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One Syrian Family's Story

How some refugees fled their war-torn country to safety only to face even more hardships.

by Emma Ferrer
May 1 2017, 4:15pm

Photo by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation via Flickr

This is an opinion piece by Emma Ferrer for USA for UNHCR.

The afternoon light fell as we pulled up to the front of a Greek apartment complex on a tree-lined street in downtown residential Athens. Ascending to the fifth and last floor of the building, we knocked gently and the door quickly peeled back, revealing the six beaming faces of a Muslim refugee family who welcomed us into their home. There were three dimpled young girls and a freckle-faced boy with bright orange hair, and a woman clad in full black chador shadowed the respectable man of the home that stood close by.

The mother silently coaxed us inside to see their sleeping newborn in the master bedroom. Across the room we were shown where the other four children sleep. There were two impeccably made bunk beds, two large windows pouring in what was left of the sunlight, a bright red carpet, and some neatly arranged toys.

The apartment is modest, but spacious and immaculately kept. I congratulated the mother and father on their beautiful newborn. This opened our conversation, and I encouraged them to tell me their story.

The family was forced to flee their home in Syria six months ago. The bombings, violence, and civil warfare made their hometown an impossible place to raise young children.

The husband recounted their situation: "Syria is impossible. We, like all other refugees, left because of the bombings, the government planes overhead, the troops." He continued: "First, there was just the free army -- young kids who protested, then became revolutionaries fighting against the government. All they were asking for was a little freedom for a better life. Now, there are so many troops, so many teams in the game. In our home area, Kurdish troops have entered, taken everything, and arrested many people. There is mafia. There is ISIS. There is Iran and Russia. If they don't leave, it will never end. All of these groups are killing people. You are with them, or you are against them."

After a long and arduous journey that brought them through Turkey, they arrived in Greece, and were settled into the Idomeni Refugee Camp near the northern border. The camp was one of the largest in the country until it was officially closed due to unlivable conditions. There, the family persevered by living in a tent that was constantly flooded with water up to their knees.

"The greatest difficulties we have encountered on our journey were the tents in which we lived for four months in Idomeni," the father told me. "In this camp, my wife endured her last three months of pregnancy. Throughout the whole winter she was dying of pain. The children were constantly ill because of the rain and the cold."

Despite the situation, he was undeterred. "Water up to here?" he said, brushing his hand to his knee. "It was okay, we were safe!" He pointed to his children. "They were safe, so we were okay."

He continued: "Step by step, the situation got better. Right now, we are relaxing, we are not afraid. We have a door we can lock." He gestured toward the front door as I noticed the hospitable nature of the living arrangements.

The family was relocated to this apartment as participants of the EU-funded relocation scheme; an initiative fostered by the Justice and Home Affairs Council with aim of relocating a total of 160,000 asylum seekers from refugee camps to authentic-home situations.
This is a crucial step towards integrating the 21.3 million refugees under UNHCR mandate into safety. On average, a refugee will spend 18 years in a refugee camp. This means that these micro-societies are serving as the endpoint of a refugee's journey. To be out of the camps, with a front door and a lock on it, is to be among the fortunate.

"We saw, in our country, those close to us dying in front of our own eyes. I lost my brother, I lost my two cousins," the father said. "Two days ago, I spoke to my remaining family. They said to me that now, if you are lucky enough to find a piece of bread, you feel like you've won the World Cup."

He explained that while in Syria, his father and sister went to look for some water about 100 meters from their house only to face gunfire. "They were lucky and hid in the empty water tank," the father said. "We are alive, we are lucky', they told me."

"Do you have hopes of one day returning to Syria?" I ask. "There is nothing to return for - no electricity, no water, no school. In Syria the schools would be bombed, and they would close for one month. Then they would open for two or three days and the whole thing would start over again," he responded.

Later, they showed us a photograph of what now remains of the children's school in Syria: a two-foot high fragment of a brick wall, a sea of dust, and pieces of rubble no larger than a chair.

"My kids deserve to be in school. Everything we did, we did it for them," he says, gesturing to the wide-eyed children. "I would just like to be in a country that will look at us as humans."

The father elaborated further: "When we were in Idomeni, they looked at us like just numbers. All of the organizations came to us with cameras for photographs and interviews, but no medicine for the sick children. For 21 days my wife cried from pregnancy pain. No medicine - not even one tablet." But this all changed when they met a Greek man who ended up being a UNHCR volunteer who told them to go to Athens.

"Once we arrived, he took my wife to the doctor and my kids went to school. We are here because of this guy. When we came to Athens, we saw the people of Greece. They have peace, mind, and feeling. They looked at us like people, more than the government ever did."

I asked him if he could ever imagine a situation where his role was reversed.

"In 2006, Lebanese refugees fleeing Hezbollah came to us in Syria. Every Syrian house opened its doors to them. We welcomed them," he explained. "So many Syrian citizens have two houses; they all gave one of their houses to refugees without the help of any organizations. All of us were volunteers. We helped them until the problem in Lebanon passed and then they went back."

He continued "I hope that the roles are never reversed; that this never happens to your country or your citizens. I would not wish it on my worst enemy."