CHAPTER 1: VIJAY, LATE 2011, ATHENS
Kolonaki was a scrap collector's paradise. Someone was always renovating an apartment in this Athens neighbourhood. Throwing away perfectly good things. Shameful, really. But their waste was Vijay's wealth. So who was he to complain? An asylum seeker didn’t have the luxury of pride. He simply did what was necessary. If that meant being a garbage man for the Greeks who treated him no better than their trash, well, so be it. He provided an important service; he took their rubbish off their hands. Yes, he made a few Euros, but how could anyone begrudge him that?
Vijay was so engrossed in trying to dislodge a large piece of pipe that would fetch a very good price he didn’t notice the police cruiser pull up to the deserted construction site until it was too late. He had no time to escape, no time to hide.
One of the officers curtly demanded his identification, proof he was allowed to be in this country. Vijay kept his head down; didn’t look them in the eye. Sweat stung his eyes, but he remained motionless. He'd thrown his papers into the sea during the crossing just as the smugglers had instructed. He couldn't tell the officers that. What could he say? Nothing. He turned his pockets inside out so they could see for themselves.
The next thing he knew, he was slammed into the side of their police car, his arms practically ripped out of their sockets. Metal bracelets cut into his wrists.
He didn't scream or complain. Why would he give them the satisfaction? They had the guns, the batons, and the handcuffs. What did he have? Nothing.
The policemen deposited him at the Amygdelezla Detention Centre. The Greeks said, putting refugees in detention centers was more humane than letting them live on the street, but this depended on your point of view. Yes, Vijay and his wife Saphal and their son, Sanjit were living in an abandoned shack he'd found in a suburb far from the center of Athens, but they had a roof over their heads and no one threatening them with death. In Greece, they were beyond the clutches of Saphal’s family and their petty grudges. And he was earning enough money to feed the family and put a little away for the day they would escape this country of so much sunshine and so little human warmth.
He was imprisoned for two weeks, but Vijay knew on the first day he had to find a way out of Amygdelezla. As long as he was trapped there, he couldn't support his family. During the day, he sat rotting with the rest of the detainees. At night they were packed into trailers as hot as ovens. Who could sleep with the wails, the snores, and the stench of so many?
Back in India, it had been hot and crowded too, but he'd always found ways to cope, a little space where he could be alone. Here, the fences were as high as towers. Sunshine hit the spiky ends of the razor wire and made them flicker. If he was ever tempted to take his chances with the fence and the razor wire, the armed guards at every corner of the compound reminded him he couldn't outrun a bullet. There had to be another way out.
Shiraz was at it again. A Pakistani, who'd been thrown in detention like the rest of them because he didn’t have documents, Shiraz was a troublemaker. Vijay knew this and kept his distance.
A small group of men had gathered in the yard to listen. “They can’t treat us this way. We have rights,” Shiraz proclaimed. “Even in this country of infidels.”
Vijay sat on the steps of the trailer he usually slept in, trying to ignore Shiraz. He wanted to tell the Pakistani that only those with money and guns have rights, but instead he glared at the blazing sky as though challenging it to blink. He didn't want to get involved. If Shiraz wasn't careful, he’d get them all killed.
Vijay wasn’t surprised when the guards came for Shiraz the next morning. Although the scuffle woke him, Vijay pretended to be asleep. It was none of his business. The Pakistani had brought this upon himself.
When he’d woken later in a heat-induced haze, the first thing he saw was Shiraz, standing in front of the mirror in the trailer, examining his split lip and what looked like a broken nose. His smile was so wide it must have hurt.
He caught Vijay staring. “I leave tomorrow,” he said and stretched, as though soothing achy muscles. He stood a little taller. “They finally see it my way.”
“What did you say to these people?” Vijay whispered.
“You don’t need to whisper,” Shiraz said. “Everyone is entitled.”
“You mean anyone who can pay.”
“I claimed refugee status.” Shiraz rubbed his face. “I didn’t pay a thing. I am an asylum seeker.” He shrugged. “I asked some simple questions. That’s all.” When he smiled this time, he winced. The scab on his lip split open, seeped blood. He sucked at it as if he were a thirsty man. He ran his fingers through his hair. “I asked them if they wanted me to tell the caseworker what the guards did. Or perhaps I should speak to the doctor who comes here once a week? Should I show him some of my injuries?” He rubbed his shoulders and squirmed a little more, but the flicker of pain in his eyes was gone. “One guard hit me in the back of the head and again between my shoulders when I left the room. Maybe he was entitled.”
