Homs is no longer a home

Omar Talep, 54, is a Syrian refugee, one of the 8552 applicants for EU's emergency relocation and resettlement scheme. He and his family have been on flight since 2011 and are currently staying at the refugee accommodation site in Skaramangas, Greece. With the financial support of the European Union, DRC Greece acts as Skaramangas official site management support agency and legal aid provider.

Before the war, Homs was known for its desert winds, outstanding religious landmarks (both Christian and Muslim) and its rich history. Located on the Orontes River, it is considered the central link between the interior cities and the Mediterranean coast.

Omar Talep, 54, speaks fondly of his city. He tells me about its delicious local cuisine, about his wife making the best Batarsh (a type of baba ghanouj that’s made with yogurt and garlic instead of tahini), he talks about the life of how it used to be.

The war started early in the ‘’Capital of the Revolution’’, with confrontations between the Syrian military and the Syrian opposition intensifying in April 2011. By September 2011, sectarian clashes and bloodshed between Alawites and Sunnis transformed Homs into a place that’s too restive, too unsafe for living.

Omar and his family fled Syria for Tarabulus, Lebanon in December 2011. ‘’As a retired military officer I was captured by the army and interrogated for 4 hours that I thought would never end. I was lucky, we know many people who were put in prisons and have then just disappeared within the system.’’

With over 700,000 Syrians seeking refuge by early 2013, camps and cities in Lebanon soon became overcrowded, exacerbating conflicts and social tensions. They stayed in Tarabulus for 2 years and lived out of their life savings. Their funds were running out and the war in Syria was nowhere near to an end. ‘’We knew then it was time to move on. We’ve packed our bags and moved to Turkey, where we thought we would have had a chance to find jobs, live a normal life,’’ explains Omar.

Turkey was also the place where they’ve created their own commercial channel on Youtube social platform, featuring more than 600 videos with tutorials on various handicrafts, cuisine and jewelry making; the product of their entrepreneurial spirit that is now having over 160,000 followers.

An always boiling melting pot of cultures, religions and political views, Turkey could not provide for livelihood or the stability, Omar and his family had been longing for throughout their journey. Socially marginalized and with no real job prospects or access to public services, the Taleps had no other choice but to move on. ‘’Our son had left for Europe and was living in Holland,’’ says Omar and shows me a picture on the container’s wall. ‘’These are my granddaughters, I’ve never got the chance to meet them.’’

Omar and his family were among the last group of refugees to enter to FYROM from Greece by taking what the smugglers promised them to be ‘’the last Train to Europe’’. Their journey ended up unexpectedly when Balkan countries decided to close the borders, abruptly shutting the main migrant pathway to Europe. ’We left for Greece in February 2016, successfully crossed FYROM and then got stopped at the borders with Serbia by the police. They didn’t let us in as our paperwork stated that we were residents of Turkey for the last two years. They’ve told us to go back.’’

Trapped in the blistering cold of Balkan winter, Omar and his family spent the next month and a half in the makeshift camp of Tabanovce, just south of Serbian border. ‘’Some were telling us to wait, others to go back to Athens. At some point there were 250 people living close together under the same shelter.’’ As more and more people become ill, Omar asked to be taken back to Greece. ‘’They’ve left us few miles north of Greece, we had to walk for hours, not knowing where we are. Eventually we paid 50 Euro to a farmer to take us to the borders with his pick-up truck.’’

7 months later we are here drinking tea brewed for us by Omar’s wife, in one of the 412 containers of Skaramangas refugee camp, where DRC Greece, with thanks to the EU funding, has been accredited a role of the official Site Management Support agency. Located west of Athens, Skaramangas caters to the needs of 3500, mostly Syrian and Iraqi refugees, of which 40% are estimated to be children. The ‘isoboxes’ feature bunk beds, a small sink, electricity, and a toilet. ‘’Despite the simplicity of living conditions the refugees at Skaramagas have better accommodations than what is offered at other camps,’’ claims Omar.

Apart from the coordination part, DRC Greece plays an important role in protection monitoring, legal aid and individual protection assistance. Focus group discussion are being organized in the camp with a sole purpose of information dissemination and assistance. Away from home and while living under extreme conditions, people need to be constantly advised on their human rights and legal options.

‘’The relocation process has been long and complicated,’’ says Omar. He is only one of the 8552 refugees that have officially filed in request for relocation into one of the European countries, members of the European Emergency Relocation Scheme. Since the beginning of June 2016 the European Asylum Service Office (EASO), the Greek Asylum Service and the UNHCR have started to pre-register migrants stranded on the Greek mainland. Migrants are asked to choose between three legal options: they can try to be relocated to another EU country through the relocation program, they can ask to be reunified with their family, if they have family members that already applied for asylum in another European country, or they can choose to apply for asylum in Greece. Since the closure of the Balkan corridor, the Relocation program and the Family Reunification Scheme remain the sole two legal alternatives for refugees opting to leave for another European country.

Omar’s been selected for the Relocation Program and on October 24th he is to find out which country he’ll be able to relocate to. ‘’I was hoping for Holland as that’s where my son lives. I would like to see my granddaughters, I want them to meet their grandparents.’’ However, applicants cannot decide, which country they are relocated to. Instead, they depend on the decision of the member states and must accept to be relocated to the member state that is willing to accept them. If people refuse to go to the country selected for them, their only other legal option is to apply for asylum in Greece.

‘’I don’t mind. I want to grow old in Europe, Homs is no longer a home. It’s just a picture of utter devastation filled with ghost from the past. I could not go back,’’ concludes Omar as I wish him luck for his interview.