The Migrant – a road adventure tale first caught my attention with its exciting cover, promising a step away from my usual kind of reading, along with entering the world of South Eastern Europe (and I do have a few Greek genes myself). It turned out to be a road trip story, set with danger … the author, fellow writer Paul Alkazraji, now lives and works in Albania, and writes below about visiting Greek camps where very many Syrian refugee families are living. I’ve followed that up with my review of this fast-paced novel, which takes place in Albania and Athens …
First, welcome, Paul, and over to you…
As the ‘Migrant Crisis’ began to develop in Greece in 2015, I felt that we in the church in Albania might be able to do something to help the situation. One of the worst trouble spots, Idomeni Camp at the border of Greece and North Macedonia on the ‘Balkan Route’, was only a three-hour drive away.
On our two visits there we loaded my old Mercedes Benz 240d with water, plastic sheeting, tinned food and basic medical supplies, and gave them to the groups of volunteers and NGO’s who were arriving too. Up to 10,000 migrants would become stuck in the muddy fields and along the railway lines in makeshift shelters and tents. Frustration would eventually erupt and some died there.
Later in 2016, I visited the ‘Softex’ camp on the industrial periphery of Thessaloniki where over a thousand mostly Syrians had been hastily accommodated after the camp at Idomeni was closed in May. It was one of many where some 57,000 refugees were held in official government camps throughout Greece after new border fences were built and the Balkan migration route closed.
Teams from our group of Albanian churches had been making weekly runs since the spring to bring children’s activities including face painting, action games and a bouncy castle. They also bagged up and distributed fresh vegetables tent by tent up to 600 portions a day.
Many of those tents were erected inside the former ‘Softex’ toilet paper factory to provide additional shelter from the not-too-distant winter. In the gloomy darkness children pushed each other around in rickety prams and played with broken bricks. There were makeshift street stalls, coffee shops and flat-bread bakers, and it had all the aromas both sweet and foul of a Damascus souk.
“When we first came here, I saw they were living in bad conditions, and if you’d asked me to enter, I would not,” said one church team member Klaus Kalemi. “But I did because I wanted to help. I think that all of them were hoping for a better future, because I saw the writing on the walls here everywhere.”
I met one small boy, Mohamed, from Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria, there with his parents, two sisters and four brothers. “We came at night in a boat. It had a motor and there were no waves. In the morning we were in Greece. I did not see any fish,” he said.
“One of the most needed things in the camp is something for the children,” said church team leader Lysiena Topi. “You can see them fighting because they don’t have anything to do. When we went in, at first the managers would say to us, ‘Okay you can try!’ But after we had finished the (activities), they would say, ‘We don’t know how you do it. These kids love you!’ We see the smiles in their eyes…”
My review of The Migrant …
Here’s a thoroughly enjoyable, page turning, adventure read. Even though I don’t usually choose books in this genre, I was caught up by the story from page one. The fast paced road trip was vividly described, and the characters believable. This is a story of youngsters who disappear from their village, attempting to climb out of rural poverty, their hope to find work in another country. There they find themselves in the clutches of criminals and traffickers. As pastor Jude, the ex-criminal Mehmed, and policeman Luan drove hell for leather from Albania to Athens in a borrowed car, we are with them in all the thrills and spills, their mission to find out what has happened to Alban, and Kela, from their village. Descriptions of the landscape and of daily life in Albania, and of Athens in the riots created by the austerity program in 2012, form the backdrop to their desperate journey, their fears, and the conflicts between them.
We are catapulted into an ending which is both believable and redemptive, though not for all the characters, and certainly not for every hopeful young adult who starts the journey. It could be repeated in many countries of our world, and should be told.
When beginning the book I had not known that there was a prequel novel, involving the characters of the pastor Jude and his wife Alex, and how Mehmed’s former life was changed. When I discovered this, it helped me understand their situation and relationship. I feel that some of that story could have usefully been introduced near the start of The Migrant, and would’ve explained some literary references!
My other critical thought is that a bit more ‘content editing’ could have made for a clearer and more smooth flowing text. In such a fast paced novel, this would have transformed a good reading experience into a very good one.
Recommended to take as a companion on a long journey: you will be transported from your plane or train!
The Migrant was published by Instant Apostle in February 2019
Links: Chapter 1 of The Migrant is free to read here
Paul is on Twitter @paul_alkazraji