On a cold afternoon in mid-February, I huddled into a borrowed office on the Greek island of Lesbos with about 12 other volunteers for a workshop with a child psychologist. She had come to teach us about trauma and the human brain. We all worked at the nearby Moria refugee camp. I had been there about three weeks.
“Intimacy can’t wait”, the psychologist said. I looked up sharply from my notebook, unsure whether I’d heard her correctly. I had. The rules of all the Greek military-run refugee camps prohibit staff members — including volunteers — from touching the minors who live there. This rule even applies to the children under 13, kids who skin their knees as frequently as all kids do. But the rules are there for a reason, I figured. Nobody wants to make a child cry harder when you leave forever.
Gently, the psychologist explained that no-touch rules, while necessary for the children’s safety, have harmful effects of their own. Developing children need physical touch, attention from adults and verbal expressions of affection for their brains’ development. Although there are permanent staffs at the camps as well as volunteers, there are simply too many kids to care for properly. To live denied any expression of love as a minor is to exist in a continuing emergency, whether that person is 6 or 16.
I left Lesbos in March, after a few violent attacks on the Moria aid staff made working there unsafe, and made it back to New York just as the coronavirus travel ban came down. But I thought of that cold afternoon with the psychologist when I watched “Container”, the short documentary above by the Greek Oscar-nominated filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki.
The young men depicted in the film, like Adnan and Mahmood and Sadek, have achieved something very powerful in the form of their relationships with one another. Residents of the camp on the island of Samos, these minors are typical of hundreds like them who say war is the only thing they remember. They are also typical because they are male and teenage: Although there are a great many girls and infants in the system, too, a large majority of the lost children in Greece are boys 14 to 17.
The teenage boys look like grown men at first, but 16 is not so very old. “Unaccompanied minor” is a euphemistic designation for the child who has lost everybody who might once have been able to take care of him. Many have been traveling for years and are reeling from trauma. In “Container”, for example, you hear Adnan describe watching his father tortured by a militia. “I was detained and tortured for 46 days after my father’s death”, he says. He doesn’t mention how old he was when that happened.
Although the teenagers have the uncertain luck to stay in a container converted into a dorm rather than outdoors, you see in what proximity they sleep. Although the coronavirus has spared the Greek islands so far, Greek Migration Ministry officials this week confirmed two new cases on Lesbos in migrants recently arrived from Turkey. Conditions are ripe for an outbreak, and respiratory illnesses are already widespread among a population who is often cold, often rained upon. On Lesbos, I remember the camp’s sewage system overflowing whenever it rained hard, sending a river of human feces through the lives of 20,000 people. It is not exactly easy to wash one’s hands, much less “self-isolate”.
Recognizing this emergency, Britain welcomed 47 vulnerable refugees this week, including at least one teenager. But there are more than 5,000 unaccompanied minors living across Greece. A significant proportion of them are either homeless or reside in the overflowing, dangerous camps on Lesbos, Khíos and Samos, islands that cluster around Turkey like knuckles. Many of these minors are on long journeys that began far away in sub-Saharan Africa; others ran into the European border wall while fleeing war in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. The boys interviewed in “Container” escaped the Islamic State.
These boys are tired and sad and at risk, but they sing on their bunk beds together as if they are not. The whole point of container dorms is that they create an interior where before there was nothing, only the outdoors. But close quarters don’t translate to love unless you work at it: They shelter, singing, while they wait for their names to be called. Inside a six-sided metal box, these boys have forged the kind of intimacy that keeps you alive when your parents are dead.
“Container” was produced by Concordia Studio for The New York Times Op-Docs.