Connecting With Some of the Refugees
I first talked with some of the refugees from Syria who ended up in Chania, Crete, Greece last September and October, when there were 45 refugees here, far fewer than the 153 who had been brought here the previous spring after their smugglers’ boat to Italy began to sink. Now, all but 14 of them have managed to leave, whether by plane or on foot, heading to the more prosperous northern and central European countries where they hoped to find family, jobs, support, and good schools. None of the children have both parents here with them, and they are anxious for paperwork to be processed so they can join other family members in the countries where they have been granted asylum. They have been staying in a beachfront hotel on a Greek island, but after their terrifying boat journey from Egypt, with families divided and homes destroyed, this is no vacation.
Only in May did I learn that two of the Syrian women in Chania speak some English, and that one of the men is an artist. Apparently I wasn’t asking the right questions before—just questions about where their families were (scattered), if they had all survived the bombing and shooting in Syria (no), whether they expected to be able to join surviving family members in other countries (eventually), what had happened to their homes in Syria (destroyed), whether they needed food and clothing (yes). Important questions, to be sure, but not enough to learn the whole story—a story that goes way beyond the numbers, the border policing, the boats, the smugglers, and the politics we hear about in the news.
It didn’t take long for me to feel like the Syrian mother I’ll call Rima was becoming my friend. Talking with her and her friend, whom I’ll call Maram, in the small fifth-floor walk-up hotel room where she had been living with her six year old twins for 14 months by May, we were just mothers and daughters together wearing similar clothes, with no veils. (“Rima,” “Maram,” and some of the other women there spoke with me on the condition that I not use their real names, because they are worried about relatives who are still in Syria.) Rima and I share an interest in language and writing; she had taught Arabic and learned to create beautiful Arabic calligraphy, while I’ve taught English and took a calligraphy class in college. We both care about our children and try to make the best decisions for them. But she has gone to great lengths to get hers to safety, while I have never been seriously worried that mine could be shot, crushed under a bombed building, or drowned in an overcrowded boat in a rough sea.
Ordinary Families Making Extraordinary Efforts to Escape War
Rima says their problems started with the war in Syria. (If you prefer a very short summary of her story, see my brief article at Lancaster Online.) Before the war, life was perfect for her happy, loving family, with their small house in Damascus, a car, a bank account, and the gold jewelry every husband traditionally bought his wife. Her husband was a barber, Rima taught Arabic to foreign women in her home, and her four daughters attended school. Now that life is gone. Rima has a sister and brother in Egypt, and her parents and another sister are still in a small town near Damascus. She seems worried about them but doesn’t know what they can do, aside from crying together on the phone.
Rima told me her brother in law was killed when he went out to buy bread, and Assad’s soldiers shot him repeatedly. Then, she reported, he lay on the street in Barza (next to Damascus) for three or four hours, because people were too scared to move him with soldiers around. There, Rima said, everyone wanted freedom from Assad. All of Syria did, she added, but especially the people of Barza, who demonstrated for freedom daily. Many people were killed—one or two in every family there, she thinks. She said Maram’s 28 year old cousin was killed, as well as three other family members, plus many of Rima’s and her daughters’ friends, including a 12 year old boy and a 10 year old shot by a gun from a passing car. Rima told me that on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, soldiers came out on rooftops after prayers and shot people as they left the mosques. She said soldiers even waited for children to leave school so they could kill them.
So they were afraid. Rima kept her daughters—the twins and two others who are now 15 and 17--home from school, sent them back when soldiers stopped shooting, kept them home again, then finally gave up trying to figure out when it was safe to venture out of the house, and left Syria. With her sister and brother and their families, her daughters and her husband, Rima took a bus to Lebanon, stopping at a checkpoint every half hour for questioning by Assad’s soldiers. From Lebanon, they flew to Egypt, along with Maram’s mother and brother and their families and many other Syrians. Maram (who is related to Rima by marriage) also traveled to Egypt with her three daughters, but without her husband. She said they began their trip at the very dangerous Damascus airport, with bombs falling around them. Rima was reunited with Maram and her girls in Egypt, where they lived on the same street. Maram had arrived earlier and ended up staying there for 1 ½ years, while Rima and her family stayed for 11 months.
