WE'RE STILL HERE
The internet makes it hard to leave Greece's refugee camps
"How are you?"
I never imagined such a simple question could lead to such complex and ongoing conversations.
But that's what happens when you're communicating with someone in a refugee camp.
I recently returned from Greece, where I spent 10 days reporting on Europe's migrant crisis. I was primarily on the island of Chios, inside a refugee camp called Souda. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are roughly 800 refugees living there; 60 per cent are Syrian, 20 per cent are Iraqi, 10 per cent are North African and 10 per cent are other nationalities.
Arabic is my first language, so I was able to communicate freely and personally with everyone I met.
The camp is overcrowded, and generally unsafe. There are fights, hard drug use and criminals. Just last month it made headlines, after a suspected far-right group attacked it with Molotov cocktails.
I didn't have permission from the Greek government to report from the camp, so I risked getting thrown out if the military caught me reporting. Over the course of the five days I spent there I had some really close calls.
In one camp in Thessaloniki called Sindus, a Kurdish woman I'd interviewed saw a Greek soldier approaching me. Knowing he would likely seize my reporting equipment and erase my memory cards, the woman immediately offered to take my bag. I quickly handed it over as she walked past the guard, out of the camp, and out of sight. Sure enough, the soldier brought me in for questioning.
Hear Yasmine's audio documentary about this story
After what seemed like forever, the military let me go and I scrambled to find this Kurdish stranger, who was in possession of all of my reporting gear. She was waiting outside the camp gates, bag in hand, smile on face.
Situations like that became commonplace. Refugees routinely put themselves on the line for me. I'll be forever grateful for their support and goodwill.
But, that was three months ago.
Refugee looking for someone to talk to
I'm back in Toronto now, working on a handful of stories based on my trip. At this point I would usually only hear the voices of the people I had interviewed on tape. But that's not the case this time.
I exchanged numbers with most people I met in the camp. It was a smart way to keep in touch throughout the day, and particularly useful after I left each night. What I didn't bargain for was the steady stream of voice notes and text messages that I've continued to receive, day and night, since returning home.
They trusted me to tell their stories, and now they ask for my my help. More than that... it's clear some people are just lonely and looking for someone to talk to.
Every morning, I wake up to a slew of new messages over Facebook or WhatsApp, with questions about me and updates from their days.
One refugee tells me they miss home. Another says it rained last night and everything in their tent is soaking wet. Another one tells me about a fight in the camp.
Journalists are supposed to immerse themselves in a story, make a piece then move on.
But I don't know how to disconnect when these messages keep flooding in.
One of the refugees who messages me a lot is Susan, a Syrian woman from Aleppo.
I meet her on my first day in the Softex refugee camp in the north of Greece.
I walk through a broken gate and begin asking around for someone who speaks English. A young boy introduces me to his friend Amjad, Susan's oldest son.
Susan immediately invites me into her tent where she and her husband Mohsen live with their four kids.
The tent is among the hundred or so that are set up inside a huge concrete building that was once a paper factory.
Inside, the tent is packed with bedding, clothes and toys. We sit around a tiny table made from an old box and they serve me tea. I take out my recorder and start interviewing Mohsen about crossing the Aegean sea with his wife and children.
When I turn off the recorder, Susan, who is sitting next to him, asks where my story will air.
I see tears in her eyes.
Susan explains she has friends in Europe and North America and is worried they'll find out how far her family has fallen since leaving Syria.
She and her husband are engineers. They had a nice apartment in Aleppo, but now they cook over a small flame in a UNHCR tent.
I gave Susan my number so I could keep track of things happening in the camp after I left. But I still get constant updates. Due to the time difference, I see her messages first thing in the morning.
As a kind soul who's taken on an almost motherly role with me, she dances around the subject of me helping her.
First she asks if it's cold in Toronto and if there's snow.
Then tells me to keep warm so I don't catch a cold. She wants me to stay healthy so that I can tell her story to Canadians.
Then, she finally asks, “Can you help me?”
