By Marty Eisenstein
Imagine working with your 20 year old son on a college essay that may change the trajectory of his life. Except that your son is on a Greek island, far away from his home, where he can’t speak the local language and you can only communicate via WhatsApp in writing - as the signal is not strong enough for voice calls. A parental relationship with an adolescent is never easy. But think how much more difficult it is when your son is recently adopted and is a tattooed, 20 year old aspiring Syrian rapper. Muhamed arrived six months ago on the island of Chios from Turkey.
The musical composition he is working on – his so-called college essay - reflects his life story and is in preparation for his first asylum interview. A story that includes horrific chapters: not wanting to serve in Assad’s army, being hounded for being both tattooed and expressing a desire to become a Christian. “Crimes” which landed him in a Syrian-Turkish controlled prison where he was tortured.
An Altered Sense of Self
You worry because you haven’t heard from him for three full days, so you contact friends on the island to see if they’ve heard from him and if he’s ok. You come to learn that he made a four hour walk in the hot Greek sun to the refugee camp to update his identity papers, only to be told to come back again in a couple of weeks. He ended up spending a few nights in the camp, and all he could say was, “it’s so crowded in there, so many, many people”.
I learned about Muhamed at the beginning of the Corona lockdown while speaking with my friend Bev Weise*, a professional Leadership Coach and refugee activist from Los Angeles. Being aware of just how difficult the refugee situation in Greece has become, I commented to her that “these young men really need a mentor, a case worker, a social worker”. By the end of our conversation, and with an altered sense of self and the world due to the Corona crisis, I decided to try to become just that.
Bev introduced me to Muhamed because we both shared a passion for music—I am a musician and educator and he, an aspiring rap singer and composer. With Bev as my mentor, the three of us have become “family”. Muhamed even took the initiative to set up a WhatsApp group that he entitled “My Family” calling us the “mom” and the “dad”.
Hopes and Fears
One early spring afternoon after I helped Muhamed find a rented room in Chios town, he shared with me how good he was feeling. He had spent the afternoon on the beach writing lyrics and freestyle rapping in Arabic and English. A crowd gathered. Everyone was getting into his groove and he was feeling on top of the world. Another day he told me that he finally began exercising again, that he went out and ran 10 kilometers.
But that good feeling changed almost overnight as rumors began to circulate of refugees being sent back to Turkey - many to be imprisoned or held in
detention centers. There is now a heightened sense of urgency/anxiety? which pervades everything in the refugee community. At the same time, ask any Greek just
what is going on in the islands of Lesbos, Chios, etc and you will get the answer “Χάος- Chaos”.
It's difficult for Muhamed to focus on preparing for his asylum interview when he is living in such fear of deportation. He lies awake at night, thinking about the stalled asylum procedures, not having any money since the Greek government stopped financial aid for those in Greece over 6 months, and the fact that he can't find work.
Learning about Each Other
On my end, I am trying to engage in bi-weekly English lessons with him via WhatsApp, to bond and learn more about him and his life, to let him know that he has support and, of course to stay abreast of the changing situation on the ground. Each week brings new challenges, but also amazing openings in friendships and networks of people wanting to get involved and help.
As the well-known song attributed to the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov “Kol Ha'Olam Kulo” states, “All the world is a narrow bridge, the main thing is to have no fear”.
* Bev Weise has visited refugee camps in the Greek islands, the mainland and Izmer, Turkey for over seven years, teaching English, advocating for refugees, and empowering and helping them to navigate the European asylum labyrinth.
Here are two links to learn more about Bev and her work with refugees:
Marty is IJC’s visiting High Holidays Cantor, and he will be joining us once again for the High Holidays this year.