They sold some of their gold jewelry in Syria and the rest of it in Egypt, because their money ran out. All the furniture in their houses, even down to the light switches, has been stolen, according to friends who have been there since Rima left. The houses on her street were bombed or shot full of bullet holes. Maram showed me before and after photos of her once beautiful living room, with orange draperies and fabrics complemented by paler colors before the bombing, and then a complete mess with holes in the walls and huge pieces of cement all over afterwards. It is good these people got away. But now they have no homes.
Crowded together with her and her brother’s families in one unimpressive house in Egypt to save money, Rima cried daily and told her husband she wanted to return to Syria. He said they could be killed if they did. All the men were scared to go back, lest they be taken by soldiers and never heard from again. Rima told me the teacher at the dirty school her girls attended insulted the children and beat them with a wooden rod, so the girls didn’t want to attend. It was also very hot in Egypt, with biting insects that prevented sleep and made the girls look ill. Egyptians asked why they came, told them to leave, swore at them, and expected the women to be their prostitutes. Rima was scared; she said they left because it was almost as bad as Syria. Greeks are not like that, she told me: Rima can walk alone in the streets at night here as she could not in Egypt.
Rima, Maram, and their families left Egypt together. They were told they’d travel on a good boat featuring cabins with beds, food, water, and even wi fi, but the smuggler lied to them. He charged $2500 per adult, and half that for each child. A small wooden boat took them to a medium sized one where they spent one night with just enough room to sit up next to all the other Syrians. After one day, they had to jump from the medium boat to a large one, the one that later broke down. There was no bridge, so men threw the women and children up to the larger boat like sacks, while big waves rocked the boats. One man bumped his head, got dizzy, and fell down. One heavy woman fell down, lost her shoes, robe, and scarf, and suffered pain for two days. Rima and Maram think two or three people died on that boat, perhaps from drug overdoses; it came from Morocco, and they believe it was carrying heroin as well as refugees and migrants from Syria and Egypt.
It was Rima and Maram’s first time on a boat, and they became seasick. Two of their daughters couldn’t eat or even drink water properly for four days—they managed only drops of water, fresh lemon, and salt. Everyone ate lemons which a man brought around along with bags for seasickness. Everyone vomited in the bags, so they ran out of them. Although they had brought plenty of food with them (including chocolate, bread, and cheese), they were too seasick to eat it.
After two days on the big boat, a large wave broke a window, and sea water washed over Rima’s little twin girls, leaving them wet and cold. The children were crying; everyone was crying. Rima’s husband couldn’t look at his daughters. They thought they’d die. They prayed. The boat rocked wildly. After four days and five nights, the boat broke down in the middle of the sea.
They hoped for help from Italians, since they were trying to get to Italy, and then to Germany, but Greeks came to the rescue. The refugees thanked God for their rescuers and their children’s lives and health, but they were upset to learn that they were put on a Greek boat. They didn’t want to come to Greece, because they knew it was hard to get to Germany from here.
Rima said Greece “closes the door – if we go in Greece we can’t go out” because the authorities don’t let them board planes. Rima tried twice, Maram once; Maram’s older daughters (who are 19 and 21) tried once a week, ten or twelve times, and finally succeeded. They paid $150 for a fake ID from Belgium or France, or $300 for a fake passport from the Czech Republic. One friend with a lot of money got through the first time. But generally officials took the fake ID, destroyed it, and refused to let them travel, so they lost the money paid for all the plane tickets as well as the IDs.
