'Get out of our country': A Pakistani migrant's Greek story

A Pakistani migrant worker tells of the attack that left him badly beaten and reconsidering his future in the country.

by

    Athens, Greece - Shahzad Ahmed woke up at 4:30am on Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and set off for morning prayers at a makeshift mosque in Athens's run down Menidi suburb. But the 34-year-old Pakistani factory worker didn't make it to the mosque that morning.

    Two weeks later, sat surrounded by friends at a plastic table in the cramped, two-room shack he shares with three coworkers, he described what happened next - each punch, every kick - as his companions sipped from cans of Red Bull, puffed on hand-rolled cigarettes and nodded in frustration.

    A HISTORY OF MIGRATION

    In the 1970s, Greece and Pakistan signed a bilateral agreement allowing Pakistanis to gain temporary employment in Greek shipyards. Shortly after, another facilitated the migration of Pakistanis to work in Greece’s textile industries. 


    But the following decade saw a rise in irregular migration, and, according to one study, in 1981 seven out of 10 Pakistanis in Greece lacked documents.


    The number of arrivals from Pakistan swelled throughout the 1990s as thousands entered on student or tourist visas, crossed the Aegean Sea in flimsy boats or walked across the land border with Turkey. 


    Greek policies that allowed for the legalisation of undocumented migrants increased the country’s popularity as a destination for transient workers, and as the Pakistani community in Greece grew, more felt encouraged to make the journey. 


    Although the total number of Pakistanis in Greece today remains unknown, some estimates suggest it could be as many as 50,000. 

    But, like many of his friends and coworkers, Ahmed's Greek story began many years earlier.

    An orphan from Sialkot in Pakistan's Punjab district, Ahmed was 19 years old when, in 2003, he left his homeland for Greece.

    He quickly acquired a working-level knowledge of Greek, hoping to convey respect and gratitude on his host country, and found employment in other suburbs and industrial areas around Athens before settling at a meat factory in Menidi.

    "They [Greeks] say we took their jobs, but they wouldn't do this work that we do for the same amount of money," he said.

    Ahmed first started to hear about attacks on migrants in 2010. The number of such stories grew around the time of the 2012 national elections, as a result of which the country's neo-fascist Golden Dawn party entered parliament for the first time. The Racist Violence Recording Network documented 151 attacks on refugees and migrants in Greece in 2012.

    But Menidi's factories and fields had sustained Pakistani workers and their families back at home for years, and the area remained largely untouched by the violence that accompanied the rise of Golden Dawn, which now has 16 seats in the Greek parliament, elsewhere.

    "Nothing ever happened here," Ahmed reflected.

    It may not have been home, but Ahmed worked hard, sent money back to his wife and two-year-old daughter and did whatever he could to distract himself from missing them: participating in early evening cricket games on a yellow-grassed field next to his home when the weather was warm, playing cards or talking politics over glasses of hot tea when it wasn't.

    He hoped the violence would pass - and, for a time, it seemed to have.

    The number of attacks on migrants plummeted after a member of Golden Dawn killed a Greek anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, five years ago. But it is once again on the rise. According to police statistics, hate crimes motivated by skin colour, nationality and ethnicity almost tripled in 2017 when compared with the year before - and there was no sign of them letting up during the first half of 2018.

    Migrants have been beaten in agricultural fields, in alleyways and during nationalist rallies.

    Gulbaz Mohammed, 36, was attacked while walking home from work late one night in May [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]


    In May, a gang pummeled 36-year-old Gulbaz Mohammed while he was walking home in Athens's Peristeri neighbourhood, and three weeks later, two men jumped a pair of Greek parents who had invited Pakistanis to work at an annual end-of-year school party in the Sepolia suburb.

    'Get out of our country'

    But there was nothing out of the ordinary during the weeks before Eid, Ahmed recalled. For 29 days, he celebrated sundown with other Pakistanis. They would pool what little money they had to buy feasts with which to break their fasts: Lamb, chicken, potatoes, rice, lentils and traditional Pakistani desserts.

    After a month of fasting, Shahzad was exhausted, and Eid could not come soon enough. Summer heatwaves hit Athens early this year, but the predawn breeze made the mornings more tolerable than the sweltering afternoons. On the morning of Eid, he dressed in a crisp white thobe, gelled his coal-black hair and set off. 

    His rickety motorbike bounced along the dusty, potholed road leading to the main street. He pressed down on the brake as he approached the first stoplight, and his bike trembled to a halt. A group of Pakistanis ran past him, fleeing from a black Smart car parked nearby.

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    "F****** Pakistani," a voice snarled.

    Ahmed didn't turn in time to see the first punch coming, but he felt it smash into his temple.

    He tried to keep his balance, but his attackers toppled him over onto the rough pavement below.

    Two young Greeks hunched over him. "Get out of our country, you Pakistani j***off," said one. "Leave Greece, a******," the other added.

