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Halt, who goes there?

For her second novel, The Brink of Freedom (Signature $22.95), Stella Harvey travelled to Greece to better grasp the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean.

November 05th, 2015

Faced with a dire economic crisis, Greeks in Athens have looked askance as protesting migrants.

She understands why Greeks have difficulty accepting the influx of mostly Syrian migrants.

In Stella Harvey‘s new novel, a young boy goes missing from a refugee camp in Athens. After he is found with a Canadian woman who wants to help, Greek police apprehend a Roma from Ukraine on suspicion of human trafficking.

“The characters are as real to me as my neighbours and friends,” she says, “I feel desperate when my characters make what I think are bad decisions. I hear myself shouting, please don’t do that.

“I weep with them when they suffer the consequences of their decisions. And I cheer for them if they find their way out of their predicaments.”

Much of Harvey’s family still lives in Greece and she visits often. Part of the proceeds from The Brink of Freedom will go to the Red Cross to support their efforts to help refugees in Greece.

Here is some background for the genesis of the novel.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 43,500 refugees arrived in Greece by sea in 2014.

By September 25, 2015, the UNHCR reported 388,324 people had reached Greek shores by sea in nine months.

Stella Leventoyannis Harvey, who trained as a social worker, was first forcibly struck by the mass influx into Europe as a crisis when she was in Greece in 2012 finishing her first novel, Nicolai’s Daughters, a story about the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II. Greece was already in its fourth year of recession by 2012, so some Greeks saw the refugees as a threat, like the Roma.

harvey, stella

Stella Harvey

Harvey had lived in England and Italy from 1997 to mid-2000. “Nightly, the discovery and detainment of yet another boatload of rifugiati was reported on the Italian news,” she says. Later, during her month in Spain in 2006, she watched Spanish coverage of asylum seekers, most of whom were from Africa.

By 2012, bloody conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq had exacerbated the problem of migrants into a global dilemma, Harvey settled on the subject of migrants to Europe as the focus for The Brink of Freedom, a contemporary novel largely set in the Athenian neighbourhood of Ta Prosfygika where refugees have clustered.

“In 2012,” she recalls, “The economy was shrinking further, unemployment was in the double-digit zone and young Greeks in particular had few opportunities. This was also the time when I saw the rise of the far right Nazi party, Golden Dawn (Chrysí Avgí) and attacks by this group’s followers on foreigners and the later murder of the Greek anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas. “

Harvey, mainly known in B.C. as the founder/manager of the Whistler Writers Festival, wondered what had happened to filoxenía (Greek for hospitality). In 1989, among all the countries in Europe, Greece had been cited by European Commission as the country most tolerant and welcoming to migrants. So how could civility crumble so rapidly?

She began to wonder how she would feel in a refugee’s shoes. She herself had been an immigrant to Canada from Egypt after the Egyptian government began nationalizing foreign businesses to oust foreigners. “We did come on a boat into Pier 21. But we weren’t mistreated and my parents felt, with few exceptions, that Canadian immigration authorities treated us in a respectful way. “ The process was orderly. No dangerous, life-threatening crossings. No people smuggling.

Curiosity led her to Athens. She didn’t want to guess or draw conclusions from news reports. She found an apartment close to a Roma camp, the neighbourhood she would later describe in The Brink of Freedom. When the police tore down that camp, she was there. She could see the desperation on the faces of the people who watched their temporary shelters being destroyed.

“There was nothing I could do but watch helplessly,” she says, “and later try to write about it.”

Harvey, Stella Refugees 3

Many of the vessels carrying migrants are not seaworthy. Stella Harvey photo.

Next Harvey returned in 2014 and visited a refugee detention centre, Amygdaleza, the largest such facility in Greece. In late 2014, it was still operational. High fences were topped with razor wire; there were guard towers with armed officers at each corner. She met the commander of the centre and staff members. They were congenial, open and very generous with the information they provided in response to her questions. “They didn’t have to meet with me,” she recalls. “But they did. Can you imagine the Canadian government allowing this type of unprecedented access to a foreign writer? I can’t.”

