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593: Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee

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Prologue

Ira Glass

It's the little things that count sometimes, like, for instance, being able to charge your phone from an extension cord that's coming out of the base of a tree. I know that sounds weird, but that's what it was.

Farhad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

These are the inventions of our people.

Ira Glass

A teenager named Farhad showed it to me. This was at a refugee camp in Greece. New lights had just been installed nearby, and they hijacked power from that buried cable to the tree.

Farhad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Yeah, it comes over from [INAUDIBLE], and it's coming under the ground. And the cables actually right through here.

Farhad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

There's this one guy who's just really good with technology and electricity. And somehow he just hooked it up.

Ira Glass

Before this, Farhad would wait sometimes for two or three hours to charge his phone at one of the chargers they have at the refugee camp. Now coming out of the ground right at the base of the tree was a cord with a socket on it, and then extension cords that allowed six phones to be charged-- incredible. Farhad breaks into English.

Farhad

I'm very happy today.

Ira Glass

If you heard our radio show last week, you know that we went to refugee camps all over Greece. There are 57,000 refugees in Greece, most of them escaping violence in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq hoping to get to Germany and other countries in Europe. But unless the politics change dramatically, they'll probably be stuck in Greece for a long time-- six months easily, maybe a lot more. The Greek government is building these camps to last for years, just in case.

And the camps, people kind of know that. But mostly I think they don't like to admit it to themselves. So you see this weird mix of unrealistic hopes, and then people just starting to settle in for the long haul, moving ahead with their lives, falling in love, having babies, running little businesses, inventing projects. Today on our show we have stories of people trying to have semi-normal parts of their lives in a place that is not normal at all. From WBEZ Chicago, It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. It's our second show from Greece, from the refugee camps there. Stay with us.

Act One: You Just Keep on Pushing My Love Over the Borderline

Ira Glass

Act one, You Just Keep On Pushing My Love Over the Borderline. It's hard for single guys at the camps. Camps are mostly families. In some camps, like the one at the baseball stadium in Athens, they segregate the single men together because the families don't like them around. They view them with suspicion.

And of course Europe sees these guys the same way. People worry they're terrorists, troublemakers. Getting permission to get out of Greece and get into some other European country might be harder for them. And just at a practical level, lots of these guys are young, have never lived without their moms washing and cooking for them. A guy named Abdul said this thing to me off mic that he was embarrassed to repeat on tape, but my interpreter, Baraa, translated. He said--

Interpreter

Basically now we're like girls. Like we'll make our bed in the morning, and then, like, we clean dishes and we clean up the entire tent.

Ira Glass

His tent was incredibly neat. You don't see single women traveling alone at these camps. They're almost always with their families, who are traditional and protective. But they're there, and there's flirting between men and women for sure, and sometimes more. One of our producers, Sean Cole, did meet a couple that got together as refugees at the camp in the north that was 2,000 people in tents at a highway rest stop, a gas station basically, called EKO. Here's Sean.

Sean Cole

The main thing about the couple I met, Tarek and Hadil, is the PDA. They're always moon-eyed and handholdee. And the story of how they met super delighted my translator, Manaf.

Manaf

It's like a James Bond. [INAUDIBLE] James Bond.

Sean Cole

They don't just remember the day they met, they remember the date, March 12. And it was right after they'd crossed over the water from Turkey and they were still living at the beach. Tarek was in the water going for a swim, and Hadil was up on the shore.

Manaf

He's coming out to the sea, hair wet. And she's charging her mobile phone.

Sean Cole

It's like a soap commercial.

Manaf

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

And their eyes met. Each of them would have noticed right away how deeply good looking the other is. Tarek is 25 and could play the lead in a Syrian production of Jesus Christ Superstar-- long hair, beard, hypnotic eyes. Hadil is 19 and, no joke, looks like the lady who played Mary in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar-- except when I met her, she was wearing a headscarf. It was love at first sight, for Tarek.

Tarek

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

So when I saw her, I said wow, you look beautiful. Can I speak to you?

Tarek

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

And she refused a couple of times, but I didn't give up. I kept continuing.

Sean Cole

How many times did you approach her?

Tarek

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I tried for like 13, 14, or 15 times maybe--

Sean Cole

Wow.

Interpreter

--just you know.

Sean Cole

You're persistent.

Tarek

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Yeah, her plan was to come from Mytiline to here. My plan was to go from Mytiline to a camp called Kavala. But I changed my plans to be here with her.

Sean Cole

Tarek kept pursuing Hadil even as the crowd of refugees they were in was on the move, from the island to Athens, and from Athens north by train closer to the border. He did that thing you do on the bus on a school field trip, making people switch seats so he could be next to her. She still didn't want to talk to him.

Hadil

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

The situation is not appropriate, because obviously I'm a refugee, he's a refugee. As a refugee, I've never thought, never imagined that I would be ready to meet someone.

I had plans of going to Germany, settle down, and then think of these hard matters. But seeing this young guy, it's like oh suddenly I fell in love with him and I want to be with him. And so I didn't care about the conditions.

Sean Cole

And so what was it that changed your mind?

Hadil

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

If he was someone who gave up, I wouldn't have pursued it. But I liked his persistence. That's what worked.

Sean Cole

Manaf stops translating and turns to me.

Manaf

That's a good tape.

Sean Cole

And so, before you know it, Tarek and Hadil are planning a future together. But as with tens of thousands of other refugees in Greece, those plans involve gaining passage across multiple national borders, none of which show any promise of opening.

Tarek

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Basically we are in a bit of a tough situation. Her parents are in Germany. And I need to see them. If I didn't see them, they won't approve this marriage.

Hadil

Marriage, [ARABIC].

Interpreter

They will not marry her to me.

Tarek

Tarek tried to get across the border himself once, with some smugglers-- no luck. It's not Hadil's parents are totally opposed to the relationship. It's just customary that they have to meet him first. But they aren't the only members of Hadil's family with opinions on this. In fact, she was traveling with family. She had them there with her at EKO Camp.

Hadil

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

My sister and my aunt.

Sean Cole

Do they know about your relationship?

Interpreter

[SPEAKING ARABIC] Yes, they do.

Sean Cole

Do they approve?

Interpreter

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

They don't approve? Oh no. What do you say to them? Have you tried to convince them?

Interpreter

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Hadil

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I spoke so many times to them, tried to convince them. But they completely seemed to be against the idea.

Hadil

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

The problems are many I think. One of them is the fact that I spend more time with him than I do with them.

Hadil

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

And B, how people would see us around the camp.

Hadil

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

It's the way he touches me and holds me. He's very affectionate and very romantic, which I love very much. But to them, they're saying to me hold on a second. There's nothing formal between the two of you. So to people, it might seem a bit out of order.

Sean Cole

So they're worried it's going to look scandalous?

Tarek

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Yes, exactly.

Sean Cole

And finding privacy isn't exactly easy at a refugee camp, especially this camp, which is the size of a highway rest stop-- because again, it is a highway rest stop. Tarek says he went as far as to procure a secret tent for them, their own private tent that nobody knows about. I asked him, when shopping for a secret tent, what are the criteria you're looking for? Has to look like all the other tents, he said, so it doesn't stand out. That's smart.

Tarek

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I love her very much. And those people won't stand in our way. Our love is stronger than this country that's blocking the border.

Sean Cole

Wow, you should be a poet sir.

