DISPATCH FROM CHIOS: No Home for the Holidays

By on December 28, 2016

A story of darkness, light and perspective.

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Muhammed by Natosha Hoduski

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It doesn’t feel like Christmas in Souda Camp as I cozy into my favorite corner of Muhammed’s Ikea container, where I’ve spent so many afternoons sipping tea and laughing. His “home” is considered one of the “best inventions of the year, 2016” by TIME Magazine. I can’t help but balk at the epithet as he apologizes again, because he has not had electricity in his container since the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn attacked the camp more than a month ago.

Some of the stones they threw from the wall surrounding Souda knocked out the electric box on his end of camp.

This time last year I was hanging a nut cracker decoration on the 12-foot-tall Christmas tree at my parents’ house. I think we were debating which Christmas classic movie to watch, and my younger sister kept insisting we watch Gremlins.

This time last year Muhammed was in Kurdish Iraq, finishing school. The Kurds are the largest group in the world without a country. They have not only been ostracized but have, for centuries, been the repeated victims of systematic ethnic cleansings and racially inspired violence.

At 20 years old, Muhammed has eyes that range in color from blue-green to brown, and he has a knack for making people feel understood and welcome. You would never know by his warm demeanor and soothing voice just how much he has endured to arrive on these frigid shores with their icebox “containers” and barbed wire fences.

Souda, phonetically, sounds like one of the Arabic words for “black,” Muhammed tells me as I sip tea so sweet I can feel my teeth decaying.

There’s something brutally poetic in a name like Souda, that reminds Muhammed of darkness as he uses his phone to light the container.

When we’ve finished our tea, Muhammed begins the story of his journey to this moment.

He starts by describing a dark beach in Izmir, the city in Turkey across the Aegean Sea from Chios. “The first time, in Turkish [Turkey], I was in Izmir, I was talking with one mafia [smuggler] on the beach when I was trying to cross. Police get me.” Muhammed swallows hard over the memory. He has been going to English class every weekday since he arrived on the island, but he has only been here since September, so finding the right words to express himself isn’t easy. He tells me about the police station where he pretended to be Syrian because he feared for his life. Historically, Turkey has been no friend to the Kurds, and they are currently at war with them in the southern portion of the country.

Muhammed was thrown in a jail cell where he and several other refugees did not have water, food, a toilet, a place to sleep, or any privacy. He says the lights were always on, and there was trash piled waste-high in the cell. When he was pulled out of the cell for interrogation, the police tried to force him to clean the toilets just to humiliate him, but Muhammed refused.

After Muhammed’s refusal, the policeman took him to the other officers where they formed a ring around him. As punishment for his refusal, the ring of men began beating Muhammed. They then threw him back in the cell. After 24 hours a policeman brought him out.

“You will clean the toilets?” he asked again.

“No, I will not clean the toilets,” Muhammed replied.

Outraged, the officers threw him on the ground and beat him. After they were done, one of the officers got out a live electrical wire they use during interrogations and stabbed Muhammed in the back of the neck with it. The shock incapacitated Muhammed for five hours.

After the abuse, Muhammed was released back to the squalor of the Turkish refugee camps that double as detainment facilities. He had nowhere to go. Turkey was a prison, and he couldn’t go back to Kurdistan. Not when the European dream still beckoned him onward. Not after everything he had gone through, all of the sacrifices he had made, all of the anguish he had endured, so he waited for his chance to try to cross again.

After meeting with a smuggler, Muhammed once again set out for the Turkish coast where the police lay in wait for refugees trying to flee Turkey. The police caught Muhammed. They threw him to the ground and dragged him back to jail where they repeated their tactics. When they were done beating him for the night, one of the officers threatened to shave Muhammed’s long hair.

“No, kill me, but please, don’t cut my hair,” Muhammed begged.

Noticing the effect it had on him, the officers produced the electrical wire, blazing it against Muhammed’s neck. The voltage knocked him out, and when he awoke, his hair was gone. “Turkish is not safe for live people,” Muhammed said, scratching his shorn head.

After his third attempt, Muhammed found himself in a rubber dinghy, crossing the four-mile gap between Turkey and Chios in the darkness of night, Souda looming on the horizon before him. Wet and cold, he was pulled from the boat, finally in Greece.

“When I come to Greece, I think I am safe,” he said, exhaling. “But Europa is a lie. This is not the name Europa.” The word “Europe” had meant freedom and possibility to him. It had meant safety and a future.

A woman miscarried her twins the night of the Golden Dawn attacks due to trauma. People were rounded up like cattle then thrown into prison without charge. Muhammed knows a little girl diagnosed with PTSD after the attacks. These things appall him.

“I was arrested that night for two days,” he said.

The Greek police never formally charged him, but he believes his crime was being a refugee. He was stripped naked and beaten repeatedly to his humiliation and anger, and you can hear the pain in his voice as he explains why he came here.

“I want to go on, for studying, to Germany. I am coming here for my future self.”

And so he endures. For his future self.

This is what I think about this holiday season—the boy without a country and his future self: may it be warm and bright after so much Souda. PJH

After volunteering this fall at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios, reporter Natosha Hoduski couldn’t stop thinking about the people she had met there. So she packed up all her things in Jackson Hole and returned to the island to continue her work with refugees.

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