The refugee camps in Greece: One person’s experience

a refugee camp in Greece

We interview Jo Morales, who has been working in refugee camps and solidarity spaces in Greece for the last three years. Unlike the NGO workers, who often use the work in these camps to build their careers, Jo is doing it, yes to help, but also is drawing political conclusions from it. She is also helping others do the same. She talks with Oaklandsocialist about her experiences there.

Afghan refugees
Syrians, she explains, are not the only refugees from the Syrian war. For example, thousands of Afghanis have fled their country and gone into Iran. There, if caught, they are drafted to fight on the front lines in Syria. They are given lower pay than are the Iranian soldiers. They are also often promised that they will get legal papers and that their families will be taken care of if anything happens to them. Neither of these promises is always honored.

Afghan refugees in Iran

Jo also makes the point that many don’t consider the Afghanis as asylum seekers/political refugees. It is the official position of the German government that Afghanistan is safe that therefore any Afghanis who come to Germany are economic refugees. This is even the position of some of those who work in the camps.

Paternalism vs. working class solidarity
This view is related to the paternalistic attitude that many of the volunteers and NGO workers have in the camps. For them, it is often a matter of “helping our poor brown brothers”, and they don’t recognize that many of these refugees are revolutionaries who have a lot of important experiences that we all need to learn from.

Jo also commented that more solidarity is needed between different refugees, and also that the Greek working class could play greater role. One of the ways this could be done is through more concrete actions to meet demands – strikes, sit-ins, etc. to get the state to respond.

Mood among Syrian refugees
Among Syrian refugees there tends to be a mood of exhaustion and defeat, but they also see events in Syria as part of a long process that could continue. The mood also varies from day to day. “It’s hard to keep hope when your families are being murdered….” Jo said. “The answer [for a renewed struggle] might be in the diaspora….. People are so exhausted…. But people have organized against the Assad regime in the streets in Athens… for opening the borders and for opening the camps…. Stand against the Assad regime as well as nihilistic Islamic groups like Daesh.”

We asked Jo how much there is a view that the heart of the problem is capitalism itself. She commented: “It’s not the dominant view… (but) they will talk about the neoliberal policies of the Assad regime. They will talk about inequality, and how the was one of the catalysts for the revolution. And they see solidarity (with) the European working class.”

She went further, explaining that there is needed a political struggle to clarify that neoliberalism is simply a symptom of the crisis of capitalism itself. This view “is not the majority…. the majority will tell you that the revolution was for freedom…. it was against people being tortured to death.”

Bashar (left) and Hafez (right) Assad. Hafez seized power in a coup aimed against the left of his party – the Baath Party.

We asked whether “socialism” is associated with the Assad regime. Jo replied: “It can (make it difficult to raise the idea of socialism) but I think that’s part of the political struggle — to define socialism and to define anti-capitalism…. Many (refugees) who were involved in the struggle would not reject the idea of socialism or of anarcho-communism. They will reject Ba’athism.”

Local Co-ordinating Committees
We asked Jo about the Local Coordinating Committees, the LCC’s. She commented: “I’ve heard critiques of the LCC’s and how they could have better avoided cooptation. Omar Aziz – a political Syrian revolutionary who died in Assad’s prison – is referred to a lot. Aziz wrote a lot about need to transform personal relations…. I don’t think that’s the reason the revolution has not succeeded more… but it’s very difficult for people to organize against patriarchy when they’re being bombed from above and gassed from below…. “

Dual Power
We discussed the issue of dual power, as it’s been seen historically and asked whether the LCC’s could have expressed the embryo of dual power today. “It did start to exist, especially with the armed groups, which became a de facto authority in the area…. Some people lost local control when these armed groups moved in.”

This seems to confirm Oaklandsocialist’s view that the LCC’s might have tried to integrate the soldiers who were abandoning Assad’s army into the LCC’s. That would have given the LCC’s more control over the armed struggle.

The YPG – the armed wing of the PYD

We asked about the PYD, the Democratic Unity Party. Jo commented, “the PYD is aligned with the PKK.  The YPG is their armed group. But it’s important to understand that the YPG does not necessarily represent all Kurdish people.” She characterized the PYD as “an ethno-nationalist project; a nation-state building project. and the YPG holds one-party rule over the area called Rojava.” Supporters of other political tendencies have been imprisoned, she said. “It does impose one-party, authoritarian rule.” It has carried out ethnic cleansing in Northern Syria.

One thing the PYD/YPG did was argue to turn people towards Kurdish nationalism and turn attention towards Turkey. “So, that took people away from the revolution, sometimes voluntarily, but there was also a lot of forced conscription.” Some people who were part of the anti-Assad revolution either had to flee conscription by the YPG or were detained and tortured by the YPG.