Interpreter

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Tarek

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Hadil

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

He writes poetry.

Sean Cole

You do? I could tell.

Hadil

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Yeah, he writes lots of poems and recites them to me.

Sean Cole

We should really--

I asked Tarek if he would read us one of his love poems at some point.

Sean Cole

Not right now, this second.

I figured we'd just do it when we came back the next day. But then when we did go back the next day, our fixer went to find them and came back alone, with some news.

Sean Cole

What, are you kidding? Hold on one second. Wait-- wait-- wait-- wait.

Our fixer, Ammar, said he had found Tarek all by himself in the tent, deeply upset.

Ammar Saker

He's very furious right now because they took his girlfriend or fiance so whatever, yeah.

Sean Cole

The sister and aunt did?

Ammar Saker

Yeah, the sister and the aunt took Hadeah-- Hadeah?

Ira Glass

Hadil, but yeah, she was gone. Tarek wouldn't talk to me about it. He said no more recording. So Ammar sat with him in the tent for a long time, and finally convinced him to spill out the whole story.

Ammar Saker

Maybe he's drunk right now. He looks like drunk. So he told me that the aunt had bring like four men and attack him and beat him-- beat him. He looks like this.

Sean Cole

Bent over.

Ammar Saker

Yeah, just like-- yeah-- yeah. But there's no marks. There's no-- there is one mark here.

Sean Cole

On his elbow?

Ammar Saker

Yeah, big one. It's just-- yeah-- yeah.

Sean Cole

So the uncle--

Ammar Saker

He don't want to talk about it.

Sean Cole

OK.

Ammar Saker

They went to go smuggling.

Sean Cole

To go smuggling?

Ammar Saker

Yeah, of course.

Sean Cole

That is, her family took her with them to get smuggled across the Macedonian border so they could go north to the rest of Europe.

Ammar Saker

He's completely broken. He's completely--

Sean Cole

I learned the rest of the story later. It wasn't just that Tarek and Hadil were all huggy and kissy around the camp. Hadil and her family are Christian. Tarek's Muslim. Hadil had only started wearing a headscarf when Tarek asked her too, as a first step toward converting for him. And the family was not cool with this.

Plus, this plan to get smuggled into Macedonia had already been underway for a while. And Hadil was suddenly saying, no, I'm staying behind with Tarek. And so they pried her out of there, beat Tarek up, bundled everybody into a bunch of cabs, and headed off to meet with a smuggler.

Tarek, alarmingly, told the police. He reported them, to keep them from leaving, which he is totally unrepentant about, except he feels bad that the smuggler got arrested. The plan was foiled, so the family turned around and headed south to a different camp. And they were gone.

And this is where I figured the story would end. Tarek didn't want to talk to me anymore. And then a couple of days later I was at a different camp interviewing some folks with Manaf, the translator, when Ammar, our fixer who had talked with Tarek, interrupted us.

Sean Cole

Do you feel like the foreign media is trying to cover up the talents of refugees or-- say what?

Ammar Saker

Just a second.

Sean Cole

Oh, yeah-- yeah-- yeah.

Ammar Saker

I need to talk to you, and Manaf too, just for a second.

Sean Cole

We walk a few feet away. It's about Tarek, Ammar says. My first thought is, oh no, he's tried to kill himself, which I know sounds dramatic. And that's not what happened. Ammar says Tarek has heard from Hadil. She and her family are planning to head back to Turkey the next day, and that he needs to get to her, to get her out of there. He needs a car he says. Ammar tells him, "I don't have a car. I'm a refugee like you."

"Yes," says Tarek, "but you hang out with those journalists. Maybe they can help?"

We had heard that driving refugees around could get you in trouble with the police. There was no way we were going to do that. But then I did do something that I'm not proud of, something that, if I had thought about it a little more, I would not have done. In the next moment I heard myself say, maybe I can get him some money for a taxi. Reporters aren't supposed to get involved like this in their stories. We're supposed to observe, not intervene.

Looking back, it was a mistake. But in that moment, every reason I could think of not to help them seemed small, and almost cruel. I handed Ammar 100 euros. We all agreed he should tell Tarek it was from him and Manaf.

I never saw Tarek. Apparently he was so happy he did a little dance. He picked up Hadil at a cafeteria near where her family was staying and brought her with him back up north to a camp near the Macedonian border. After that, I wasn't worried about ethics. I was worried about Tarek and Hadil. What if Hadil's family found them and beat Tarek up again? At the very least, they'd have to be worried sick not knowing where Hadil is. Also, I don't even know these people. I don't know if this is what's best for them, for her.

But I've talked with Tarek and Hadil on the phone since then, and they both said things are as good as they could possibly be right now. For one thing, they're married. They had a Muslim wedding and a Christian wedding. And Tarek says he even got some money together to pay a lawyer to help them get the marriage sanctioned in Greece.

Hadil's aunt and uncle and sister never did go to Turkey. According to Tarek, they actually managed to get farther north in Europe, illegally. It's not that they're OK with the relationship, but now that it's official, they feel like they have to go along with it. Hadil's parents, though, are totally on board with it now.

Mostly when we hear about luck in the refugee camps, it's bad luck. But of course with so many people, something has to go right for somebody. It's just the law of averages. And Tarek and Hadil beat the odds in a ridiculous way. Even just meeting each other was a slim possibility, let alone his convincing her to give him a chance and convincing a bunch of near strangers to kick him 100 euros so he could get her back.

A few weeks after all this, my fixer Ammar was texting with Tarek. And Tarek said, "The most ridiculous thing of all is that all these feelings of love that you have in your heart, the big sacrifices you have made and the unexpected problems, all come down to a taxi fare. It's a bastard of a feeling when you're racing against time and it's not on your side."

Act Two: Thank You for Smoking

Ira Glass

Sean Cole. Act two, Thank You for Smoking.

People don't have a lot of money in the refugee camps. To explain people's financial situation, Joanna Kakissis, NPR's reporter in Greece who's producing these two episodes on the refugee camps with us, she explained to me that these refugees from Syria and the Mideast that we've all seen arriving on boats in Greece, she explained that they came in several distinct waves. The first wave--

Joanna Kakissis

So in early 2014 when I first started following the story, everyone I met was fairly well off. I mean--

Ira Glass

All the refugees coming through.

Joanna Kakissis

Right. And they had paid something like between 3,000 and 5,000 euros to buy fake passports or fake IDs and fly to Germany or Sweden or wherever they were headed.

Ira Glass

5,000 euros is about $5,500 American.

Joanna Kakissis

And so we're talking about people who are cardiologists, people who are geophysicists, people who are big corporate managers.

Ira Glass

Then the second wave arrived. This is last year, 2015. And it arrived because another route from Greece into the rest of Europe opened up, what they called the Balkan route. You didn't have to pay for a smuggler. You could just walk north out of Greece using maps that people were sharing on WhatsApp. Or much easier, you could take a bus.

Joanna Kakissis

So this route was actually much, much cheaper. You know, it was just a matter of buying bus tickets from one place to the other. And that's why you saw so many people coming, because suddenly it was less expensive.

Ira Glass

And so what kind of people were you seeing then?

Joanna Kakissis

Then that's when you started seeing schoolteachers, shop owners, barbers. I mean, like the best way to put it is that people with just not that much money.