Why keep breaking the law, then, and giving their limited savings to criminals? With family in Germany, which has been giving asylum and support to the Syrian refugees who get there, while Greece is unable to support its own citizens during an economic crisis comparable to America’s Great Depression, and incapable of guaranteeing support or jobs for refugees, what would you have them do? Most refugees cannot find legal ways to reach a safe, prosperous country; one father said he went from embassy to embassy in Egypt in vain. A UN HCR representative informed me that for those who “have no documentation in Greece, there is no legal way for them to travel to EU or other countries unless embassies of such countries issue visas for humanitarian or other grounds, which is in practice very difficult”—except when an immediate family member is there already. So at least one family member must get to a land of safety and prosperity however they can. That is what current laws push them to do.
So Rima’s husband came to Crete with his wife and their daughters, but then he walked for 40 days to reach Germany. He now has the asylum he sought there, so the rest of the family will eventually be able to join him. Her husband would have stayed in Greece if he could have found work; Rima likes Greece. But like many Syrian refugees, Rima and Maram want to go to Germany because they expect to be able to find the jobs, support, and educational opportunities their families need, especially since the kids have barely attended school for three years. There was a good university in Syria, but now Rima supposes her girls will go to a German university after they finish high school. Once her husband learns German and gets the appropriate permit, Rima expects him to be able to cut hair or fix cars. Meanwhile, the German government is supporting him. Rima may look for a job once her girls return to school. She and Maram are thinking of opening a small restaurant featuring Syrian food, because they are good cooks—as I know from sampling some of their tasty cooking.
Additional Obstacles, Cultural, Legal, Residential, and Financial
Maram’s husband lives in Germany, where he also has a German wife. Islamic law allows up to four wives, but since German law does not, he has told German officials that he and Maram are divorced. This makes it more difficult for Maram to get permission to go there, although her husband’s German wife has shown compassionate concern for her and her children. Two of Maram’s daughters joined their father in Germany six months ago. A German friend who lives here in Greece tells us that according to the Dublin Regulation, children are supposed to be reunited with both parents, whether the parents are divorced or not. She has been trying to help Maram with paperwork to enable a family reunion in Germany. If the Germans don’t make an exception for a Syrian refugee, the Dublin Regulation may help. I very much hope Maram won’t be left behind when the rest of her family is reunited.
Maram, Rima, and some of the other refugees from Syria have been living for 17 months in small rooms in a hotel whose owner the Greek government promised to pay for their lodging. Any time I asked the owner or his son, however, they said that they had not been paid and were having serious financial difficulties, losing income from tourists for two summers while facing bills, taxes, and loan payments. But there is nowhere else for the refugee families, which include children, to go; Crete has no shelter for them, and in Athens and other parts of Greece thousands of refugees are sleeping on the streets or in parks while waiting for their documents to be processed. The government managed to move a couple hundred out of an Athens park where they’d been camping, and into some prefabricated housing, but there are still thousands of homeless migrants and refugees waiting for processing.
Another mother I met (from Aleppo) came here with her three boys. Her husband visited from Sweden, where he’d been granted asylum. When I gave them a ride back to the hotel from the Anti-Racist Festival earlier this summer, I was struck by how little he fit the stereotype of a Muslim man or an Arab refugee. A fairly short, slim man with light skin and light, reddish curly hair, he spoke with sensitivity in very good English. His wife and her younger boys expect to join him in Sweden without any problem, but that’s not true of their 18 year old son, who is not eligible for family reunification under the Dublin Regulation at his age. Unwilling to remain in Greece without his family, any connections, knowledge of the language, or employment prospects, the 18 year old set out on the long road travelled by so many refugees, walking to Sweden from Greece to join his father. He seems to have preferred to walk that far alone, rather than remain in a foreign country by himself. I just hope Sweden will grant him asylum once he gets there.
As Europe awaits the result of Greece’s upcoming sixth general election in eight years—a pro-European majority or a revitalization of anti-bailout parties—refugees from Syria wait for permission to join family members elsewhere in Europe. Of course, these are the lucky ones, not the relatives left behind in Syria, where their houses may be bombed or their children may be shot. These are the lucky ones who made it out of the chaos of Egypt and Libya, beyond the crowded refugee camps or slums of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Most of them used to be well-off, so they could afford to pay what the smugglers demanded, and what the long journey required, assuming things went smoothly. However, their shipwreck further complicated their lives and strained their resources.
