A Yale College writing class took a field trip to Greece to learn about the refugee crisis. It soon got personal.

Jake Halpern ’97, with Michael Sloan, won the Pulitzer Prize for illustrated reporting and commentary in 2018. Hanan Jasim Khammas, who teaches at a Barcelona university, provided translation for this article.

It was a field trip to Greece. That’s how it all started. It was the fall of 2017 and I was chaperoning a group of Yale students on what was essentially a fact-finding mission. The trip was part of a class, Refugee Narratives, that I was coteaching with associate professor Zareena Grewal. In mid-October, instead of meeting at Linsly-Chittenden Hall on Old Campus, our class boarded a plane to Greece. Here our class divided in two. Zareena led one group of students to Athens to report on an abandoned hotel, where Greek anarchists were living side-by-side with asylum-seekers. (She wrote about this in the Atlantic.) I led another group of students to the island of Lesvos, and then set out for Moria, one of Europe’s most notorious refugee camps. One of our objectives was to document the conditions there and publish our findings, which I ultimately did in an article for the New Yorker.  

As a reporter, I am used to working by myself. Whatever choices I make, or risks I take, are mine alone. This trip was different: throughout my time in Greece, I worried that I might somehow lose one of my students. At heart, I’m an anxious dad. Oddly, what happened was precisely the opposite. Our class effectively gained a new member, a young man from the refugee camp—a former math tutor from Morocco—whose name was Zakaria.

From the outset, we were all taken with Zakaria. We were won over by his soft-spoken manner, his kind eyes, and his obvious intelligence. I was also struck, right away, by Zakaria’s shirt. It was an old Izod golf shirt, and despite the camp’s very squalid conditions, the shirt was pristine. It was a small detail but notable, an indication that this was someone quietly pushing back against the rot of his surroundings.

As soon as we met Zakaria, he started following us around, as if he were auditing the class. The students all liked him, so I just let him tag along. At the time, I didn’t consider what might come of this.    

Before going any further, it’s worth setting the scene in Lesvos, where this story really begins. Imagine the island of Nantucket: the pristine beaches, the gleaming yachts, the fancy inns. Now envision a detention center, shrouded in barbed wire, with almost six thousand inmates—men, women, and children—situated in the island’s interior. A surreal notion, to be sure. But this, in effect, was the reality that existed on Lesvos when we visited.

The island is generally known as a vacation destination, but starting in the spring of 2015, it gained notoriety as a transit point for refugees, many of them Syrian, bound for Western Europe. They braved the seas in dangerously overcrowded rubber dinghies. And they came by the thousands. You may remember the harrowing pictures, including one of a toddler dressed in red shirt and blue shorts, who washed up onshore, dead.

The refugees who arrived in Lesvos continued on to mainland Greece, and then headed north, toward Macedonia—following an overland route that took them to Germany or points beyond. But eventually Europe grew tired of this influx. A host of EU nations pressured Greece to stop the flow and effectively turn Lesvos, and other islands like it, into giant holding pens. Lesvos soon became a great bottleneck, where human misery was contained and forgotten.

By the time my class visited, in the fall of 2017, the situation was dire. The camp at Moria had roughly six thousand residents, triple its optimal capacity. The camp was, quite literally, overflowing. In the adjacent woods, refugees and migrants had created a “forest camp” comprising countless shacks and makeshift tents. When we arrived at Moria, we went to the forest camp first. There wasn’t much there in the way of infrastructure, except for a metal table, swarming with flies, where the authorities occasionally dropped off food. “People fight when the food is given out,” explained our translator, who also lived at the camp. We could smell the stench of human waste.

Our arrival at the forest camp quickly attracted attention. We were mistaken for aid workers, and several angry men accosted us, demanding water and access to a doctor. It was at that very moment that we met Zakaria, who strolled up to us in his Izod golf shirt and introduced himself. He had a calmness about him that was totally disarming, and so, when he invited us back to his tent, I tentatively agreed. As we ventured deeper into the forest camp, I could tell that some of my students were watching me, as if to ask: Are you sure about this?

As we walked, Zakaria began to tell us about himself, though it would take months, even years, before we learned the full scope of his story. Zakaria was an orphan. He wasn’t certain of his exact age, but at the orphanage in Morocco where he had grown up, they speculated that he was born in 1990. He left the orphanage in 2008 and went on to study agriculture, though he soon dropped out of school for financial reasons. For a while he worked as a math tutor, but he remained very poor. Zakaria said that, as a Berber—an ethnic minority in Morocco—he faced additional hardships.