Ira Glass

And so these were the people, when the border to the rest of Europe closed this March, these were the people who got stuck in these refugee camps. Most of them are middle class and working class families who carry the equivalent of $1,000 or $2,000, and definitely did not have enough to spring for $3,000 to $5,000 per person for a smuggler and a fake passport.

So, they arrived without much money, and now it's been nearly five months. So to survive, lots of people get money from family overseas, wired to them, Western Union, to spend on essentials. And you can see what that means at our next stop. This is a camp that's been built on the grounds of an abandoned psychiatric hospital. It's kind of a spectacular setting at the base of Mount Olympus. So you have this snow capped mountain looming, surrounded by thick forest. Yellow paint is peeling off the old hospital buildings on the grounds-- 1,300 people living in white military tents, the Yazidi, which is a religious minority from Iraq.

And unlike the other camps that we visited, the people here are looking for a country that's going to take all 1,300 of them. They don't want to be split up. Before the borders closed, they'd been trying to join other Yazidis who'd already made it to Germany. One of our producers, Miki Meek, visited.

Miki Meek

This camp is in the middle of nowhere. The closest town is about 16 miles away. Very soon after the Yazidis arrived, people began setting up their own town in the camp, slipping right back into their old jobs.

A group of men who used to be barbers back in Iraq lined up chairs by an electrical outlet outside. Haircuts go for 2 euros. Eyebrow and beard threadings go for 1.

Three women on the other side of the camp made an oven out of a metal barrel they covered with mud. They're bakers. You can buy five pieces of naan for 1 euro.

But the most popular spot is in a makeshift shop along a dirt path at the front of the camp. A guy named Ahmad built it. He threw it together with UNHCR tarps and old doors and shutters he found in the abandoned psychiatric hospital. He made an awning out of a thick green sleeping bag from the military. Ahmad pointed out the most popular item in his shop.

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

The most selling item obviously is cigarettes. People buy cheap brands like President, Bond, Royale, and Gold. They go each for 2 and 1/2 euros.

Miki Meek

A pack?

Interpreter

A pack, yes. So I know it's wrong. It's not healthy. But it's a very good way to calm you down.

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

We here, we live in continuous stress, unknown future.

Miki Meek

People need a cigarette. People need to smoke right now.

Interpreter

Exactly. So people need to smoke, to get on with things.

Miki Meek

So you are smoking super lights, President. This is your brand?

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I'll sell you two, two packs for 4.50 euros.

Miki Meek

So you're selling, selling even in an interview.

Smoking is such a part of life for men at the camp that wherever we looked, someone was smoking or offering us cigarettes. Sometimes I'd look over at my interpreter Manaf during an interview, and he'd be holding a lit cigarette in each hand. It was too rude to say no.

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Lighter. Lighter.

Ahmad

Give me lighter.

Miki Meek

Give you lighter.

At first I thought Ahmad must be the one guy who figured out how to hustle and make money in this situation.

Ahmad

Give me euro.

Miki Meek

He was always pacing in front of his shop, always selling, charismatic. Then I learned he's hardly making any profit. I'm pretty sure he's running the world's only cigarette charity.

Ahmad pays to take a bus down to town a couple times a week where he loads up on cigarettes. Total cost per pack, including his bus fare, 2.35 euros a pack. And then at the camp, he turns them around and sells them for only 2.50 euros. That's just a 15 cent profit, barely covers his costs.

He gives good deals for fruits and vegetables too. They get three meals a day from the Greek government, but they're like TV dinners, nothing fresh. So people stop by right after meals are distributed--

Ahmad

Tomato-- tomato.

Miki Meek

--to make up things like eggplants, cucumbers, bananas.

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

This bag of sugar as well, 89 cents.

Miki Meek

Ahmed said he sells sugar for what it costs, because it's too much of a necessity. Everyone needs it for their tea.

But there's a thing I started noticing. A lot of people would walk up to Ahmed during the day, silently hand him money, and then walk away from his shop without taking anything.

Miki Meek

There's a man right here and he just walked up and is paying Ahmad 2 and 1/2 euros.

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Obviously I trusted him with the money. I wasn't there, in the shop. This month comes in, picks up what he wants. Then he goes--

Miki Meek

So he's paying--

Interpreter

[INAUDIBLE].

Miki Meek

This is when I realized, this is not a normal store. Ahmad can leave it open and unattended, and people can take what they want on credit. They don't even leave him a note. They just tell him later.

Everyone is low on cash, even the most powerful person in the camp, the religious leader, Sheikh Nuri. Even he has to get stuff for free from Ahmad. I watched him stop by the shop after lunch.

Sheikh Nuri

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I took some spices, onions, and tomato for free. So basically the way it goes, if I need something, I would come to the shop and take it. We're all like this. We're barely surviving. Most of us will have to borrow from Ahmad. Ahmad is ready-- Ahmad is ready to help us. Without him, I think we don't know what we would do basically.

Miki Meek

This camp is different from the others we visited. The Islamic State targeted these Yazidis for extinction, invaded their home in the mountains of northern Iraq, and began a mass extermination campaign, killed the men, kidnapped the women and girls, and made them sex slaves, sent the kids to ISIS training camps. Maybe you remember, these are the people President Obama helped save with airstrikes in 2014. They're survivors fleeing genocide. They're used to looking out for each other.

Ahmad said it's ingrained in them. So when people come to his shop and they can't pay, he's fine with that. He tells them to pay what they can when they can if they can. He carries a little black notebook in his fanny pack, listing each family and what they owe him.

Miki Meek

What does it say?

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Name, Hadeato. 2 euros previously owed, plus 4 euros today for vegetables.

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Marwan, another name, 13 euros owed in the past. 3 euros tomato, 2 euros onion.

Miki Meek

So aren't you're just losing a lot of money?

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I started the shop with 500 euros as a capital. Now I have lent the equivalent of 200 euros.

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

If we continue like this, obviously I can't run my shop much longer.

Miki Meek

Back in Iraq, Ahmad also had a shop selling groceries and other stuff. And he says he made about $250 a day in profit. Now he's making $11 a day. He spends $8 on food for his family and $3 on cigarettes.

He's here with his wife and seven kids. His store back home had backgammon, chess, and cards that men would come play at night for money. Ahmad still runs a tiny gambling den. It's in the back of his shop, lit by a couple of rechargeable UNHCR lamps that hang from the ceiling at night.

I sat next to a young guy, 25 years old, named Haider. He says he kills about four hours every day in the back of Ahmad's shop.

Haider

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Miki Meek

He starts laying down cards.

Miki Meek

Did you just win?

Interpreter

I just scored the lowest. Basically he's won the game.

Miki Meek

The 50 cents everyone put into play all goes toward a bag of mixed vegetables for the winner. Or like in Haider's case, he just uses the winnings to retire some of his debt with Ahmad.

Miki Meek

How much money did you have when you came to Greece?

Haider

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Miki Meek

So I had 500 euros.

Miki Meek

What about now?

Haider

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Miki Meek

You're standing up and pulling money out of your pocket. So how much? How much do you have there? 3 euros. You have 3 euros.

Haider

Yes-- yes.

Interpreter

I basically have 3 euros to last me three days. So Ahmad here is here to help me if I needed anything.

Miki Meek

This was an unusually unprofitable day for Ahmad. He was out 240 euros. He borrowed 100 euros to buy produce and given out another 140 euros on credit to different families. Also, he didn't sell much.

