About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Ali wearing a snapback against an orange background

Ali Ataei

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:



Zahra Mojahed

“My dream was to take my family out of that miserable situation, that fascist country,” recalls Ali Ataei (22). Aged 17, he and his brother left their country for Europe, trying to escape conflict and persecution. “I was worried,” he explains. “The circumstances were extremely difficult.” The journey to Greece took place in winter. On one occasion, their guide abandoned them to the police. Later, the boat they were travelling in nearly sank. He can’t remember many details of the journey: “I think I have somehow lost my memory of those days.” The first two years he spent in a refugee camp were tough: “I tried to stay in the tent to prevent getting mixed up in fights. I got isolated. I was coping with a lot of pressure.” Now in a different camp, he currently lives in a container home, separated from his brother. “I have always coped with loneliness,” he says of his experience. “It has made me stronger.” (Ali’s requested that his country of origin not be mentioned in his interview).

Trigger Warning: Racism, violence

full interview

First introduce yourself?
Hello, my name is Ali Ataei.

How old are you?
Twenty-two years old.

Ok, and?
I do not know exactly the location, the district.

How long have you been here?
Where? Greece?

Yes, Greece. When did you enter Greece?
Five years ago.

You have been here in Greece for five years?
Uh huh.

Where do you live now?
For now, I am in Eleonas Camp.

In Eleonas Camp? Who do you live with?
I am alone. My brother is also there somewhere. He is underage.I live alone in a container home.

What is the condition of the container home?
It’s terrible.

How do you spend your time during the day? What do you do? Do you go to work?
No, I do not do anything.

So how do you spend your hours?
I usually go out.

With your friends?
With my friends or alone.

Do you go to any classes, like language classes?
I have gone to many classes before; they tell me to sign up for classes, but it never happens.

What must happen to give you some happiness to help you to enjoy your life a little?
Like, maybe if I could learn the language, study the subjects I like.

How has your life been since you arrived in Europe? Has anything good happened to you? What were the difficulties?
There have been many more difficulties, but as for anything good, well, there has not been anything specific.

Can you elaborate? Like how has your life been in general since you arrived in Europe? Has it improved or worsened?
Well, it has gotten worse so far. It has not gotten better.

Can you explain that for us? For example, your life here, how do you feel about it?
Since I arrived in Greece, I have not liked Greece.

Have you left your family or you came here with them? Like what was it like? Did you come alone or with your brother?
With my little brother.

When you left and got separated from your family, how did you feel back then?
Back then I was worried.

Worried about?
My mother.

How were you able to deal with leaving your family and coming here? Can you elaborate?
The circumstances were extremely difficult, and I suddenly decided to come here. When I first explained the plan to my mom, she was not happy with it but then she accepted it.

Have you ever thought that you could control this kind of situation?
Yes, I had been thinking about these things in the past. Like what if I had to stay in Greece for five years.

With these conditions, what has helped you endure?
My mother’s words. My brother is here. On the whole,I have always coped with loneliness.

Do you think that all these hardships and challenges you have encountered have helped you acquire some skills or made you stronger or better than before?
Until now the Greek government has not helped me at all, the UN, when I was underage, they did not help properly. They did not give me proper food. There are many difficulties andwhen I needed support and assistance, I did not get any.

Have these difficulties made you stronger?
Yes, 100%.

How has Covid-19 affected your daily life, your emotions, your life in general? Can you elaborate?
There has been no specific effect on my daily life. But I wanted to go to some classes and it has caused many problems.

But it did not have any effect on your emotions? Like fear, anxiety?
No, not at all. Not really.

How about the quarantine? Did it prevent you from going to your classes?

I am going to ask you about your past now?

Why did you leave your country? Can you tell me what happened?
You mean the country I was in before here or my birth country?

So, you do not remember the details?
No, not really.

When you decided to go from ‘country name removed’ to Europe was it because of this identity problem and such disrespect?
It was not only because of that. For example, one early morning, I went out with one of my friends and some people on their motorcycle came and snached his mobile phone.

That same day, I went to the bazaar and I saw five individuals beating an Afghan. On my way back home from the bazaar, I saw another Afghan being beaten by 11 people. In the early evening, I went to the club, where they sell CDs, and saw two Iranians beating one Afghan. I told myself when so many Afghans are bothered in just one day, it is going to get worse for sure. That was when the Iran sanctions were introduced.

How do you feel when you think of those days?
I do not feel anything specific. I just feel offended by Iranians, angry at Iranians. We have the same religion but they are racist, extremely racist.

Can you describe your trip to Europe and explain the difficulties and experiences you had during the trip?
There were many difficulties. Which one should I talk about first?

Tell us from the start. How did you start your trip toward Greece?
Well, we started from Turkey and went to the area where they would get us on boats. The first time, the cops came and caught everybody except for me, my brother, two other people, and two Arab girls.

Didn’t the cops see you?
Well,I saw our guide deliberately leaving all of us behind so that the cops could come and catch us. I saw him escape sneakily, climbing the mountain. I followed him. I told my brother to follow me. The two Arab girls made a mistake and did not go with their parents. Their parents were there too. The girls followed us. We ran after the guide, my brother and I, but we lost track of him on the mountain. Then the cops came and caught everyone and burned their belongings. They burned the boats. So, we hid there till the morning. I don’t know if the cops had seen us. They were shouting and saying, “We have seen you, come out.” But we stayed where we were, hiding behind the rocks.

Did this happen when you were coming toward Greece?
Yes, the first time, the time we failed. Also, it was freezing cold, and we did not have warm clothes.

Was it during winter?
Yes, I think so. Yes, it was winter because, just a week before, when we headed toward Turkey, it was snow everywhere, half a meter of snow.