“So how does it work?” Vijay asked him later that day. He’d kept to himself since he’d arrived at Amygdelezla because, really, what did he know about these people? Were they innocent like him? Or were they gangsters who’d fled their countries with large sums of money? How could he assess another man’s character? Still, he decided talking to the Pakistani was worth the risk. Sure, he was a troublemaker, but if he were to be believed, he’d be gone tomorrow. Shiraz had to know something that might help. Vijay had nothing to lose by listening to him.
They were squatting in the dirt in the courtyard, their sweaty backs against the fence that separated the yard from the air-conditioned offices where the guards reclined in their chairs watching their prisoners. Vijay saw them in there whenever he walked the perimeter. He pictured the guards now, laughing and joking as they juggled their batons or slammed them down in pantomime of striking some innocent man’s back.
Vijay was closer to Shiraz than he would have liked, but he didn’t want the guards or anyone else to hear their conversation. If the guards caught wind of what they were talking about, it might give them a reason to use him for their violence. He couldn’t withstand a beating. He’d avoided them in India by escaping Saphal’s family, always keeping his wits about him. He hadn’t come all this way to suffer at the hands of other oppressors.
And if one of the other detainees overheard their discussion, he might get a jump on Shiraz’s advice before Vijay could take advantage of it himself.
“Ask to see the caseworker, tell them you want to claim refugee status,” Shiraz told him. “You came to Greece to avoid a tribal war or some other type of conflict. You were afraid for your life. They have to offer you asylum if there is any threat to you or your family. They will start a file and you’ll get maybe eighteen months or a couple of years out on the street to do whatever you like while you wait. It takes that long for them to figure out who you are, where you come from, the things you did to get into a place like this. Our embassies don’t help the Greeks with identifying us either. They don’t want us back any more than we want to go back. They’re happy to offload us to someone else. You have no papers. Make up any story you like. This is your opportunity to be someone new. While they’re figuring out whether you qualify for asylum or not, you disappear, find another country where you can get a job. In the meantime, you’ll be free to do whatever you want.”
Even though Vijay couldn’t see his face, he could smell the sour blood crusted on Shiraz’s lips and the sweat of too many days in the sun without a proper shower. I will wait, he thought. See if he gets out of here or if this is just another one of his stories. I have been a willing listener. But Shiraz cannot fool me. He is the kind of person who likes this sort of attention and will say and do anything to get attention.
The next day, he watched Shiraz wave goodbye, a smile plastered on his battered face. If Shiraz could get out, Vijay decided, he would do so as well.
He was excited to speak to Saphal when she came for their weekly Sunday visit. He knew it wasn’t easy for her to make the trip to this place in the middle of nowhere. But she did it. She was a good wife. All honourable men deserved such a wife.
“Why did he pick you?” Saphal asked. “There are so many in this place, but he picked you to tell this story to.”
“Why not me?” he retorted. Sometimes Saphal was so suspicious. These negative thoughts did not help. Not at all. Could she not see the opportunity?
“It could be a trap,” she said. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Even though a sheet of thick glass separated them, he could feel her doubts. She had a way of looking straight at him when she didn’t believe him. She should take his word for things, but she always questioned him. She was his wife. She had her place. He had his. He would remind her of that once he got out of here. Subtly, of course. Saphal didn’t like to be told how to act. She said she’d had enough of that with her own family and she did not need it from him either. What could he do? He had to keep the peace.
“He was a protester in this place,” Vijay explained with as much patience as he could muster. “He wanted to spread the word to everyone, help all of us. I know he told others, because they were in the queue to see the caseworker the day after Shiraz left. I did not believe it myself, but Shiraz was good to his word.”
Saphal’s head tilted forward slightly.
He finally had her attention.
“It cannot be this simple,” she said. “They must want money from you. Something. No freedom comes free of charge.”
Vijay swallowed, fought the urge to fidget. He knew Saphal did not like to see him get too excited. She often called him a dreamer. What she meant was he was a child who had no limits. He bent towards the glass, lowered his voice. “If I do this, it will give us time to make more money. Then as before, we will disappear. No one will be the wiser.”
“How many times are we going to run?” she asked. Again, her eyes pierced him.
“Until we find a home we deserve. That’s all I want for us. For our family.”
Saphal softened, as he knew she would. They had nothing to lose.
The next day, Vijay saw the caseworker. He filled in many forms, giving his real name and address. He didn’t have to make up any story. Saphal’s family would kill him if he went back to India. That was the truth.
The authorities dirtied his fingers taking fingerprints, and then they took his picture from every possible angle. The flashes of light blinded him. Still, he stared into the camera. He would not be intimidated.
