“Why are you not Angelina Jolie?”

he asked me intensely when I reached out my hand to give him a bar of soap, during a collective solidarity initiative, which was organised by the Binio Squat and the Workers’ Centre of Mytilene. The initiative took place on 21 June 2015 toward migrants and refugees who were living in the then temporary camp in the area of Kara Tepe in Mytilene.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, my friend, I’m not Angelina, but why do you say that?” I asked, without knowing that exactly the previous day the actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador had visited a refugee camp on the southeast coast of Turkey, in Mardin, in the context of World Refugee Day [1]. 

“Instead of just giving me this soap like you have, she could change my wet mattress and my muddy tent and give me a better place to live.”

The previous day, he later explained, a friend of his who lived in the Mardin camp complained to Angelina Jolie about his bed, and the actor, acting immediately, asked those in charge to replace it, which happened immediately. 

After he told me this story, he threw the soap he held in his hands, asking angrily: “of what use is this to me?” and I, chewing my words, ended up stuttering–I’m not sure he even heard me: “I’m sorry I’m me.”

I don’t know whether my friend was still on the island some months later, when Angelina Jolie visited the Moria hotspot (17 March 2016) and if he managed to address his requests to her.  What is certain is that the actor, in a meeting she had with NGOs and agencies on the island, declared her pessimism as to what extent an immediate response to the migrant and refugee crisis could be given. [2] In addition, in answer to a question regarding the consequences of the “refugee issue” for the economy of Lesvos and the need to stimulate tourism, she promised she would come on holidays to the island with her family. [3]

Naya Tselepi
December 2019




Lesvos news net, 17.3.16,

Symbols Symbols

Decoding a front page

In March 2016, the international edition of the emblematic newspaper The New York Times (for many synonymous with validity, for others, with dominant rhetoric) presented the refugee issue on its front page. In those days, as in the rather long period that preceded and followed, the refugee issue, Lesvos, and Greece, were in the epicentre of international news: radio and television journalists commented daily on the facts, and we constantly encountered boats full of people wearing orange life jackets crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece. At times, the images presented solidarians, rescuers, coast guards, migrants waiting in groups, and–more rarely–images of the reception units and the inhumane hotspots. Instead of the aforementioned, for the front page of the Times a photograph was chosen depicting temporary shelter in apartments in Athens.

In essence, the  attempts of the relevant authorities to cooperate in the (temporary and, indeed, partial) settlement of the tragedy were highlighted. Indeed, the photograph carries symbolisms, which create associations of wellbeing and social integration, since the central subject of the photograph is holding a mobile phone of the latest technology, resides in an apartment in a densely occupied neighbourhood, and finds himself, in the final analysis, inside the social body. Although this constituted a reality, it merely formed part of the whole situation and of the actual facts. Yet, in the way that it was represented on the front page (and elsewhere within the newspaper), it emerges as dominant–and given the absence of any other representation, as exhaustive.

The photograph’s caption (even though it indicates the location as Athens) inscribes in bold letters the title “Anywhere in Europe.” Yet, it must be noted that even though the photograph is central on the front page, except for its small caption, is not accompanied by any other text: this follows on page 3. However, what is interesting on a second reading is the total composition of the front page (on which the photograph constitutes a dominant element), and the way in which the themes are linked to produce a broader narrative, and speak to each other. First of all, the brief caption of the photograph speaks of migrants (that is, not Greeks) who in Greece “struggle in a dangerous speed race” to be integrated in the EU’s relocation program, and through that program to find themselves in other countries. Yet, the photograph lacks a central title, and so the title of the right-hand column is in an unofficial dialogue with the photograph: “Studies fail to indicate who turns to terrorism.” Therefore it implies, if not suggesting the possibility that the Syrian man in the photograph will become–if he is not already–a terrorist. The title of the column directly to the left of the photograph primes the “conversation” with another symbolic “subtext” of the period, the Islamic State.  The article refered to the capture of Palmyra, an historically and culturally symbolic place, which was under threat of destruction.  Two weeks before the publication of the newspaper, the tragic terrorist attack in Brussels had taken place. Directly below the central photograph of the “refugee issue,” and almost as if it was referring to the photograph,  another incident in Brussels is commented upon,  then suspected to be linked to terrorism, which, in the end, fortunately was not related to such an act. In any case, the article on page 3 describes the agonizing journey of the four residents of the apartment: from Aleppo to Idomeni, from the asylum application to the UNHCR-funded stay in Athens while waiting to be relocated in another country. Indeed, it adds their own words and their own fears of their uncertain future, “especially after Brussels.” 

Despite this, the front page itself does not at all reference the photograph and the vital issues that thousands of the fellow travellers of the person depicted face. Rather, through keywords and the use of symbols, associations of multiple threats and diffuse fear are created. At the same time, the news of the days and the actual living conditions–that is, in other words, what in other articles was characterised as a “humanitarian disaster.”  What is also concealed are the respective genders and ages of other migrants who suffered the consequences of war and flight, as well as the vengeful infrastructures and the torturous life in hotspots.

Orestis Pangalos
December 2019