“Kiria (ma’am), do you need a mobile case? I have some very nice ones and very cheap, just five euros for you.” The red long rabbit’s ears iPhone case caught my eye. Why not, I thought, I can make a few people laugh with it.
The street seller had approached our table where I was sitting with my father, enjoying our habitual morning coffee in the town’s Eleutheria Square, looking at the passersby while catching up over the past year’s news. A thin dark skinned man of average height, carrying his merchandise in his arms and hands, the usual fare for street peddlers, was standing in front of us.
We had already been approached by two-three others, the usual scene in the city’s open air cafés. Gypsies, unemployed people forced out in times of economic crisis, illegal migrants, children exploited by gang rings; all were selling or begging or offering things you did not need but were hard to refuse when faced with the misery of exploitation, poverty and indignity.
By the time this man came to our table, we had already been through the emotional blackmail and agony of having to reject multiple merchandise offers and straightforward requests for money, all giving us an opportunity to declare in public our generosity, compassion and much more. Our empathy had reached a saturation level, if that could be possible. Should empathy have limits anyway, especially when it comes to such misery?
My father, a resident of the island’s capital for decades, had developed a defense mechanism like all others in this place, necessary to survive the onslaught of random people demanding his precarious euros. I, an erratic visitor to the island on my annual short filial duty, was still struggling to come to terms with having to decline to share my wealth with these clearly much in need people.
However, there was something special with this man, I had felt. He looked like the thousand men I had met on the streets, markets, shops of South Asia. Some of them had been my colleagues. This man was not just a street hawker to me or an illegal migrant but one of those people I had come across in their own countries so many times, people I had interacted with, people with a life and history and families and jobs, people with roots in their own communities.
I felt compelled to talk to him. The researcher in me wanted to ask many questions. Where was he from? What brought him here to my island home town? Who was he? What was his name? He was from Pakistan, he said. He came via the people trafficking route, Iran and Turkey, a journey that had cost him a few thousand US dollars paid to the traffickers in return for a chance to a better life.
He found his way to Athens, the first stop inside Europe from South Asia and the Middle East, where there was a community of fellow Pakistani men. He had hoped to find work there for a while, earn some money and then continue on his journey. England was his destination. Everyone’s destination back then, until the borders tightened, with many dreams stranded on the wrong side.
Unfortunately, he had reached Athens just at the start of the country’s disastrous and what proved to be long-lasting economic crisis and after five months of no luck with work he took the advice to move to Crete. “Go to Crete”, he was told, “you stand a better chance to find work there, it’s a rich island.”
The island’s traditionally strong tourist and agricultural economy had buffered it from the worst of the crisis, at least in the early years of it. So, he came to Crete. The plan was to stay for a year but here he was, three years later still working the streets, saving money and trying to find another way to get to the UK.
“What’s your name”, I asked at the end of our short conversation. “Sayed”, he replied. “Nice meeting you, Sayed. I wish you all the best for your journey ahead.” I gave him the five euros for the red rabbit ears iPhone case and he went away with a big smile and not just for the money he received, I felt.
My father had remained silent during my conversation with Sayed. I heard him later telling my mother how proud he was of his daughter treating that man as an equal. My parents, of course, were not alien to migrants. They had employed them on many occasions for farming work and my mother had been more than generous in her sharing of clothes and food and money. But most of them were Eastern Europeans, fellow Christians as my mother would put it. And this man was a street seller from far away, an illegal from the look of it, so caution had to be exercised, in a city that had seen a sharply increased criminality over the years with the influx of migrants and high unemployment.
As we were regulars in that café in the town’s busy central square, we came to see Sayed a few more times since that first encounter. He always waved hi cheerfully before continuing with his gentle street peddling techniques to the other café customers. He called the oldies, sitting there sipping languorously their morning Greek coffee, uncles or grandpas, mamas and papas.
On the day before I left that first summer of our acquaintance, I called him over to tell him I was leaving soon and bid him goodbye. He wanted to give me a goodbye gift. “Here, chose which mobile case you want” and offered me two-three options of animal heads cases.
I declined politely, “Thank you, Sayed, but please keep them to sell them. You need the money more than I need the cases.” He insisted. My father motioned to me that I should take one. I did, a cat-looking case this time, in white and pink. He left looking happy, wishing me kalo taksidi, a safe trip back home.
My father was visibly moved and so was I. I could not understand why this man wanted to give me a gift. My father’s suggestion was that most likely I was the first local person that saw in him something more than an illegal migrant, that took the time to talk to him, to know him. The cat case was to thank me for acknowledging his humanity.
I was moved by this man’s dignified act of generosity. It made me think much about the invisibility of those who live in the periphery of our societies, physically present perhaps but invisible in all other ways. Whilst I was happy with the gift, I was saddened by the enormity of that realization.
But that was not the last time I saw Sayed or heard of him. My family would tell me he was still in town and on my various visits I would always come to meet Sayed in that same café in the town’s square while drinking coffee with my dad.
On one occasion, I had asked him if he still wanted to go to England. His plans had changed, he informed me. He was now working to save enough money to pay for a fake passport that would take him to Canada where he had relatives.
Apparently, it was easier to enter Canada with a fake passport than to enter the UK illegally from another EU country. But for that he had to go to Spain, he explained. That’s where the fake passport business he was told about was located. I had wished him good luck, thinking that will be the last time I saw him.
But last time I was in Crete, Sayed, was still there. He looked so much thinner, painfully so, and he was missing a few teeth. He came over to our table with a big smile. “You are back!” and then to my father, “Papa must be happy to have your daughter back!” I asked him how he was and he proudly took a piece of folded paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and passed it on to me with anticipation at my reaction.
“I got my papers now and I am going back to Pakistan next month to visit my family! But then I can return here legally.” His voice was full of enthusiasm and excitement and something else. A quiet dignity perhaps.
“It is ok here, I can make a living and as I am legal now, I can go back to see my family.” So, Sayed had settled in the island that was meant to be a provisional stage on his journey to another more promising land.
Sayed’s comment of his legal status came to haunt me that evening. It reminded me Elie Wiesel’s statement I often had used in my classes on social change: “human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat and skinny, they can right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”
I looked at the paper, it was a provisional kind of ID issued by the local police station with a photo stapled at the top left. There was Sayed wearing a suit and tie, looking serious and full of dignity. I was wondering whose suit that was, if he got it for just that occasion, for the ID photo taking. I did not ask, I was simply happy for him.
And Sayed was not his name after all. A precaution illegal migrants often take, going by another name. An alien not only in a foreign land but also on the inside.
Perhaps Sayed will be still be there next time I visit Crete. I am looking forward to hearing how his trip back home went, on my own trip back home.