Shoe lace, Belt, GPS, Google Map: Vital Things to the People on the Run

These white shoe-laces tied on the grey sneakers are not the original laces of these sneakers. The original laces were grey, the same colour as the sneakers. Javad could not find grey shoe-laces, therefore he bought these, after he lost the original ones during an on-foot journey on the route shown on the map; this is a picture of the GPS navigation map on Javad’s Mobile phone that shows the route and distance from Istanbul, Turkey to Alexandropoulos, Greece on Google Maps. According to that, it will take 3 days and some hours on foot.

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When Police Use Material Objects of Forced Migrants to Hinder Migration

Javad is a young man, born and raised in Iran. However, he never had an Iranian ID, since his parents are Afghans who have migrated to Iran long ago during the Soviet invasion to Afghanistan in 1979. He was my colleague during my tenure as a humanitarian worker in Iran. Due to the complications in immigration/labour regulations regarding the employment of non-nationals, Javad was hired as a volunteer with a small payment. He worked as an “Application and web developer” in the IT department. He was polite, intelligent and always busy at his computer and did not speak much.

The IT infrastructure of the whole organization that was later developed, was established on an urgent notice by the hard work of the three Afghan IT men who stayed up till 5 in the morning working in the office. The team-work spirit and the passion to do something big and meaningful was the motivation and the reason of their tireless diligence, I believe.

Following the deterioration of socio-economic situation in Iran in late 2018 and early 2019 (due to pressurizing additional international sanctions and mismanagement of the country), the payment of the Afghan volunteers started to shrink and later on they were dismissed as a result of downsizing.

Unemployed for a year, Javad searched for another job in vain. Javad decided to leave Iran for Turkey in early 2020. He is now in Istanbul. With expertise in IT; web developing and coding, Javad has got a part time job in a tailoring shop in Istanbul and has rented a small flat. Since the cause of his flight is not the fear for his life, but the quest for a decent life in which he can live for his talents and potentials, Turkey is not an option to apply for asylum. He tries to reach Greece hoping that Greece will accept to have him.

Using the GPS and Google map on his mobile phone, Javad and some others have recently crossed the border to Greece (in early July 2020) on foot. He made it and was five days in Greece but he was then caught by the police and deported back to Turkey. He tells me about his experience (via electronic chat): “It was really hard the five days in Greece; we walked during the night and slept during the day. We ran out of food and water, but we endured. Five days’ hardship and being deported at the end. The police took our everything; mobile phone, backpacks, clothes”. “Did they take your money too?”, I asked. “No, they gave back our money and also one set of our clothes. They took all the rest”, he replied and continued: “The city police arrested us and handed over to the border police, they took us to a prison for one night with no food and water. The next day took us to a river that was the border with Turkey and on a rubber boat transferred to the other side of the river.”

I asked if Javad had looked at the faces of the police officers the moment they embarked. “They were wearing black face masks”, he replied. I inquired the reason and whether it was due to Corona. He answered: “No, face masks in order not to be identified. I’ve heard that the blows of their spears have lately damaged an inflatable boat, and as a result three Africans have drowned and also a three-year-old girl whose father is now back in Turkey and is going insane. Since then, they cover their faces”. I assume this might also have some relations with the ensuing international protest against the police violence after the death of George Floyd in the United States. Javad was not angry about what the police officers had done. He explained: “They were doing their duty and protected their country. They would let migrants in if they want, they would not when they do not want. This is their country…”. His last sentence reminded me of what Azad, the Kurdish-Iraqi-German family man who lives in Goettingen, had told me in another interview …this is their country, we cannot tell them what to do…

I asked why the police confiscated their mobile phones. “To make us unable of going again. Everybody uses the GPS on their mobile phones to find the route and the police know it. They also took our shoe laces and belts to make us give up totally. Without these, one cannot take walks”. I had never noticed that these trivial small things like shoe lace or belt play such a big role in border-crossing, deprivation of which will severely interrupt and hinder the mobility of forced migrants.

