Photographs: Thodoris Nikolaou
Edit: Stavros Malichudis
Translation: Gigi Papoulias
“I texted reason #3 to come out,” says the 32-year-old, referring to the mandatory lockdown measure which requires people to text one of six valid reasons to Greece’s civil protection agency (13033), in order to leave the house. He takes his seat next to us, and puts his cell phone on the carpet face up, sliding it over for me to see. “If the police stop me, I will tell them that I just popped out to go to the ATM.”
The text he sent to 13033 reads:
3. Hamid Naseri. XX* Filis St.
Hamid doesn’t worry if he gets stopped by the police. He’s done what he needs to do and, after all, he’s only a few blocks from his apartment.
He preferred to meet us at the home of the man who is the interpreter for the interview, as Hamid lives with two roommates and did not feel comfortable conducting the interview at his apartment.
As I give him back his mobile and he takes a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, he explains that the three of them ended up together just a while ago. When the coronavirus hit and the first lockdown happened, there were 18 Afghan men living in the same apartment. Today, most of them have left Greece, going through Bosnia and Herzegovina, then onto various European countries. “Illegally, of course.”
Hamid chose to stay. At least for now.
A gardener in the northern suburbs
Hamid is not afraid of the coronavirus. In fact, he’s skeptical, in reality it may not even exist. But regardless of whether he considers COVID-19 to be real, the spread of the virus this year has had some very real effects on his life.
In March, when the pandemic began to spread throughout the country, the Greek government decided to impose a lock down, and he was forced, for the first time after almost a year and a half, to stop going to work every day and stay home.
Hamid works as a gardener. He takes care of the gardens at houses in the affluent northern suburbs. His boss has contracts with about 30-35 houses in neighborhoods like Kifissia, Maroussi, KAT and Agios Stefanos and both of them carry out tasks such as mowing lawns, pruning trees and bushes, planting and caring for flowers.
Before the pandemic, he was paid €25 a day, which is about €750 a month. Of all the tasks he undertakes in his work, what he likes most is to take care of the small green bushes and the young trees. I ask him if he has any plants at his house. In Afghanistan he did, but not here, he told me. “I don’t even have a balcony here,” he adds, laughing somewhat ironically.
But he doesn’t complain. “Everything is much easier now, than before, when I worked in the fields. And it’s not just the job, but now we have a clean life in a home and a better environment. Life is good,” he adds.
The “fields” which Hamid refers to, summarize the earlier stages of his life in Greece, before he came to Athens. A friend of his, who had had been living in Greece for 12 years, decided to seek his fortune in France, and suggested that Hamid return to Athens and take over his job as a gardener.
So it happened. But these things do not always find you at no cost, he explains.
It’s customary for the person who has found you a job to ask for a “finder’s fee”, but in this case, this did not happen. “Someone tells you, I found you a job, shouldn’t I get something for it? But he was a friend of mine and things are different between friends”.
Evros, Arta, Manolada
But let’s start from the beginning.
Hamid arrived in Greece in October 2018, when after 12 failed attempts to cross the land border between Greece and Turkey, he finally managed to escape from the police and continue his journey to Athens.
Crossing the border was “very difficult, very difficult”, he repeats over and over again in broken Greek. He claims that the Greek police caught them and deported them to Turkey. “They took off our clothes and shoes and took everything we had on us. Then they beat us and turned us back.”
It does not have any evidence to prove these practices. “The first thing they told us was to give them our cell phones, and they did it so that there would be no proof that we were here. If you made the mistake of trying to hide it, and then they found it, they would beat you even harder,” explains Hamid.
He knew that this land route would probably cost him more money − he paid €1,800 to the katsakbar (smuggler) − instead trying to cross the border at sea, in a boat. He was also afraid that he would become trapped on one of the Eastern Aegean islands.
This is one of the reasons, he explains, that there are differences in the cost demanded by smugglers: by going by way of Evros, he was able to continue on his way as soon as he crossed the border, but by the sea route, it would have taken him some time before he could leave the island.
But Hamid had no time to lose. He had to work and make money.
He quickly found himself in Arta working seasonally in orange groves. He stayed in Arta for four months working from morning until night, and living in a house with 30-40 people. “It wasn’t even a house,” he tells me. “It was a warehouse in the boss’s fields. They would pay us, but these were not conditions for someone to live in.”
The conditions he faced in Manolada were just as difficult, where he found himself working after Arta. There he lived in a large building, sectioned off into many small rooms with shared toilets for everyone. The place belonged to a Greek but a Romanian (he was called “commando”) was responsible, among other things, for the rooms and collecting rent from the workers, from which he kept his own share.
As explained in a related report on labor trafficking in Manolada, the “commandos” or “mastour” are the ones who act as mediators between the strawberry producers and the migrant land workers employed in their fields. This role is carried out by Bangladeshis, who make up the vast majority of land workers in the area, as well as people of other nationalities.