Miki Meek

Couldn't you, for a while if you had to, stop taking stuff on credit just till you got a little bit more stable?

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I think my philosophy in the shop is to be able to help others. And stopping giving things on credit is simply out of the question. Because as long as I know that I can support the minimum. So if need of my family, then the rest would obviously have to be giving as a form of assistance to others, even if they couldn't pay.

Ahmad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Then I would shut down the shop and just become a customer myself.

Miki Meek

He told me he'd rather go out of business than stop giving credit to people at the camp.

Ira Glass

Miki Meek. Coming up, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, Trevor Noah, you're now on notice. Refugees are entering the fake news business. Tremble at the competition in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: Last Resort

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's it's our second show from the refugee camps in Greece. This week, you don't have to live like a refugee. We have stories of people trying to get on with their lives even though they are stuck in a refugee camp.

And before we go any further with our show, I just want to say an incredible team has built an interactive tour of the camps that we visited with little movies and photos and three dimensional architectural renderings. And it pains me, as a radio producer, to say the following words, to admit that seeing something might actually give you a fuller view of it, but it's true. They did a great job capturing all kinds of things about daily life that you can't actually see over the radio. It's at our website thisamericanlife.org. And this brings us to Act Three of our program, Act Three, Last Resort.

So as we talked about a little bit in last week's program, the Greek government's response to the refugee crisis has had a lot of heart. The refugees are treated with respect. They're treated with warmth in many places that we visited. But it hasn't gone so smoothly.

Two government agencies have had trouble sorting out who would do what. It's still disorganized. Housing conditions for the refugees nearly everywhere are substandard. One official from an international organization that is working with the Greek government told me at one point, "It's 57,000 refugees." And they said, "Compare that to the refugee situations that they deal with elsewhere." Jordan has 700,000 refugees. Lebanon has over a million. Turkey has over 2 million. "57,000 refugees, this person said, "that's a soccer game in Europe. It shouldn't be this hard."

So there is a camp trying to set the gold standard for what refugee camps can be in Greece. It's near a village called Myrsini on the coast of the Ionian Sea, a four hour drive west of Athens. LM Village it's called. It's a former resort, an actual beach vacation resort that went bankrupt seven years ago-- 38 bungalows, painted bright orange and yellow, each with its own bathroom and electricity and kitchenette, a little plot of grass all facing the sea with a secluded beach just for them. One of our producers said when she saw it the first time, "With a little TLC and some water in the pool, we'd all want to stay there."

So this March right after the borders closed, this beach resort refugee camp opened basically because one person, the mayor of that area, willed it into existence. Joanna went there.

Joanna Kakissis

This mayor is different from other Greek mayors in one important way. This mayor's from Syria. His name's Nabil Morad. He actually made history a couple of years ago when he became the first immigrant elected mayor in Greece. And back then Nabil was focused on the typical things that mayors think about-- you know, fixing roads and street lights, marketing the region's strawberries, improving tourism.

But as the refugee crisis unfolded in Europe and he saw so many Syrians displaced and homeless, it really got to him. He took one look at the empty beach resort in his municipality, LM Village, and he thought, why not? Why not bring them here to this beach resort?

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

You need to provide shelter in an elegant way, in a good way. You don't just stick people in tents.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

That's the message we, in this camp, want to send to the rest of Europe, that when the refugees get to you, don't forget they're people. They need to be treated with respect and with care. That's why the success of this camp is so important to me.

Joanna Kakissis

Nabil is the Greekest Syrian I've ever met. He moved here 27 years ago, married a Greek, served in the Greek army, works as a doctor, and runs a clinic with his Greek doctor wife, in Greece. He's so fluent in Greek he often speaks in old world slang my grandmother used to use.

Nabil knew he was the best advocate for a better lifestyle for refugees. To rally locals around his cause, Nabil, in a kind of Mr. Smith Goes to the Ionian Sea way, held a town meeting in Maria Palaiologos cafe in Myrsini. That's how small a town this is, the cafe doesn't even have a name. It's just Maria Palaiologos cafe. At least 100 people packed inside, and more spilled out onto the street.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

Some of them had created an atmosphere of fear and terror about the refugees, that they're criminal, heathens, lazy.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

An old man told me about he was a buy a shotgun to keep them from getting into his home. Others were talking about rapes.

Joanna Kakissis

Nabil told them he wanted to bring only families, Syrian families, people like him-- no single men, no Afghans, no Pakistanis, just Syrian families. He knew his audience. He also told the group it wouldn't cost the municipality anything to host the Syrian families. The state would cover everything but trash collection.

A week after the meeting at the cafe, he called on his municipal council to vote on the plan. It really went over. Out of 26 council members, only one voted no.

Here's how desperate the Greek government is to get people set up in camps. It took them less than a week. In fact, just four days after the vote, buses filled with Syrians, over 300, arrived at the abandoned beach resort. Nabil and his family were there, some local councilors too. Remember, Nabil had promised that only families would come live at the resort. Nabil hoped that was true.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

Well, we were very nervous because we didn't know who got in. Since things were done in a hurry, I didn't know what to expect. Who will I find on the buses?

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

The whole village had gathered. There was some that came out of love. And there was a group against my decision for the center, waiting to see so they could protest more. They wanted to reaffirm their lies using the first image of the refugees. They always say the same.

Alexandra Altouni

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

If they are men, they will steal, kill, and rape. When they saw, just as I did, the children that were coming out of the buses first, at this point I relaxed. The crowd started hugging the children. Some of them started smiling.

Joanna Kakissis

Nabil remembers meeting a baby who was just five days old.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

She was in a little basket. I got close to the family. When I went close, I said in Arabic, "Hello, how are you doing." They understood who I was. The mother took the baby, put it in my hands. I melted. I melted. My knees were shaking from holding her.

Joanna Kakissis

[SPEAKING ARABIC] You were moved I said.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Very, very.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

I understood her mother who gave birth alone in a hospital and didn't even know the language, with no one of her people there to wish well for the child in Arabic.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

That's why I was so moved.

Joanna Kakissis

This camp is meant to be better than other camps, and it is. There are kids on BMX bikes. There are soccer and basketball games. There's a trampoline and ping pong. Men play chess on a lawn with a view of the sea. The beach is to the west, so there's a sunset on the water every day.

Sometimes a group of friends, women, dress up in beautiful printed velour dresses that cover them from head to toe, just to go for a walk on the paved empty road lined with ornate old fashioned lampposts.

Refugee

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Joanna Kakissis

The Syrians told me that after finally making it to Greece and sleeping in tents, pitched on streets, in field, in the mud, they were relieved to get here and rest on beds and actual homes with their own bathrooms. One woman told me she hadn't had a full night's sleep in months until she got here.

The camp has been open now for four months. And Nabil never expected how demanding it would be. He's the one who recruited volunteers, organized doctors and midwives, called in immigration lawyers, got supplies donated. And then when the refugees arrived, he realized a critical oversight. He brought hundreds of people who only speak Arabic to a rural area where the only other person for miles who also spoke Arabic was him, Nabil, which meant that he's the person who explains that the food is not rotten or where to buy Halal meat or which direction Mecca is.

