Silent goodbye: Refugee funerals in Greece
Men bury an unknown Syrian refugee on Lesbos. (AFP/Achilleas Zavallis)
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Ahmed’s funeral took place on the top of a small Greek mountain on the island of Chios, overlooking the Aegean Sea that he died crossing.
Standing around his four-foot-long grave on Thursday, February 25, 2016 were four members of his family, three dozen humanitarian aid workers, two EU border police, and the team of Spanish medics who had lifted Ahmed’s small body off of a boat two days earlier. He was three years old.
According to the UNHCR’s best estimates, 13,144 refugees arrived in small dinghies on Chios’ beaches and cliffs in February 2016. Ahmed’s funeral was not the only one held that month.
I had arrived in Chios a week earlier to volunteer with an organization that helps small boats packed with refugees land safely. Volunteers monitor the beaches at night, driving up and down the coast in teams of two, cars stocked with donated clothes, baby wipes, plastic bags for wet shoes, a lot of socks, and never enough diapers.
On Tuesday night, February 23, a message on the volunteer Whatsapp chain told us that a little boy had died as his dinghy arrived at the port. He may have already been dead when adult refugees handed him to the Spanish life guards.
Ahmed’s mother, who had three other young children, was in the refugee camp within hours of her son’s death. Ahmed’s father was not with her. They had been separated as smugglers packed them onto boats on the other side of the Aegean Sea. He had remained behind, hiding in a shack on the Turkish shoreline, waiting for the next smugglers’ boat. He had arrived in Chios two days later.
The morning Ahmed died, a volunteer from California named Puja asked our organization’s coordinator if there would be a funeral. The issue was causing tension on the island. Some refugee advocates were worried that Ahmed, who was from Afghanistan and Muslim, would not receive a proper Islamic burial.
Our Norwegian coordinator, Bjorn, said the funeral would be held Thursday morning. Anyone who wanted to attend would need to meet downstairs at 9:45 am. Hussein, a fellow volunteer, and I were on shift the night before from 2am to 8am. We slept for an hour and got up to go. Together with Bjorn, a Norwegian nurse, Isabelle, who was present when Ahmed died, and Puja, we drove to Chios Hospital where other organizations were meeting before the funeral.
Hussein was only the Arab volunteer in our group, and started talking to an aid organization from the United Arab Emirates. I listened and translated for my colleagues any important details about the funeral, family, or legal issues facing the boy’s parents.
There wasn’t much to translate: the funeral would be in an hour; the family was in the refugee camp waiting to be picked up.
The Emirati group had done most of the organizing for the event. As the only predominantly Muslim volunteer group, its members saw it as their responsibility. Women from the group had put on perfectly black abayas over their muddy camp clothes, in preparation for the funeral.
The Emirati man told Hussein that a local Greek Orthodox community had donated a small corner of its cemetery for Muslim burials. This was the first burial in the plot, but nine other holes had already been dug.
After waiting twenty minutes outside the hospital, all thirty of us – mostly Emiratis, some Europeans, two Americans, and a social worker working with Frontex, the European border police – piled into cars. We drove up the coast and turned onto a steep dirt road that ended at a tiny cemetery. It sat on the side of a mountain, looking over a sea that seemed too beautiful to have killed Ahmed.
We got out of the car and rummaged through a giant supply of clothing donations in the trunk, searching for scarves. I put one on, awkwardly laying the frayed edges over my bright yellow vest. The other non-Muslim women asked me for help, more out of a need to connect than because of any difficulty with draping cloth over their heads.
Hussein served as the middleman between the Emiratis and the Europeans, coming back and forth to inform our coordinator and fellow volunteers about what was happening. He tried to explain how the funeral would work. Our tall, lovely Norwegian coordinator was concerned about not “doing it right,” missing a cue, or somehow disrespecting the family’s customs. But the family’s traditions were back in Afghanistan. This was an Emirati funeral organized on a Greek mountain in a language Ahmed’s parents did not speak.