Bad Ass Kurdish Dude
Another refugee who messages me constantly wants to be known as Badass Kurdish Dude. A volunteer in the refugee camp gave him the nickname after hearing how the teen had tried to break up a fight.
He's 17, wears baggy pants, graphic T-shirts and a baseball cap. He reminds me of high school students I've seen in Canada, the ones who want everyone to know they are really into hip hop.
BKD, as we come to call him, wants to get to Norway. Once he gets there he plans to turn his poetry into rap music.
Before I leave Souda, we add each other on Facebook and promise to keep in touch.
When I get home, he's one of the first people to message me, asking if I got back to Toronto safely.
He checks up on me regularly, although I'm the one that's more worried.
He was beaten up after I left Chios because he told the police about someone he thought was behind a fire started in the camp.
When we text, I let him rant. Once he starts telling me about what's happening on the island, he doesn't stop until he feels bad for talking so much.
He's tired of living in a refugee camp in Chios, of not being safe, of having to keep looking over his shoulder.
It was his birthday a few days ago, and I sent him a message:
Happy birthday! I hope you won't be in a refugee camp next year, my friend.
I also meet Wasim on Chios. He's another refugee who keeps in close contact now that I'm back home.
He's a tall guy in his mid-thirties. He has a wife and three kids. What immediately strikes me about him is how much he smiles. He and his wife laugh at the fact that they live in a tent. The fact that they have to line up to use the bathroom and to charge their phones. They make light of their dark reality, when there is nothing left to say.
I get to know his ten 10-year-old daughter Missan quite well. She literally runs into me one day, distracted by the shredded rain poncho she's using as a toy. She's blond with big, inquisitive brown eyes. She seems oblivious to the seriousness of the situation she's in as she runs around and plays with her brothers.
Kids have a way of adapting quickly to situations, and Missan is no different. She remembers clearly what happened the night she was smuggled from Turkey to Greece.
On our last day together she runs after me and hands me a picture she drew. She's in a boat in the ocean, with mountains in the background. The water is choppy and the boat is packed with people. She said she's in the back of the boat, the one holding the Syrian flag.
As she gives me the picture, she looks up at me and says, “Don't forget me.”
Now she sends me voice notes on WhatsApp, asking how my family is doing, and how I'm doing. I can tell by her language and tone that she rehearses what she's going to say before leaving a message. She tries to replicate the way she hears her mom speak on the phone.
But the conversation is usually cut short - her father wants to talk to me.
After months of waiting on Chios, they're given a one-way ticket to Athens. The first step in their new life. Safety, security, a future. They dream of eventually going to Germany.
But when they arrive in Athens, Wasim and his family are told by the government that they're going to be settled in Greece.
He contacts me after he finds out.
His devastation is audible. His voice is subdued.
They don't see a bright future in Greece. They have no money, no place to live and no long-term plan. Wasim has heard there isn't a lot of support or resources available for refugees in Greece, and that unemployment in the general population is high. He has no idea what he'll do for work.
Then he tells me he's looking for a smuggler who will get him to Germany.
He knows a guy who's price isn't high, that his friends used to make it safely to their destination.
He says his wife will go first with two kids, and he will leave after with his daughter Missan.
My instinct is to beg him not to go through with this plan. To wait a little and see. - Maybe things won't be so bad in Greece. Maybe things will get better.
And then the question he's been meaning to ask, the question I've been dreading. “Can you help me get to Canada?”
I take two days to reply and tell him I'll look into the matter and see what I can do.
As I write this, he's still shopping around for a smuggler to take him and his family to Germany.
In Greece, I did everything I could to immerse myself in the story, to get as close as possible to the people I met and make sure I understood the message they wanted me to convey.
I didn't realize that during that time, a unique bond had formed, and that friendship would be something I would carry all the way back to my apartment in Toronto.
I don't consider the situation unprofessional. Yes, I'm a journalist, but I'm also a human being with a heart. And in this story, the line between the two has been blurred.
I may have left the refugee camps, crossed the border, flown across the ocean ... but I just can't leave this story behind.