A Glimpse Into the Life of a Refugee

It was both difficult and eye opening for me to have met such incredibly brave people fleeing unspeakable horror in places like Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan while I was volunteering in Athens this summer. Mohammed is one such brave man who told me about some of his experiences and, in time, graciously agreed to let me write about them.

Bits and pieces of his story are missing or are vague, as I didn’t want to push for information he wasn’t comfortable talking about. He was strong, open, and willing to discuss difficult subjects with me, but I could sometimes see pain behind his eyes that I didn’t want to bring forward. He says it doesn’t matter how much he tries to explain it to me, I will never understand how truly awful it was, and I’m sure he’s right.

Mohammed was born in Deraa, Syria. He is the 4th sibling of 14, growing up with 8 brothers and 5 sisters in a happy family. He went to University where he studied Arabic and later became a language teacher in Damascus. He worked hard until he could afford to open his own tailoring factory, becoming successful at a young age. He fell in love and married his wife, with whom he has 2 sons and 2 daughters.

Then, in March of 2011, the Syrian war changed everything.

Under Bashar Al-Assad, the government deteriorated. There was no food for a full year. Thousands of people were dying of starvation, but Mohammed’s family managed to survive on rations and occasional groceries, which were seldom available and had quadrupled in price. They were lucky to live in a rich village where clean water was still available, unlike most areas of the country. Human rights were slowly eroded and finally lost. Even universities became unsafe, and his sister dropped out of school to evade rape –  a common abuse by Assad’s guards. The guards were given the right to arrest and abuse citizens for any reason, which just added to the public outrage sparking the eventual revolt against the government. Mohammed’s world started crumbling down around him and he didn’t feel able to  do anything except fight to change it. One year into the war, feeling desperate and out of options, Mohammad joined the Free Army –  fighting against Assad.

He fought for 5 years, and moved up the ranks to become a captain, at which point he and his men managed to free the areas around his home town of Deraa from under Assad’s control. They captured a solider from the opposition and kept him as a prisoner of war. Over years, the prisoner denounced his support for Bashar Al-Assad, married a woman in the village, and became a close friend.

On one of his missions, a bomb detonated and a large piece of shrapnel got lodged in Mohammed’s shoulder blade. Without access to a hospital for proper surgery, he carried on without aid for months, and his skin healed around the metal. He later went through with an operation to remove it, but there were complications and it was ultimately unsuccessful. There are bumps all over his body, marking where small pieces of explosion debris still remain below the surface of his skin. Metal, scars, and scrapes have become a part of who he is; symbols of his strength and the pain he endured behind them. They mark him as a fighter. A survivor.

When an opportunity arose for Mohammed to leave the country, he took it; leaving his life behind in the hopes of finding work and a brighter future. He says leaving was the hardest decision he’s ever made, but he knew he needed to do something to support his family during this crisis. His position in the army already put him in regular danger and separated him from his family, and they were running out of money. It had become impossible to find work in Syria. He sees this as the only way.

Leaving his wife and children in the care of her family, he set out on a dangerous quest for more. Time was pressing and he left one week before his youngest daughter was born. He never had the chance to meet her. The quality of life in his once beautiful country had become so low, that he would rather risk his life than watch her starve.

Mohammed, the prisoner of war he befriended, and that man’s wife from the village all fled to Turkey on foot. He brought nothing but a change of clothes and some cash. Nothing more than he needed. They walked for one month and four days, covering more than 700 kilometres through military patrolled zones, Islamic extremist territory, and unforgiving landscapes. Sleeping in forests and on streets.

Exhausted, dehydrated, and starving, they came across a man sitting by a pile of tree leaves in a barren stretch of land. He was armed and alone, guarding his branches like gold, and offering a handful of tree leaves in exchange for money. With their stomachs grumbling, shouting, and crying for nutrients, they paid him for a few leaves to eat. He was so starved, that they tasted amazing.

They reached the city of Idlib in Northern Syria, where his friend was born and raised. He had been separated from his family since joining the war and being captured years ago; they assumed he was dead. This is where Mohammed says his goodbyes, and continued on to Turkey alone.

Arriving at the border brought even more danger, as the police were on high alert for anyone attempting to cross into the country illegally. Mohammed had contacts that helped him hire smugglers to get him across, but the mountains and valleys were difficult to maneuver undetected, and getting to the other side was not a guarantee.

He made the journey with his smugglers and a small group of people, but were found by guards. They shouted at them to stop, and told them that if they ran, they would kill them. Instincts kick in and those instructions were ignored. The group scattered, running for their lives away from the police, who then opened fire. One of the men in the group was shot down right next to Mohammed, who narrowly escaped death. Another woman was so badly injured that the smugglers had to bring her back to the nearest village. By some miracle, Mohammed made it to the other side unharmed.

Having finally escaped Syria, he continued to a small town called Rihaniyah, where he boarded a bus to Istanbul. There, he stayed with a relative for some weeks while he planned his next move.

He made three attempts at traveling to Greece by sea. Each time the boats were stopped the passengers were forced to pay a fee, and were sent back to Turkey. The waters were rough and the boats loaded to the brim with refugees. To board one of these boats is to risk your life; it is commonly referred to as “the journey of death” among those who attempt it. Mohamed couldn’t do anything but watch in distress as a nearby boat sank, people were screaming for help, and the Turkish police did nothing.

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An image found in a book while in Athens

He says all semblance of humanity was lost, and people were treated like animals – like less than animals. There are no “human rights” for refugees.

On his third attempt he was successful and arrived in Greece in October, where he claimed refugee status and could live in a camp. The camp provided a place to sleep where his basic needs were met, but from here his family still went without food. Mohammed found a job in a factory making 3€ an hour and works 12 hour days. This is far below the line of what a Greek citizen would earn for the same work, but is just enough to afford him a place to live, and money to send home for his family each month.

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A representation of some camps (the ones where I worked in Athens were in abandoned buildings, there were no tents)

Refugees arriving in Greece after March 2016 have no chance of being admitted to any country except Greece. Canada, Germany, Sweden, and some other countries are still actively accepting refugees, but the numbers of displaced people are so high, and the process so slow, that they are still working to admit those who have been waiting for well over a year.

Mohammed spends his free time helping out at various refugee camps around Athens, mostly with building projects and social activities. It’s possible he’ll spend the rest of his life here.

Thanks to modern technology he’s sometimes able to call or Skype with his family back in Syria, but lives knowing he may never be able to see them again. The emotional and physical strength of this man, not that much older than myself, is awe inspiring.

My hope is that this glimpse into a life so unlike our own, might help us begin to gain some understanding, tolerance, and empathy, instead of the fear and hatred that seems to be so common surrounding refugees.

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