Edel Rodriguez

Edel Rodriguez

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In 2015, Zakaria traveled to Turkey, thinking he might continue on to Israel and become a migrant worker. His plan failed when the Israeli embassy in Turkey refused to grant him a visa. So he turned his eyes toward Europe. Geographically, the quickest route was to head for the isle of Lesvos, just 4.1 miles off the Turkish coast. Like so many other migrants and refugees, he hired smugglers to take him by boat. He made three attempts. The first time, he was caught and turned back by the Turkish authorities. The second time, his boat capsized. But the third time, he made the crossing successfully and dared to hope that a new life was at hand.

“When I got to Lesvos,” Zakaria recalled, “I thought that I was going to accomplish a dream: getting to Europe, where I’d find a little bit of democracy, a little bit of stability, and a little bit of well-being.” Instead, he was sent to Moria, where he had barely enough to eat. Chaos ruled. Residents fought in bloody skirmishes—often sectarian battles, Afghans vs. Arabs. The authorities did little to break them up.

When we finally arrived at Zakaria’s tent, a weather-beaten canvas tarp draped over some poles, he received us with great formality, offering a large, unopened bottle of water: a valuable commodity in such a place. Posted above the tent’s entrance was a sign scrawled in Arabic: This tent is not exclusively for one person. It is a home for every person in need and would you please not use filthy words and don’t live without manners. You have to be a real person even in the most difficult of situations.

He gestured for us to enter. The tent was dark and cramped, and my students and I crawled into the gloom cautiously. Inside, several men sat cross-legged, staring off into space. They reacted slowly to our arrival, as if waking from some deep meditative state. One at a time, they introduced themselves. Several hailed from Syria and Iraq. One had been a law student, another an engineering student. “I studied the science of psychology,” said a third. Together, they were trying to share knowledge—teaching one another Greek and English, for example. They had plans to create a school for the children in the camp.

But at that moment, the thought foremost in their minds was winter.

One man told us, pleadingly: “You have to find solutions for us, because winter is coming and the water will run into our tents!”

Our translator added, “When it snows, the snow reaches high levels. So people die because of the severe cold. But this tent does not work in the winter. There are many people here suffering from mental illness and they are really thinking about committing suicide.”

In the coming days, my students and I documented the conditions at Moria. We witnessed a riot, a protest, and a mass exodus of residents who left and took refuge in the nearby town of Mitilini. During much of this time, Zakaria followed us.

He seemed fond of the students, but I suspected he was also hoping that we might, somehow, help him.

On our last night in Lesvos, we went out for dinner at a modest café in a small harbor town, and the students invited Zakaria. We all chatted and laughed. I watched Zakaria, who seemed to drink in the levity and effortlessness of the evening. Then we dropped him off at the forest camp. It was dusk by then and the shadows of the forest were thick and overlapping. The night was warm, a last flicker of summer. A pall fell on us as Zakaria exited our van. It was a long drive back to the hotel, and few of us spoke.

When we got back to Yale, we remained in touch with Zakaria and a number of others we’d met. One of my students wrote a sermon about what she had witnessed, delivered it at her family’s church, and raised money for a local charity on Lesvos. We also tried to help Zakaria. We sent him a warm sleeping bag and money.

As the winter neared and temperatures dropped, I thought of Zakaria often. I hoped that, one way or another, his tent would stay dry and safe. But he soon sent word that his tent had caught fire and he’d lost most of his possessions. Then, somehow, he managed to leave Lesvos and make it to Athens. I hoped for the best. But later he sent me a WhatsApp message that he’d returned to Moria. I wrote back, “Why??? Why did you return?” He responded that he had “lived in the street like a dog.” He added: “There is no house [in Athens]. Was starving. I hope I die.” I wrote back, urging him not to give up. Then I wrote several frantic emails to contacts I had in NGOs on Lesvos, including Oxfam and HIAS, telling them about Zakaria and relaying my fear that he might kill himself. My contacts met with him and introduced him to a lawyer, who agreed to help him get back to Athens and seek asylum in Greece. Some time afterward, Zakaria sent me a picture of himself on a ferry bound for Athens. He included a message: “I’m in a steamer. I will never forget you. Thank you, my dear brother. . . . You are the first one in this world to help me.”

I had been covering the refugee crisis long enough to know that Zakaria’s troubles were far from over. He had no money. He had no job. He didn’t speak Greek. He did not have asylum. And there was no easy or safe way for him to reach Western Europe, his ultimate goal. Also, I wasn’t entirely sure why I had come to care so much about this particular migrant. I had reported on refugees before. So why this man? Perhaps because my students kept asking about him, and I felt the need to allay their concerns? Or was I trying to prove to myself—and them—that I was a good person? Sure, I had given to charities. But this was different. I kept thinking about our last night together, when he stepped out of our van and slipped into the shadows in his Izod shirt. The image haunted me.

