By Aida Ghajar
February 08, 2020
It is a winter night on the Greek island of Lesbos. I had returned from the refugee Camp Moria and we had arranged to meet.
He had a boney, sunken face and was covered in tattoos. He told me he wants to become a woman, and he told me his story — one filled with hopelessness and violence and which made him cry. But, more important than anything else, he laid his HIV+ diagnosis paper on the table in the bar, unveiling yet another tragedy he had suffered and a brutal reminder of what it is like in the world of refugees in Greece.
Life in Camp Moria, or even in the Lesbos Island’s capital Mitilini, means being a prisoner. People are not permitted to leave the prison, which essentially stretches the length of the island. Camp Moria, built for around 4,000 refugees, now holds more than 20,000 people who have to endure the very minimal amount of facilities and amenities. The nights at Camp Moria, filled with violence, fights, knife attacks, sexual harassment and even suicide attempts, have turned into recurring nightmares for its hapless and helpless residents.
After a few months of living in the camp, however, some refugees might find a shelter in the city if they can find a source of income or if somebody they know arranges it for them. No matter what, it is better than living in the midst of violence in the overcrowded Camp Moria.
The transsexual I talked with had lived in Moria for months, where he was beaten, injured and harassed, so he took the risk and left the camp. When we met, he laid his arms on the table. There were so many scars from knife cuts that I was unable to count them. One of the scars was from a couple of nights before we met. At the beginning of our conversation, he spoke calmly, but the more we talked the more his voice became hoarse and he started crying. “I have no more than a few years,” he said. “There is no medication here. The hormone medication that I used to take in Turkey does not exist here. I’ll send you all my prescriptions and documents. Help me.”
He told me how he does not like neither his body nor his past life, had no peace of mind and was not happy, even to the smallest degree, with the life that he was living now. He was filled with pain, the prisoner of an island suspended between Turkey and Greece.
It was his second time in Greece. The first time was in 2016 when he spent a year on Lesbos. He said that he was accepted as a refugee but because his body had a different shape he continuously suffered from violence. “I could not go to Camp Moria to renew my documents,” he said. “A group of Afghan refugees poured into our Conex [temporary shelter] and beat me. They broke my head and threatened to kill me if I returned. So I did not go back to the camp. After a year I could not renew my documents so my roommate and I returned to Turkey.
He said that AIDS was the result of living in Turkey for a few months and that he knew exactly who had passed him the disease. He and a friend who also has AIDS sailed toward Turkey in a boat but their boat got a puncture and the Turkish police saved them. He spent a month in prison. While in Turkey, he took hormone medication for six months. He said that he had lost his facial hair and his breasts grew bigger. After a while he again set out for Greece.
Depression, Exhaustion, Hopelessness
After hours of rowing on the sea they reached Lesbos. He again requested asylum but this time his request was rejected. He repeatedly appealed but to no avail. He said that the doctor had given him a certificate that said he must be sent to Athens both to get treatment for AIDS and for his hormone medication, but it was not clear when this would happen.
This uncertainty about time is one of the reasons behind refugees’ depression, exhaustion and hopelessness. They never know when something that affects their fates is going to happen. Like others, this man has been wandering between Turkey and Greece for three years.
He also talked about Iran. “When my family learned about my condition they harassed me. I had been seen with my boyfriend. But my brother has just recently accepted me.” And then he went back to talking about Lesbos and life at Camp Moria. “They wanted to give me a tent in Moria, but Moria is not safe for me at all. Right now, whenever I go to Moria with my boyfriend, they harass me. They tell me that I am an infidel. Moria is not safe for the likes of me. They cannot accept what I am.”
Many stories told by many refugees include violent clashes that sometimes end in death and murder, often resulting from religious prejudices or perspectives on values. Sometimes you hear somebody singing the Muslim call to prayer, people fight over the issue of hijab, and drinking alcohol can start a fight. Other times harassment is caused by religious differences. I heard this a lot, both from refugees who are either Christian or have converted to Christianity and from followers of other religions, most of whom are Muslims. Cultural prejudices including intolerance for groups with different sexual orientations can also result in violence among refugees.