While talking with me, one of the women mentioned that they’d lost everything, left everything behind in Syria—their work and routines, their neighborhoods, their homes, and all that was in them. Tears came to their eyes as they thought about it, and all I could think of to say was “you still have your family.” But that isn’t quite right, since the surviving members of their families are scattered in several different countries.
A Lonely Artist Who Longs for His Family
Like Shamsalddin, a Palestinian refugee who had been living in Syria with his wife and two small daughters before the war, I am drawn to the arts and artistic expression, although I focus on writing and photography, while he paints and draws, and I have not been separated from my spouse and children for a year. I am not so depressed that I can barely function and don’t have the will for self-expression. I do not wonder when paperwork will be completed so I can join little six and eight year old daughters I haven’t seen all year. I have not lived in a lonely room without the job I need to support my children, worried that they might not be allowed to continue attending school since the answer to their mother’s asylum request was delayed for more than ten months.
Shamsalddin told me he used to have a good life as an artist in Syria. But then his computer, paintings, and entire home were bombed, and now they’re gone. All he has left are a few imperfect smart phone photos of his art work (pictured here). His wife and daughters are safe in Sweden, but they were granted asylum and a residence permit only recently, after a long wait. Since others received residence permits a few months after getting to Sweden, or even just two or three weeks after their arrival, Shamsalddin didn’t see why the Swedish officials wouldn’t give his wife a permit earlier. He doubted they understood how hard things were for him and his family, who live in a modest hotel like the one he is in here and eat with other asylum seekers, not at home with their family.
For many months, Shamsalddin worried that everyone in the hotel except him would soon join their families in other countries. Although he smiled at me occasionally when I visited, Shamsalddin said he worried too much about his wife and little girls to focus on painting or drawing; he just wasn’t in the mood for it. He emphasized his loneliness, and he didn’t seem to talk with other people much. He said when he is happy, he can paint very well, but when he isn’t happy he doesn’t want to paint. I tried to talk with him about letting out our pain through writing (in my case) or painting and drawing (in his case), reminding him that all art isn’t rooted in happiness. Some of his art suggests he already knows that perfectly well, but maybe he would have been more convinced to try to express himself now if I’d discussed my writing about my parents and my feelings after they died. That is the only suffering I have endured that can begin to compare with what these refugees have faced, although the circumstances were very different.
Never allow the numbers and politics to let you forget that these refugees are people like you, people with talents, skills, needs, feelings, problems, and children. The difference is that they fled cities plagued by bombing and shooting to save their children’s lives, and now they are looking for places where their children can have a safe, healthy future, an education, and hope. Yes, some refugees may have crossed borders without the appropriate papers, but if you couldn’t find a legal way out of a war zone, wouldn’t you get your children to safety any way you could? Yes, everyone has problems, yes, there are unemployment and need among the native population everywhere, but would you keep your children in a city full of bombing and shooting, or in a refugee camp or slum plagued by overcrowding, health, safety, and sanitation problems, inadequate food and water supplies, and unemployment, or would you try to take them somewhere with more to offer?
An Overview of the News and the Numbers
Recently, the New York Times and NPR have been following fleeing refugees up to and beyond the Greek islands closest to Turkey, which has become refugees’ preferred starting point this summer on the way to more prosperous central and northern European countries. Some Greek islands in the eastern Aegean have been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of needy refugees, who then head north from mainland Greece to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Serbia, and the European country of Hungary. Aside from a short-lived struggle on the border with FYROM, Greece and its impoverished Balkan neighbors have tended to allow desperate refugees and migrants to pass through on their way to countries where they hope to find more jobs and governmental support, but Hungary has almost finished a giant wall along its 109-mile border with Serbia that is meant to push migrants and refugees away.
