Yesterday Better Days for Moria held a peaceful protest in support of open borders and safe passage, and as a wake up call for Europe. This crisis isn’t going away. These people have nowhere else to go. We wanted to make a concerted, visible statement of our convictions.
When I arrived with face paint I was surrounded by young men all asking me to paint their faces like clowns, or with the flag of Pakistan. I wrote Pakistan on more foreheads than I remember, then No Borders, Solidarity, AFG for Afghanistan, and a few clown faces. Volunteers got hearts and peace signs on their cheeks, and soon everyone was wearing their politics on their skin for the world to see. Ahmed, a Syrian translator with a bald head drew a peace sign right on the top.
Chants of “Open the Borders!” and “Wake up Europe!” rang through the air from more than two hundred throats. The camp was packed with people – cars lined the road outside and it was hard to move when I got down to the center. I darted about with my camera, trying to find a good angle. Sign after sign, face after smiling face passed by and it really hit me how many people are stuck here due to Europe’s unwillingness to let them in. The five hundred or so that we host in the Olive Grove is nothing to the fifteen thousand in Idomeni, but it’s still a lot of people. Most of them are single men, often teenagers, traveling alone or with friends.
The feeling in the air was festive, but there was a line of seriousness underneath it all. Most of these people have no homes to return to, or face torture, death, and war if they return. Despite this, borders remain closed and thousands of people are forced to wait, hoping against hope that something will change. I saw more smiles and laughter than tears, but there were some unhappy faces. Everyone knows the situation is bad.
We sat in a sprawling circle, signs held high, listening to a heartfelt speech written by one of our refugee volunteers and translated into five languages. Three volunteers wearing suit jackets representing Europe stood silently by, hands covering eyes, mouth, and ears. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It was a powerful image.
One man stood up in the center of the circle of sitting Pakistanis and began leading a call and response in Urdu and English. “One love! Europe! One love! Europe! All love! Europe! All love! Europe! My heart! Europe! My heart! Europe!” He was crying only a minute in, still shouting his hope and determination in a cracked voice. Everyone clapped and cheered for him, and I felt myself tearing up as I thought about how, in all likelihood, he and everyone sitting around him would be deported back to Pakistan or Turkey in the coming weeks.
Although most of the protesters were men there were a few women. One looked like she was praying. Another shouted and cheered, then grabbed a sign and sang along with a group of young men from Iran. A husband and wife stood together and clapped and cheered along with the crowd, the woman just as loud as the man. A little girl of perhaps eleven years started a chant for Afghanistan, holding a sign that read “Wake up Europe!” I took particular note of them as it was International Women’s Day. The strength of the women I have met on this journey is humbling and inspiring, every single day.
We sang “Imagine” by John Lennon all together, and at the line, “Imagine there’s no countries/it isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for…” I teared up again. It’s not hard to imagine a world without war, a world where people can move freely toward a better, safer life, but at the moment it seems like a fever dream. It’s so far from the reality it seems almost ludicrous, and yet we must cling to that dream and use our voices and actions to make it a reality. We must do this as humans and in solidarity with our siblings around the world.
At the end the volunteers made a human chain surrounding the refugees. We started with our backs to them symbolizing Europe turning its collective back, then turned around to show our own support and love. The message was clear – wake up Europe! Open your borders, help those in need, let them bring new life to your cities and fields. Learn new cultures and new traditions, revitalize yourself! The time of isolated countries is over and done, the time of globalization is at hand. Embrace them, these hopeful people who come to you with open hearts. They will help you back to humanity.