It was a beautiful day for a walk, from Greece to Bulgaria. My daughter was under one and I carried her in a sling. I walked along to our destination, the check point between the two countries. Perhaps it was the walking, the baby in a sling, but it put me in mind of the walks that people do, when they’ve run out of options, when they have to get somewhere, anywhere other than where they are.
From age 25 through to 34 I lived in Europe. The walk above was in the last years of this time. You would say that I was an Ex-Pat, not an immigrant even, and a long way from a Refugee. This week – Refugee Week has brought up some keen memories of the positive discrimination I experienced in that time.
In that decade, there are three things I remember – opening a bank account when I arrived in London, getting my passport stamped when I lived in Greece as a teacher, and this walk.
As a fresh-faced 25-year old, I went into Abbey National building society with a gold coin, just like my Australian friends had advised me to do. I got myself a bank account so I would be able to get paid in whatever temporary work I could find. You could practically smell Heathrow fumes, I was such a new arrival. I put down my coin, went through the formalities, produced my magical Australian passport with its miraculous “UK Grandparent Stamp” on it, and left the counter with the important money receiving mechanism, aka a bank account to add to my repertoire.
Behind me in the queue were two men from an African country, I couldn’t tell which. They too had all the traces of a recent journey. But unlike me, when they reached the counter, put down their gold coin and produced their passports, they were turned away. I was still fussing with my bag and so witnessed them having to do the walk of shame out of the branch. I stood there, mutely, knowing that the accident of my place of birth was giving me an advanced place in the queue.
Six years later, I moved to Greece to teach English as a Foreign Language. There were a range of administrative tasks required of me and my new fellow teachers, and the Alien Police were our reluctant hosts. We required an interpreter for language, and were taken to the passport office to have our passports stamped. The room was full of people, presumably from neighbouring countries such as Albania, Bulgaria, perhaps further afield. We were bustled past each and every one of them, and as a slightly older person, this time I said “Sorry” to each one of them as I was unfairly advanced in the queue. We were gone in a matter of minutes, while they would have remained there no doubt for hours.
And this final time, the walk across the border. I had by now stayed longer in Greece than my passport allowed, and a border crossing was required to refresh the passport with more months of time.
So, while the beauty of the day was apparent, the reality was that this was not a walk we were choosing to do – this was a walk we had to do.
But such a simple thing – a walk to a check point. A stamp on a passport. A taxi ride back across the border (the agreement was I would carry our daughter one way, and he would carry her back. But suddenly a taxi was available when we reached the other side.) I might imagine I had a little glimpse into the horror of being a refugee, but I know that this is a pitiful, meagre example of what people have been through, are going through.
And I have been thinking about this during the week, watching the Refugee Week posts come up, seeing the stories, knowing how different Australia has become in terms of welcoming refugees. And it really is all just an accident of birth – where you’re born and what passport you can legally claim, it is absolutely nothing to do with inherent merit or worth.