    Another blow crashed into his eye, a pair of brass knuckles into his jaw. He threw up his arms like a goalkeeper trying to block a penalty shot, he recalled, but it was useless. He let his body go limp as the kicks made impact.

    The ambush ended in a matter of minutes. Ahmed lay flat on his back and looked up through blurry eyes as the rising sun splashed orange across the sky. He heard the car's doors open, then slam shut and the engine start.

    He rolled to his side, delirious and in pain from cuts that felt like small jolts of electricity. He fumbled for his phone and, as though operating on autopilot, typed in the license plate number just before the vehicle screeched away and disappeared into the distance.

    Shahzad Ahmed, 34, was attacked before sunrise on Eid, while heading to morning prayers [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera] 


    As though growing tired of sharing his story, Ahmed picked up his old black Nokia mobile phone to show a grainy image taken moments after the attack: A busted vessel reddened his eye, swollen gashes marked his face and blood soaked his clothes.

    'Bloody from head to toe'

    Javied Aslam, a slender 50-year-old with a black-and-grey peppered beard and a ready smile, is the president of the Pakistani Community of Greece and head of the Union of Immigrant Workers. Migrant labourers often call him to help with their residency documents, to mediate labour disputes and to invite him to ceremonies and religious festivities.

    Aslam came to Greece as a student in 1996, more than a decade before mobs started threatening and beating migrants. But since 2010 his union has also served as a de facto monitor of hate groups and far-right violence, urging victims to file police reports and organising anti-fascist rallies alongside Greek leftist groups.

    On Eid this year, he was wrapping up morning prayers at an Athens mosque when his phone rang. "Mr Javed Aslam?" asked a voice on the other end. "Is that you?"

    Shahzad [Ahmed] was bloody from head to toe.

    Javed Aslam, president of the Pakistani Community of Greece

    Like most who ring for help, Ahmed had never spoken to Aslam before. But the community leader stopped what he was doing and headed straight to Menidi.

    "Shahzad [Ahmed] was bloody from head to toe," he recalled.

    Aslam issued directives to concerned Pakistanis who had gathered in the area. "This is my way. If they are busy, they are less likely to be frightened and worried," he explained.

    Although six others were attacked in the area that week, only Ahmed was willing to file a police report, Aslam said. The others, who are undocumented, were too afraid. Police investigators used the license plate number to locate and arrest the assailants within a couple days.

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    Four days later, Aslam banded together with Keerfa, an Athens-based anti-fascist group, to rally against the spate of attacks. Around 300 people marched through the streets of nearby Peristeri, singing anti-fascist chants and holding banners that read "Hang the fascists!"

    Aslam led the march, behind him a sea of placards and fluttering flags. "They are trying to increase [the number of attacks], but the public is more helpful now," he said, pointing to the many protests that have been held in solidarity with victims.

    'I thought life in Europe was beautiful'

    Ahmed and others in Menidi said they appreciated the rally, but with work to do, they couldn't attend.

    Mohammed Ishaq, Ahmed's broad-chested roommate and coworker, slumped in his chair and wondered whether the meagre financial gain they make from being in Greece is worth risking the "very alarming" wave of violence. "It makes us think of going somewhere else, to a quieter country," he reflected.

    If someone in Pakistan asked me about coming here … I'd tell them not to. There are some really good people, but there are also animals.

    Shahzad Ahmed, Pakistani migrant worker in Greece

    "When someone attacks us, they are not hurting one person; they are hurting five, six, seven people for each [attack]," Ishaq added, referring to their families back in Pakistan.

    That is why Ahmed didn't tell his family about what happened to him. "I didn't want to make my wife cry," he said, looking down as his hands fidgeted nervously.

    He knows that she would demand he come home and with their hypothetical arguments playing out in his mind and worries about the lower salary he would earn in Pakistan, he reluctantly decided to hide it from her.

    But the effects of the attack have stayed with him.

    "I don't go outside any more," he said.

    "They beat me on the face, so that other people could see the damage they do to us."

    With eye pain, chronic headaches and painful bruises, he has found himself taking more breaks than usual during his shifts at the factory.

    On June 19, hundreds of Pakistani migrant workers and anti-fascists protested in Peristeri, a suburb of Athens, against far-right violence [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]


    After 15 years in Greece, he has started to reconsider his future in the country. "I thought life in Europe was beautiful," he said, "and that we could work here without problems."

    But now, he reflected, "If someone in Pakistan asked me about coming here… I'd tell them not to. There are some really good people, but there are also animals."

    Across Europe, the far-right is on the rise, and it has some of the continent's most diverse communities in its crosshairs.

    To the far-right, these neighbourhoods are "no-go zones" that challenge their notion of what it means to be European.

    To those who live in them, they are Europe. In This is Europe, a series of films from across the continent, Al Jazeera tells their stories. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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