“It was very difficult there as well. How can you live like that?” Hamid said. Fortunately, he didn’t have to stay there for more than two months.
Uninsured and unprotected
However, even though the job he now has seems to have improved his living conditions somewhat, Hamid still works without any employment rights.
This means that whether he’s a farm worker in Manolada or Arta, or a gardener in houses in the northern suburbs of Athens, Hamid remains exposed to labor exploitation, and works without insurance and the right to compensation in case of injury or dismissal.
Indeed, shortly before the country first entered a general lock down due to the pandemic, Hamid had a serious accident at work and almost lost two fingers on his right hand.
While mowing the lawn in the yard of a house, he tried to remove a pine cone that was in the way. The lawn mower was running and, without realizing it, the next moment his fingers were badly cut. “I was covered in blood up to my face. My boss took me to the hospital, I had stitches and I stayed home for a few days. I had to return to work and the state is not helping here,” he said.
Like all people who work uninsured, during the pandemic Hamid could not count on state aid for the entire period he would be without an income.
“We stay home” with 17 other people and unemployed
Things did not turn out any differently for the other 17 men who shared the same apartment with Hamid when the pandemic came.
All of them worked part-time, doing manual, uninsured labor. Some in construction, others laying tile, while others collected metal that they found on the street to resell. When the lock down began, all of them found themselves without an income and with their money constantly decreasing as the days passed.
All but one of the men, who had just arrived in Athens, still had some cash on hand. So, while things were getting tighter financially for the others, he offered to help them and cover some of their common expenses. The agreement was that when the other men returned to work, they would repay him. Fortunately, says Hamid, the lock down ended a week later.
Despite the financial difficulties they faced during the lock down, with all of them spending almost the entire day in the small apartment on Filis St, only going out to shop at the nearest mini-market, their days passed calmly, without any tensions between them. Their only concern was whether the noise their conversations sometimes made would disturb the family living in the apartment next door, but fortunately they never complained.
The first lock down coincided with the period of Ramadan, which for 2020 lasted from April 23 to May 23. This meant that usually the men of the house slept during the day, while at sunset they cooked, usually rice with chicken or some other side dish. Prayer followed and shortly before sunrise they ate again.
A second time without a job and money
When the second lock down occurred, Hamid again faced the same problems.
On the day I met him, it had been over a month since he had lost his job and income. As during the first lock down, he again had to rely on money borrowed from a friend, with the promise that he would repay him when he started working again. This is the only way he has to get through the lock down – however long it lasts, he says, since he can’t rely on anything from the Greek state.
“In order to get by, we must rely on each other.”
He spends all day at home. He goes out in the morning to get coffee and then comes back again. His expenses increase when he’s not working, he says with obvious concern, while he has to send money to his family as well. Many times at work the homeowners would offer him coffee and water, while others would give him food to take with him. Just by the offerings of these good people, as he describes them, he was able to save on his daily expenses.
Hamid’s asylum request has already been denied and he is now awaiting a second-degree examination. He says, according to the law, the documents he currently has allow him to work legally, but the reality is very different. “They are taking advantage of us. They take advantage of the fact that we have no other choice. You are told you will work this way, or you will not work at all.”
And while he has an AFM and AMKA (tax and social security numbers), he can’t understand how it’s possible to have the provision for work, but then he can’t even get a driver’s license, for example.
“My future is in the hands of the Greek state”
Back in Afghanistan, Hamid had his own business, a mini-market, which supported the whole family and provided him with a good, comfortable life, as he describes it.
His wife and five children, two boys and three girls, still live in Kabul. Hamid explains that he was not forced to leave for financial reasons. He did not want to share with us why he had to leave, but his life was in danger and he had to leave the country as soon as possible.
But now the situation has become very dangerous for his family. He explains that it’s not the coronavirus that makes him fear for them every day, since the spread of the virus is more limited there he says, but it’s the growing lack of security in the area, especially lately, that worries him.
On November 2, armed men stormed Kabul University, killing ten students, and just days ago, an attack on a training center in the capital killed 24 people, including many students. In early summer, another bloody attack on a city hospital left 13 dead, including newborn babies, and dozens injured.
He communicates with them, but neither he has yet found a way to bring them here, nor he has decided whether he’ll stay here, or whether he’ll try his luck in another European country. For the moment, he can not do otherwise but wait for a second-level decision on his asylum application.
Does he have any dreams for the future? “No,” he answers curtly. “Neither when I sleep, nor when I’m awake.”
“My future is in the hands of the Greek state. When they decide to give me my papers, then I can decide the future for myself.”
* For personal data protection we do not publish the residence number.
We thank Nasruddin Nizami for the interpretation and his kind hospitality.
This Portrait is part of the Solomon’s project “Migrant workers in Greece at the time of COVID-19″, supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – Office in Greece.