So, then what happened after the first time that you could not make it? What happened the second time?
The second time we were able to pass.

Was it an inflatable boat?
Yes, it was an inflatable boat.Around 60 to 80 people were on the boat.

60 to 80 people were on just one boat?

When you were on your way, on the water, did anything happen to you? Did your boat get punctured or anything?
Yes, towards the end of the trip,the boat started to fold at the center. It was almost sinking. The sea was too wavy.

Was it close to the shore?
Near the shore? No, it was in the middle of the sea, but the lighthouse was visible. The outboard motor broke towards the end. The boat almost tipped over.Two little boats came with cameramen on board accompanied by a number of soldiers. They were taking videos from afar. They did not say anything.

Didn’t they help you?
No help. Five to ten minutes later, a large boat came and helped us. They got us on the boat and took us to the island. We were on the large boat for about an hour and we were going very fast.

After you got to the island?
Yeah, it was the second round that we made it to the island.

How long were you on the island? It was Lesbos, right?
There were two. There were two camps close to each other, near the sea.

How long were you on the island?
Less than one week, maybe one week or so.

Did they transport you or you came toward Athens on your own?
We bought the tickets ourselves and we went to Piraeus.

And then what happened after you got here? Did you go and report yourself? What did you do?
Yes, when we got there, we reported ourselves to the camp. There were three camps, two were for Arabs mostly and one was for both Afghans and Arabs.

So, it’s been five years that you’re living in the camp?
Not exactly five years. I was in a hotel for one year. I think the hotel belonged to the anarchists. It was inside …

City Plaza?
Yes, City Plaza.

So, what happened in those five years? Can you tell us about it? What did you do? How was your life?
During these five years . . . At the beginning, there were no classes or anything. I was mostly in the room and did not go outside. I did not have a lot of friends. Sometimes, I would go and sign up for a class, English class, German class, Greek class.

When you think of those days, how do you feel? I mean the trip and all that stuff that happened to you on the way?
Well, a lot of things have happened. Butstill I think it was worth it.

You think it was worth it?

So, when you left for Greece, you were 17 years old?
I do not remember exactly. When I was in Malakasa,I did not feel well mentally. I think I have somehow lost my memory of those days. I do not remember things clearly. I do not even remember well the days I was in Iran.

How long were you in Malakasa?
Two years.

Two years?
We were there from the start, when they were putting up the tents. The site was originally a police … a building where soldiers lived.

Yes, barracks.

An old barracks converted into a camp?

So, when you first came to Athens, you lived in the Malakasa camp?
First, we were in Piraeus. There were three camps, temporary ones. Inside factories, shops. Then, after a few days, they moved us to Malakasa by bus. Some were sent to other places.

Did anything bad happen to you in the Malakasa camp?
That place, there was a really bad situation there, the weather, the food, all were terrible.

Did somebody bother you?
Yes, there were many fights, racist violence, fights between Sunnis and Shias. There were many fights. I couldn’t bear that. I tried to control myself, not to get into fights with others. So, I felt a lot of pressure there.I tried to stay in the tent to prevent getting mixed up in fights. I got isolated. I was coping with a lot of pressure.

Do you still think about those days?
Now . . . not that much.

When do you think about those days? What makes you think about them?
Some friends I’ve made there, only they can make me think about those days.

What about the things that happened on your trip?
I sometimes think about them.

What makes you think about them?
When I want to talk to someone about them.

When you think about those times, how do you feel? I mean when you remember all the things that have happened to you.Sadness?
Sadness? Not really.

So, you have somehow become numb to what has happened to you?

The situation that you have had to deal with up to now, how has that affected your life today?
My life today . . .It has made me stronger.

What about emotionally?
Emotionally . . . yes . . . but the effect has been mostly negative.

It has made you isolated?

Did you ever imagine that you would go through all these difficulties and that you would be able to handle it?

Did you ever think that you could manage it?
Yes, from the beginning.

How did you make it? How could you forget all those bad memories? How did you do it? Did you find somewhere that could help you?
No.I saw some counselors. The questions they asked made me feel worse. They asked me questions I did not want to think about. So, I stopped seeing them.

How were you able to reconcile it with yourself?
I would think to myself that nobody is going to help you, only you can help yourself.

So, you, yourself, have helped yourself the most?

So, before you left your country, your family and your home, what was your dream back then, your dream for the future? Say “my dream was”. You know, say it like this. First, answer this.
My dream was to take my family out of that miserable situation, that fascist country. So I could help them and get them here with me, out of that country.

So, when you left your country and were on your way, what was your dream back then? Say it like “my dream was.“
You mean when I was leaving the country?

Yes, when you started your trip. What was your dream back then?
Well then,I just wanted to make it quickly and get here safe and sound.

So, before you left your home and family, what were your strengths and abilities?
I had a lot of strengths and abilities back then. I used to go to the gym. I used to go to school. I attended the electricity course. I had almost completed the course and just needed to take the final exam. I attended three courses: electrical wiring for buildings, turning, industrial power.

Have you maintained your abilities?
No, I told you I have lost my memory. During these years,I even lost all those skills that I had developed through time.

Why? Because of the things that have happened to you?
Yes, because of the pressure.

All the things that have happened to you seem really hard and tough. Do you think that these hardships have made you grow, had good results and changed you positively?
Yes, only 1%.

Uh huh.

Today, what kind of dreams and hopes do you have for your future? Say “my dream is”.
My dream is that I get closer to all my dreams day by day.

Well, thank you so much for your help and answering all my questions. If you have anything else to add that can help others have a better image of the refugees and immigrants in Greece and Europe.
No one is bad. The circumstances change people. The behavior of the people of the country where we live can also change us. Thank you very much.

Thank you.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.