Imagine leaving your loved ones behind in a country ravaged by war, knowing deep down that you will never see them again. This is what sisters Fatimah and Mouminah had to endure leaving their parents behind in Syria, as they made the difficult journey across Syria, Turkey and the Aegean Sea with their seven children in tow. I spoke to Fatimah and Mouminah as they sat stranded at the Port of Piraeus in Athens. They had been sitting there for 10 days living in a makeshift camp having travelled for 45 days from Syria. The sisters, both in their late 20s, made the difficult journey across the Aegean Sea on their own with their children in a bid to join their husbands in Germany.
Although the same journey is experienced by thousands of refugees, it is not without serious repercussions. Fatimah’s six year old son suffered a broken arm during the boat ride after taking a nasty tumble. He’s been receiving medical treatment, but the cold refugee camps are no place for an injured child to recover. It wasn’t difficult to see how hazardous the journey along the Aegean Sea is, as my colleague and I started our journey by touching down in the capital of Lesvos in Mytilene, and our first sight was the crashing, violent waves of the sea. The same sea that’s transported thousands of refugees and claimed the lives of hundreds.
Even on a relatively mild day, I couldn’t help but think of the extent of the dangers that the refugees escape in order to risk this boat journey. Speaking to Mouminah, it was easy to understand how putting one’s family on nothing more than a plastic dinghy in the freezing sea was a lot safer than life in Syria. The ongoing conflict in Syria resulted in the sisters’ home being blown up five years ago, and since then they have constantly moved around, seeking security and shelter wherever they can. In a country torn apart by war with bombings and shootings an everyday occurrence, safety and security are like a hazy illusion, forcing the family with no choice but to finally flee their homeland.
Although the refugees have different stories, they all experience the same horrific boat journey in nothing more than a basic rubber dinghy from the Turkish coast to Lesvos.
In Karatepe, one of the main refugee registration camps at the time in Moria, refugees revealed the extent of the mental and physical strain of the journey. One lady, whose husband worked as a lawyer while she worked as a tailor in Aleppo, Syria made the difficult journey with all five of her children, including her youngest — a 6-month-old baby girl. While crossing the sea from Turkey, their boat sank and they were stranded on the coastline for three days without food, water or shelter. In a desperate attempt to keep warm, they were forced to light fires. If they hadn’t gone through enough already, the fires they lit spread to some nearby trees, causing the branches and foliage to fall on top of them. They then tried their second attempt to cross the sea, which was successful, but it wasn’t short of traumatising. They gripped onto the boat for dear life, shouting “Allahu akbar” as they went.
Greece attracts a whole range of refugees and migrants, including people fleeing their homeland due to economic hardships. Whilst visiting Afghan Hill, an unofficial refugee camp in Moria, I spoke to a young Pakistani migrant, Gulzaman, who expressed the difficulties surrounding his journey, and how he had to sleep on rocks and in bushes while remaining hungry for several days at a time. Gulzaman added how economical and financial desperation had forced him with no other choice but to leave his homeland: “I am desperate. I am here to make a living for my younger brothers and sisters. If I was able to support them in Pakistan, I would never have come here. Only I know the situation of my family. We would go without food for days.”
With the threat of being sent back to their homeland, the Pakistani migrants in Afghan Hill were determined to have their voices heard and staged a protest: “We don’t want to go back. There is nothing left for us there. We only want to go forward.” While Gulzaman and many other migrants and refugees praised the efforts of volunteers running refugee camps and how they are well catered for with hot meals and medical services, in other parts of Greece this is not always the case.
Idomeni, in the north of Greece, has become notorious as a toxic wasteland for the tens of thousands of refugees that are stranded at the Macedonian border hoping to continue their journey to their desired destinations. It was our last stop, and the one that resonated the most.
Having been well informed of Idomeni via social media and blog posts prior to our arrival, I thought I was well prepared as to what to expect. But nothing can ever prepare you for witnessing tens of thousands of men, women, children and elderly living day after day in mud containing human waste. Nothing prepares you for seeing an elderly man break down in front of a complete stranger sobbing uncontrollably. Nothing prepares you for discovering that a young mum lost one of her children en route to Greece. Nothing prepares you for seeing the hope slowly drain from the eyes of a refugee, as days turn to weeks since their arrival in Idomeni.
As I walked through the mud in Idomeni, navigating between plastic tents and dodging mounds of rubbish while covering my mouth to avoid the thick polluted air, I struggled to comprehend that in 2016, people are being forced to live like this. Unwanted, unloved and living without basic human rights, this is life for refugees in Idomeni — a modern day concentration camp complete with discrimination and razor wire.
If the strain of being stranded is not hard enough, imagine living with your whole family in a polluted wasteland without access to shower facilities, nutritious food or secure shelter? The hazardous living conditions are having a negative impact on the health of thousands of refugees with numerous diseases and mental health issues, such as hysteria and psychotic breaks on the rise. Upon arriving in Idomeni, we were greeted by an elderly man who broke down in front of our team crying: “If I knew that I’d be living in conditions like this, I would have stayed in Syria and died there!”
Many refugees have not had a shower in over a month and the lack of wash and shower facilities is having a detrimental effect both on the physical and mental wellbeing of refugees. A mother of four told me how the conditions are having a negative impact on everyone’s wellbeing: “We’re going crazy here.” The desperation in Idomeni has even resulted in the refugees inflicting self-harm with one refugee setting himself on fire in an attempt to raise awareness of the inhumane living conditions.
As we left the horrors of Idomeni, I couldn’t help but think what must go through the mind of a mother as her children question her on when they’ll reach home? Be it Idomeni, Lesvos or Athen, this is not home, and as more time goes past and more evasive policies are put into place, it makes it difficult for the refugees to hold onto a small fragment of hope. Hope that they’ll reach that safe haven that they’ve been desperately yearning for. A place where they can live in safety and security without the presence of conflict that has torn whole families apart. The mother we spoke to in Karatepe said she didn’t want anything, but only that her children have a future — one where education, food and shelter are not a luxury, but rather a necessity: “I don’t want anything. All I need is a bright future for my children.”
A Jamil is an English Language graduate working within the Communications Department for an humanitarian charity, Al-Khair Foundation. When she’s not eating or baking cakes, she enjoys getting involved in various community projects and is an active member of her community. She blogs at http://atravellerstreasurebox.blogspot.co.uk/