Javad continued: “It was so hard that I decided to return to Iran… but the situation in Iran is a havoc. I will stay for a couple of months to see what will happen”. I was interested to know in case he could have a proper job in Turkey, would he stay there or if he only wants to reach Europe. “Sure”, he replied. “If I find a good job here. I will stay everywhere I can have a good job”. I remember the argument of a German pedestrian who approached me and my friends from Seebrücke in the city centre of Goettingen and asked why ‘these refugees’ would come to Europe and do not go to other neighbouring countries? Although the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and Syria have taken millions of people, and it is not true that all go to Europe, but I think this answer of Javad could be the answer to this man’s question.

I inquired about Javad’s motivation for enduring all that hardship and if Iran was so bad that he would rather go through this? He answered with a bitter smile: “The word Mohajir (Migrant) is written on our fate. It does not make a difference where we are. If we go to Afghanistan, we will be called Iranian Mohajer, in Iran we are Afghan Mohajer. We have no country”. He laughed and continued: “Iran was very good, but it is not anymore. Inflation has broken its back. Iranians themselves are running short of breath, let alone us. If the situation in Iran remained like before, like when I was working in the NGO, I would never ever think of leaving. I would have even stayed despite the shrunken payment but they fired us. On the other hand, the immigration administration was also pressuring further”.

To be admitted as an asylum seeker, one needs a plausible reason for their flight; fear for their life, an existential threat due to war, persecution or violence. Joblessness and lack of possibility to find a decent work which satisfies one’s passions and motivations do not fit in the category of asylum law.

I have met some asylum seekers who have a proper life in their home country; had the passport and enough money to book a direct flight to Germany. When arrived, they sought asylum by allegedly conversion to another religion that puts them in peril in the home country. Given this, I do not argue against the right of people to choose where they want to live for any reason. My argument is that there could be a problem with this asylum system that makes some people resort to stories and some others depend on shoe laces, belts and the GPS of their mobile phones to find the route to their future. Many of whom like Javad are gifted with intelligence and talents who would benefit any company or organization who gives them a chance.

Back to the topic of the relation between people and things, it is incontrovertible that dispossession affects people personally and emotionally. Since taking things away from people (especially when part of as a political strategy) can cause harm and bring about indignity[1]. In this regard, I enquired about Javad’s feelings the moment he handed in his mobile phone, shoe laces and belt to the officer. He replied: “I had grief for my phone, it was a gift from my brother to me. I loved it. But the other things did not matter.”

Also, I asked how it affects him now and every day that he ties and unties his shoes. “My shoe laces used to be grey, the same colour as my shoes. I looked for grey laces after I was back in Istanbul, but I did not find. So, I bought white laces. They do not fit the colour of my sneakers, so every time I tie and untie them I remember the days in Greece”. I wanted to know what kind of feeling was it; anger, shame, regret, humiliation, sadness… “None!... It is ‘rue’. We had crossed…we were in Greece…we were so close to our goal. I wish we were not arrested and could have made it after all that hardship”, replied Javad.

Perhaps, the shoe lace would forever be a special ambivalent object to Javad. It has turned from an ordinary thing to a sensitive object that triggers affects (Frykmann, M.& J., 2016), such as an object from the past or a memory that gives one a shiver running down the spine. As such, shoe lace for Javad would always be a reminder of flight, hope, powerlessness, dispossession relations or even transmitter of a sense of not belonging, similar to what I have shown in Objects as Means of Motivation. In contrast, if Javad can succeed to fulfil his dream in pursuit of his aspirations, then shoe-lace would evoke different feelings like sense of achievement and pride in self, resembling the case of the barber Wassim and his old comb and scissors that remind him of a hard time but also of his achievements.

Maliheh Bayat Tork

[1] Things have been often used as means of humiliation during the Nazi regime, to ridicule prominent members of the opposition during show trials, by giving the prisoners oversized clothes, by taking away their belt, and false teeth from the captives.

Google Maps Route from Javad; Istanbul (Turkey) to Alexandropoulos (Greece)
Google Maps Route from Javad; Istanbul (Turkey) to Alexandropoulos (Greece)
Shoe lace, Belt, GPS, Google Map