The staff spent close to two hours with her as she toured the facility. She met with doctors and other medical staff. A week later, she read in the newspaper that a twenty-six-year-old Pakistani man died in that centre. Police had allegedly beaten him while he was in another detention centre because he was involved in a protest over the living conditions. The man had allegedly requested medical treatment. It had been denied.

She didn’t know the man. But she wasn’t able to get him out of her mind. His death made her question what she’d been told by Greek officials and it left her wondering about her own naiveté.

Next she visited the Asylum Service of the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection in Athens to understand the registration process for asylum seekers. It all seemed reasonable. Then she talked to an Afghani boy who spoke perfect English. His family had been in Greece for months waiting to hear about their asylum request. He liked his school, he liked being in Greece, but he wasn’t sure the government was going to let his family stay. His face became very serious. It upset her that a little boy had to worry about such things.

Visiting Syntagma Square—an exclusive, affluent corner of Athens that intersects a number of major thoroughfares in the heart of Athens—Harvey came across a makeshift camp in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On cardboard boxes, blankets and plastic tarps, some 200 men, women and children stood or sat, placards in hand. In protest, a number had tape across their mouths.

This was day 5 of a hunger strike. Signs mentioned Syria. She found an English-speaking bear of a man with kind eyes and an open smile who was willing to share his story. Like other Syrians, he’d come through Turkey to Greece. To do so, he had been smuggled into Greece in a decrepit, rusted fishing boat. He had received refugee status but now his status was reviewed every six months to determine if it was safe for him to return home. He was in the square because he didn’t have a place to live. “Yes,” he said, “it’s true that I won’t be shot in the streets here, but I’m not allowed to live either. All we want is freedom.”

Refugee status in Greece, Harvey came to understand, doesn’t permit the migrant to find a job or gain social assistance to find a place to live. Official refugee status also doesn’t enable someone to legally travel to another part of Europe.

The man asked Harvey to tell his story. “Anything you can do to help, we appreciate it,” he said. “Maybe if they understand us, they will help. Or we might as well go back to Syria and die there.”

She collected similar stories. They became the basis for her characters Vijay, Saphal and Sanjit in The Brink of Freedom.

Harvey, Stella Refugees 2

Migrants huddle under tarps. Stella Harvey photo.

“Over and over,” says Harvey, “people told me it was never their intention to stay in Greece. They wanted to go to northern Europe where they could find jobs, build a life. They couldn’t understand why this wasn’t allowed.

“I could have explained the Schengen agreement to them, but I knew they’d probably heard it all before. The obstacles, the legal jargon, the agreements penned by officials and politicians who had never experienced ongoing violence and conflict or tried to flee to safety on punctured rubber dinghies over dangerous waters. Besides, what would such an agreement that forces you to stay or return to the country where you entered Europe mean to these people anyway?

The Roma people of Greece also take a leading role in The Brink of Freedom. Harvey spoke to many of them who could understand English or else her somewhat clumsy Greek. She made contact with a few Roma associations. “I wanted to see through their eyes,” she says, “to sense their plight through their hearts. More and more I came to realise that in order for me to write, I need to first feel.”


A Swedish woman raised in Greece, Maria Larsen of Children’s Ark, was Stella Harvey’s guide to the Roma settlement just outside of the port city of Corinth. Outside of Corinth, the paved road narrowed. The city gave way to farmland, then a decimated olive grove strewn with garbage. Maria said the farm had likely been abandoned. When the Roma moved in, they likely burned the trees, some of which were over 500 years old, to keep warm.

They entered the camp through the open gate. There were all sorts of houses, from shacks to newish-looking houses. Harvey had never seen new houses in other Roma camps. Maria said that the drug dealers in the camp likely owned them. This tidbit would give her more to explore in her novel, connecting two characters from different backgrounds.

A stone structure with a metal warehouse-type door contained the Children’s Ark office, a classroom and another room intended for medical treatment. Despite Maria’s negotiations with the University of Athens medical school, doctors and nurses never came to provide services.

Maria had decided she could best generate progress by helping children aged six to twelve learn how to eventually enter the Greek school system. Sometimes she had help, other times not. At night, she fundraised for Children’s Ark. Her donors were primarily Swedish. “The general society ostracizes the Roma,” Maria said. “So they stick to their own, living apart from the rest of the general Greek community.”

