In a refugee camp outside Athens, Victoria White meets people fleeing the horrors of war in Syria, but who still try to live a normal life, including a young woman who has just married
KHADIJA, 28, owes her marriage to the Syrian war. She fled from Latakia with her uncle but in Turkey he decided he’d had enough of her.
For five days she was on her own but the day she went for the ship to Lesbos, there he was, Abeda from Delazour, the man of her dreams. They got married in a tent in Piraeus.
Their starter home is a mobile home in the Eleonas refugee camp in the industrial suburbs of Athens. Dream home it’s not. We meet her on her way to Athens to interpret (through English) between her friend and the authorities, and she tells us that last night there was a fight in the camp.
Inside, forty-something Thenna, also from Latakia, locked the mobile home from the inside and shivered as the fight raged between Afghans and Kurds. She says the police fled the camp, leaving the gates wide open.
“Where’s the human rights?” she asks. “They must protect us… Or not?” It’s a fraught question. The truth is no-one takes responsibility for the human rights of these stateless people and the camps which run well are self-governed by refugees.
In Eleonas, the system has broken down. This serves far right-wing elements within the police and defence forces very well though I am assured that most of them are well-intentioned.
What to do but lay out a divine Syrian breakfast on the floor of your mobile home for your Irish guest. Yoghurt, olives, flat bread, and a mixture of Syrian herbs and spices, all washed down with tea.
But this civilised breakfast is served between the bunks in which Thenna’s two boys, Eyad, 20, and Ossama, 18, are trying to sleep. A couple of weeks ago, Ossama lost all hope and they had to plead with him not to go back to Syria.
Their father went first to Germany because the men had most to fear from the Assad regime and ISIS. Because his kids are officially adults they can’t access the reunion programme and their mother must choose to join her husband and not see her kids for five years, or stay with her kids under relocation and not see her husband for five years.
These are people who have already lost their home, and their extended family “faces death every day” from the Russian air force, and suicide bombers. Yet the European Union is engineering the break-up of their small nuclear family.
But Thenna is a hard woman to break. She is resolved to do something about the complete lack of the colour green among the mobile homes.
“We need nature now”, she says. “We have psychological problems from the war.”
When I tell her Ireland is very green she asks is English the main language. I tell her it is, and we’d be lucky to have her among us.
Meanwhile, she’s busy setting up a school in one of the mobile homes with Khadija, who we’ve met, and Sara, an Afghan girl from another part of the camp, who will teach English through Farsi.
But as we enter Sara’s section through another set of security gates, a young Afghan boy is being taken away in a police car.
“He’s just ruined his life,” says my interpreter. “He’ll go to prison.”
Afghans are officially immigrants, not refugees, and their best hope is to wait until January 2018 when their cases to stay in Greece will begin to be assessed.
This is despite the fact that Sara’s father Mohammed was working for the Afghan government and fled with his six children because of threats of torture from the Taliban.
Sara, 17, is elegantly dressed and has perfect English. She has been in Eleonas for two months “to the day” and she is going out of her mind with boredom. There is no air conditioning in their part of the camp and the plastic mobile is a pressure cooker.
She can’t go to school, and college is a faint hope, though she may be able to access it before her family’s case is processed. She is scared of the violence in the camp.
“I don’t know why they can’t respect each other,” she says, and adds that of course the main reason is that everyone is in a bad situation and they “need to take it out on someone”.
Teaching school with Thenna and Khadija, neither of whom she has yet met, would offer her some activity, but they still have to access any teaching materials.
Despite the heavily branded presence of several NGOs in the camp, the only tangible efforts for this lost generation are being made by refugees themselves.
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