A Colombian-American deals with different misconceptions in different parts of the world. Ask him who he is before you ask him where he's from.
ATHENS — "Where are you from?" The burly Greek port policeman demanded in English as he looked down, holding my American passport in front of me. I was barefoot, kneeling on the floor, wrists cuffed behind. Other officers were gathering around. "Is this passport your passport?" one repeated. "Are you from ISIS?"
At this point they'd already punched and stepped on me, yelling in Greek what I assumed were insults. Soon after, I was also forced to open up my phone and my computer, and was locked in a dark cell. Later, after having seen photos of my boyfriend and me on my iPhone, they figured out I was gay. "Are you a homosexual?" They passed my phone around, mocking and laughing — but this humiliation was the last of my concerns. I knew what they were doing was wrong and unlawful, but as the hours went by, I began to wonder how far they'd be willing to go. Am I going to be raped? I asked myself. Am I going to die?
It is true, the port policeman on the island of Chios initially brought me into the station because I'd told him to "fuck off." But it's also true that he'd been targeting, harassing me and following me for over 20 minutes in the port, demanding that I leave different public spaces. No matter what I'd said or not said that night, from the beginning I was already a target. And the reason was simply the way I looked —yes, in Europe, I am often mistaken for a native of the Middle East.
A lot of mestizos from Colombia like myself do have a Middle Eastern look, despite the enormous diversity of looks across Latin America. Whether this is due to the migration of Arabs into Latin America is merely speculation. Yet my very real encounter provides a perfect example of the pros and the cons of being mistaken for something that you are not, be it in Europe, the U.S. or elsewhere.
So, despite the shock that summer night of 2017, I was simultaneously not surprised at all. At the time of the incident, I'd been volunteering with refugee-aid organizations in France and Greece. I'd been around refugees long enough to know that this was the routine. I'd seen people beaten up for no reason and I'd already heard many stories of abuse suffered at the hands of the Greek police. But this is not just the Greek police. It's the French police, the American police, the Belgian police — it's the police.
This was not the only time I was discriminated against for looking like a refugee. In one instance on the same island, I was refused to be served a drink, whereupon the server explicitly told me: "I am sorry, but we don't serve refugees." I requested to see the manager and told him I would not leave until I was served a drink. "If this is what you are doing to refugees, this is wrong," I told them.
"Where are you from?" Even this question, so seemingly innocent and banal, can sometimes be so loaded. And another question we all must face: "What is a refugee?"
The author with fellow volunteers on the island of Chios, a few weeks before the incident — Photo: Juan David Romero
I know that I am not a refugee, but I am a migrant because I left my country (twice!) by choice, as pointed out to me by a Syrian woman. But this doesn't mean that I can't identify or sympathize with her struggle.
Such is the cursed paradox of being a Middle Eastern-looking Latino living in Europe. When someone looks at me on the street in Greece, they see a refugee — and that is the only thing some will ever see. The nation itself still has huge leaps to go in order to become a modern and truly welcoming nation. But it is not alone. I can say from experience, for example, it's not so good to be a Latino in the U.S. right now. And it goes without saying, there is discrimination against the LGBT community as well, no matter where you go.
A refugee, well, they are normal people like everyone else.
What is also vexing is that discrimination against immigrants and refugees often also arrives from other immigrants or their descendants, so it's not all about being white or non-white. There are those migrants who, as soon as they arrive, want to close the doors on others — particularly if they come from a different background. You can't imagine the number of times a third, second or first-generation Latino in the U.S. has said to me: "These illegals, we must stop them. Why can't they come here legally like I did?" I see the exact same problem in Europe.
So, what really is a refugee? According to the United Nations, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. Right now two-thirds of all refugees worldwide come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia.
Here's another definition of the term: "A refugee, well, they are normal people like everyone else." That's what Ramman Ismail, the Syrian refugee in my film Unbroken Paradise, says. "A refugee has the right to have a phone, and a very good one too. A refugee has the right to dress like everyone else."
Ismail is also a refugee who, in four years after his arrival in France from Syria, learned French and got into an architecture school in Bordeaux. And he is not the only refugee with a success story. I've personally met dozens. It does not mean, though, that we should expect all refugees to integrate immediately. After all, I've been an American since I was twelve, and at times I feel like I am still integrating and at times, during long periods of absences, even reintegrating back into my own country. Moving to a different country, learning a language, adapting to other ways of thinking—it's hard. Society expects us to do all of the hard work, but when we are overtly discriminated against or microagressed, we are also expected to "stay out of the way", to not cry, to never protest and to remain silent. And at times, all of this talk about integration begs the question: "Why must integration only be from my side?"
It's easy to dismiss refugees and immigrants as a blood-sucking burden to society if you are seeing their depiction in certain media outlets. But almost every single one wants the same as you and me: a nice life, a nice home, a nice education, and a job. Tranquility.
There is an obvious divide between what we know and what we hear being said about what it means to be or not to be a refugee. At the end of the day, the fact of the matter is, because of the world that we live in right now, being a Muslim and being from the Middle East is not a good thing, for them or for someone like me, who isn't even religious and comes from an entirely different side of the globe. Why Muslims? Because before it was the Jews, and then the Japanese, it's arbitrary. It's xenophobia and it's racism.
When I spoke with a lawyer about my incident the day after, she said to me: "Listen, I deal with these type of cases on a weekly basis and far worse. If you do decide to go after them, the most that can really happen is you'll get this guy suspended for a couple of weeks and then, it'll all go back to normal. You can also take him to court, but that'll take a while. Can you commit to this? Because it might take a few months."
Ultimately, I decided not to go through with it. It meant I would have to go back to the police station, identify the people involved in the incident, and at the time I thought: "God forbid I get this guy suspended or fired and he decides to track me down and murder me." The incident with the port police impacted me so much, that every time I see a policeman, my heart starts racing and I want to cry. Even now, more than a year later. After that night, I was not in the right emotional standing to face these people.
What struck me the most, and it still does to this day, is the sharp contrasts of life. How one second you can be having the time of your life as I was that summer day on that incredibly beautiful Greek island, and the next you are in a dark cell wondering if you will die.
A few nights later, I left the island. At the port, I saw the policeman who had initiated it all from a distance, but he didn't see me. Still, I felt so terrified that I asked the leader of the refugee-aid organization to come with me as I went to board the ferry. Once again, as is normal pretty much everywhere I go, the border police set me aside for extra questioning. Inspecting my passport closely, she looked up and asked me: "Where are you from?"