy visits in the completion of this novel) I practiced a bit of my Greek. What a difficult language! I figured out how to say that perfectly in Greek. It made everyone smile. Proud nation Greece. And of course the dark side of pride is shame, which is the downfall of this country and Greeks in general. But that’s likely the fodder for another book.
Some of my friends have called me crazy for the lengths I’ve gone to complete this project. Others have called me brave, asked me if I was ever scared. Lots of things frighten me, but people don’t generally scare me. And let’s face it: I was only writing about what I was seeing. I wasn’t experiencing it. The refugees are the ones who are brave. I see them in my dreams and on the nightly news and each day I hope with all my heart they find safe passage and a welcoming world at journey’s end.
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