22 September 2016
Mediterranean: On Borders, Cooks, and Farmers
[Note: This piece has been adapted for CPTnet. The original is available on Trocchia-Baļķīts’
Massom* is young–I’d guess about 30, likely a bit younger.
He’s one of the refugees who like to interact with the Greek organizers and the
ever-changing group of international volunteers, practicing his English and
helping out around the camp. This is a self-organized camp for some of the most
vulnerable refugees who have arrived at the island of Lesvos, and Massom
interacts with others here in ways that, for a variety of valid reasons, not
many others are as apt to do. He’s there with a dustpan if he sees you
sweeping. He helps to unload the deliveries of produce from area farmers into
the room where we organize daily distributions. He’s all about making tea for
anyone who wants it, anytime—his excuse to come and go often from the kitchen.
He frequently succumbs, with great compassion, to the demands of little Myriam,
a curly-headed toddler essentially on her own and dependent on the kindness of
fellow residents and volunteers for the attention her mother—who suffers from
severe depression—is unable to provide with much regularity. Massom enjoys
staying close to the food scene, many times a week serving our communal lunch.
I decide to go outside to peel onions this morning. I work
mostly with Hammad, a Pakistani refugee, and today, he is head chef. He’s also
young, but perhaps a bit older than Massom. Under the guiding eye of Irini, one
of the core group of Greeks in the Lesvos Solidarity group, Hammad has been
encouraged to help in the kitchen, a place where he is enthusiastic and
confident. His consistent uniform is a golf shirt, long shorts, and flip-flops.
He has already doled out the number of red onions I am to use today into a
large pink plastic bowl and calls my name as he nods in the direction of the 5
gallon plastic yogurt bucket. I know he wants me to put the peeled onions in
the bucket and then cover them with water until he is ready. He gives me the
same instructions every day: “Peel, no cut.” He grasps the practice of kitchen
hierarchy like pro, relegating the lesser jobs to me, enjoying the cutting and
cooking part immensely. I love to work with Hammad.
It has been one of my biggest joys. He blasts the music from
a Turkish station on the radio (when Irini isn’t around) and when she leaves
the room, or hasn’t come in that day, he asks me secretly how to cook
things–like a surprise donation of shrimp, which he has never seen or tasted
before, but in the end takes great pride in, and full credit for, having cooked
Some days we talk about the food in Pakistan. His favorite
food from home is meat. “Barbeque,” he calls it. He shows me pictures on his
iPhone of a small (and he accentuates “small”) family gathering in Lahore. He
smiles broadly and names each dish for me, and indeed, the long festively laid
table is full of little but meat prepared in every conceivable configuration. I
sometimes say, “Yes, Chef!” when he gets a little bossy, but he always says
quickly, “Me no chef!”
I do wonder what
Hammad was in his other life—I know some of the other Pakistani men at the camp
complain that men don’t cook in their country, so how should they know what to
do with the food we distribute to them every day? Why is Hammad here, alone,
among the most vulnerable? What’s his story? What is it that drives him to
engage with food as a way to stay in the present, as a way to shake off the
sensory-suffocating sameness found in endless waiting? And how long will he be
permitted to wait, with the EU’s 2015 policy of accelerating the deportation of
Pakistani refugees because, according to Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European
commissioner for migration, “it is not a country where its citizens are
persecuted, and great progress has been done by authorities in Pakistan in
order to pave a democraticperspective for their country.”
I grab a reasonably sharp paring knife from the secret stash
behind the large toaster-oven on the counter—likely a well-meant donation from
a Greek benefactor that never gets used—and head out to the tables and benches
in the main social area of the camp, just outside the kitchen door. Massom soon
joins me with a tall glass of hot tea—PG Tips. We exchange good morning’s and
how are you’s, (Good? Good!) and he asks if he can make me tea. I just had
coffee, so decline, but I’m happy that for once, it is just the two of us so I
feel freer to ask him some things I’ve been wondering about.
“Where is your home, Massom?” “Where do you live before
here?” Afghanistan. An internalized shame in me begins to quickly rise. He
doesn’t know yet that I am American. Will that make a difference? I wonder if
we are good guys or bad guys now to Afghans? Does he think it was the
strategies of our illegal war that drove the Taliban out of his county, into
neighboring Pakistan–only to see them regroup and overwhelm the “new”
government (during and after the prolonged draw-down of our war machine),
strengthened in their ability to terrorize every-day Afghans with relentless
religious repression and unspeakable violence?
I ask him if he had work in Afghanistan before he left.
“Yes!” His eyes light up. “I am a farmer!” Ah! This is our connection. This is
something we can talk about and this is why, I imagine, he is in his comfort
zone nearest anything to do with food. Massom says his family has a beautiful
farm. “We grow many good things.” I ask him what his family grows.
“Watermelons. Oranges. Many nice vegetables…and rice.” I ask if his family buys
the seeds they use or if they save their seeds. “Oh yes,” he says. “We save our
seeds…” There is a pause here and I feel the change in affect. He continues, “…but
no more. Afghanistan very bad now. Taliban very bad.”
I don’t want to push him. I would be a terrible journalist.
I never want to know something badly enough to push someone over the emotional
walls they have constructed to contain their pain. There is a familiar spot in
my solar plexus that tightens; some know this as the Manipura, an energy center
in the body connected with ones identity, self-esteem, and sense of personal
agency. I feel Massom’s wall here in this spot within myself, but I say
nothing. After some silence, he offers that it isn’t possible to be a farmer in
Afghanistan now. They will make you grow opium they can sell, and will give you
no money for it. “If I don’t say yes”…his voice trails off. At this, he raises
the few strands of hair that fall over his forehead, the ones that don’t wish
to obey the fashion attempt at a sort of gentle Mohawk. There is a thick scar
running from his eyebrow to the corner of his hairline. “Taliban,” he says.
“Taliban do this to me.”___
Irini comes back from an errand and sees Massom and chides
him a bit for always being around camp, always drinking tea. “It’s no good,”
she says. “You must go to school.” “Yes, yes,” says Massom. “Maybe later.”
Unconsciously, I watch him touch the leather pouch that hangs around his neck.
He told me earlier this is where he keeps his papers. He’s waiting for his
passport and then, he said with confidence, he will go to Germany.
The U.N. Refugee Agency projects that almost 1.20 million
refugees will request resettlement in 2017–a record number.  In a
press briefing held just this week, William Spindler, the spokesperson for The
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
said, “One year ago, the European Union (EU) and Member Sates agreed on a
two-year plan to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers mainly from Greece and Italy
to other European countries. So far 4,776 asylum-seekers have been relocated,
only 3% of the original target. 
 Craig, Tim. (2015) November 23. “Europe plans to
speed up deportation of tens of thousands of Pakistanis.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe-plans-to-speed-up-deportation-of-tens-of-thousands-of-pakistanis/2015/11/23/744f9d22-91ea-11e5-befa-99ceebcbb272_story.html
 Murphy, Tom. (2015) “Record number of refugees
need resettlement, but countries don’t want them.” Humanosphere. (June
 Spindler, William (2016). “European States to
increase pledges, pace and expand relocation of asylum-seekers.” Press
briefing, Palais des Nations, Geneva, September 13. https://www.unhcr.org.
 Sifferlin, Alexandra. (2015). “Heroin Use in U.S.
Reaches Epidemic Levels.” Time Magazine. (July 7). https://time.com/3946904/heroin-epidemic/
*Real names have not been used