Refugees in Greece recount the dangers of flight and their longing for a better future

By Oxfam
Four-month-old Jalileh was born in the Iranian mountains as her parents tried to make their way to Greece. Here she rests in a crib made by her father. Photo by Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

‘We don’t want to live with the threat of violence or being arrested anymore.’

From a homemade crib pieced together by her father with rods, wire, and a thick gray blanket, Jalileh looks up at the camera and at another stranger staring down at her. In her four short months, strangers have been one of the more constant aspects of a life that began on a cold mountainside as her parents, fleeing danger in Afghanistan, crossed the border between Iran and Turkey on their way to Greece.

About 500 people live in Filippiada Camp in the Epirus region of Greece. The UN has provided tents for temporary shelter. Photo by Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Today, Jalileh—whose name has been changed to protect her identity—and her parents are just three among a vast migration of more than one million people who have entered or passed through Greece since January 2015 on their search for safety and a dignified life. They have joined a global group of refugees and asylum seekers that now numbers about 19.5 million people.

Across northwestern Greece and on the island of Lesvos, Oxfam is helping more than 3,000 displaced people in six camps managed by the Greek authorities. We have been providing clean water, sanitation services, shelter, food, and a few other basics such as blankets and tarps.

Here is the story of Jalileh’s harrowing journey, recounted by her parents in their own words. The stories of other refugees in Greece follow.

Jalileh’s journey

“We had to leave Afghanistan because our lives were in danger. We paid smugglers to take us to Iran initially and the journey was very painful. We were put into a small vehicle with 20 other people and we were all on top of each other. The journey took several days and it was very hard.

 "When we arrived in Iran, we tried to stay there. But without any papers we couldn't work or stay, so my husband had to work illegally. The police caught him and put him in prison. I went there crying and pleading to let him out and I told them that I was pregnant. I had to pay a bribe for the police to let him out. I sold my wedding ring and gave them the money and they let him go.

“After my husband was released, we had no money so he had to go back to work again. A few weeks later, the police arrested him again. I went back and pleaded again, but we were told that he would only be released if he went to Syria to fight Daesh (ISIS). Some of my husband's friends gave money to us to get him out of prison. The guards told us 'Next time we catch you, we will either deport you or send you to fight.’

 "We had to keep moving, so we borrowed more money from my husband's friends and paid smugglers to take us to Turkey. We were in a group of about 16 people and they took us by bus to the mountains near the border. We all had to walk and it was freezing. We didn't have warm clothes and we had snow up to our knees. We heard gunfire too. It was very frightening. More people joined our group as we got closer to the border. I told the smugglers that I was pregnant and I was in pain. They told me to rest in an animal shed that was on the side of the mountain. They also said there would be doctors on the way, but it was a lie. I felt more pain and knew the baby was coming. Another woman said she could help me. When I got there, I lay on the hay and passed out. The pain was too much. My husband wasn't allowed to come in and the woman delivered my baby.

 "I was exhausted and not conscious properly for days. But when I heard my baby cry for the first time, I was so relieved. I still have swelling now and have not been able to see a doctor. We had to stay in the shed for ten days, we could hear groups of people passing every day. One of the smugglers brought me clothes for the baby and when we finally left, I had to pay for a horse to take me the rest of the journey.

“When we got to Turkey, we spent two and a half months in a dormitory. We had no idea where we were. We had no money, so my husband had to work illegally again. When we had saved enough money, we had to pay smugglers again to take us to Greece. There were about 60 people on our boat. It was a rubber boat with a motor but it stopped halfway. We were all rescued and taken to Lesvos. The Greek people were very kind and gave us clothing and dried milk for our daughter. We were taken by ferry to the mainland and then out onto a bus. We didn't know where we were going. And now we are here. …

“We worry about the future for our daughter. We hope that the borders will open. We don't want to live with the threat of violence or being arrested anymore. We have worked all of our lives and just want a new opportunity as a family."

Fayez, Nour, and their children

Faez, Nour, and three of their four children posed in the Kara Tepe camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo by Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

After escaping the conflict in Syria, Fayez , 43, his wife,  Nour,  28, and their four children—two sons and two daughters—are now camped  in Kara Tepe in the southeastern section of Lesvos where about 800 people are staying in shelters provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. On the family’s water passage from Turkey, the wooden boat that carried them began to leak. The coast guard rescued them and brought them to Lesvos.

Here is Fayez’s description of life back home and their flight for safety:

“It was really bad. On the day we left it was like hell. We didn't have time to pack anything. We left with just the clothes we were wearing. I told my parents we were leaving and that was it. They are still in Syria along with my sisters.  My wife's family are in Jordan.

 “Before the conflict, we were very content with our lives. Our children who were old enough were in school and I worked as security in a supermarket. Once the conflict started, life became dangerous. And the prices of everything doubled. If something was 10 Syrian pounds, it became 20.

 "The journey was very hard.  We had to first travel between two cities in Syria and on the way there were more than 20 roadblocks. When we finally reached Aleppo, a huge battle broke out in front of us. We had to wait out on the road and it was terrifying. The children were so scared. We had to walk through a big valley out in the open with all the noise and we were so worried for our children. They were asking 'When will we arrive' and crying. It was hell."

And here are Nour’s hopes for their future:

“We never expected to be in this situation. Our hope for the future is to just be in a safe environment, a country where our children can go to school and be safe and sound. We must hope that things can go from bad to better, not from bad to worse. We don't have any laughter any more, if we do we are just pretending. Every happiness or joy has disappeared."

Fatima and Maisa

Fatima, 47, and her daughter, Maisa, 19, have found shelter along with other family members at the Kara Tepe camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo by Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Fatima and Maisa—mother and daughter—are from Pakistan. They are staying with other family members in the Kara Tepe Camp on the island of Lesvos.

Fatima was 21 when she left Syria 26 years ago. She met her Syrian-born husband in Pakistan and there they began to raise a family, despite the fact that they had few rights. But when she separated from her husband and sought to bring her daughters back to Syria, the conflict there prevented her return. Instead, she struck out for Turkey, hoping for a better life for her daughters. After a year there—where they had few rights--Fatima realized the best future for her daughters would be in Europe. She longs for them to complete their education and have careers.

Here is her account of their journey to Greece:

"Just thinking about the journey was frightening. We packed some of our belongings, mainly clothes, but when we were getting into the boat most people's bags were being thrown into the water because it was so crowded. We saw people's money and jewelry being thrown overboard. We were very lucky because what we had stayed with us. There are not enough words to say how frightening it was. I thought either we die together or we live together. When we finally reached the island, it was a very happy moment for us. We were scared, but we felt alive.”

And here is what Maisa, 19, says about her future:

"We just want peace of mind, we are humans and want to feel our humanity and to have our respect. With every day that passes, I try to keep myself busy, trying not to get stressed about the situation. Our case is taking a long time to be heard and I feel like we have been forgotten. I want to let the world know what is happening to people like us. I pray that we are allowed to reach a country where we can get settled."

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