Ali spent 7 months in Greece on his journey from Iran to Germany. While he was there he took videos and photos on his phone and kept a diary, to record the harsh reality of daily life he and so many others who flee their homes and become stranded on the edge of Europe are forced to endure.
While he was there he met Aya and Cucutenna, and Aya has since compiled Ali’s words and footage in to a film spanning three months of his time in Greece. It portrays his intimate relationships with other refugees and the volunteers who stood with them in solidarity, and is a rare opportunity to see these conditions from the point of view of a person who has actually experienced them.
You can watch the full, 40-minute film below. Please note it has the options of both English and Bulgarian subtitles.
For more information on the film and Ali’s work, please head to the official website or Instagram page.
Below you can find a recent interview with Ali (full video version available here), who is now living in Germany and hopes to one day make films that will push for real change in the world.
Ali: The connection is not good. I’ll open the door so the WiFi can come in.
[Aya and Cucutenna laugh]
Ali: Yeah? Is it better now?
Aya: Yeah, I think it’s ok. So… the three of us met in Thessaloniki. We found out about Soul Food Kitchen so we started volunteering there. We actually thought that we would record a movie, but when we started working we just got very involved with that, and also it didn’t really feel right to just go and record the people because we didn’t really know them. But you were taking videos of people every day, and photos, and writing things, and you were posting them on Facebook. As soon as we left I just kept looking on your Facebook, what’s happening back in Thessaloniki. It just seemed like a good idea to put them together into a little movie so you can remember and so other people can see how it was. What motivated you to post so much?
Ali: Uum. Okay. Yeah I didn’t have Facebook because in Iran it’s blocked and I was also not interested in using it in the beginning. I was just lost in Thessaloniki for I think 2-3 days, and confused, I was in a place which language was different, everything was different, people were different, and I was there without any documents, without any passport. After a few days I saw the train station and the people who were living around there. In this time there were just a doctor from Italy and a guy from Greece who were coming there every afternoon to check the people, and another guy named Christos from Thessaloniki who was bringing food two times per week for sharing with people, there were around 500 people sleeping on the street. I just tried to cross the border in Macedonia, after 20 days I was sent back to Thessaloniki. But now even more people were coming because it was getting warmer and warmer. It was super busy and not that many volunteers. The doctor who was there before left. I already tried and I couldn’t do it so I said “f*ck it” I won’t think about my goal, I will just live in the moment, right now I need to do something for the situation, and I thought maybe with sharing posts on Facebook some people can come to help, who have more power than me.
Cucutenna: The events of the film happened over 2 years ago – do you know what the situation is like right now in Thessaloniki?
Ali: Right now not, I’m in Germany and I have my own life. I was more active and getting news from Thessaloniki until last February when I went to Greece again. I was two weeks there and almost nothing changed! There were a lot of people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Iraq, and there were other Africans also, like from Ethiopia. From Afghanistan and Pakistan especially there were a lot in this train station area, living in abandoned building and in other parts. Almost no change, I mean maybe some people get the chance to go further but as the problems are not gonna stop in their country they are gonna come. Since 30-40 years ago in Afghanistan there was always war, so when that problem is not stopping people are just leaving because they are losing everything and they have nothing more to lose. I also know refugees who couldn’t cross, they tried 20 times but they couldn’t so they decided to just stay in Greece although it’s really hard for them. Some of them live in flats, they are getting not from the government but from some organisation, like 150 euros per adult and 90 euros per kids. But it is not stable money…
Aya: Do you have any fond memories from your time in Thessaloniki?
A: Now that I’m thinking about that time I feel that I was a happy person although I was in a bad situation. Except for the first 40 days that I was in a really… [he chuckles] …I mean I could die in Macedonia forest alone, I was there for almost 19 days. So except of that part, I think every second was a happy memory. But one that can be on top was the time that I could do my first project. There was a doctor from Germany who was giving me every day some grapes for the adults and chocolate for the kids, and I was distributing them. He left after a while. After two months some kids came to me and said “Uncle Ali, Uncle Ali!”, I just said “Yeaah?” and they said “Hey! Give us some chocolate!” “What chocolate?! I don’t have chocolate.” “No, you were giving us every day!” Then I remembered and I felt really sad, I had a little bit money and I bought them some chocolate. But how can I do it every day? I wrote a letter and I put it on the table on some volunteers’ flat, and I made an origami boat for a money box, and everybody was putting as much as they could, and then I buy them chocolate for the next days. I said, now it’s working, cool. But I can’t take money from volunteers, I mean they giving their time, they are not getting any money, so I wrote a post in Facebook. After a few days I got a message from a guy I didn’t know. He said “Are you Michael Ali?” I said “Yeah… who are you?” “Can you come in the parking of train station?” I really scared in the beginning, I don’t know who is this person, and I knew everybody, all the refugees and volunteers, so it was a bit weird but I said OK. I went there and it was a black van, it was very scary. They opened the doors of the van, and I look and it was a big van full of chocolate! There were 2 old nice man from Germany, they saw my post. That was a really good memory.
