ATHENS — Tucked down a backstreet in the city’s central area, some 200 Yazidi refugees live in a rundown apartment block with spotty views of the Acropolis. Old men sit on chairs in the lobby, and children play on the staircases, calling to each other between floors. Their soft, everyday banter belies the horrors that brought them here months earlier.
The Yazidis are no strangers to persecution, but when ISIS arrived in their home of Northern Iraq in 2014, the religious minority experienced horror like few others have seen. ISIS carried out a systematic genocide against the Yazidis in August 2014, kidnapping, raping, and killing thousands of men, women, and children who the terror group accused of being “infidels.” Thousands fled their homes seeking safety in Europe, but the perilous journey scattered families across the continent. Many are now left to wait it out in Athens, hoping they can soon reunite with loved ones.
On the sixth floor of a nondescript apartment building near Omonia Square, a bustling but seedy area in central Athens, Hazim, 25, sits on a mattress in the small room he shares with his two younger sisters, Jinan, 17, and Avin, 12. “I [prefer] the simple life, living in a village. It’s nice if you can plant flowers and make a garden.” He looks out the window. “Here it’s dirty. There is a lot of people and pollution.”
Hazim’s life in Iraq before ISIS was that of a typical twentysomething. He was a student at the University of Mosul and lived with his family in their hometown of Tel Qasab near the city of Sinjar. Seeing the terror group approach one morning in August 2014, they left their belongings and fled for their lives. The family made for shelter in the mountains. “But the roads were closed as there were so many cars, so we started walking,” Hazim explains. They walked for hours to reach the Sinjar Mountains along with tens of thousands of other Yazidis. The mountains offered temporary safety, but soon they were surrounded by ISIS.
“Children were crying, there was no water, no food, no anything,” Hazim says. He points to a scar on his ankle where he says he was hit by a bullet while trying to get water near the base of the mountain.
“When I came down, I saw people dying because they had no water or they were too old to get up the mountain.”
After Kurdish forces established a safe path from the mountain, Hazim and his family walked to Syria, where the situation was just as bad. They left as soon as possible, walking for three days until they arrived in Turkey. After being shuffled between different refugee camps there, the family decided to go to Germany but had only enough money to pay smugglers for five people to cross. His parents and three siblings went on ahead to Greece and then to Germany in the fall of 2015, before the borders shut.
Hazim stayed behind in Turkey with his two younger sisters, eventually earning enough money as a teacher in one of the refugee camps to pay for their journey into Greece. After a failed first attempt, which landed them in a Turkish jail, they made it to Greece in April 2016.
Hazim’s sisters received asylum in Germany in March. After some uncertainty about his own situation, he learned in April that he would join them, but he is still waiting for a departure date, and his sisters won’t leave without him. He is optimistic about a future in Europe: “I know when I get to Germany, I will have a better life. There are companies there, so maybe I can work after learning the language.”
It could be weeks or months before the family receives confirmation for their departure date. Frustrated by the lack of certainty about their future, Hazim and his sisters rely on video calls to stay connected with their parents. “My mother cries a lot. She wants to know when we will come to join her.”
Across the corridor from Hazim lives Raid, a 17-year-old boy, who shares a room stuffed full of bunk beds with his parents and six siblings. His mother kneads dough in a plastic bowl in the corner as his younger brothers and sister play on the balcony outside. “It’s not safe for them on the street,” he says in English spoken so fast it’s easy to forget that a year ago he spoke nothing of the language.
In his village near Sinjar, he went to school and helped his father tend their sheep. “There was no electricity in our houses. I was reading with a small torch. I would go to school at 8 and then come back at 12. We were living a normal, simple life,” Raid recalls.
When ISIS came, they also looked for safety in the mountains. Much like Hazim, Raid’s journey to Greece was rife with false starts and perilous crossings. After some uncertainty, the family was finally granted asylum in Germany in September, and hope to make their way sometime soon.
Life in this apartment block has a purgatorial quality to it. Most see it as only a pit stop between their old lives and the ones they hope to have elsewhere in Europe.
“It’s very boring,” Raid says. He attends a school set up by a charity in Athens. “After I come home from school, I go to the park or I go to the beach where I swim.” His mother spends much of her time indoors cooking or cleaning. His father takes the younger siblings to school and does the shopping.
Raid teaches his younger siblings English. He hopes of one day being a translator, as he’s become a resident translator for much of the community.
Goli, 36, and five of her children feel like they’re killing time in the apartment complex. Her husband and two other children are already in Germany. She sits cross-legged on a bunk bed. “I want to talk about what happened,” she says. “It hurts,” she gestures to her heart, “but I want to talk.” Goli lived in the same town as Hazim, a distant relative. Her husband worked in a coffee shop before the genocide began.
Her life since fleeing her home in Iraq has been one of false hope, a fractured family, and few spots of joy. Goli gave birth to her youngest child, now 18 months, in a refugee camp in Turkey.
“I don’t see any future in Iraq; our houses and holy places have been destroyed,” she says. “But I don’t want to stay in Athens. I want to bring my children to their father and for them to go to school in Germany.” She has yet to be granted the asylum she needs to rejoin her family.
Raid, Hazim, Goli and their families have been living in these apartments since January when they were moved from a camp in northern Greece. Each day they’ve watched friends and family move onto their final countries of asylum. Each day they hope to follow them.
Life in Athens stands in stark contrast to the rural lives many Yazidis left behind. More than three years on from the massacre they witnessed, they are safe in Greece’s capital.
As evening descends on Athens, life continues on for most in the city: families walk to tavernas for dinner, tourists pass by on their way to the Acropolis. Raid, Hazim, Goli, and the hundreds of other Yazidis in this quiet apartment block wait and wonder when their lives will resume.
Katy Fallon is a freelance journalist based in London.