Aleppo after bombing attacks.
The YPG participated in the siege of Aleppo.

YPG and siege of Aleppo
The second way that the YPG was part of the counter revolution, was during the siege of Aleppo, Jo said. East Aleppo was surrounded on three sides by Assad’s forces, and the fourth side was blocked by the YPG. “So the YPG did take part in starvation and blockading people in E. Aleppo, where they were killed under air strikes and white phosphorous and chlorine attacks.” This is what she heard from people from E. Aleppo.

The YPG also carried out ethnic cleansing of Arabs in some areas of Northern Syria, Jo said. But this is complicated by the fact that Assad carried out an “Arabization” ethnic cleansing project in previous times.

She also notes their collaboration with the US military in calling in air strikes, especially in Raqqa, where civilians were killed by those strikes. [Note: The US bombing of Raqqa was a war crime generally ignored by the “opponents” of US imperialism. The disastrous results are described in this article from the Washington Post.]

She also commented: “The Assad regime used the YPG to its benefit as a sort of counter-revolutionary measure by leaving the PYD and YPG to its project, as well as collaborating with it on things like the siege of Aleppo.  It [The PYD/YPG] was able to both pull people away from the revolution who might otherwise have participated in nonviolent struggle or joined armed forces on the anti-Assad revolution side, or through the collaboration in fighting and blockading certain areas.”

In a subsequent communication, Jo wanted to make clear that she does believe in supporting the Kurdish struggle for self-determination and liberation, but that she is critical of some of the authoritarian methods of the PYD.

Top: The Syrian revolution in 2011
Lower photos: The mass protests continue for years.
Does this look like US inspired “regime change”? Really?

“US-inspired regime change”
We asked Jo How Syrian refugees respond to the argument that the real issue is US-inspired regime change in Syria: “Syrians are really tired of this argument. People who have spent any time in Europe have heard it a lot and it’s very frustrating not to be taken seriously as a revolutionary…. Half a million have died in a counter revolution. Eleven million have been displaced in a counter revolution. Especially when they stood in front of tanks and were tortured or their families were tortured by the Assad regime and they are accused of either lying or of being agents of western imperialism. It’s something that’s really rampant in the Western left and I’ve watched it in Greece. I’ve watched people who fought against the Assad regime called ‘Zio-Wahabbi-jihadist’ and CIA agents because they are still organizing against the Assad regime and still organizing for open borders and for better living conditions in Europe…. The Syrian refugees that I’ve talked to remind people that the violence of the Assad regime did not begiin in 2011 after the uprising. It began in 1973 with the Baathist coup and it continued for decades with the one family rule. There have been historically massacres and torture for decades.” That torture includes for the US government under the extraordinary rendition program.

(Jo later added that we can stand against US imperialism and with the revolution against the Assad regime at the same time. She emphasizes that both are necessary together.)

The Assad regime “used barrel bombs, cluster bombs, white phosphorous, chlorine attacks, double tap air strikes… It has used vicious violence against the Syrian people, and it is extremely frustrating – to put it lightly – for people who stood up against this regime to be discounted. I think a lot of that comes from Orientalist viewpoint towards people who come from the Middle East — that people from the Middle East are not capable of organizing a mass uprising, a revolution, they’re not capable of organizing Local Coordinating Councils… A lot of it has to do with campism and people wanting to support a strong-man regime because it postures as being opposed to the US empire. Even when it hasn’t actually opposed in any material way.”

Jo’s concluding remarks:

“One of the things to keep in mind when we talk about refugees is that you can’t talk about refugees in Europe without talking about Syria and you can’t talk about Syria without talking about refugees—that these things are very interconnected. The same as you can’t talk about borders and immigration in the US without recognizing poverty and political persecution and drug wars in Latin America. And that borders are really an extension of imperialism.  If we are going to be anti-imperialists, I think that our number one struggle for people in the west should be against the murderous borders—these demarcations that are carrying out apartheid conditions or genocidal murder of people because they come from the ‘wrong’ soil, the ‘wrong’ part of the earth.”
A comment from Oaklandsocialist:
Socialists throughout Europe, especially Southern Europe where many of the refugee camps are, could follow Jo’s example and volunteer in these camps and in the solidarity spaces. In this way, a discussion could be initiated, socialists and the workers’ movement in general could learn from the experiences of the refugees and on that basis could have something to contribute as far as where the workers’ movement can go from here. Also, through such discussions, direct links could be made with the revolutionaries in Syria and elsewhere.

a refugee camp in Greece

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