The Syrians ask him to help them get papers to go to Germany. They ask him if EU leaders are going to fly them out of the local airport. Sometimes when someone needs to get to Athens for asylum interviews and doesn't have a ride, he'll buy the bus ticket himself. He gets calls from the camp all the time, day or night. The Syrians ask him everything, including-- because remember, Nabil is not only the mayor, he's also a doctor-- they ask him lots of questions about their health.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Joanna Kakissis

Like here he is walking around the camp just saying hello to two women. One of them says her friend is very tired. The friend says her body and throat hurt. Nabil checks her throat.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Joanna Kakissis

You need antibiotics, he says, and sends her to the camp medical station. This is all on top of him having to run his clinic full time. And being mayor is a big job. He manages 22 towns in his municipality. He calls this camp, LM Village, his 23rd town.

I live in Greece, and I can tell you that the refugee crisis has created a whole new sense of obligation. Whenever I interview Greeks about the refugees or when I talk to my relatives and friends and neighbors, one thing always comes across. People want to help them. There's a word in Greek, [GREEK]. There's no equivalent in English. But in essence it means be generous and do good. It's a point of national pride, of Greek character and culture.

But after a six year economic crisis so many Greeks are broke or barely getting by, Greeks are also thinking it's a very real possibility that I could soon be destitute myself. And how can I help then? How can we help so many displaced people now living with us?

And you see both these impulses, [GREEK] and fear, in Myrsini, the town next to LM Village. On the one hand, the locals I spoke with said most people don't have a problem with the Syrians. They're happy that these families with little kids are secure and safe. The vice president of the town, for example, told me he spends all day with the Syrians and he sees real needs there.

But he also sees needs all around him, even his own neighbor, a 70-year-old woman he's known his whole life. She's now so broke she's washing her hair with Tide. Or there's Nikos who's 43, and like a quarter of Greeks, unemployed. He used to work in construction. When I'd met him, he'd been out of work for a while and he didn't have health insurance. And he expressed real and understandable resentment.

Nikos

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

I don't have the money to pay. So I'll have to stay uninsured. If something happens to me and I have to go to the hospital, I will owe money.

Nikos

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

A foreigner doesn't have these problems. It's not fair.

Joanna Kakissis

Refugees can go to the hospital for free. Sometimes I've noticed that local resentment toward the camp is less personal and more outright xenophobic.

Occasionally the rumors get really overblown. My producer Robyn Semien and I spoke to Alexandra Altouni. She's the councilwoman who voted against the camp in the first place.

Alexandra Altouni

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

I heard of what they say is, well, you know. You guys, you Greeks are supposed to take care of us. We're not going to do anything here because we don't have to. We gave them a place to stay, to eat. The Red Cross is helping them. We took them to the doctors, gynecologists.

Alexandra Altouni

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

We've even given them birth control pills so they won't have more kids. So I ask, because theoretically there are women and children here, why do they need birth control pills? Because lots of things have been told. There are lots of rumors going around.

Joanna Kakissis

Rumors that involve sex and money.

Joanna Kakissis

Do you believe these rumors that the women are prostitutes?

Alexandra Altouni

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

It could be a lie. But I really want to know why they need birth control pills if they don't have men. But you know, this is what I think. I think--

Alexandra Altouni

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

--if they're coming from a war zone and theoretically they're damaged people and they're worried about what's next for them, why do they even care about sex? Why should that even be an issue for them?

Joanna Kakissis

It's not true that most of the women are there without their husbands. And of course it's not true that they're prostitutes. Alexandra resents Nabil for bringing the refugees here. She sees the camp as a betrayal to the Greeks who supported him.

Alexandra Altouni

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

We didn't see him as a Syrian when we voted for him. We supported him more than we would have a Greek, a Greek Greek, a real Greek. How can I say it? We saw him as Greek. He's not Greek. He's a guest here.

Joanna Kakissis

Four months in, many of the Syrians still seem to like and appreciate Nabil. I've been there four times, and for the most part, the Syrians are OK with the camp, just like the Greeks who live around it. There is also a small but very vocal minority that's frustrated and angry and blaming Nabil.

To give you a sense of how intense this can be, the first week in June, I stopped by the camp late one Sunday night with my interpreter, Roula. They heard her accent, and then they knew that she's also Syrian. She was instantly surrounded by a crowd.

Refugee

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Joanna Kakissis

They wanted to talk about Nabil, to complain about him.

Interpreter

There's lots of mosquitoes here. Can you do something about it? All of the children here, they have plenty of rashes because of mosquitoes.

Refugee

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Would he accept that if his children would live like this.

Joanna Kakissis

Someone else complains they found worms in the water tank on the property. There had been a protest. Some refused to eat. They said Nabil didn't do enough. Also--

Refugee

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Someone broke his leg. And they called in Dr. Nabil, and he was upset as well because they called him.

Joanna Kakissis

Are there people other than Dr. Nabil you can call here? Because the army has doctors.

Interpreter

He said that Dr. Nabil always told him that there's no doctors in this country.

Joanna Kakissis

He said Nabil told him there were no doctors in this country? The military doctors are right there, every Monday. There's a midwife that comes every Friday.

I get Nabil can't be everywhere at once, but that's not what this group wants to hear.

Refugee

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

The only thing that we would like from Dr. Nabil is just not to think himself he's done the best thing in the world by bringing us here.

Refugee

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I mean, it's good. It's good. But still, we just asked him for the water the other day and he said "Oh, if you don't like it here, just go back to Athens."

Refugee

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Joanna Kakissis

There is a saying in Greek and in Arabic, do a good deed and then throw it into the sea, meaning don't expect a reward. And Nabil didn't expect a reward, but he also didn't expect to be berated. When the Syrians found worms in the water tank, Nabil checked it out right away and fixed it. But the complaints that this somehow signified that he didn't care about the Syrians, that got to him.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

Yeah, actually it pissed me off. And there were instances like that where everyone's like, it's your fault. It's your fault. It's your fault. This perception that I'm always at fault when doesn't go right for them, that upset me so much that for a time I didn't go for days because it stressed me out to go.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

And now I just go to families that I feel like I can talk to, people who listen to me and who I can listen to, not people who have just decided what they want to think and don't want to hear me out and just want me to do what they want to do-- every little thing.

Nabil Morad

[SPEAKING GREEK]

Interpreter

They thought that because I'm the mayor, I can solve everything.

Joanna Kakissis

"Of course they need more than they have," he says. "But it's not fair for them to make demands. A small group does this," he says, tells him, "You owe us."

He looks upset telling me this. He fidgets with a string of worry beads. He wants to be understood. He wants you to understand. So he switches to English.

Nabil Morad

I give everything. I want just a good words. And one thank you, nothing else. I am one of them. You feel sad. For me, they make me sad, a lot of times, very sad.

Joanna Kakissis

Sometimes when he's so exhausted he can't sleep and he's running through all the things he didn't have time to do, he'll remember how simple life was when he was just a good doctor, before he was mayor, before he wanted to change anything. So I ask him, "Why bother? Why bother doing all this?" And he tells me, "I don't want to be that guy who just sits around and says everything sucks and does nothing. Even this is better than that."

Ira Glass

Joanna Kakissis. She normally reports about the refugee crisis for NPR News from Greece. She's currently writing a book about Syrian families who come from the same neighborhood and are now living in Germany.

Act Four: Take Another Little Piece of My Heart

Ira Glass

Act Four, Take Another Little Piece of My Heart. So one night at the camp at the beach resort, LM Village, a bunch of kids and men walked up to Joanna and Robyn Semien from our staff. And one of the men started talking fast, kind of panic struck.

