- Giving a face to refugees: A story from Thessaloniki - April 17, 2021
According to European Commission statistics, more than two million people risked their lives since 2015 to reach Europe in search of safety from poverty and war. Most of the refugees came from different parts of the Middle East and Africa. In 2015 and 2016, the biggest waves of refugees crossed the Greece-Turkish border (660 thousand, respectively, 178 thousand people). The situation changed dramatically since 2016, though. In 2020 only about 16 thousand refugees arrived in Greece, in 2021 (until mid-April) just about 2000. Since 2020, the people predominantly came from Afghanistan (35%), Syria (23%), Congo (10%) and Somalia (9%).
In 2016, I volunteered at the Diavata camp in Thessaloniki. Mostly refugees from Syria were living here. My colleagues and I taught mathematics, literature and Greek to children, aged between 12 and 17. Besides we organized creative games, for children between 4 and 11.
I will not easily forget my first day in Diavata: children all around the campsite, people living in provisional tents and the constant noise of crying babies. The residents – especially the women – were not allowed toeave the campsite, on their own accord. They were only allowed so once a week after permission of the local police. Women could leave the camp only in the presence of a man, or as part of a group of women.
My colleagues and I were warmly welcomed by women and children. The children hugged us; the women smiled. In order to communicate with the camp residents, we were had been taught the basics of Arabic, a few months before our arrival.
With the youngest children we played different kinds of traditional Syrian games, like Hopscotch and Dodgeball. This was done either with the help of a ball or just with the movement of our bodies. In coordination with camp psychologists, we also did much art and music therapy. I learned that music therapy is very beneficial for children from war zones. We listened together especially to classical music, which comforted the feelings of kindergarten children the most. With children between 9 and 17, we also listened to folk music and discussed the meaning of the lyrics so that they could understand some Greek words.
Later we taught basic Greek, especially to the adult residents. This is not an easy task: Greek has a totally different vocabulary and grammar, and is written with a very different alphabet compared to Arabic.
On my last day at the kindergarten, Iman, a Syrian girl of four, gave me her only toy – a dinosaur which she had carried all the way from Syria to Greece. Her gift came with a picture that she had drew. It showed herself, her little brother, her mother, and her father hugging each other next to a house. She had drawn a sun above them, and a smile on their faces.
One day, I met Karim, a young Syrian man, whose journey from Syria had taken two and a half years. Often, we only talk about numbers of refugees and forget that behind these numbers are people with personalities and personal life stories. This might make it easier to implement policies, but does hardly ever do justice to their humanity. Therefore, in the following I will focus on his story.
Although Karim was only 26 years at the time we met, the signs of war were evident. He had a lot of scars on his face and some wounds on his right eye caused by a bombing. Born in Afrin, he grew up in Aleppo. He never planned to leave his home country. In 2015, however, everything changed. What seemed like a normal Thursday afternoon during Karim’s exam period, turned into a day of violence and tragedy. Whilst being on a bus on his way home from university, a long, rumbling sound erupted in the city of Aleppo. This time, the bombardment left behind total destruction. Nothing was left. As the bombardment ceased, his cell phone rang. On the line was the girlfriend of his best friend who was looking for him. After having returned to the university, he learned that his friend had not survived the bombing. In that moment, Karim decided to leave Syria once and for all. On that day, March 29th, he sold his possessions and booked a plane ticket to Istanbul, leaving his family behind. Karim did not plan to come to Greece. Being able to speak Turkish, he had assumed that he would be able to integrate into Turkish society easily. Unfortunately, he learned otherwise. He worked jobs in the construction industry, in retail, and in any other work opportunities he could find. Regularly, he worked more than fifteen hours a day, the pay was minimal, and the behavior of his employers was inhumane. Yet, Karim did not give up. After a few months, he managed to send some money to his family in Syria in order for them to come over and stay with him in Turkey. Eventually, he made new friends; he even found employment that offered him more money. For a few years, Karim and his family managed. However, a combination of factors exposed Karim and his family to a high level of discrimination.
To begin with, Karim and his family are of Kurdish origin. The Kurds are habitually discriminated in Turkey, as they are in all other countries where they happen to live. Turkey considers the Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK a terrorist organization. In his daily interactions, Karim never hid his origins or his political or his religious beliefs. He is not only an atheist but also against the political stances of Recep Erdogan. After the invasion of Afrin by the Turkish troops, all of the people he had met in Turkey turned against him, and made him realize that ethnic discrimination would not cease.
Therefore, Karim decided to attempt to leave for Europe a second time. This time, his chosen destination were the Netherlands. In order to reach this country, Karim needed to transit through Greece. Of course, already getting to Greece was not easy. Due to the lack of a passport, he was forced to follow the illegal route. With the assistance of a human smuggler, he and others used the land route, which they considered less dangerous than the one over de Aegean Sea. However, the smuggler turned out to be unreliable. By force, he took the money and possessions of the refugees and left the group stranded in a forest at the Turkish side of the border. Karim’s only remaining possessions were a khaki shirt, white pants, and a cardigan. Without any knowledge of their location, the group walked for nights until they finally reached Evros, which is located in the northeast part of Greece. From there, Karim got on a bus to Thessaloniki with the help of locals that borrowed him some money.
The violence experienced by Karim is no exception. Rape, intimidation, and exploitation are common. Due to their vulnerability, women suffer the most, especially when they do not have a male family member to protect them.
Once in Thessaloniki, Karim experienced a next round of discrimination. People attacked him verbally in a language he did not understand; he felt critical glances and had to overcome unexpected obstacles with the police authorities for simple procedures. It quickly became clear to him, that the responsible authorities did everything they could to obstruct the asylum process. In addition, Karim did not have access to sufficient medical care and psychological support. However, he also received kindness from locals in Thessaloniki. There was a solidarity movement that helped him find a home in a refugee accommodation center, offered him food and advice and taught him some Greek.
After several years, his desire to go to the Netherlands waned. Karim has made a start in Thessaloniki, and he does not want to leave behind what he has achieved. Thessaloniki also strongly reminds him of Syria. Pleasant people, warm climate, voices of relaxed people on the streets. He has tried to bring the Arabic culture closer to those around him. He teaches Arabic to Greeks in the Free Social Space “School”, whilst simultaneously participating in volunteer activities at the Red Cross. Karim has not given up, despite everything. The adversity faced by him, his family, and countless others have strengthened his desire to work for a better future.
Karim’s fate is by no means an exception. The Syrian refugee crisis is described as the world’s largest refugee crisis in decades. Since the civil war broke out in March 2011, the war has displaced more than half of the population and has claimed the lives of about 400,000 people. Without a passport or identity documents, without money, and often without relatives or friends, many have left their homes to come to the European continent. Hoping for a fresh start in societies that respect their human rights, they are often left disappointed. Policymakers do not always take seriously the poor living conditions and the discrimination that many people have to endure. It is probably not possible to stop the flows of refugees, but it is doable to ease the adversity of the people involved.
*Many thanks to Franziska Meier and Hans Blokland for helping me to write this article.
 https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/statistics-migration-europe_en#asylum ; http://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179#_ga=2.221496280.1323900629.1616496296-1093037267.1616496296