I was last in Athens in 2016. It was early March. On the far side of winter, the sun warmed the city’s streets, where startling mimosas had begun to bloom. I remember how charmed I felt by the sheer oldness of the buildings, their lives spanning beyond my comprehension. That week I floated between crowded coffee shops where I would spend hours writing in my notebook. I proceeded to Lesbos by ferry, where I spent the next three weeks working with different NGOs and civil society organisations trying to contend with the swelling number of new arrivals trapped on the island.
Just before I left Lesbos, the EU signed a deal with Turkey and the ‘spill-over camp’ (a collection of tents in an olive grove beyond the International Organization for Migration’s official camp) was raided at night. Several of the men living in the camp were pulled out by the police: a sort of warm-up to the main event when they came in trucks to evict the entire camp.
Most of the men were deported to Turkey, many ended up in detention centres across Greece, the rest – I do not know. My friend told me about her Iranian friend who she had become close to working in the kitchen. Unable to claim asylum, he had accepted the inevitable and marched down to the port himself. She watched him board the boat tearfully.
I have come back to Greece this summer to conduct research on the systems of ‘bordering’ and the civil society organisations who agitate against it. Bound by the academic’s ethical code I am not here to ‘help’. Although, in many ways the work feels increasingly hopeless.
In some areas the city itself exudes desperation. There seem to be more junkies, more graffiti, more desolate buildings where overgrown jasmine casts brilliant shadows in the blazing sun. But, these abandoned spaces are also full of potential, home to skate parks, parties, bars and squats for the homeless.
I am writing this blog on my way to an island holiday after conducting several interviews in refugee squats. The mood is close to desperate. Many of the people I spoke to have been waiting for papers for years. Stuck in limbo, they are ‘not living a life’.
Doing field work like this is difficult. Especially when it is on a topic you care about. The questions that keep me up at night are:
- What is the purpose of this research?
- Is this a sort of navel-gazing?
- Where can this information go beyond the academic fortress?
- Does this process of academic research deprive people of their humanity?
My tentative advice is that if you are also conducting research in challenging circumstances then find an outlet. For me it has always been writing. I put pen to paper guiltily – feeling like a gratuitous voyeur – but I’ll still do it. This is how I process. Find your own way beyond the academic practice. Do not over-identify with the subject of your research. Allow yourself to be subjective. Use the resources provided by SOAS and speak to your friends. Focus on the small victories: human connection; the give and take of knowledge production.
I’ll be spending the next few months making an analysis about the interviews I conducted in Lesbos. I do it with the uncomfortable feeling that this research will not change anything. Still, at least, through this process I will gain more knowledge, which I plan to share.
It’s a small thing. But at least it’s something.