Refugee

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Ira Glass

He said his wife had had a medical problem a few days before, and they called an ambulance, but the ambulance did not come. And she was still at the camp. Here's Robyn.

Robyn Semien

As this man talked about his wife, I looked around the crowd for her. And she's so low key, I didn't see her walk up. She stood off to the side, quiet, purple hijab matching her purple long sleeved T-shirt. Her name's Nasem, Nasem Alsayed Ali.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Robyn Semien

Once we started talking, she pulled the neckline of her shirt down, just a little, to show me part of a scar.

Robyn Semien

Can you show me where?

A perfect right angle, like a bracket, or a greater than sign saying, this direction to her heart, it's greater than the other stuff. The scar is big, clearly new.

Nasem had heart surgery in Turkey in January. She found out about the heart problem, a hole, back home in Idlib in Syria. But there were no good surgeons left. They'd all fled or been killed. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has been targeting doctors and medical workers. So she and her husband and her three kids went to Turkey.

After the surgery, her doctors gave her a strong warning. Whatever you do, don't get pregnant, for two years. Your heart may not be able to handle it. You might die. They told her to rest and come back in a month.

She and her family did not go back in a month. They had a chance to get on a boat to go to Greece, so they did that. But by the time Nasem got to LM Village, she'd already been hospitalized twice. They had to drain fluid from the surgery wound.

At LM Village, she started having trouble, again. Her left arm was in pain. Sometimes she couldn't open her left hand.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

When I went to the hospital here, they just took a blood test for me. And then two hours later, they came, they said oh, you're pregnant. You have a baby.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

And I said, no, no, I'm not pregnant. And then the [INAUDIBLE], they said, you are pregnant. And it was quite shocking for me that I was pregnant.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Then I was like oh my god, I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do. And then they asked me, "Do you want to keep the baby?" And I said no. And they said yes, they're happy that they heard that because--

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

--keeping of the baby, that means it's dangerous for my life. This is what they told me at the hospital. So I don't have a choice as well.

Robyn Semien

Her husband agreed. They had to think first about Nasem's health. The hospital made an appointment for an abortion the following week. Someone at the camp arranged a taxi. They got a friend to stay with their kids.

But their youngest is a toddler. She's two. You know two.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

She was screaming and shouting and crying. Like we didn't know what happened with her. We couldn't just leave her and go. We didn't know what's wrong.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

We said fine-- fine. Let's take her with us. My husband went to the car and said, can you please hold it a minute?

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

So I just was trying to get her dressed. And the time that we got her dressed, the car was gone.

Robyn Semien

Oh no.

Interpreter

He didn't wait. It's kind of our fault in a way as well that we were late, but--

Robyn Semien

It's hard to get a ride as a refugee in Greece. A lot of people think driving a refugee is illegal. They couldn't take another cab because they had no money for another cab. The one they missed was paid for by donations. They don't speak Greek, so they can't even call the hospital to explain and make another appointment. No one at the hospital speaks Arabic.

Nasem has a brother who lives in Holland who is fluent in Greek, Greek and Arabic. So sometimes she'll get him on the phone. But you can see how that's not ideal.

When I met Nasem, she was two or three months pregnant. Different doctors had told her different things. She was still having pains in her arm from her surgery.

I went to her house at the camp. My interpreter Roula and Nasem and I sat at the kitchen table. Her husband was there too, pacing. They've been married 11 years. They have three kids. He was losing his mind over all this. We had a long talk about everything that's been on their mind since all this started, including how they got here.

Robyn Semien

Did you talk about using birth control? Was there a way to get birth control?

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I couldn't take the birth control because I couldn't take any medication after the operation. And we were planning to do with something inside.

Robyn Semien

A diaphragm.

Interpreter

A diaphragm. But we didn't have time when I was in Turkey.

Nasem's Husband

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Dr. Nabil and many people, they told my husband, man, you're fast, why you didn't hold them a second for getting her pregnant.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

But the thing is they tried their best, like he was-- so they were trying kind of using--

Robyn Semien

Oh, I'm stopping the tape. Things got a little explicit. So I just rephrased what her husband told me. OK, back to the tape.

Interpreter

It's the pull out method. He was always doing this method. But he doesn't know how-- like, we don't know how it happened.

Robyn Semien

What about condoms?

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nasem's Husband

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

He doesn't like to use condoms some days.

Robyn Semien

You're blushing.

Interpreter

Yes.

Robyn Semien

You're blushing.

Not so surprising universal truth-- many men who love their wives do not love condoms.

So, after Nasem and her husband missed their first abortion appointment, they eventually did get another one.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I went again. I finally could find appointment. I want again there, but they said that they could not do the operation now because the baby is big.

Robyn Semien

Oh no.

She got this news just two weeks after the first appointment. She was still in her first trimester, but the hospital she was at was so small, they couldn't safely handle the abortion. The very thing the heart surgeons warned her against, pregnancy might be too much for her heart, and here she was, pregnant, and being told, basically, hope for the best.

Interpreter

This sounds so dangerous. What you're describing, it sounds very dangerous. How scary is it for you? How scared are you?

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Sometimes I just cannot sleep all in the night. But what I do is I pray. I pray for God to help me.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

And I pray to tell him, please God, if I sleep, wake me up the next day. Don't just let me sleep for the rest of my life.

Robyn Semien

Do you ever wake your husband up and tell him I can't sleep, I can't sleep?

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Yes, of course. I mean sometimes he would tell me to be patient, be patient and pray.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Just be patient with the pain.

Robyn Semien

A high risk pregnancy is scary under normal circumstances, not to mention a very high risk pregnancy. Nasem was in a refugee camp. No one spoke her language. Money was tight. She couldn't get around on her own. And she couldn't get medical advice she could trust.

A third of the women in this camp were pregnant. I talked to others. Nobody was happy to be having a baby here. But Nasem's case was the most extreme.

Robyn Semien

If there's a way to have an abortion now, you still want one?

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

No, I prefer not to have abortion. I prefer to go and stay in the hospital to give birth.

Robyn Semien

Now you want the baby?

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Yes.

Robyn Semien

I came back from a week of reporting in Greece and couldn't stop thinking about Nasem. Whatever I was doing, she was still at a refugee camp waiting out a high risk pregnancy.

I talked to an OB-GYN in New York and described the situation. She said a pregnancy like this requires weekly monitoring by a specialist, sometimes daily depending on what's happening, and that the delivery or C-section would require a cardiologist to be there as well.

I reached out to one of the midwives at the camp. She told me Nasem had finally had an abortion. I was surprised and a little freaked out. How? Where did she wind up? I called my interpreter Roula right away to get in touch with Nasem. I wanted to know if she was OK.

When Roula reached Nasem, she wasn't at LM Village. She was at a university hospital two hours away in the high risk pregnancy ward where she did not have an abortion. She was still pregnant.

Robyn Semien

Hi.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

Hi.

Robyn Semien

It's nice to hear your voice again. Why are you in the hospital?

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Robyn Semien

It had been a rough few days. She was bleeding and ended up here. It turned out to be a blood clot, which went away. And then they kept her for a few days longer. She wasn't sure why exactly, but she thought due to concerns with her heart.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

They told me that they should just lie down and not work, not carry anything.

