Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Voices from Syria: The Refugee's Tale

"I never wanted to become a refugee. I always thought I might visit England one day as a tourist, or maybe a student. But one day I woke up and there I was; I became a refugee."

- Khaled, from Syria, now in the UK

"Where are you?" I type into Facebook Messenger.
"In Germany," types back Maya. "Refugee camp in Dortmund."

Maya is 22, a graduate in German language and literature. A couple of months ago she arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos off a black rubber dinghy with her two younger brothers in tow, a book by Nietzche shoved into her back pocket. One of the first things she did upon reaching land was to touch up her eye liner and brush her hair. After days of dusty travel and a life-threatening journey by smuggler boat, her way of celebrating reaching the shores of Europe was to make herself presentable once again.

Refugees arrive in the Greek Islands - Photo: Calais Action
Maya tells me her story via a series of Facebook messages - she fled to Turkey via Lebanon with the help of a family member, and from then on to Greece. She was caught up in a traumatic week of ferry strikes during which thousands of people arrived on the Greek islands via smuggler boat, but were unable to progress to the mainland, meaning that both shelter and food were in very short supply. Once the strikes finished, they were in Germany within four days.

"I'm in a tent," Maya writes. "It's cooooold."
"How's the food?" I ask.
"Baaaad," she scoffs. "I'm hungry all the time."

German refugee camp
It's a strange new world, this one; the open window of the Internet makes everybody potentially a participant in world news and affairs, especially the refugee crisis, the biggest humanitarian crisis and exodus since WW2. Through my iPhone I can message people in camps across Europe and they can Skype or Whatsapp me with their stories.

Maya shows me pictures of the camp. It's a new one, built to house the influx of refugees who have arrived since the summer. They live in tents, and the communal facilites of showers and toilets look clean, sterile, cold.

Asylum Seekers
- Germany 
I'm researching a book I'm writing about a Syrian refugee girl making the long journey across Europe with her family, and I'm desperate for information about life back home. "What kind of birthday cakes do you have in Syria?" I ask naively.

Maya does the equivalent of a Facebook eye-roll. "For little boys, it's Sponge Bob. Barbie for girls. But it really depends on the person. We Syrians are very modern people."

"Will you stay in Germany?" I want to know.
"Of course," says Maya. "I always wanted to come here."

Maya's applied for asylum in Germany, and she's still waiting. She could be waiting for a while.

"The waiting is the hardest part of the whole journey," says Sipan, a Kurdish human rights activist from northern Syria. "The journey is nothing to this terrible waiting."

Sipan is a journalist who worked with local charities in Syria to prevent violence against children. When the Daesh militias moved in to his area, people were afraid to send their daughters to school. He campaigned to keep the schools open and for people to keep educating their daughters. But then the government started bombing the area and his salary was stopped. He was about to be conscripted into the government army so he fled Syria with his two sisters, their husbands and his nephew. He left his wife and two children behind, thinking - as many do - that the journey was too dangerous for them. They agreed that he would reach Europe easier on his own and apply for them to join him straight away.

Sipan's story is similar to many who travelled the volatile Balkan route this summer. He walked with his sisters and nephew over the Syrian border into Turkey, and took a boat to the Greek island of Kos. They escaped into Macedonia during a border riot, and walked the long railway lines of Serbia, sleeping on the open ground in the driving rain or in the yards of mosques. His group were stopped by Iraqi robbers in the woods as they walked eight hours over the border into Hungary, and threatened. The incident was broken up by Hungarian police who arrested them all. After they were released, they hired a smuggler's taxi to Germany, and took the bus to Paris. From Paris he arrived in the Calais camps, and was horrified at the conditions there,

The Calais camps. Photo: (c) Becky Matthews
"Many people told me they had been there for months, maybe years," says Sipan. "I couldn't believe that I had left my family behind to come to this. When I went into the Jungle, I asked some Sudanese guys where the Syrians were, They were all staying in a big tent, but there was no place for me. I had to stay outside, but a guy had room in his one-man tent. We slept three people in that small tent."

From the camp, it's a three hour walk to the best place to jump the trains. "I was so tired. We would be up all night, and then a three-hour walk back in the afternoon. People would sleep on the grass next to the railway line, Sometimes they would close the station because there were so many people trying to jump the trains."

Sipan finally managed to throw himself on a moving goods train and arrived in the UK, only to have his claim delayed far outside the normal time frame. He's now waiting for his interview, and is getting desperate. Whilst he's been gone, the news from back home is that the village that his wife and children are living in is now under siege. Sipan speaks with his family from time to time on WhatsApp, but they're trapped in a village with no electricity, no gas, and where a kilo of sugar costs over the equivalent of four British pounds.

"The whole journey was like a dream," says Sipan. "But this waiting is like a terrible nightmare."

"People ask, why do you men leave your country? Why do you leave your women and children back home?" fumes Khaled, an aid worker from Syria when I meet him at a parliamentary meeting to discuss the refugee crisis. "They say, why don't you stay and fight? What they don't realise is that the men will be taken by one militia or the other, or the government, a gun put in their hands, and forced to fight and die. But fight for what? To kill other Syrians! It's civil war out there."

Ali, a student from Damascus, agrees. He didn't leave Syria for fear of Daesh, he's running from the Assad government who imprisoned and tortured him for marching in the Arab Spring demonstrations. "People say, why are you a refugee? You are young, you have an iPhone, how can you be a refugee? But we are not leaving because we are poor. We are leaving because our country is not safe."

"Nobody leaves their country for no reason," says Sipan bitterly. "I didn't come here to claim benefits. I came here because I have fluent English and I have better prospects than if I went to Germany where I don't speak the language. But now I am trapped here, and I am still waiting."

Ali is slightly more upbeat. "This thing won't last forever, and then I will go back to Syria and help rebuild my country." Khaled agrees. "And then you can all come with me and have dinner at my house," he says expansively. "Syria has the best food in the world."

Tess says: I volunteer for the grassroots giving group Calais Action who sends donated supplies and money overseas to the Greek islands and the Calais camps. We have a Christmas Backpack Appeal coming up 19 - 20 December at The Total Refreshment Centre Unit 2a, Foulden Road, Dalston N16 7UR - if you'd like to help donate a backpack full of essentials for a refugee man, woman or child;  or come to the Q&A with refugees and grassroots aid workers, check out the flyers below! We're also looking for volunteers - PM Calais Action's Facebook page if you're interested in helping!



Joan Lennon said...

"Nobody leaves their country for no reason." How can anyone doubt the truth of that? Thanks for posting.

Anne Booth said...

That was so heart rending. Thank you so much for posting. I am so glad you are writing a book on the subject - and I want to share this post with everyone who can't understand why young men have left Syria. It is so awful to think of what these people are experiencing - and the generosity and optimism of the refugee at the end is staggering.