Every time another fence is erected, that simply pushes migrants and refugees in a different direction, or toward more unscrupulous smugglers, such as those who seem to have let 71 people die in a truck in Austria last week. Fences between Turkey and Bulgaria, Turkey and northeastern Greece, and Morocco and the Spanish territories in North Africa don’t stop people who are desperate to reach a land of opportunity, such as Germany, Sweden, Austria, France, or the UK. Germany expects to receive as many as 800,000 migrants and asylum seekers this year, and it has been the most generous country for refugees, but its leaders have warned that the country cannot continue to care for such large numbers of needy human beings.
This year, many countries—including Greece, which now has a caretaker government until the September 20 election—are struggling to cope with the huge influx of refugees, mostly from Syria, some from Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Volunteers and NGOs offer some of the food, clothing, care, services, and shelter governments do not provide, but everyone is overwhelmed by the numbers. The UN recently reported that about 310,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe so far this year, with almost 200,000 of them coming to Greece, which has replaced Italy as their most popular initial destination within Europe. The UNHCR announced a 750% increase in refugees and migrants arriving in Greece by sea from January to the end of last month, compared with the same period last year, and about 76,000 more have come since then. Again and again this year, the media spotlight has reminded people that migrants and refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea at unprecedented rates. According to the UN, more than 2500 people have already died this year in their dangerous efforts to cross the sea.
In spite of repeated calls for an organized, united European response to save lives and reduce the burden on Greece and Italy, tentative agreements to relocate a mere 40,000 of the refugees in other EU countries have led to little action and many arguments with countries that just don’t want to accept refugees. The issue of migration has joined that of the common currency during the extended Greek economic crisis to raise the question of whether a united Europe remains possible. With about 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, it seems clear to me that prosperous countries in Europe, North America, the Middle East, and elsewhere should, in all fairness, act on their claims to support human rights by accepting far more refugees than they have so far agreed to.
Of course, the best solution is to solve the problems that make people leave their homelands—war, other violence, famine, poverty, forced military conscription--but that has proven extremely difficult so far. In the meantime, human beings fleeing dangerous situations need good, viable options. They do not find these in the overburdened refugee camps bordering conflict zones, or—even worse--the other spaces refugees manage to live in, many of them plagued by crime, safety concerns, and a lack of adequate healthcare, education, food, clean water, and hope. Prosperous nations need to provide more legal channels for migration and, especially, asylum for refugees, including different types of humanitarian and temporary visas and more choices and help for people fleeing war zones. These legal avenues need to be within reach of the desperate people who need them, in or near the troubled areas. If only unscrupulous smugglers offer so-called “help” to refugees, where do you expect them to turn?
Nils Muiznieks, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, argues that “European countries have lost all sense of proportion. With a total population estimated at more than 740 million, they are among the richest and most stable countries in the world, but they pretend to be threatened by the idea of admitting 600,000 asylum seekers a year…. The values of tolerance, acceptance and solidarity have defined the European project. We cannot abandon them now, over this.” Hear, hear! Americans and others should think about the way a very similar argument applies to them, too.
Having seen his baby son Adam only in cell phone photos, the former Syrian restaurant owner Abdulkader Alkadi recently flew with his four children (ages 7 to 13) to join their mother and new baby brother in London, where Mrs. Alkadi had flown alone when she was pregnant, in search of medical care and a residence permit. Mohammed, whose badly burned wife Hanan is in Malta with four of their seven children, went to Athens, planning to join his family in Malta. Mahmoud, the first of the refugees to speak with me here, is in Germany with his family.
Adeeb Mayyasa, the father with a heart problem who was here with his 9-year old daughter Jode, has gone to Athens with her to request asylum in Greece. Last I heard, his wife, 17-year-old daughter, and 22-year-old son were in Egypt; some family members were unreachable, while others were killed in Syria. Mohammed Khalid and his daughter Besan are also in Athens to apply for asylum in Greece. Although they did not want to remain in Greece, given 25% unemployment and limited support services, they have no family in a prosperous nation, so they have no better prospects for asylum.
Suggestions for Further Reading