As we were talking, my interviewee gazed into distance, thinking. “My only wish is for the surgery,” he said. “I hate my body.” He paused and continued: “I did not make any friends in Iran. Until I arrived in Greece. I made friends with a person who was beaten because of me. We both returned to Turkey. But he beat me there and I left him. That is why I returned to Greece.” He pushed a hand through his hair and said, “My hair has gone white at 25.”
Had he ever attempted suicide, I asked him? “Just a few days ago,” he replied. “And one time, in Greece, I took pills to kill myself. They took me to the hospital, pumped my stomach and I threw up the pills. Then they returned me to my Conex and I slept for five days. I wanted to commit suicide that time as well. All the time I was sitting there and could not do anything. I have used up my hormone pills and I have AIDS. I am tired. I hurt myself as well. I have made cuts all over my body, except on my face.” He went silent again and then asked, “Can you do something for me?” He said that he would send me pictures of his hormone pills, documents about having AIDS, and also copies of documents related to his requests for asylum in Turkey and Greece.
AIDS as a Passport to Freedom
Our meeting came to an end. Next I met a man who had been living on Lesbos for five years. Ghasem was the name that he used in our video interview. “I got HIV by choice,” he said. “I have been on this island for five years. To avoid deportation I cut myself all over my body. But it only prevented deportation. They got me a lawyer whom I never met and do not know. I tried many times to leave but it did not happen. I knew that my partner had AIDS. I chose to do it. I thought that perhaps I could get a medical certificate and leave this island. Perhaps I could get to Athens and then get out of Greece, but now here I am surrounded by water. Emotionally and mentally I am a mess. I have no idea what feeling is, what morale is. I have forgotten myself. I weighed 111kg. I was a medal winner. Now I am 70kg. I lost 40 kilos in the last five years.”
He is still waiting, waiting for a day when AIDS will save him from this piece of land surrounded by the sea.
Most of the refugees on Lesbos arrived there on their way to other European countries. In 2016, the European Union, Greece and Turkey signed an agreement that specified that refugees who arrive on the countries’ islands must remain there until their asylum applications are processed. If their application is rejected, they must be returned to Turkey and, in exchange, the European Union will give asylum to the same number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. As a result, many refugees have been stuck on Lesbos for years.
Poverty, lack of jobs, pollution, diseases of many kinds and, of course, laws such as the European Union-Turkey-Greece agreement have driven many to crime. Many refugees have fallen into the trap of procuring, carrying and distributing drugs, especially between Athens and the Greek islands. And when the police arrest them, they go to prison — another way they might remain on the island for years. Of course, there are also those who had been drug traffickers in Iran before arriving in Greece and are now continuing the same lifestyle and their illegal activities.
After these meetings, I returned to Camp Moria and talked with a number Persian-speaking single men there. There were several AIDS cases among them. Some of them showed me medical documents that confirmed they were suffering from AIDS. Some had done it intentionally and some did not answer my question when I asked. The important thing, however, was that they were now suffering from such a life-threatening disease.
These men are suspended between life and death, hoping to save themselves from the island but without knowing if and when this will happen. They hope that, after they are saved, they will be treated and return to good health.
After my meeting with this group of refugees in the camp, an Afghan refugee approached me and whispered into my ear: “He slept with an HIV+ guy to get this certification.”
Getting a certificate stating a particular medical condition is one tactic refugees on Greek islands, especially on Lesbos, can try to use to get off the island. Many of them hope that the doctor’s statement will persuade authorities that they cannot survive living in the camp because of having contracted a dangerous disease. For some refugees, this is a writ of freedom.
As I finish this report, the transsexual refugee I met sends me a message. “I was in Moria this morning. I was told that things would work out for me in a few days. They said they would contact me. Now I am hopeful. It is like they have filled me with a few liters of gas. I am charged. I will be free at last.”
A “humanitarian disaster” is how human rights organizations have repeatedly described what goes on in Camp Moria, but nothing illustrates this disaster as powerfully as these people who contract AIDS deliberately. They are human beings who have reached an impasse. They have wagered their bodies and will either die or be free.