A Father’s OdysseyMahmoud, 34, is one of 9,377 Syrians that have lodged their relocation requests with the Greek Asylum Service in 2016. His 3 years long Odyssey from Homs of Syria to the European soil - less of an adventure and more of a tragedy - scarred him for life, but also left him stronger and more decisive to rebuild the life for him and his three young children. Mahmoud is currently staying at the refugee site of Volos, Thessalia, where the Danish Refugee Council, with the financial support of European Commission, acts as the official Site Management Support agency and protection assistance provider.
By Anusa Hojnik, DRC Greece
7-year-old Khadija from Homs, Syria, is an aspiring polyglot. At the entrance of the refugee camp of Volos, she greets me in Arabic, English and Turkish. However, what strikes me the most is her articulation in Greek. "When I grow up, I want to become a doctor," Khadija says proudly and then runs off to attend the 1 o’clock Greek lesson at the camp’s school.
Khadija and her younger brothers Moustafa, 5, are among the 2.5 million Syrian children registered as refugees with the UN worldwide. They remember little of their life in Syria; these days their grandparents are just voices they occasionally hear over the phone, provided to them by DRC staff. Their baby brother Abdul Karim, 2, was born on a flight, in Turkey, where the family first sought refuge in 2013. Mahmoud, their father, explains: "We left Syria because of the children. They were suffering both physically and mentally – whenever they heard planes and trucks they were terrified and they would scream."
No future in Turkey
After more than 2 years of living in Turkey the devastating impact of the conflict weighted heavily on the displaced family, their hardship being aggravated by the unexpected death of Mahmoud’s wife. Trying to care for small children single-handed, with little or no income in a foreign country, while at the same time coping with personal grief and anxiety made day-to-day problems totally overwhelming to Mahmoud. In February 2016 he left Turkey to cross the Mediterranean Sea with his three kids, in a search of a better future.
"Locals were jumping into the water to help us," Mahmoud remembers the early Sunday morning when their dinghy, carrying over 70 frightened passengers, reached the Greek shores following an exhausting 6 hours-long sea odyssey. "I only had good experience with local communities. They provided, and they are still providing us with food, clothes and other items. They understood immediately that no one chooses to be a refugee."
Moved to refugee site in Greece
After the initial stay in Lesvos, they continued their treacherous journey to Northern Greece hoping to transit to central Europe via the Western Balkan Migration Route, a path already followed by hundreds of thousands of refugees before them. However, Mahmoud’s and his three children’s "European Dream" ended in the muddy fields of the Greek-FYROM’s border in early March 2016, when Balkan countries decided to close their frontiers, leaving thousands of people trapped without shelter in the blistering cold of winter.
Soon, they were moved to Volos refugee site, a former car showroom turned into a temporary home for over 80 Syrian refugees in April 2016, when a number of tented camps in the Northern Greece, Idomeni among others, closed down due to the abysmal living conditions within them.
"Things weren’t ideal at the beginning," says Mahmoud. "But at least now we have a roof over our head. When it rains we don’t get wet and we’re not being forced to live in the mud."
With the financial support of European Commission, DRC Greece is providing Site Management Support and Protection activities in the site, and recently installed 34 partitions to provide better privacy to the hosted families. Each partition has a door that can be locked from inside and outside, ensuring safety for both people and their possessions. Moreover, with the onset of winter each household unit in the site was provided with an electrical heating device and the necessary furniture to make their living space more lively.
Khadija and the vegetable garden
"Look, we are growing vegetables!’’ Moustafa, the five-year old, takes my hand and gently pulls me over to an improvised garden, one of the projects organized by DRC and a local volunteer group aimed at providing families with activities that help them productively spend hours, weeks, even months between their scheduled interviews with the Greek Asylum Service and the receipt of their relocation decisions. Familiar routines and tasks create a sense of security, of purpose and meaning; they also allow people to start functioning again as fully as possible, given their circumstances.
Although Mahmoud clearly still suffers the scars of upheaval, loss and grief, he nowadays chooses to look at the future rather than past. He passed his relocation interview on December 6th and is waiting to know the name of the European country he and his family will be able to relocate to. "I’m ready to rebuild our life. I’ll gather the pieces, shattered by war and tragedy, and glue them together into a new beginning for me and my children," concludes Mahmoud while little Khadija, Moustafa and Abdul run off to collect their midday meals.