WMC Women Under Siege

She survived ISIS, smugglers, and dolphins, but now faces her biggest challenge

Iman al-Jabouri says that while she remains traumatized by the past, it is the future that terrifies her. (Lauren Wolfe)

Samos, Greece—The air is stuffy by default. Soap, especially laundry soap, is usually a rare commodity among refugees. Add to the muddle of unwashed smells a buzzing from black flies, nearly 100 degree heat, and dark, polyester clothes that cover from head to toe, and life inside a makeshift container on the Greek island of Samos is an unpleasant one, thick with defeat.

In this particular container lives Iman al-Jabouri, 38, her husband, who has diabetes, and her 20-year-old son and three smaller children. Four other children remain behind in Iraq because there wasn’t enough money to take them all—a common story among refugees. The family fled Ramadi, in central Iraq, in mid-March, after her brother-in-law was kidnapped and killed by unknown men. After that, her own brother, 16, was abducted by ISIS. He was starved and beaten for three days, she learned after the family paid to get him back. “He still suffers psychologically,” she says.

Ramadi has endured widespread devastation in the battle to take back control from the Islamic State over the past couple years. We hear about women being enslaved by ISIS, but that is only part of the suffering residents in ISIS-controlled areas endure. There are also regular bombings, executions, kidnappings, and torture. Technically, the Iraqi government defeated ISIS in Ramadi in 2015, but the group remains in the area, according to news reports.

“For sure there are so many dramatic cases and crises and tragedies, and terrible experiences people carry with them on their journey to Europe,” says Vasiliki Kanellopoulou, a social worker on Samos with a Greek NGO called Medical Intervention. “But really when they come here they realize what they have left behind”—meaning pain and memories of death, she says.

For al-Jabouri, however, while she remains traumatized by the past, it is the future that terrifies her. Like every other refugee currently in Greece, she is stuck. As of March, the borders to the rest of Europe were closed in a deal the EU made with Turkey. There were more than 168,000 arrivals of refugees and migrants by sea to Greece in 2016 but nearly 900,000 in 2015, according to the UN Refugee Agency—aka when the borders were still open and people had hope of creating a life for themselves in countries like Germany, Sweden, or Austria. Fifteen percent of those 2016 arrivals came from Iraq, which has seen more than 3 million people displaced since January 2014. (The majority of arrivals to Europe by sea this year came from Syria, at 47 percent. The next highest number was from Afghanistan, at a quarter of total arrivals.)

Of the 2016 arrivals from all countries to Greece, 21 percent were women and 37 percent children. All now await some kind of change that will allow them to move onward from Greece, a poor country that cannot offer them much of a prosperous future. Jobs are scarce, even for Greeks.

Like every refugee I’ve spoken to across Italy and Greece who have made the Mediterranean Sea crossing, al-Jabouri’s journey was treacherous and potentially deadly. During her seven-hour crossing from Turkey in a dinghy (as she called it—not a “boat”), fuel ran out and the dinghy was followed so closely by dolphins the tightly packed passengers thought the dolphins would puncture it. “This is death,” al-Jabouri remembers thinking. She and her family recited the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. Al-Jabouri says it was God who saved her and her family.

It was rainy and cold during her March arrival off the coast of Samos when a German ship rescued them. The rescuers cared for the children, she says, giving them food, milk, and toys to calm them.

“It’s a very quiet situation” in general on arrival, says Elena Konti, the former head of the Vathi refugee camp on Samos. “I think people know what to expect.” From what I witnessed in Sicily in the summer of 2015, this is entirely true: I watched 213 men and women disembark from a Swedish rescue vessel in total, tired silence. They lined up in seated rows, exhausted and cooperative. Technically, Konti says, in Greece, refugees are placed under arrest immediately. Then they are registered and fingerprinted—although in southern Italy I met many refugees who’d refused to be fingerprinted. Not being registered in the country of arrival allows people to move onward in Europe undetected.

Overall, in August, Konti described a peaceful situation at Vathi, although she admitted that just before she arrived over the summer, a fire had been deliberately set, destroying a section of the camp. Burned out containers still hover on a hill above the other living quarters, which are now spilling over: The number of people living at Vathi has ballooned since August from around 700 to more than 1,500, says Kanellopoulou.

Al-Jabouri and her family were put in cold tents when they got to Samos. After three months, they moved to their small container in the Vathi camp. Adding to the exhaustion of the journey, the cold, the confusion, and the unknown, she learned a few days after her arrival that her father had been killed in an explosion in a Baghdad market. The litany of al-Jabouri’s loss deepens the more we talk.

Right now, she and her family are waiting to hear about their asylum application, which they submitted about seven months ago. She worries that the authorities are not “aware of the situation in Iraq—all the explosions and kidnapping.” She cries as she speaks of an uncertain future. When will her children find decent schooling? What will their lives be like?

“They are hopeless,” says Kanellopoulou of the refugees she works with at Vathi. “There are so many difficulties day by day. The conditions are not good. It is overcrowded. The quality of food is not good. You know, all these things, the situation becomes harder and harder for them.”

Watch an interview I did with Al-Jabouri here in which she describes her journey, her loss, and her hopes, in her own words. Video by journalist Priyali Sur:



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Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
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