It was all grist for the novel. Harvey toured the site with Maria. She watched as Maria made a sandwich for an insistent, bare-footed, three-year-old; she found a match for an angry teenager who was upset with his mother and in need of a cigarette; she provided some baby formula to three young girls who said they’d run out of milk for their children. Maria told her the formula would be shared by all of them, mothers and children, as a kind of soup they’d make for lunch.

It was made clear to Harvey in her research that both the new migrants in Europe and the traditional migrants—the Roma—are frequently victims of ignorance. “People like to say many things,” Maria told her. “The ones who talk the most are the ones furthest removed from the people they are talking about.”



Migrants R Us

Goldberg, Adara

Adara Goldberg

Guo, Ding

Ding Guo

As Education Director at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Adara Goldberg published her first book, Holocaust Survivors in Canada: Exclusion, Inclusion, Transformation, 1947-1955 (University of Manitoba Press, $24.95) to trace the influx of 35,000 Jewish survivors of Nazi persecution and their dependants who came to Canada in the decade following World War II. Goldberg examines how Canadian resettlement officials and established Jewish communities both coped with major difficulties in order to incorporate the post-genocide migrants. Her research was conducted at Holocaust survivors’ kitchen tables as well as in traditional archives. Adara Goldberg received her Ph.D from the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Clark University.  978-0-88755-776-7

Born in 1937 in Canton, China, David Chuenyan Lai moved to Edmonton in 1968 and has since become one of B.C.’s most valuable and prolific historians. With Ding Guo, a winner of the Jack Webster Award for journalism, he had co-authored Great Fortune Dream: The Struggles and Triumphs of Chinese Settlers in Canada, 1858-1966 (Caitlin $26.95). As soon as news of gold discoveries in 1858 spread to the Pearl River Delta in the wake of the Opium Wars in China, “coolie labourers” were initially welcomed as cheap labour in the Cariboo, but when gold rush ended, quickly Chinese settlers’ acceptance of lower wages for longer hours of work was viewed as a socio-economic threat. After 1871, politicians were obliged to condemn Chinese migrants as “grasshoppers” in order to win election. Segregation and discrimination were taken as a given for a least a century. The turning point was 1967 when the Canadian government adopted a universal immigration policy, ending discriminatory laws and advocating multiculturalism. 978-1-987915-03-7

Nasreen Pejvack was born in Tehran, Iran, where, pre-revolution, she worked as a writer and poet for an activist underground publication. She moved to Greece in the brutal aftermath of the 1979 revolution in Iran, and then, after nineteen months in Athens, she immigrated to Canada where she studied computer programming at Algonquin college in Ontario. After eight years in Ottawa, she continued her work in computers in Vancouver, then moved to California to work as a Systems Analyst for CNet Networks in the 1990s. With a degree in Psychology, Pejvack is now aiming for a PhD. in Sociology. Nasreen Pejvack’s novel Amity (2015) charts the life-altering friendship between two very different women who share their stories of wreckage caused by war and conflict during Yugoslavia’s dissolution and Iran’s revolution. The story resonates with Yugoslavian and Iranian politics and its effects on two women. An Iranian refugee and activist, still plagued with nightmares, meets a Ragusa, a Yugoslavian refugee whose pockets are loaded with stones ready to walk into the water and end a life that feels intolerable since the loss of those most dear to her. 978-1-77133-237-8

2 Responses to “Halt, who goes there?”

  1. “On the Brink of Freedom” by Stella Harvey is an important book as it brings to life the variety of people from several cultures and how they survive in different ways the dangers of living in their homelands. Faced with starvation and death, people around the world are trying to change countries in hopes of finding a way to stay alive. Not all refugees are from war zones — though many are! Hope to see Harvey’s book as a movie soon, as the young boy is an unforgettable character/child!

  2. I am very interested in Stella Harvey’s book “The Brink of Freedom” and the research she did on site for it. Of course now in 2015 the situation is much, much worse with so many people dying off the coasts of Samos, and Lesbos etc. And the Greeks simply cannot afford to handle all this crisis. Something MUST be done, and soon!

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