Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

“Because I grew up with naïve expectations of people doing right, I get shocked by every little violation.” Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A twenty-six year old Pakistani man died in a refugee detention centre on the outskirts of Athens this week. Police had beaten him while he was in another centre because he was involved in a protest over the living conditions he had to endure while in custody. Overcrowding at these facilities is an ongoing concern because of the increasing number of undocumented and illegal immigrants who end up on Greek soil and are later apprehended and detained by police.

The man had allegedly requested medical treatment. It was denied.

There was no cause of death provided in the article, but young men of his age don’t typically end up dead for no reason.

I didn’t know the man. He was another headline in a series of headlines and stories I follow about Greece. Still, I haven’t been able to get him out of my mind. His death has made me question what I’d been told by Greek officials. And it left me wondering about my own gullibility and naiveté.

Only a few days before, I was at the same detention center. I met and spoke to the Commander of the centre and several staff members. They were congenial, open and very generous with the information they provided in response to my questions. They didn’t have to meet with me. But they did.

I wanted to see this place, talk to the people who worked there so that I could grasp what I had only imagined in my fiction. My work needed this injection of reality. Or at least that’s what I thought.

I was given a tour of the facility and the staff spent close to two hours with me. I saw doctors, medical staff, and spoke to the police who staffed the centre. They all seemed committed to their work.

Yes, the facility was imposing: high fences topped in razor wire, guard posts and towers with gun-carrying police officers at each corner.

But what stayed with me was the honesty of the staff and their desire to make a positive difference in the lives of those they worked with. In fact I was going to write about this in this week’s blog. Then I read about Mr. Asfak’s death.

The questions began. Did I get the sunshine and lollipop tour reserved for snoopy foreign writers? Or did I simply see what I wanted to see?

In a previous life I used to work in Corrections (I hate that title). The challenges of balancing security and protection of society with the care of inmates and staff are enormous. Unbelievable when I look back on it now from this vantage point.

Things go wrong, stuff gets missed, bad things happen. The situation at the Amygdaleza Detention Centre has occurred in other detention centres and prisons and mental institutions all over the world, including in Canada (Ashley Smith). No institution is immune. These places are highly charged environments. Not that this excuses anything. Improvements have to be made, and hopefully this will reduce the number of tragedies, but it won’t stop them completely.

This brings me back to Amygdaleza. I don’t know what transpired. I do know I met with people who were honest and sincere and who showed me facilities that were humane or as humane as can be expected in such circumstances.

People in the business of working with others have a desire to help, first and foremost. I may not be sure about anything else, but I am certain about this.

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