I wanted to help him, but there was a limit to how much money I could send. I needed to enlist others in this cause: locals, people on the ground. And then, suddenly, I thought of the Yale alumni network. But would alumni in Greece and elsewhere really agree to help some random migrant?

I started sending emails to yale alumni in Greece. I introduced myself and explained the story of how my class had come to know and befriend Zakaria. I kept it brief. I ended these emails with this: “I am writing on the outside chance that you might be able to help him. Might you, or anyone you know, be able to give him a lead on a job? Me and my students would be so grateful.”

One of the first Yalies to reply was a musician named Nektarios, who was preparing to give a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “We will work something out for your friend,” he assured me, and added: “As the ancient utterance of Antigone goes . . . We were born to love and not to hate.” He soon sent a follow-up email: “I have reached out to two very important fellows in Athens. . . . I also gave them the email of a dear friend and genius translator who has officially worked with refugees. . . . He too can be instrumental in facilitating something for our friend Zachary.” I loved that he called him “our” friend.

Soon another Yalie, Dionysios, met with Zakaria and made a generous donation. Even those Yalies who couldn’t help were deeply apologetic. One wrote, “I guess it is exactly my sincere appreciation regarding your interest and good will which make me feel uneasy . . . that I am quite unable to offer any sort of essential help to our good friend.” As someone who has often reported on the plight of the poor and the indifference of the privileged, I was surprised by this outpouring of pathos.

It was as if my mother were ailing and I had asked these people to help.

In February of 2018, Zakaria texted me that the Greek government had denied his asylum request. He said he would begin the journey to Western Europe by crossing the border into Albania. By March, he was in Montenegro. I found a Yalie named Djordje who offered to assist, but Djordje was in Serbia—a difficult place for refugees. Zakaria pressed on. In Croatia, he and a group of fellow migrants walked for fifteen days through a wild and bitterly cold landscape. One person in the party died. Zakaria said his fellow travelers ate worms and insects to survive.

Finally, in April, I received a short text: “I’m now in Slovenia.” I knew immediately what this meant. He was inside the EU. He had made it, and while he was still “without papers,” his prospects were much improved. Two days later he texted from Italy. I connected him with another Yale alum. Zakaria continued on to France and, ultimately, to Spain.

There he met a young woman named Esther. He was out one night at a bar, and they started dancing. Her native tongue was Catalan, so they relied on Google Translate to understand one another. But even so, Zakaria said, they connected. Esther worked with children at a daycare program and was an aspiring author. They began living together. When they married, I sent him clothing so he’d have something nice to wear. He told me he was a size 28. Like an overbearing relative, I found myself wishing he wasn’t quite so skinny.

In so many ways, I still barely knew this man. I still questioned my own motives for helping him. I wondered why my fellow Yalies had also helped him. I suspected it was because somehow we had reclassified him in our brains. We had moved him out of the category of “other”—the cursed realm of forgotten humans who live under bridges and in forest camps, those from whom we avert our eyes. Zakaria, with his kind eyes, clean shirt, and persistent texts, had escaped that realm. By guile or luck he had briefly joined my class—a Yalie by extension—and no matter how absurd this notion was, no matter how tenuous the connection was, it mattered. I still find this confounding. And, in all honesty, at times I have resented how much this man has come to depend on me. But even so, I still take a deep, visceral sigh of relief every time he texts me to say that he is okay.

Edel Rodriguez

Edel Rodriguez

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Last spring, I traveled to Spain with my mother on a long-planned vacation. We stopped in Barcelona, and I arranged to meet Zakaria. When he showed up at my hotel, he looked well: smiling, suntanned, and handsome. We sat down for a cup of tea, and he told me about his life. He had a two-year-old daughter. Esther had authored a romance novel and was working on a story about Zakaria’s life. But her family was not pleased that she had married an Arab; they had effectively disowned her. “She lost her family because of me,” he said. “And that is a big sacrifice.”

After tea, Zakaria offered to take my mother and me on a tour of the city. He was a pedicab driver, peddling one of those three-wheeled bikes with an open two-seater in back. We hopped on, and Zakaria took us around the city. It was a perfect spring day. Sunlight filtered down through the city’s canopy of majestic oaks, sprinkling a dappled light on Antonio Gaudi’s buildings. As we cruised along, Zakaria turned back and flashed a smile, and for a long moment, I allowed myself to entertain the naïve and eternal hope that sometimes things can end well.


  • Zuydhoek Tamar
    Zuydhoek Tamar, 8:27pm February 27 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    A beautiful story of how we can still be human in an inequitable world.

  • Sally J Fox
    Sally J Fox, 10:21am March 17 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Thank you for bringing the refugee crisis so particular and personal and reminding us how Yale leadership can show up in simple acts of kindness.

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