The caseworkers were rushed and preoccupied, but he did not need these people to be nice to him. He simply needed them to do their job. He wanted out. Whatever they wanted, he provided. He would not see them again.
Within a few days his application was accepted and he was released from Amygdelezla. Free again. He had to report in every few weeks. This, he could do. As long as they left him alone, he could meet any of their silly demands.
Life was much easier with the temporary refugee card. When the authorities stopped Vijay, which was inevitable given his chocolate colour in this milky-white country, all he had to do was show them the card and they’d leave him alone. He was making a good living collecting and selling scrap metal. Saphal and Sanjit helped with the business too. His son was small and hunched over like an old man, but he did what he was told. Vijay was tough on the boy because he had survived against all his hardships, and God willing, he would be a man one day. He had to learn how to take care of himself. Vijay would not be around forever, and there was no one coming to help the boy, no big lottery win for Sanjit or the family.
The Greeks played these games of instant fortune, as if this alone would help them out of their economic troubles. There were as many lottery offices and men on the street selling lottery tickets as there were bakeries and churches in this country. For Vijay and his family, there would never be anything more than work and struggle. It was the only way to get ahead. He’d known this his whole life. It would be easier for his son if he learned this lesson sooner rather than later.
Vijay’s plan was working well. He saved every Euro he could, hoping to leave Greece and perhaps one day open a restaurant somewhere, serving authentic Indian food, the same as they used to get back home.
He’d found them a better place to live too, close to downtown Athens. Saphal liked the neighbourhood. It was called Ta Prosfygika, a Greek word meaning The Refugees. The place had once been an important complex of buildings housing some of the hundreds of thousands of Greeks chased out of Turkey between the two world wars. Some of those people still lived there. The buildings in the neighbourhood were now derelict and crowded, and the Greeks in the place worried that it would be torn down to make room for expensive homes. But this didn’t worry him. He didn’t intend to stay here forever. For now, they had a door to close and a lock to keep all those refugees in the other apartments out.
CHAPTER 2: VIJAY, SUMMER 2012, TA PROSFYGIKA, ATHENS
It was Wednesday and Vijay had to go to the asylum office for one of those appointments to renew his refugee status. He’d been doing this for close to a year now. Sometimes he had to spend the entire day waiting for the meeting with his caseworker. And it cut into the time he should have been on the street earning his living. Yes, he was free to come and go, but this bureaucracy was frustrating. He wasn’t planning on staying.
But he did what he had to do. Saphal was happy here. She’d made friends in Ta Prosfygika. And now she was talking about Sanjit starting school. She’d settled in, and it would be hard to tear her away from here, but Greece was not where their future lay.
Vijay reminded Saphal of this every other day. But he knew full well when she did not want to hear. She ignored what he said and instead told him again how good Sanjit’s Greek and English were. How the nice old Greek lady in the building over to the right of theirs had brought Sanjit a few cookies. How would he get Saphal to listen to reason?
Vijay couldn’t believe his luck. He’d been waiting with the others outside the gate since six this morning, but his name was called right away once the doors opened, ahead of the two men in front of him in line. He’d be able to get back to work after he answered the caseworker’s questions, told her what she wanted to hear. We are doing well. Adjusting. No, we don’t need anything. Thank you for your concern for us.
Then he’d be able to leave and put in a full day of collecting.
He sat in front of the caseworker, his hat squeezed in his hands, his eyes respectfully downcast. This bureaucrat held the power over his future. And the hope for his family. Vijay had to stop feeling resentful. It was not as though there was no bureaucracy in his own country. He was used to it, he reminded himself. This was nothing.
Bureaucracy or not, they were letting him stay in Greece. Who was he to complain? Initially he had had to report in every few weeks, now it was once a month. They trusted him. Buying time, even in one-month slots was all he needed until the authorities found a way to let him stay. Eventually, when he received permission to stay permanently, he wouldn’t have to report in at all.
The caseworker smiled, but didn’t meet his eye. She spoke quickly this morning, not making time for the simplest of pleasantries. He heard the words, but they did not make sense. He was reasonably fluent in the woman’s Greek language and still he could not understand. “Pardon me?” he said.
“Your asylum claim has been denied,” she repeated, enunciating every word, raising her voice as though she was speaking to a foreigner who didn’t speak the language. Yes, certainly he was a foreigner, but he understood her language perfectly well. Why was she treating him like an imbecile?
Vijay’s mouth was full of honey and charm when he was selling scrap metal, but now the stupid thing could not be bothered to find a single word.