Abeer, 26 years old, from Damascus, Syria
Abeer, a young mother of two daughters, Rafef, aged 7 and Masa, aged 5, has been stranded in a refugee camp in Greece for the last 10 months. She recalls her journey over from Syria, and the transition from normal civilian to refugee. “I left Syria 4 years ago, fleeing violence and problems I cannot speak of. I, my husband, and my 2 daughters, moved to Lebanon for a year and half - but we did not go as refugees. We lived and stayed there like normal citizens, just living among the regular population. Sometimes, we’d go to poor Lebanese villages, where there were so many refugees. When I saw all of the Syrians there in tents, I cried for hours. I told my husband, ‘I want to help, but how can we? We don’t have anything to give.’ From that moment, I was thinking all the time about how to help the refugees, I didn’t ever think that I would end up coming to Greece, staying in a tent, and living a refugee life myself.”
“After Lebanon, my family and I went to Turkey. We stayed again in a house, using the money we had saved in Syria. And to be honest, those were some really hopeful times in my life - because during this time, my husband smuggled himself to Sweden, in an effort to get official papers so that me and my daughters could join him there and begin a new life. I would think of my daughters, how they would go to Europe, to school, and all the time, of course I missed my husband, but I was thinking of my daughters, how they would live in Europe next year.”
“In our last month in Turkey, we ran into many problems and we didn’t have enough money to survive anymore. My parents came from Syria to live with us in Turkey and they were planning to escape to Germany to reunite with my 3 brothers there. I asked my husband what he thought about me and my daughters attempting the cross over, but he thought it would be too dangerous with my little girls. And really, we couldn’t afford the smuggling fees. After he had left to Sweden, I thought, after 6 months we’d go after him, but it took him so long to get official papers there - he only got registered one month ago [a year and 3 months after he first arrived there].”
“My daughters took photos and videos for their father, saying ‘Please, Baba, we want to come see you. We don’t want to stay here.’ I never saw them make these videos, 10 months ago. But my husband saw them and he called me asking, ‘Do you want to come here now, are you ready to try the journey?’ and I said, ‘Yes, we can’t live here in Turkey alone anymore.’ So we made the trip to Greece. On my first day in the refugee camp, I saw the tents and I saw all the women crying. But I didn’t cry, because I thought, ‘It’s ok, 1 week, 1 month maximum, and then we’ll go to Sweden.’”
“On that first day, I also went to the camp’s warehouse, and because I speak some English, and many of the volunteers there were Greek or refugees who only spoke Arabic and Kurdish, I offered to help with distributing clothes and food, and registering names.”
Shortly thereafter, Abeer received the devastating news that it would take much longer for her husband and her family’s reunification to be processed through in Sweden. Meanwhile, she continued her efforts at the warehouse. “I helped there for 3 months. We worked from 7:30 in the morning to 10 at night every day, never a day off. We formed a team of about 20 refugees helping each other to work, and we called ourselves “Bukra Achla”, in English: “Tomorrow will be better.” We had a cardboard sign outside the warehouse with this slogan. All of us were Syrian, but mixed along ethnic lines of Arabic, Kurdish, and Yazidi; however, we all worked together and supported each other. If any of us ever felt bad, we would help each other feel better.”
“During those 3 months, I thought maybe, what I am doing is helping someone, anyone, but also, I worked actually to forget, that I myself live here at the camp, in a tent with my little daughters.”
“Another NGO soon took over the work in the warehouse, and the team broke up but we were all still there to help when needed. Not long after, a few of us who spoke English from the Bukra Achla team began to volunteer as teachers for another NGO who joined the camp, I AM YOU. I felt I was still motivated to help, but slowly, it was becoming more difficult for me to deny my situation as a refugee in the camp. I started teaching Arabic to the younger children at the camp, which I think is important to keep their faith and their traditions alive in Europe. I also teach Arabic to the international volunteers who want to help the refugees.”
“Now, I am friends with the other volunteers in I AM YOU who come to help from abroad, but I feel all the time like I am first a refugee, and then, a volunteer. The other volunteers go from here out to drink, to dance, to have a good time. They sleep in rooms away from the forest, and I just go back to my tent, to clean and to cook for my children.”
