Lehman College Anthropologists Witness Historic European Refugee Crisis

The migrant and refugee crisis in Europe has been gaining momentum for several years but most of the world began taking notice after a series of tragic events made it impossible to ignore. Perhaps most notable were the photographs of a three-year-old toddler who had drowned off the coast of Greece while escaping war-torn Syria with his family.

RefugeesKatherine Stefatos and her husband, Dimitris Papadopoulos, both adjunct lecturers in Lehman’s Anthropology department, spent two and a half weeks in August at the crisis epicenter: the Greek island of Lesvos. The island in the north Aegean Sea has become a way station for thousands of Syrian, Afghani, and other asylum seekers fleeing oppressive nations. After being processed and receiving travel documents in Greece, refugees travel by ferry to their destinations in Western and Northern Europe. “Lesvos was a main entry point for refugees everywhere and suddenly there was this huge global interest about what’s happening on this tiny Greek island,” said Papadopoulos.

The anthropologists are both Greek natives and witnessed the historic events on the ground, spending time talking and interviewing refugees, police, NGO (non-governmental organization) humanitarian workers and Lesvos residents, to help understand the crisis. Papadopoulos also took stunning photographs that starkly captured both the squalid living conditions in and around the refugee camps and the courage of the struggling individuals striving for better lives. They say that help from many NGO organizations was critical to the survival of the refugees.

“Katerina and Dimitris are scholars who went home to visit family and found their island inundated with refugees seeking safe haven,” said Victoria Sanford, the chair of the Lehman Anthropology Department. “People wanted to talk and they were able to listen. Because of their joint affiliations at Lehman and Columbia University, they are able to share refugee stories with a larger world, to perform the sacred obligation to bear witness to human suffering.”

Stefatos and Papadopoulos report that the authorities in Lesvos had two separate detention camps, Moria and Kara Tepe, in Mytilini, the island’s main port. Kara Tepe was designated for Syrian refugees and Moria sheltered migrants and refugees from Afghanistan and other countries, including Somalia, Iraq, Eritrea and Pakistan. A third camp in the south of the island was entirely run by a group of volunteers called the Village of Altogether. That camp called PIPKA,  took in the most at-risk refugees; including the disabled, the elderly, and pregnant women.

Amnesty International described the immigration detention center at Moria as “very poor, unsanitary conditions and overcrowding…including overflown toilets, lack of sheets and blankets, filthy and old mattresses and broken beds.” Kara Tepe was also overcrowded with many Syrians camping in tents outside the camp. “There are not enough tents, toilets or showers,” according to Amnesty International.

Because of its civil war, Syrian refugees were considered higher priority status and were allowed to leave the island more quickly than other groups, whose refugee status were more closely scrutinized. To be granted asylum in Europe, migrants must prove that they are escaping persecution and return to their home country would mean harm or possibly death. Stefatos said tensions had clearly arisen between the mostly middle class urban Syrians and the impoverished refugees from other countries. “The Syrian refugees were wealthier, had iPhones and spoke English,” she said. “Some of the Somali and Afghani refugees couldn’t afford to buy a loaf of bread.”

They also witnessed scenes of overcrowding and deprivation, but still sympathized with Lesvos authorities who were overrun by the crisis: an 1,500 to 2,000 refugees were arriving in Lesvos every day. “They were clearly overwhelmed,” said Papadopoulos. “There were five or six cops managing 2,000 people. These people were trying to build a daily life under the most difficult circumstances, knowing this is not their home and trying to find some sort of comfort.”

The professors were told harrowing stories of refugees clinging to rubber dinghies as they journeyed from Turkey across the Aegean Sea to reach the island. The streets and highways of Lesvos were clogged with refugees, some walking nearly 50 miles to arrive at the refugee camps. Amnesty International workers witnessed 100 refugees collapse from exposure to 95-degree heat.

One of the most memorable encounters the professors experienced was with a  21-year old Syrian refugee named Samer, who told them he was an accountant escaping the civil war and government mandated military service. He believed that staying in Syria would have been suicide. “Shutting down borders in Europe doesn’t work,” said Papadopoulos. “There’s nothing you can do to prevent such a massive wave of refugees and people who are determined to take the chance because they have no other choice.”

Both Stefatos and Papadopoulos will share their experiences with the Lehman community on November 4, at the Refugee Lives at Risk/Rights Denied: Frontline Stories from Greece, Uganda and the Dominican Republic, sponsored by Lehman Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies.  The professors lecture is entitled “Notes from the Greek Border: Refugee Stories of Death and Survival on an Aegean Island.”  The event will be held in the East Dining Hall between 11 am and 2 pm.

The event’s other speakers are:  Aquiles Castro Arias,  from the General Archive of the Dominican Republic and Roxana Antonia Espinosa Santana  from the  National Human Rights Commission with “Dominican-Haitian Relations and Human Rights,”  Michael Bosia, an associate professor of political science at St. Michael’s College with “The Price of Exile: Ugandan Refugees, Sexual Minority Rights, and the Politics of Identity,” and Victoria Sanford, the chair of the Lehman College Department of Anthropology, with “21st Century Migration ~ Why are Central Americans Seeking Political Asylum?”