‘I want to go home, it?s better in Pakistan’

The seven-minute drive to our son?s school on the outskirts of Athens is an uplifting ritual. Our son?s sunny disposition turns the car into a cocoon of optimism. He casts himself on every new day like a helium balloon on a benign summer breeze. His expectations are sky-high and, given a fair wind, attainable.

Almost every day, three minutes into the school run, we encounter a scene that is the antithesis of our privileged existence.

A Greek farmer stops by a small vineyard on the country road. He deposits a man of South Asian appearance who carries a bundle of plastic bags. The immigrant pulls up the hood of his cheap anorak and ties the strings beneath his chin as protection against the cold wind whipping off the Aegean Sea and through the olive trees and low pruned vines. He empties the bags on a trestle table by the side of the road. He is selling weeds for 4 euros a bundle. To a Briton, the weeds are dandelions. To Greeks, they are ?horta.? When boiled and drenched with olive oil and lemon juice, this salad is a nutritious component of the Mediterranean diet.

I have been observing the immigrant since before Christmas. He never seems to make a sale, despite being rooted to the spot through the hours of daylight. I wonder if the farmer pays him commission only. His features are a mask of resignation, loneliness and sadness. If I can sense the antipathy of the Greeks who pass by without purchasing, then so can he, a thousand times. He is a foreigner, or ?xenos,? the Greek noun that is the root of the word xenophobia. The government, correctly judging the country?s rising anti-immigrant sentiment, wants him and his kind to go home. The poor, dispossessed and oppressed of Asia, the Middle East and Africa are walking in a never-ending tide toward Europe. Ninety percent of them enter through Greece?s border with Turkey. They are driven by visions of prosperity in Britain, Germany, France and Scandinavia, where they believe they will quickly earn the 10,000 dollars or so, plus interest, needed to repay the trafficking gangs which cynically exploit their dreams. Once in Greece, most find themselves trapped, incapable of proceeding westward, and, having discarded their passports in an attempt to claim political asylum, unable to return home. Greece is being swamped and cannot withstand this burden, says Christos Papoutsis, the immaculately suited and booted Socialist who runs the Ministry of Citizens? Protection.

Papoutsis has proposed erecting a fence along the most vulnerable stretch of the Turkish frontier. Greek government policy has been propelled by tensions in the historic center of Athens which has been colonized by tens of thousands of illegal immigrants. The impact can be judged by taking a walk along Sophocleous Street, a mile or so from the Parthenon. At the top is an upmarket department store, the marble colonnaded headquarters of Greece?s major banks as well as the former Stock Exchange. As the street descends, it is lined by doss houses where immigrants take shifts to sleep 20 or more to a small box room. Those that can?t afford shelter take their chances on a bench or beneath a bush. Midway down Sophocleous, there is a soup kitchen that feeds immigrants and an increasing number of Greeks. At the very bottom, the street seethes with the desperation, poverty and potential violence of a Karachi slum. Last month, opponents of Mr Papoutsis?s fence held a protest march. They retreated to the Church of Aghios Panteleimonas, a district of Athens that has become a magnet for migrants. They were attacked by Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi group which did well in last autumn?s municipal elections.

I wasn?t there. I was near the town of Dadu, in Sindh, the southernmost province of Pakistan, worst affected by the great flood. I met a farmer called Abdul Nabi, whose home and smallholding are still under water six months after the deluge. Abdul Nabi, his wife and five children were nibbling on two chapatis, flat bread cooked in oil. It?s all they had to eat. Since the flood, aid agencies have discovered that almost one in four children are malnourished, mainly because of poverty. According to the children?s agency UNICEF, the malnutrition is as bad as that seen in Ethiopia, Darfur and Chad. In Pakistan, half the population are bonded farm laborers who spend their lives in debt to their landlords. In Karachi, I met a flood victim called Abdul Ghaffar who refuses to return to the fields. ?I don?t want to be a slave anymore,? he said. ?I want to educate my children.?

The man who sells horta on my school run is called Asif. He comes from Lahore. He?s been in Greece for three years. ?I want to go home,? he told me. ?It?s better in Pakistan.?

Malcolm Brabant was recently in Pakistan to shoot a film for UNICEF about malnutrition among Pakistani children. The film can be viewed here: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/pakistan_57553.html. The commentary published here is from the report that he filed for the BBC?s ?From Our Own Correspondent? program.

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