Ahmed’s mother wore a dusty black sweater and brown headscarf. She sat on the ground near a small water fountain with a Christian cross carved into it. A circle of Emirati woman stood around her. A small Palestinian woman was walking away from the circle, irate. Apparently there was a disagreement about whether or not the mother would be allowed to see her child’s body.
A small rusty white van came up the mountain and drove toward the cemetery. Ahmed’s mother jumped up and almost lunged at the car. Two volunteers tried to hold her away from the back doors. Another tried to stop her from looking inside. More Emiratis rushed over. Her husband and four women held Ahmed’s mother as two men opened the back doors.
Then, the screaming started. High pitched but heavy, like it was coming from the woman’s stomach. The sound came first, then the image of black abayas holding back Ahmed’s mother, then tan hands lifting a small white bundle from the back of the van.
He was tiny.
In many Muslim funerals, all the men help with carrying the body. But Ahmed was so small only one man could carry him at a time. So, they gently passed him to one another as they walked through the arched white gate of the cemetery.
A neat path led through four rows of big white stone box graves. Brass crosses and candles reflected onto the stone. Each grave was topped with and surrounded by flawlessly fresh flowers.
At the end of the rows, the flowers and glimmering stone suddenly stopped. The cemetery turned into a junkyard, with dirt piles and scraps of granite rock. On the left, there were small but long mounds of dirt. In between the mounds, there were ten holes facing south-east, to Mecca.
A non-Muslim, British man, who thought he understood Islam’s tenets better than anyone else, decided to take charge. He apologetically informed all women present, including Ahmed’s mother, that they could not enter the cemetery. It is unclear where he had plucked this notion from. An Emirati woman refused to acknowledge his command, and walked past him into the cemetery. The rest of us followed.
Muslim volunteers filed into lines next to the father, who stood behind a man leading prayers in Arabic. The father, who spoke no Arabic, participated silently. Then, the men approached the boy’s grave.
The Emirati women held the boy’s mother and aunt, who watched from about twenty feet away. I stood with the non-Muslim volunteers behind them, until one of the Emiratis yelled for help. She was holding up the little boy’s crying aunt, who had collapsed almost entirely onto the ground from grief.
I ran to Ahmed’s aunt and held her next to my body for the rest of the funeral, trying to keep her out of the dirt. The Palestinian woman held Ahmed’s aunt tightly from the left. To help, the Norwegian nurse locked her arm tightly into the Palestinian woman’s. We stood there for about ten minutes, the four of us – Palestinian, Norwegian, American, and Afghan – locked into one another. Next to us, on the ground, the Emiratis tried to comfort Ahmed’s mother in words she did not understand.
The men began gently throwing dirt onto Ahmed’s grave. The screaming resumed.
Volunteers walked Ahmed’s mother out of the cemetery. The Spanish medics wanted to sedate her. They had never heard screaming like that before. Perhaps, it is not what Spanish mothers do when their children die.
I held up Ahmed’s aunt and shuffled her out behind his mother.
Hussein went to find our coordinator. He took him to Ahmed’s grave and showed him how to throw a handful of dirt on the little white bundle.
Outside the cemetery, a four-year-old boy appeared. He was Ahmed’s cousin and was carrying a plastic bag of dirty toys, half eaten candy, and wilted flowers. He had wandered away from the volunteer who had been watching him during the funeral. I reached down, only half expecting him to grab my hand. But, he did and took me to the gate. He wanted to sit next to his mother and watch the ambulance.
When the Spanish medics brought out the sedation needles for Ahmed’s mother, I took his cousin for a walk. We wandered back into the cemetery. He gave me his juice box and squatted down a few feet from the grave. He took his wilted flowers out of his candy bag and put them on the ground.
The men processed out of the cemetery. Ahmed’s family was placed in a car, for the return trip to the camp. Ahmed’s mother did not scream again or blink; she did not even seem to be breathing.
My team and I uncovered our heads and got into the car. As we drove down the mountain, it occurred to me that Ahmed’s mother would almost certainly never see her baby’s grave again.
By Erin Kilbride
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