Conflict & Justice

Traveling With Syrian Refugees in Greece

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ID check for travelers in Greece. (Photo: Marine Olivesi)

Fifteen members of a Syrian family are crouched down, putting the laces back in their shoes. The 15 men, women and children, and also a 10-month-old baby, have just been released from a police station overlooking the Greek city of Mitilini, on the island of Lesvos, just five miles from the coast of Turkey.

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Most of the one-million refugees who have fled Syria since the conflict began two years ago seek shelter in Syria's neighboring countries — Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. But more than 30,000 have made the trek to Europe, and most are entering through Greece, a country that's going through its own turmoil.

A local activist named Efi Latsoudi asks the Syrian family if they were fed regularly while in detention. One of the men responds yes, but the food was bad. Latsoudi, who is from a refugee support group, came to check up on the family. They tell her they've been held in the police station for four days, all of them, including the baby.

"With all these kids, they stayed four days!" says Latsoudi. "It's crazy."

Latsoudi is appalled, but hardly surprised. Greek authorities routinely detain undocumented migrants and refugees alike. The practice has been widespread for years. And Syrians are no exception.

The family crossed into Greece on a rubber boat five days earlier from Turkey. Once on the island, they walked for hours before reaching a village. Then, they turned themselves in to the police. That's the only way to get the "white paper" they're holding onto now, an administrative notice that gives them 30 days to leave the country, or file for asylum.

More important, it's their way off of the island. They can't get on a ferry to Athens without the white paper.

On the ferry dock, three policemen who are screening passengers stop the family. The adults hand over the documents. Everyone gets through, except for 17-year-old Abed and his older brother. As an officer stares at the teenager and then at his white paper, the two brothers grow anxious.

"There's a little problem," the officer says, pointing to the form. "Here it says "female" but it's male."

This simple mistake could keep Abed off the boat. Most of the family has already boarded, so the officers let him go.

Once on board, the family relaxes enough to joke about it. The boat is mostly empty. Four-year-old Rina runs up and down the deck, clutching a doll whose hair has turned into dreadlocks. Her mother nests herself in a corner to breastfeed the baby.

"The past time was very difficult," says Oum Nour, one of the adults. "I'd like to sleep for one week."

The family left Syria two months ago. They're of Palestinian descent, but they've lived in Damascus for four generations. Oum Nour says Palestinians were much better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East.

"Before our life in Damascus was very good, thanks to God. Better than Lebanon, better than any city in Palestine," she says. "Syria is our house, our job, schools for our children, but we lost all this."

The day they lost it all was December 16, 2012, when rockets hit Yamouk, the Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus, and killed one of their relatives.

The attack was the first direct airstrike by the Syrian regime in this area, and it marked an ominous turn for Syria's half-million Palestinians.

Before then, most Syrian-Palestinians had tried not to get dragged into the civil war. But at that point, they were forced to take sides. Hundreds fled their homes.

Oum Nour and her family now hope to reach Sweden, the only European country besides Germany that grants automatic protection to Syrian refugees. They're seeking free housing and health care, something Turkey couldn't offer.

Waking up in Athens

The family of 16 wakes up the next morning in the port of Athens. They get off the boat, and join the ranks of a fast-growing Syrian community in the Greek capital.

Human Rights Watch says nearly 10,000 Syrians have entered Greece since 2011, a figure confirmed by the European border agency. But by the end of last year, only six of them had been granted refugee projection.

Most Syrians don't even try to apply to stay in Greece, a country that's in no mood to take in more migrants and refugees. They keep their eyes on the next move, but many get stuck here longer than expected.

Sitting at a Syrian café in downtown Athens, 23-year-old Ayman, the family's oldest son, indulges in treats from back home: Arabic coffee and narguilé (a water pipe).

A few days earlier, Ayman told me he thought that getting to Greece, with the difficult crossing from Turkey, was the hardest part.

I ask him if he still thinks that's true. He shakes his head, admitting that they didn't have a full picture of what lay ahead.

"Not even half picture. We're still thinking what are we going to do. We don't have any idea right now," Ayman says.

His family needs $20,000-$30,000 to get fake documents and tickets for the 16 of them to fly to Sweden. A cheaper option would be to travel by land, but they'd have to cross at least half a dozen borders. With seven children in tow, their odds are staggering.

European rules require refugees to apply in the country they arrived in — in this case, Greece.

But Ayman wonders if Sweden recognizes that Syrians are entitled to refugee protection, why can't they just apply at the embassy here? Why make them go through so much to get to Sweden?

"Everyday I think about this, and there is no answer."