Nasem Alsayed Ali

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

They told me that my situation is a bit not stable.

Robyn Semien

When I asked Nasem if the doctor recommended she have an abortion, she told me she didn't know. She thought her pregnancy was as risky as it had always been, but she also wanted to get back to her family at the camp. I couldn't quite tell what was going on, and neither could she. So with her permission, I called the doctor. It took two weeks to get a hold of them.

Charalampos Vitsas

I would like to introduce myself. Hi, I am Charalampos Vitsas, obstetrician in General Hospital of Patras University in Greece.

Robyn Semien

Dr. Vitsas treats women in the high risk pregnancies. The hospital is the best hospital in the area to handle Nasem's situation. It also has a cardiology department. Dr. Vitsas treated Nasem during the eight days she was there. She was the first woman from a refugee camp he's treated. I asked him, in different ways, how bad is this? Can Nasem survive having this baby? He said it's not black and white. She might survive. He'd heard about a similar case where the woman survived.

Robyn Semien

In your professional opinion, do you think she should have an abortion?

Charalampos Vitsas

To be honest, no.

Robyn Semien

No?

Charalampos Vitsas

No.

Robyn Semien

But as we talked, it became clear that he thought "no" because he understood that's what Nasem wanted. It wasn't his medical opinion. He just assumed she'd never consider an abortion, for religious reasons. He didn't know about the missed abortion appointment in the other hospital, or that Nasem had had an abortion once back in Syria. He said they could barely communicate. She was in the hospital for over a week, and no one there spoke Arabic. He said even trying to tell her at the end of the week, you're OK. You can go now. Even that took 20 minutes with her brother on the phone, the one who speaks Greek helping translate.

Hearing this kind of blew my mind. All you do when you're pregnant is go to a doctor every few weeks and talk about you. How are you feeling? What are you worrying about? How's your appetite? Every incremental, mind numbingly boring change is discussed.

Nasem's in this super dangerous pregnancy, and when she finally got to see a doctor who specializes in high risk pregnancies and was in his care for a whole week, he said she asked him next to nothing. And he explained things using Google Translate on his phone hoping it made sense. It seemed tragic.

After I told him she was, in fact, open to the idea of an abortion, I asked the question again.

Robyn Semien

Do you think if you knew that she was open to the idea, even though she doesn't want one, do you think you might have asked her to consider maybe having one?

Charalampos Vitsas

Yeah.

Robyn Semien

You do?

Charalampos Vitsas

Yeah, because the condition is very high risk.

Robyn Semien

Huh.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying Nasem should have an abortion. I'm saying she deserves to have a conversation with a doctor where all the risks are discussed in detail and she can make an informed decision. Without that, a choice isn't a choice. It's a guess.

Maybe the biggest problem with having a pregnancy like this, in a refugee camp, is no one person is tracking Nasem as she goes. I'm sure that's a problem with other urgent medical issues, but a pregnancy like Nasem's, she needs someone who will take this on, who will be with her for the whole nine months. She doesn't have that. As of August, she's six months pregnant, still at the camp, and still piecing it together without understanding most of what's being said to her, one worrying hospital visit to the next.

Ira Glass

Robyn Semien.

Act Five: Smile, You’re on Handmade Camera

Ira Glass

Act Five, Smile, You're On Handmade Camera. So when we were preparing to go to Greece, one of our producers, Sean Cole, was researching probably the best known refugee camp. It was at Idomeni. Right on the Macedonian border in the north. And it was like on the border. And it was vast, 15,000 people living there at its height, and not an official camp set up by the government. It was kind of a mess-- mud and people and protests and clashes with police and refugees throwing rocks and police firing tear gas. If you saw any pictures in the news of Greek refugee camps, chances are you were looking at Idomeni.

But researching Idomeni, we hit upon this one piece of coverage that we found that was not like any of the others. And Sean got a little bit obsessed with it. Here he is.

Sean Cole

Before we left for Greece, I had heard that a group of refugees at Idomeni were doing video news bulletins from the camp themselves, which was intriguing. They called it refugees.tv. But then when I went to watch the videos online--

Refugees.tv

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

I'll just describe them. They're like the field reports you see on TV where the reporter's on the scene.

Refugees.tv

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Sean Cole

But in this case, the reporter is talking into a pretend microphone, like something a kid would make in an after school craft lesson. And also in the shot with him-- I mean obviously somebody is actually recording him. But within the shot is another guy who's just acting like he's the camera man, with a camera that is a block of wood with a plastic bottle tied to it. And with fake mic and camera in hand, they walk up to one person after another and say, in reporterly seriousness, "May I ask a few questions?"

Mahmoud Abdul Rahim

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

Some people smile a little first. Everyone says sure, and politely answers.

Mahmoud Abdul Rahim

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

It just didn't match up with anything I think when I think of a refugee camp. Like it wasn't in the script. It was funny and surreal, and I loved them immediately. So when we finally got over there, I went and met them at the camp they had moved to after Idomeni was closed.

Basel Alyatkan

Hi. How are you? Basel.

Mahmoud Abdul Rahim

Mahmoud.

Sean Cole

Great camera.

The guys with the fake camera and mic are Basel Alyatkan and Mahmoud Abdul Rahim. Basel's 30. He's from Damascus. Mahmoud's 24 from Aleppo. In their Penn and Teller duo, Mahmoud, the reporter, is the tall skinny one with his face to the crowd. Basel, squinting into a piece of wood, is shorter and chubby, and says almost nothing in the videos. But when I sat down on a blanket with them in the grass, Basel did most of the talking.

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

He says they were just sitting around chatting one day about how there weren't as many camera crews around the camp as usual. And while they were talking, he started fashioning together this dummy microphone from some junk that was just lying around.

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

I had sort of a teacup--

Sean Cole

He means a Styrofoam cup.

Interpreter

--and the lid of a sardines can. I fit it in, and we were just talking, normal conversation. And Mahmoud started talking, so I put this thing next to his mouth.

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

And I started switching between back and forth.

Sean Cole

Switching back and forth the way interviewers do with a real microphone.

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

So I worked on the body of the camera with this piece of wood, this water bottle that you see attached to it, and then attached to it this wire and this sock to clean the lens.

Sean Cole

The lens, which is the cap of a plastic water bottle.

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

And then we started talking how bad the media is.

Sean Cole

Case in point, after they had jury rigged the mic and the wooden camera together, they ran off to, quote, unquote, "cover" their first big story. This was before anyone was even videoing them doing it. They were just goofing around.

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

There was some children burning the tents in one area.

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

So Mahmoud and I ran up to them to start filming them up to show that this is what the media is interested in, to film the bad things. And then a group of media people saw us and they came to film us while--

[LAUGHTER]

Sean Cole

So you were right.

Interpreter

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Mahmoud Abdul Rahim

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

This is Mahmoud, the fake reporter.

Interpreter

And the fire brigade, the Greek fire brigade were trying to put out the fire. And I started saying the Greek brigade are putting out the fire outside--

Mahmoud Abdul Rahim

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

--putting out the fire inside our hearts.

Sean Cole

From then on, they started filming their coverage, first on a cell phone camera. And then someone at a German NGO liked what they were doing and donated a real camera to the cause, just a little Panasonic. Their friend Mustafa is basically the entire crew.

Mustafa

I'm the real cameraman.

