WMC Women Under Siege

For refugees in Greece, a harsh shift from transit country to home

Samos, Greece—Here was yet another family flung across the sea from Syria sitting in an air-conditioned, yet still stuffy, container that is their temporary home on the island of Samos in Greece. With so many of them having made it to the country together, the Al-Ghateb family stood out from the hundreds of single men and mothers with children at the camp. But despite their relative cohesion, like so many refugee families, they are incomplete. Two sons are living in Germany and two more remain in Syria, which the family fled months ago only to be waylaid at the Turkish border four times before making a successful sea crossing to Samos at the end of April.

Now, in the void refugees slip into upon arrival in a “safe” country—a place where they have been fingerprinted and wait the interminable time for asylum to be (hopefully) granted—they while away the time with little to do. It is the lot of refugees: boredom.

The 63-year-old patriarch, Adham, and matriarch, Nadar, 49, swathed in black, sat with three of their sons and young daughter along the walls of their container, giving my colleague Priyali Sur and I a bed on which to perch. They, like so many others from Syria and elsewhere, had been hoping to get to Germany, a promised land for countless refugees—and now a forbidden destination as Europe’s borders with Greece remain closed since March 20.

The Al-Ghateb family shows a photo of their youngest son, who is living in Germany while they remain in Greece. (Lauren Wolfe)

Sur and I met this family in the first week of August at Samos’ Vathi refugee camp, which is housing more than 700 people from places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but is only equipped to handle about 600. More than 117,000 people have arrived on Samos since January 2015, according to the UN Refugee Agency. So while the Al-Ghatebs have air-conditioning, others at the camp were stuck in small, overheated tents as daytime temperatures strove toward 100 degrees.

As we spoke with the family on their thin mattresses on the floor, we discovered that the oldest son, Samad, was an electrical engineer who had worked in Dubai. With the handsome broad planes of his face, he resembled his mother, as did his brothers. The father, Adham, had owned a restaurant and coffee shop in the eastern Syrian city of Deir-ez Zor, and Nadar had a full-time job as a mother to all her many children. Among the family sat the youngest child and only daughter, a 10-year-old girl named Taiba. I had a feeling Taiba was shy, but I thought I’d ask her a question and see.

“What is it like for you to be living here?” I asked her.

Taiba spit an answer—if ever words were spit: “Disgusting.”

The repugnance she felt was hardly beneath the surface; it urged its way into the room and was bolstered by the assent of all the Al-Ghatebs. Taiba, from there, looked me straight in the eyes and answered each question as if she’d been waiting for months to speak. Her waist-length chestnut-brown hair crowned a face that had activated, anticipating what would come next.

I asked whether she had any friends at the Vathi camp: There are four, she replied. But she refused to deal with most of the children. “I don’t like to go up the hill,” she said. “The toilets are extremely dirty. And we are forced to shower there. I spend my time sleeping all day.”

I’ve been to a number of refugee camps around the world and interviewed many young girls displaced by war, but this was one of the saddest answers I’ve ever heard: a vibrant 10-year-old girl choosing to sleep away her days rather than deal with the head lice of her fellow refugees. Taiba hasn’t been to school since the war started, when she was 5.

Her school had been bombed and no longer exists, she said. Her house, too, had been bombed flat. The neighborhood, Taiba made clear, no longer exists. “It’s all in ruins,” she said.

With no way to get to Germany and few answers forthcoming from authorities, Taiba’s family is fielding calls from its displaced sons abroad. Just the night before, said Adham, the youngest son, 9, called from Germany and cried for four hours on the phone. He missed his mother.

As Sur and I were ushered from the family’s container by the head of the camp, we overheard one of the teenaged sons saying he really had to rush off—he had a date. With a Greek girl. As we learned in our week on Samos, there is an existential confluence of optimism and desperation to move onward from Greece combined with a recognition that nobody was going anywhere. So, for some, like this one teenaged boy, life—and love—goes on.

This shift from living as a transit passenger from country to country instead of as a resident-to-be, as all asylum seekers in Greece currently, by default, must be, has begun to change the way refugees think of their lives. As Rose de Jong, a UNHCR field protection officer on Samos, told us, the question being asked by refugees is no longer, Do you think the borders will still open? Now the first question they ask is, How are my children going to access schooling in Greece?

Taiba, for one, wants to go back to school. She can’t decide whether she wants to be an artist or a doctor. But with her ability to say what’s on her mind with absolute conviction, Sur and I were convinced she might have a career in politics—or perhaps as an activist, or journalist—ahead of her. Who better to shape the future of our ever-shifting world than a feisty former refugee who has seen more in her life than most people do by the age of 10?

Here, you can see for yourselves. Taiba talks from her (temporary) home on Samos.

(Video by Priyali Sur.)

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Lauren Wolfe
Journalist, former director, WMC Women Under Siege
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