ATHENS, Greece -- Photos and video of an Afghan man lifting a baby over his head at the port of Piraeus sparked outrage across Greece last week, prompting a national discussion about the precarious situation of migrants and refugees in the country and the plight of children in the crisis.
Thousands of refugees and migrants have arrived in the port city near Athens in the past few months on their way from the Greek islands to Macedonia. At least 4,500 people are currently camped out at several locations at the port, protesting Macedonia’s decision to close its border with Greece to prevent them from moving on to northern Europe. The Greek government has urged the migrants and refugees to leave the port for government accommodation centers, but few people have heeded their call.
Last Wednesday, dozens of migrants and refugees, most of them Afghans, staged a protest at the port after officials told them about the government’s decision to evacuate the port. “Open the borders,” they shouted. “Afghanistan is alone. 50 years war,” some posters read.
An angry Afghan man confronted photographers and journalists, lifting a baby over his head. Greek media reported that the man threatened to throw the child at Port Authority officers.
Witnesses said the man who lifted the baby had responded furiously to the government’s announcement, and had been reprimanded by a Port Authority officer over his fierce reaction. The man hasn’t been identified yet.
The aggressive gesture shocked journalists at the scene and social media users who saw the image in the Greek media.
Some commentators argued the baby was a symbol of the refugees’ despair. Others saw the child as a victim of the enraged man. Greek media outlet Newsbomb described the man’s move as “an image of absolute shame and inhumanity.”
The baby’s family told HuffPost Greece, however, that the child was never in danger.
“Nobody wanted to throw the baby," Mahlie Nabithad, the child’s aunt, told HuffPost Greece after the incident on Wednesday. "The man who lifted her was angry. We all are, about what is happening, about the borders that don't open. There is no hope for us Afghans.” Nabithad refused to discuss the man’s identity or his relation to the child.
As the cameras and the photographers had left and Nabithad was trying to put the baby to sleep, the woman explained in hampered English that the little girl she was holding in her arms was four months old and had been living in the port of Piraeus with her mother as well as members of her extended family for the post month.
The family used to live in Ghazni, in eastern Afghanistan, in an area that was frequently attacked by the Taliban. They left the country three months ago, Nabithad said, after Taliban fighters injured her brother.
“My brother was punished by the Taliban. We wanted to leave before this happened, but when it did, we knew we had to. If we stayed, he would die,” Nabithad said.
“I remember Taliban and war for as long as I live,” Nabithad continued. “I have friends and relatives killed by the Taliban, who were killed at war. We thought that after the Americans came, the Taliban wouldn't return, but that wasn't the case. We are afraid, just like the Syrians and the Iraqis. When you die or are afraid that you are going to die because of the Taliban, isn't that war?”
The family’s journey from Afghanistan to Piraeus took about two months. They imagined that once they reached Greece, they’d be safe.
But in early March when Macedonia shut its border, it effectively trapped migrants and refugees inside Greece. As a result, migrants and refugees have been staying in Piraeus for months, stranded in difficult conditions and facing an uncertain future. The Greek government has set out to evacuate Piraeus by May 1, in an attempt to restore the port’s operations.
Migrants and refugees staying in the port are angered at the prospect of moving to government accommodation facilities, as they fear further restrictions on their movement. A new agreement between Turkey and the European Union to stem the migrant flows also won’t improve their situation; unlike Syrians, Afghans are not allowed to relocate to Europe under the deal.
At the port, Amjad al Fakhouri explained that tensions at the port had risen long before the incident on Wednesday. The Syrian, who previously worked at an insurance company in Dubai, is one of five refugees running a coordination committee that communicates the Greek government's decisions to migrants and refugees and organizes protests to spotlight the migrants and refugees’ plight in central Athens.
Al Fakhouri explained that Wednesday had been a day full of tension in Piraeus. The crisis started when Greek authorities asked journalists and TV crews to leave the port while officials informed migrants and refugees sheltered there about the government’s plan to evacuate them. This annoyed the press. When the officials informed the migrants and refugees about the decision, many of them were angry and disappointed, and began to protest.
“I understand that for you, this image of the baby might have been quite shocking and cruel. But we come from places where there is a lot of violence, death and war,” al Fakhouri said.
“It is for these children that their parents set out to make this journey," he continued. “We want to protect them, not kill them. They simply wanted demonstrate that this baby is a victim of this situation here. Not just here in the port, but in all of Europe.”
“You know, lots of parents held their children in the same way when they were getting them over the wired fences of the Turkish-Syrian border," al Fakhouri said. "They almost threw them on the other side of the fence. Wasn't that shocking? If children in the West don't go to school for three days, the parents are responsible. What about these children, who live here now, don't go to school and have been through so much? Don't any of the European governments care?”
“We left Afghanistan for these children, so they can live,” Nabithad, the baby’s aunt, said. “We love them exactly like you do. We only wanted to show you that whatever we do is for them. To say to you that if you don't think about us, then you should think about them.”
This story was originally published in HuffPost Greece and was translated into English.