Cucutenna: What is the most important lesson you learned in Thessaloniki?
Ali: I mean there are some cliché sentence, but I learned, I felt it, what can’t kill you make you really stronger. First night that I was alone in Macedonia forest I was crying for 3 hours because it was really dark. In Persian we call forest “jungle”, and I thought OK it’s a jungle! I didn’t know that it’s not that big. But it was still scary, you are in another place, you are in forest! There’s nobody who you can talk to. I didn’t have anything with me so I slept on a tree, because I scared of some animal. I thought that I’m gonna die, I was 100% sure. But then I was laughing, I’m gonna die, why shouldn’t I enjoy the rest of my life? Let’s see what will happen, the sun is gonna shine tomorrow. After that trip when I went back to Thessaloniki, I felt I don’t scare from anything, I don’t have any fear now. Even now I’m doing a lot of activities which are unbelievable for other people because I was in a really hard situation and I feel stronger. We should live in the moment that we are, not thinking just about future, future is gonna come, but your present right now is gonna be past in a few seconds, so why shouldn’t I enjoy?
Cucutenna: Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to leave, and also was it the first time you ever left Iran?
A: Yeah it was my first time that I left Iran. And… [he laughs]… The reason, I can’t just tell you…There are a lot but…
Cucutenna: It’s complicated?
Ali: Yeah it’s complicated, you know there are reasons, but they are not enough strong to get asylum. If I say the reason was that I was not a tree, I was a human, and if I was a tree I wouldn’t move. So I was not a tree, that’s why I moved! This reason is not gonna be enough strong to get asylum. I mean, there are a lot of things which are forbidden in Iran. There are people who like to live in that kind of life but there are things that were bothering me. I mean, they were killing me somehow.
Cucutenna: And now that you live in Germany do you feel like you can do everything you want to do?
Ali: Not everything. I can do more than I could do in Iran. After leaving Iran it’s almost impossible for me to live there again. It’s even harder than the past, because now you felt a bit of freedom. Sorry… there are reasons but I can’t say. What I told you, I mean, that can be enough reason that you might move.
Aya: Yeah of course. What are you up to now in Berlin? What do you do in your free time?
Ali: Huh! I’m climbing on the trees… When I’m bored and I have nothing else to do I just go to the park and start climbing on the trees, and then the kids are coming to me, and you know how is my friendship with kids. Here in the middle of Europe it’s a bit weird but we are becoming friends really fast. In the beginning the parents are looking at me like raises eybrows? [He laughs] And then when I leave the parents just come and say “Hey, thank you!” I’m going to study in October hopefully, in a film school here in Berlin. I was filming a lot but as I didn’t have a laptop I couldn’t edit them, but hopefully soon I will be able to do it. Before October I’m gonna learn something from you guys!
Cucutenna: What kinda movies do you want to make?
Ali: Sometimes I dream something and when I wake up I have a notebook and immediately I try to write it down that I don’t forget it. I already have 3-4 really nice stories, one comedy, one against racism – these two are short but I have idea about long film too.
Cucutenna: What are your dreams for the future?
Ali: Hm! Dreams… I think dreams are something that can be reachable or not reachable, but what I say are gonna 100% happen so… [he laughs]. I can say that my reachable goal is to make films which are gonna make changes in the world. Like the people who are watching them, they are gonna change in a good way. Not just watching a movie in a cinema and “OK, hahaha, I’m sad because of this situation but I’m not gonna do something. I don’t have time, I have my life”. Like with volunteering – some person goes there for work just for 2 weeks, but this helps, it’s not as small as they are thinking. I mean, even if the person was just washing the salads, it was keeping 400 people, it was keeping me alive! At the beginning that I was there, I met people who were 3-4 months there and they lost all their money, some of them to smugglers, they couldn’t talk with their family, they were ashamed. Some were going to a place, something called Cinema, where old men was taking them, and these people were having sex with that old man, and this person was giving them 5-10 euros, so they were buying some french fries with ketchup, five people were eating this, from the job which…I mean they had to do it to get something to eat. So these things you think are small, they are not really. It’s helping.
Aya: I have one last question. Do you still wish you were a bird?
Ali: I wish I was a bird. Then I could travel without any problems, fly anywhere that I want. But now I’m a bird that can just travel in Schengen. [He laughs]. So I’m a bird in a cage. So then I don’t take your time and we’ll talk later. Love both of you, miss you.
Aya + Cucutenna: We love you.