In the past few years, international governments, institutions, and media have used the expression “refugee crisis” to describe the rising number of undocumented individuals and families fleeing to Europe from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where they face harsh challenges, including war, poverty, persecution, and human rights violations. Hoping to start a new life in Europe and looking for a new identity, thousands of refugees have braved the Mediterranean Sea on board of inflatable boats and makeshift vessels, driven by an idea of Europe as the land where their dreams will be realized. Some of them decided to cross the sea illegally only to become refugees and to enjoy the benefits of this status. Where the West Sets is a documentary project that attempts to chronicle this crisis as it plays out on the northern Aegean Islands and in mainland Greece – the same territories where Western Culture and its values were born. The aesthetics of my work lies on an approach that had me go to those places not as a reporter looking for facts but as a documentarist trying to verify facts. The series of photographs reflect the consequences that the refugee crisis is having on the cradle of civilization, whereas the traditional value of respecting other human beings is replaced with feelings of hostility, fear, and xenophobia among the Greeks.
In the same country that gave birth to philosophy, science, and anthropology, people are living among refugees in an uncertain and disordered way, holding tightly to their self-referential and contradictory values, belonging to a Europe that is now diminished but that is frantically trying to redefine its own identity.
Mytilene, Agrilia Kratigou’s beach. The photograph shows the thermal image of the coast of Turkey, near Cesme. Thermal devices are used for the patrol and the identification of refugee boats that arrive clandestinely from Turkey.
Mytilene. Tamin Fakti is a 19 years old Pakistani refugee. Many refugees escape from official camps to live as squatters in destroyed buildings and crumbling palaces.
Mithymna, Lesbos Island, Greece. Outside the urban areas there is a dump of thousands of life jackets and the wrecks of boats used by refugees.
Eftalou, Lesbos. Manuel is the owner of Taverna Eftalou. «Every morning I look outside the window to the beach in front of my restaurant and I hope not to see any boats of migrants». Many traders and other locals have called the emergency of the arrivals with the term “invasion,” a word that describes the interstitial discomfort and the trauma they have experienced.
Mytilene, Lesbos. Kenan, 27 a years old Senegalese refugee, is looking outside the window in the help centre of the Swiss Cross. «I hope to get a document as soon as possible, in order to go to Northern Europe and start a new life.»
Lesbos, Moni Mirsinidiou. View of the coast.
Mytilene. A rescue boat of the NGO Erci during patrol at sea. Since 2015 many non-governmental organizations have received mandate and funds from Greece and the EU to help the incoming refugee boats. To date, hundreds of NGOs working throughout Greece are contending the areas of their operations.
Port of Chios. Read, a 19 year old from Aleppo, dives from a pier.
Lesbos, Eftalou’s beach. In 2016 numerous bodies of refugees who drowned during their crossing to Europe were found on this beach. It is now deserted. During a walk in search of the marks of the migration left on the coastal landscape, I found the carcass of a dog which died several months before and was left to rot.
Athens, Pedion Areos’ park. A refugee shows off his body, offering sexual services in exchange for a few Euros.
Mytilene, Agrilia Kratigou’s beach. A refugee bathing. «The water is beautiful and crystalline. Isn’t it cold?» I ask him, during the photoshoot. «Yes. But I have nothing else to do». We laugh together. «What is your name?» I ask him. He replies: «That’s not important.»
Athens, Elliniko refugee camp. Safir, 23 years old.
Lesbos, Moria refugee camp. A refugee returns to his tent after taking a shower.
Mytilene. Tamer al-Hamri, a 68 years old Palestinian refugee, lighting a fire in an abandoned house along the Makris Gialos’ shoreline to warm up and to cook the fish caught during the day.
Mytilene. Movida on Saturday evening in a nightclub on the city along the sea.
Chios, Chios Island. The “Souda” refugee camp is located inside the archaeological site of Castle od Chios, built in the Byzantine era around 9th century. This installation has damaged the local economy, which depended on tourism.
Chios, Agios’ family house. Nanà is helping her son with homework: «Until two years ago, here in Chios, everybody slept with their door open. Nothing happened because we all knew each other. Now everyone has an alarm system, and home and property insurance because we are afraid of what we see and what we cannot control. In recent months we have had thefts and attacks by refugees who are not escaping from any war. Chios was a beautiful place to live and have holidays. This game between Turkey and Europe has transformed our islands into buffer-islands.»
Eftalou, Molovos. Eric Kempson is a sculptor who works in refugee support. In 2015 with his wife Philippa he founded the “Ellenic Workshop,” a factory for volunteers who want to offer help to the refugees of Lesbos, outside of institutional circuits and the NGO domain.
Aegean Sea, on the ferry of Ellenic Seaways. Ratina (31) and Zouttir (26) from Algeria move from Lesbos to Chios. «If your girlfriend or your wife is pregnant you are entitled to better assistance and not go to refugee camps. They provide you with a hotel room or a house.»
Lesbos, Moria refugee camp.
Mytilene, near the refugee camp of Moria. Eirene F. is the owner of a small restaurant: «I’ve never had trouble to fill my restaurant. We are a family, we don’t need much to be happy. Today, however, I can only turn on the fireplace and prepare the coals to cook the fish when a person enters the room.»
Port of Chios. Falah, a 26 year old Pakistani refugee, is praying in the harbour. In the background the Turkish coast.
Mytilene. Lutfi, a 21 year old from Algeria, lives as squatter on the outskirts of the city.
Moria Refugee Camp.
Mytilene. The Agrilia Kratigou’s beach is a strategic place to patrol the territory, from which you can monitor the maritime border and the Turkish coast. Erik, a young volunteer from Stockholm, is patrolling the area during the night.
Mytilene. The squatters live in illegal conditions. A lookout system checks the buildings and informs the whole community when the police is going to break in the occupied areas. Faruk, a 24 years old refugee from Syria, covers his daily shift.
Mytilene. Fatahi Hamid shows me an X-ray of his ribs, after having being beaten by the Hellenic Police. «They were suspicious of me because I was alone abroad. They interrogated me three times asking me the same questions. I felt provoked and lost my temper. They beat me because they thought I was a terrorist. I escaped from the camp and came here.»
Moria refugees camp. Faktur (38) has a document that certifies his status as a refugee. There are few who have one. «I do not want to go away from here. What will I do outside here? I will be alone, and here I have all my friends». Chios, Orthodox cemetery of Agia Markella. The tomb of an anonymous refugee found dead in the bay below.
All photographs and texts by Luigi Avantaggiato.