The two men joked like old friends as we all talked in the 2 a.m. darkness by the level 1 entrance gate. One is from Sierra Leone and the other from Tanzania, but they have both ended up here, in a refugee camp together. Otherwise, they would have never met.
I met Brian — originally from Dar es Salaam, Tz. — during my second week in camp, and he decided to accompany me on my final overnight shift. He slowly paced at the gate entrance as we made small talk and grew our new friendship.
Another man continued to beckon him to come eat more food from one of the overcrowded rooms inside the level. The two spoke very good English back and forth. Eventually Hamid — originally from Sierra Leone — joined us at the gate and shared about his life.
Hamid, 35, left Sierra Leone and served as a security guard in Baghdad, Iraq for the U.S. Armed Forces. He worked with the Marines, Army, Navy and Air force for two years. Now he is attempting to reach America after working for them. After seven months in camp, he is losing faith.
Hamid and Brian met in Turkey where they were both jailed 3 months for an undisclosed reason. Hamid said he was sexually assaulted during his time there. After leaving Turkey and finally reaching Greece, he has been denied asylum after his first interview and is now in the process of appealing his case for a second decision. He left Sierra Leone because of family problems.
Brian, 28, on the other hand, wants to reach Sweden so he can live with his brother. He also left home because of familial problems. He has a younger brother, 19, and sister, 15. He worked as a clothing reseller when he lived in Tanzania, and he would love to return home someday.
I told him that I had been to Tanzania, and his eyes lit up. He quickly asked where I’d been and I mentioned Mwanza. We shared stories about Tanzania and its unmistakable beauty. He proceeded to tell me that he speaks Swahili, Spanish, Portuguese and English. He’s visited almost all of Southern Africa, and he lived in Spain for two years.
Hamid spearheaded our discussion by asking where I was from. Once I told him I live in America, he said that he loves America and began sharing his story. He said he would love to live in California, New York City or even Washington D.C., and he wants to visit the White House and shake hands with President Donald Trump.
The mood quickly changed as we talked more about their current situation and the difficulty of reaching America.
“I sacrificed two years of my life for America,” he said. “I deserve to go there and live.”
I’ve met refugees and read and heard stories of refugees that have worked for the U.S. military, and I don’t understand why this process is so difficult for them. If the government hired them for work, paid them and made them sacrifice their lives for the mission, then why can’t they receive asylum in our country?
The two talked back and forth for a while about the tedious process of receiving asylum. Hamid has already received his first denial and is in the process of appealing while Brian is still waiting for a decision after his interview took place over a month ago.
I was able to talk with Brian over the days following our midnight chat, and our friendship deepened further. He typically hung around the level 1 gate doing his usual pacing as we made small talk and maneuvered our way through awkward silences with different, casual questions.
During one of my final shifts, he decided to sit next to me and chat. His demeanor never really changed over the course of our interactions, and he had a very relaxed personality. We sat together and stared out of the front gate for what seemed like an hour before I asked if he’d heard a decision yet. No decision still.
After appearing to reflect on his decision to come to Greece for a moment he told me that he met a man in a town near camp that would smuggle him illegally from Lesvos to Athens for 1000€. The man also told him about a man in Athens that could get him to any country in Europe he wanted to go to for just 300€. I was skeptical of the option to pursue that route of asylum, but Brian said he was going to talk with his brother about it depending on if he’s rejected or not after his first interview. He said he won’t appeal if he’s rejected because he knows it won’t be overturned.
My heart broke for Brian in that moment because I knew he had incredibly limited options. He would have to endure a dangerous, costly and illegal smuggling attempt to gain asylum or face deportation back to Tanzania. He didn’t seem to be too worried about the process as he stroked his goatee, deep in thought.
Somehow we maneuvered our conversation to relationships and marriage. He asked if I had a girlfriend in America, and I replied no. He looked at me with a puzzled look and asked why. Why don’t I have a girlfriend? That’s an odd question. I told him that it just wasn’t the right time for me. I was open with him about past relationships I’d been in and how they may not have allowed me to pursue opportunities like this one nor my desire to pursue conflict photojournalism. He seemed satisfied with the answer.
I asked if he was married, and he said he used to have a girlfriend in Tanzania. He pulled a worn-out wallet from his back pocket and showed me two photos side-by-side: one of him and one of his girlfriend. They were two of maybe six total items in his wallet. He told me that she left him for another man soon after he left for Greece.
“Women in Tanzania want men with money,” he said bluntly. “That’s what I’m trying to do now so I can support a family one day.”
The conversation continued as he said he was scared of marriage. His declaration caught me off guard. Here I am, sitting next to a burly, smart, soft spoken man that I would have never expected to be scared of marriage. I empathized with him. Marriage is a very scary life step, and even at Brian’s age of 28, it’s a looming subject. He said he wants to get married someday but doesn’t know when that may be. He wants to have two children, and he already has a name for a girl: Tatiana. It was a moment of true honesty and life.
My interactions with Brian we full of patience and careful thought. He was always very slow to form his sentences and thoughts, ensuring they were precisely what he wanted to get across. Each time he passed through the gate or I saw him in camp we would wave or shake hands. I’ll never forget the way he would answer some questions with a simple, accent-laden, “Yaap.” His friendship is something I’ll continue to cherish. He said he’d love to show me around Dar es Salam someday. I look forward to that day.
Rumors were being floated around that nine-in-ten African refugees would be deported soon. The military and police wanted to carry this out during Ramadan — Islam’s holiest month — because they thought it would be more peaceful due to the devotion to religious guidelines so many refugees adhere to. None of the refugees were aware it may take place.