It is their sheer relief and hope that are most striking… more than their foolhardy courage, the dangers and deprivations of their journey, and their terrible experiences.
It seems to me that as soon as they set foot on the shores of Europe, many refugees feel freedom is finally theirs for the taking: freedom from fear, from repression, war, crushing poverty, and the total lack of prospects brought about by some or all the above. And so they give full rein to a hope that knows no borders, a hope that refuses to recognise ominous moves within the European Union to threaten their access to protection.
“For four years, I’ve been dreaming to get here. Now I feel very calm, good and happy,” said Haysem, who came from Syria with his wife and five little children. “Just now, we were all singing together in our room – me, my wife and my children.”
Ahmed and Asyha escaped ISIS in Raqqa. When I asked how they felt, they looked at one another and exchanged wide smiles. Ahmed said: “Like someone who was dead and has come back to life.”
Haysem, Ahmed and Asyha shared their stories with me in late January on the Greek island of Lesbos, where they were staying in a family shelter. I met dozens of people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan who had just reached one or other of the Greek islands from Turkey. They came in a bid to seek asylum and “new life”. They are far from alone in doing so, joining an exodus to Europe that has been going on for years but hit record levels in 2015, when more than one million refugees and forced migrants arrived in Europe. In January this year, nearly 69,000 came to Greece.
Once they land, the refugees move remarkably quickly from one stop to the next – often aided by smugglers – to try to get to their destination of choice. This is usually Germany, for many reasons; the one that stayed with me was “because Angela Merkel is the mother of all Syrians and Iraqis”.
Part of the refugees’ dizzying relief, when they reach European territory, doubtless stems from surviving a potentially lethal journey. No less than 374 refugees died in the Mediterranean in January, most of them trying to reach Greece in overcrowded and flimsy inflatable dinghies. Haysem had two words to describe his journey: “Fear, death.”
Tarek, who fled the Syrian city of Latakia to escape forced recruitment in the army, said: “The smugglers told us only 40 minutes in the sea but we stayed three and half hours. It was very rough and the children, oh, the children, crying and screaming. It was crazy and dangerous.” The day after he arrived to the island of Kos, Tarek was woken up to translate for a man who had just watched his wife and daughter drown.
Qusai, a severely disabled man from Damascus, very nearly didn’t make it. His minute size and inability to move unaided meant he was nearly swamped by waves and suffocated. From the moment he was put in the dinghy up to his journey’s end at Nera Island, Qusai sustained three fractures to his brittle bones.
The dangers of the journey to seek asylum are not new or surprising. History has shown that the consequences of travelling clandestinely and depending on unscrupulous smugglers can be fatal. But then those who make the unspeakably difficult decision to embark on such a trip feel they have absolutely no choice.
At the Turkish coast, Qusai contemplated the “terrifying” black waters into which the smugglers had just ditched his wheelchair, because he could not afford to pay for its place. He had just paid $1000 for himself. He thought: “Maybe I’ll make it, maybe not. I don’t care, this is my last chance, no way back, no need to be scared, it might be my last day; it might not.”
Ghodrat, a young Hazara man from war-torn Ghazni Province in Afghanistan, arrived to Lesbos with his wife and four-year-old daughter. He had tried to settle in Iran first but was deported twice because he had no papers. “Of course I could see that the journey by boat was dangerous. But it was more dangerous to stay back where people take a bomb and kill themselves and others – this happened every day where I lived. War on one side, suicide bombers on the other side, lack of job and hunger on the other, threatened because you are Shia on the other… So I decided to take the journey no matter what, although I knew we may drown.”
Hearing what they fled from, it is no wonder that the people I met showed such grim determination. They were eager to explain, drawing, miming and searching for words on the Internet when language got in the way. Those who came from rebel areas of Syria were petrified of barrel bombs dropped by their own government, “they destroy everything, schools, homes, mosques”. A man said quietly: “When you see children dead, when you try to pull their corpses from the rubble, it’s horrible.”
One widow – she lost her husband to a barrel bomb – eventually managed to leave Aleppo after being sent back twice across the border by Turkey. She left without knowing what had become of her parents and brother, who ‘disappeared’ after the Syrian army arrested them four years earlier. “Our father was 70, walking with a stick – what could he do to anyone?”
Then there were those who managed to escape from territory controlled by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, like four Yezidi sisters, the youngest one crying silently. ISIS fighters killed their mother after the girls fled: “If a woman is young and beautiful they take her. If she is old, they kill her.”
Others recalled how ISIS punished infringements, ranging from smoking to not praying to trying to escape from their territory, with flogging or forced labour, digging trenches on the frontline. “Kollox haram!” (Everything is forbidden!) But the worst nightmare was the beheadings. Ahmed drew a square in my notebook and explained: “There is a square in Raqqa, where ISIS brought people for execution, every two weeks. Then they left the heads there for three days. This used to be a beautiful place, we used to go for ice cream as a family before, but now whoever goes there is dead.” I wished Ahmed good luck as he got up to leave. He picked up the pencil and drew a cross over the square. “Inshallah,” he replied.
My interpreter for Arabic in Lesbos was visibly moved. “You hear the words but you cannot believe these things actually happen,” she said. Too true: much as I try, I cannot even start to imagine or to understand – not even remotely – what it is like to be threatened by such horrors. Something Ghodrat said keeps coming back: “The life I had was so painful, I have no room to be worried about anything now.” But his dream – and this is true for every single refugee I met – is fuelled not only by despair but also by faith: an unshakeable faith in Europe as a mecca of peace, democracy and respect for the human rights “of every person”.
This faith is reinforced by the welcome extended by generous residents and by a UN-coordinated bevy of NGOs on the islands and in Athens. Tarek recalled: “Three Swedish men came to rescue us from the boat. I felt safe then and some day I will help people like they helped us. It was beautiful, especially when we saw them holding the children like they were theirs.”
As the refugees venture further, enthusiasm seems to wane. I met Tarek in Eidomeni, on the border with Macedonia, which was closed because striking Macedonian taxi drivers had blocked the trains. “We didn’t think it would be so difficult, we thought we’d reach Germany in five or six days but we’ve already been in Greece for seven.”
The stark truth is that their quest for asylum is likely to be much harder than most imagine. Although there is plenty of goodwill in Europe, especially among ordinary people and civil society groups eager to extend hospitality, political trends are shifting in the opposite direction. At national and EU levels, policymakers are proposing and sometimes implementing measures to tighten border controls and to make asylum policies more restrictive, even offensive to human dignity.
But negative news does not appear to deter the newly arrived refugees too much. They keep hoping to find at least a safe place, and opportunities to work and to study, and to give their children a happier future – the top priority of every single parent I met. They cling fiercely to hope because they can’t afford to do otherwise. Like millions before them, they have staked everything on their gamble for freedom. And since I met them, all I can think is: how many will find the new life they sacrificed everything for, and what can we do to help them?
As the mission of JRS is to accompany these people, serve them, and advocate for them, we want to listen first to their voices, as they are travelling and crossing so many obstacles.
Danielle Vella has travelled all over the world with JRS, accompanying refugees and telling their stories in diverse publications. Danielle, together with Darrin Zammit Lupi, an award-winning photojournalist, have embarked on the journey of hope that so many people are making from Greece through Macedonia and on into other European countries.