People like you and Me
Interviews with refugees in the camps of Northern Greece
“They're not even real refugees, they just came here because they can make more money.” This statement and countless variations of the same theme are uttered regularly across the EU. It is an easy way to brush off the millions of people who have risked their own and even their children's lives to make it to the refugee camps in Greece in the hope of being granted asylum somewhere in Europe eventually. If we pretend these refugees are simply out to earn a few extra Euros then it's easy to convince ourselves that it isn't our responsibility to help. It would be much more difficult to continue ignoring them if we really thought about the hardships they have had to endure and the immense risks they have taken.
The threat to people's lives in Syria is real. As many as 500,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war since its outbreak in March 2011. The Syrian Center for Policy Research estimates that more than one in 10 people has been wounded or killed in the war thus far.
Afaf, a refugee living at Elpida camp near Thessaloniki in northern Greece, lost her 16-year old son one day without warning. The teenager had gone across the street from the family home to buy bread and never came back. He had been shot by a sniper and died instantly.
“I lost everything,” says Afaf. My house, my job, my son. But worst of all, my children lost everything, too.”
It is because of this unbearable situation that so many risk life and limb to make the perilous journey to Europe. According to the UNHCR, 2,510 people died in mediterranean boat crossings in the first five months of 2016. The rate of deaths is as high as one in 81. Not surviving the dinghy boat ride from Turkey (or Libya, or Egypt) to Europe is a distinct possibility and one that those who are fleeing their home countries are all too aware of.
“When we came over on the boat, it was very crowded and the sea was rough,” recalls Shafiq, a Syrian refugee who lives at Sindos camp in northern Greece. “I kept looking at my children and asking myself 'which one will I save?'”
A total of 11 million Syrians (or about half of Syria's pre-war population) have fled their homes since the outbreak of the war. According to the UNHCR, of these 11 million, 4.8 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Another 6.6 million are internally displaced, as they flee from one town to another and the bombs follow.
Of those who leave Syria, many are paying people smugglers to get them across to Europe. In the camps of Thessaloniki, the vast majority of refugees have come via Turkey. Many initially attempted to start a new life in Turkey before giving up and heading to Europe. There are thousands of Syrians working illegally in Turkey and Human Rights Watch reports that child labour is rampant in the Turkish garment industry. Because Syrian refugees are working illegally, they have no job security, no minimum wage, are frequently paid late or not paid at all. They have no bargaining power since they can't report abuses to the police. This leaves them unable to pay rent or buy enough food for the family.
“In Istanbul, I worked three different jobs but none of them paid me my full wages,” recalls Abdul Rahman, who is now the resident tailor at Sindos camp. “I was supposed to work 10 hours a day, but usually it was 14 or 15 hours. They just didn't pay me. They said 'go ahead, complain to the police. Nobody cares. If you don't like it, leave.'” Being unable to make a living, he and his family went to Greece, in the hopes that life would improve for them.
The reality is, however, that being stuck in the limbo of the Greek refugee camps for many months is leaving their residents hopeless, frustrated and resigned. They live in tents that have no access to tap water or heating, even when it gets cold in the winter. People have to walk outside and use port-a-johns and a row of bare sinks which are exposed to rain, wind and cold. For washing clothes and dishes there is usually a single tap outside for hundreds of residents. The stagnant water around this tap is a breeding ground for disease. Daily meals consist of rice and yoghurt and occasionally an apple or orange or some dry meat. People may not starve but they are not receiving a healthy or balanced diet either.
Without work for the adults or school for the children, the refugees in Greece spend their days waiting and hoping for a better future. There is a lot of uncertainty and a huge lack of information. Nobody knows if and when they will be moving on.
The residents of the Greek camps feel disenfranchised, demoralised and forgotten. “Nobody cares,” is a statement made by every single interviewee who was part of this project. These interviews are an attempt to lend a voice to the silenced, to remind people of the forgotten and to show that refugees did not all come from impoverished, underprivileged backgrounds. Many were well to do, successful people leading full lives before the war took it all and left them with nothing. They were people like you and me. Until they weren't.
I visited these camps with Nurture Project International, an organisation who works with expecting and new mothers and their babies. To support their invaluable work, please visit their website to donate and find out out how you can volunteer to make a difference.