Mediterranean: On Borders, Cooks, and Farmers

22 September 2016
Mediterranean: On Borders, Cooks, and Farmers

by Lisa Trocchia-Baļķīts 

[Note: This piece has been adapted for CPTnet.  The original is available on Trocchia-Baļķīts’ blog.]

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 to perfection.

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.”[1]


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. [2] 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. [3] 

[1] Craig, Tim. (2015) November 23. “Europe plans to speed up deportation of tens of thousands of Pakistanis.” The Washington Post.

[2] Murphy, Tom. (2015) “Record number of refugees need resettlement, but countries don’t want them.” Humanosphere. (June 15).

[3] Spindler, William (2016). “European States to increase pledges, pace and expand relocation of asylum-seekers.” Press briefing, Palais des Nations, Geneva, September 13.

[4] Sifferlin, Alexandra. (2015). “Heroin Use in U.S. Reaches Epidemic Levels.” Time Magazine. (July 7). 

*Real names have not been used