Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell. C. T. Studd
|Athens at the height of the Financial Crisis|
Thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers find themselves stuck in the cycle of Greece’s overwhelmed and broken bureaucracy, living in hovels or just in the parks, dreaming of a way out. Many have fled persecution and violence in extreme forms, while others left behind “only” abject poverty and hopelessness. At certain times of the day, the street turns into an overwhelming and intimidating sea of faces from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa. Inside an alleyway entrance to the center we were visiting, 50 Afghan women with children in tow lined up to collect basic food staples. One man asked for money to buy medicine for the sick baby girl he was carrying, but we had to say no.
A few years back that same street became home to a methadone treatment center for drug abusers. Now hundreds of addicts crowd the sidewalks — shaking, wavering and bobbing about with weak knees, seemingly oblivious to the world around them. In a desperate search for their next fix, men and women drop their pants without shame or take turns stabbing each other in the back of the neck looking for a vein. They’ve lost all sense of dignity and are lost in some other world, but it’s the needles in their shaky hands that make me shudder as we navigate the street.
In this same zone legal and not-so-legal prostitution runs rampant both day and night. Women from Africa and Eastern Europe are lured in with promises of jobs and a new future only to be forced into sex slavery. Some are physically held in confinement. Others are kept through psychological and emotional abuse involving tales of impossible debts and threats of harm to their loved ones should they flee. Brothels are lined up one after another, marked with simple white light bulbs left on outside the doors. The men exiting brothels into the daylight look sheepishly at the ground, avoiding our gazes, and hurry on their way.
I think it is the unrestrained evil in this little triangle of Athens that strikes me most. Overt, abusive, degrading evil is tolerated. Police officers wander the streets in a show of power. They spend most of their time checking immigrants’ documents while casually observing the drug deals an arm’s length away. It’s like the authorities have given up, having resigned this section of the city to unrelenting darkness, perhaps only hoping to isolate it from the eyes of tourists.
I’m sure this must be what hell feels like.