Sean Cole

Mustafa speaks English. And their buddy Sameer has a laptop, so he uploads the videos to Facebook.

One of the first videos they uploaded was the most classic hacky TV news cliche you could think of. Mahmoud does an on the spot report from a gale force wind storm, Pup tents are billowing around. He and Basel walk over to an unsuspecting interview subject, but you can barely hear them because, again, they're speaking into a piece of garbage.

It makes sense that these guys, and actually a lot of the refugees that we talked to, would have a problem with the media. You hear people say, we're living like animals here. Add to that a bunch of random camera crews and reporters roaming around, and they feel like animals in a zoo. Plus someone else is deciding what their story is and what it means. That must suck. So taking out the fake camera and mocking the news media was an antidote to that, for everybody. This is Basel again.

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Seeing us doing this made sense because it spoke to them. It represented the truth of what's happening in the camp.

Sean Cole

The truth being a bunch of people walking around with ridiculous contraptions?

Basel Alyatkan

Yes.

[LAUGHTER]

Sean Cole

And pretty soon they got more ambitious. Instead of just poking fun at the media, they put on a full scale, Saturday Night Live type sketch aimed at the whole political circus of the refugee crisis, as they saw it.

Mahmoud Abdul Rahim

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

Mahmoud, once again, is on the spot reporter saying, "New surprise from Refugees.tv, breaking news minute by minute." But this time a group of fake UN officials are stationed behind him, five men standing near a tiny square table with paper placards strung around their necks that say UN written in pen. A white board hung off to the side reads, UN Office of No Information and No Help For Refugees.

One of the five fake officials is Mustafa. Mahmoud approaches him, saying, "How can you help the refugees here that have been stuck for over 55 days-- 55 days-- and don't know what's going to happen to them? And the UN and the European Union haven't decided anything. They're saying there's a surprise today at the UN office. Can you tell us about it?

Mustafa

Yeah, we have a surprise from our office, the new United Nations office. So we found a solution for the people. Now there is a new asylum program. We choose a country for you. We're going to choose for you Syria or Iraq, or Palestine if you want.

So from here, we will carry you to Syria or Iraq. So there you will die one time, very fast. Because here you die every day and very slowly. You go Syria or Iraq, you die straight away. So it becomes easy for you to die.

Mahmoud Abdul Rahim

Thank you very much.

Sean Cole

But when you take all the videos together, you realize the mission of Refugees.tv is much simpler than satire. That's not even the main focus. They just want to tell their own story instead of ceding that to someone else. And the name of the project not withstanding, in a way, they're sticking their hand in the air and saying, we're not Refugees with a capital R. We're people who were going somewhere until something stopped us.

Individually, the videos have a kind of diaristic randomness to them. And like a diary, the entries aren't always that significant. They're just what happened that day, like coming across five Europeans in a car listening to hip hop, or a little girl singing a Whitney Houston song--

[GIRL SINGING]

--or a protest or people complaining about conditions about the media, or in one case a personal drama that it seems like you'd have to be living at the camp in order to capture it. One day early last May, a guy named Abu Muhammad was beaten up while waiting in line for food. That happened a lot at Idomeni. Fights would break out in the food lines.

Because of the fight, Abu Muhammad hadn't eaten. His kids hadn't eaten. And he just snapped and decided to hang himself. He got as far as rigging up this rickety gallows by the train tracks before a whole crowd of people stopped him and tried to calm him down, at which point he just became a ball of desperation. That's where the video starts, a bunch of people surrounding a big guy in a blue coat.

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

"I don't care. You will die trying to feed your children every day," he said. "I have children to feed. It's a shame on you. It's such a shame on you. You should feel ashamed of yourselves. What are you waiting for, some tea? Fear God, you people. My child is not here to be humiliated. You are driving me insane. Fear God."

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

As he says all this, a couple of people take down the wooden beam from where he'd wedged it between two posts.

Less than a month after that happened, the government finally came to clear out this whole ramshackle, unofficial camp at Idomeni. Now the guys are living at an official camp run by the military. And Basel says he was warned, in no uncertain terms by a security official who said, "No more running around as journalists documenting camp life."

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

Wow. You are in a European state now. You have to follow the European rule. Otherwise, Turkey is over there.

Sean Cole

Of course, freedom of the press is part of European law, but anyway.

Basel Alyatkan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Interpreter

This happened to me, and Mahmoud also was warned.

Sean Cole

And so was Mustafa. So like lots of information outlets all over the world, in light of changing market forces, they altered their format.

Mustafa

You know, America's Got Talent?

Sean Cole

He's saying, you know America's Got Talent?

Mustafa

We're going to make Refugees Got Talent.

Sean Cole

Refugees Got Talent..

Mustafa

Refugees Got Talent. [SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

The first episode went live at the beginning of June. Mahmoud, Basel, and Mustafa are the judges. It's just like America's Got Talent except they're in a tent sitting in plastic patio chairs. And there are no celebrities, no bright lights, commercials. Actually I guess it's pretty different. The audience crowds in sitting on the floor where they poke their heads into the door of the tent. Sometimes the refugee contestants really do got talent.

Refugee

[SINGING IN ARABIC]

Sean Cole

Mahmoud is the Simon Cowell. So at the end of a performance, even if he liked it, he might throw in, "I have a piece of advice. When you sing, try to open your mouth more to give a clearer song."

One guy's talent is impersonating an Arab celebrity. Another does mime. He calls himself Mohammad who freezes in place. That act ends with him pretending to fall over dead.

[LAUGHTER]

It's a hit. Mustafa told me the plan was to do this twice a week as the new face of Refugees.tv, a safer version that won't break the rules.

Mustafa

We don't want to be in trouble with them, just trying to make some funny things.

Sean Cole

But Basel told me something different, that Refugees.tv is just a way for them to get the police at the camp used to them, so that eventually they could go back to their original shenanigans. And sure enough, a month later when I looked at their Facebook page, there was a new video.

Mustafa

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

It's Mustafa holding the fake mic and Basel with the fake camera interviewing a couple about their baby who was just born at the camp.

Mustafa

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Sean Cole

I did wonder what would happen if they got in trouble, like what the punishment would be. Mustafa said, "Maybe they arrest us, put us in a jail that's better than this one."

Ira Glass

Sean Cole.

[MUSIC - TOM PETTY, "REFUGEE"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Miki Meek and Joanna Kakissis. Our production staff, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivis, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Stephanie Foo, David Kestenbaum, Chana Joffe-Walt, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lyra Smith, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Our editor is Joel Lovell. Editorial help from Julie Snyder and Elna Baker. Research help today from Michelle Harris, Benjamin Phelan, and Christopher Swetala. Our digital editor, Whitney Dangerfield. Original music today from Marcus Thorne Begala. Our fixers, Ammar Saker, Sofia Papadopoulou, Pavlos Zafiropoulos. Our interpreters, Baraa Ktiri, Manaf Abdul Ghani, and Roula Nasrallah. Additional translation, Bachar Alhalabi, Margaret Metzger, Gulie Khalaf from Yezidis International, Shafi Sharifi and Arash Afghahi.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website where you can go to our interactive tour of five refugee camps, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to Public Radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks as always to our program's cofounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, we only met because he saw me across the room at the public radio convention, walked up and said,

Torey Malatia

Wow, you look beautiful. Can I speak to you?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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