“Whenever I am in my tent each day, I reflect on all the difficult parts of being a woman in the camp…. In reality, we don’t have anything. In Syria, we women clean the house in the morning, and that’s enough. Here, we are cleaning all day...If we need one shirt, we have to move everything just to find one, then move everything back. We change our children’s clothes 5 times a day, even though we don’t have that many clothes. So we have to wash clothes by hand in freezing water every day. I’m ashamed to say, I can’t even make a shower for my daughters every day, it’s just too cold and too far from the tents to the bathroom. We freeze the whole walk there and back. Our muscles and bodies become sore.”
Abeer also reflects on the discrimination she has faced. “I went to the hospital once, and the doctor touched my hijab and said ‘This is not good here.’ When I got back to my tent at the camp, I just sat and cried.”
Abeer tells us about the profound struggles and conflicting aspects of being a Syrian refugee. “There, in Syria, if we stayed, we would die a quick death. But here, we’re still dying, 100 slow deaths every day.”
“All Syrian people, we smile, but inside, we feel broken hearts. People ask me, why do you smile all the time? Why do all of the refugees smile? I think we smile because we don’t want to cry. It’s too hard for us. I can’t cry and risk anyone seeing me when I cry.”
When asking Abeer if she had a message for the people across the globe reading her story, she told us this: “ارحموا عزيز قوم ذل”, in English: "Please have mercy towards those honorable people who have suffered from nations torn at the hands of sin and disgrace."
Abeer expresses to us her hopes for the future. “First and most important, I want my daughters to be able to study again, to be in peace. We will reunite with their father, maybe I’ll be able to continue studying Arabic language and literature, my mother tongue. And someday, I hope, we will be able to go back to our country, the only place I know where we will truly feel like we belong again.”
Photos: Shayanne Gal / Story: Voices of Refugees
"The Lost Dream"
From the first day at the camp, it was the dream of us all to leave.
The dream was never to come to Greece or live in a tent. The worst pain we had endured was the coming of volunteers and their departure whenever they wanted. We would look at them with hearts filled with love and passion until we had to feel their departure, their final departure.
We were tired and we protested and we received aid from the United Arab Emirates, may God bless them, with readymade Iso-boxes (caravans). We were overjoyed to be rid of the tents after 8 months, and what equates to 240 days of cold in Winter and extreme heat in Summer, and altogether harshness of living in everything. They had planted an artificial joy in our hearts.
I saw the joy in the eyes of everyone and I wondered whether their joy was genuine or performed. Was their joy genuine or have they made us into children who get excited over the most trivial of things?
The dream was never to travel from the right hand side of the road to the left, even if it were a palace not a room. The dream has been lost between a tent and an Iso-box.
منذ اليوم الاول في المخيم كان حلم الجميع بالمغادرة
ما كان الحلم يوما القدوم لليونان او العيش في خيمة واشد ما عشناه الما قدوم المتطوعين وذهابهم متى ارادوا كنا نناظرهم وقلوبنا مليئة حبا وشغفا لنعيش شعور المغادرة
الذهاب بلا عودة
تعبنا واحتججنا واتتنا المساعدة من دولة الامارات العربية جزاهم الله خيرا ببيوت صغيرة مسبقة الصنع وفرحنا جدا لتخلصنا من الخيم بعد ثمان شهور ما يعادل مئتان واربعين يوما من البرد في الشتاء وشدة الحر في الصيف
قساوة العيش بكل شيئ وزرعوا فرحة مزيفة في قلوبنا
رأيت الفرحة بعيون الجميع وتسالت هل فرحهم صادق ام انهم يتداعون
هل فرحهم صادق ام جعلونا كاالاطفال نفرح لاتفه الاشياء ما كان الحلم يوما السفر من الجهة اليسرة للطريق الى اليمة ولو كانت قصرا ليس غرفة
ضاع الحلم بين الخيمة والكرفان
Photo: Shayanne Gal / Poem: Abeer Jamal