Find somewhere to sit while I tell you the stories of the refugees we met while in Greece. Just a few stories, but they provide examples of what many many people have gone through over the past several months.
First, a story of reunification. The young man in the blue collared shirt has been living in Germany for the last five years. He successfully made his way there, found a good job, and after three years was able to bring his wife (in the black head scarf) to join him. They now have a precious baby boy. This little family came to the Oinofyta refugee camp all the way from Germany, looking for his sister. She and her husband (far right) had recently traveled mostly on foot from Afghanistan (nearly 5000 kilometers) through Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey and then managed to hire a boat to Greece. She and her husband are now living safely in the camp. The car with German license plates can be seen in the background. They drove the 2300 or so kilometers to find his sister. We were there talking with the camp leaders when they arrived.
He was so cheerful. He asked politely if he could see his sister...could we find her? He said he hadn't seen her in more than five years.
Not many minutes later, she came and they hugged each other sweetly. He said he speaks German better than English, but so kindly tried to answer our curious questions. They all posed for this photo. They said their aging parents still live in Afghanistan.
He asked if it would be possible to stay for a few hours and visit. They had just driven 23+ hours from Germany to Greece.
We saw him again the a couple days later, so he must have received permission to stay a bit longer. What a story of perseverance and courage in the face of danger and difficulty! And this is just one example, just one escape story. These people are incredible.
And now for a story of sticking together. The two families sitting at the table above are part of a larger extended family of 29. As a group, they tried to get across the border into Turkey from Syria multiple times. Smugglers would promise them a way out and then leave them stranded. Once, they walked in the snow for hours and hours before deciding to turn back. The young man in the brown t-shirt told us how his fingers were so cold he couldn't use his cell phone to call for help. Once they reached the border, but they hid in the forest, watching as other groups were apprehended by police and tortured. Again, they turned back.
Finally they found a way to the coastline and made arrangements with the driver of a small speedboat who would take them across the sea to one of the Greek islands. ALL TWENTY-NINE in this family, grandparents and small children included, made it across the water safely. As the boat slowed down, people had to jump out and swim to prevent the boat from sinking. Now they live at the Ritsona camp, making a home in tents, with tarps to shield from the sun and rain. The young man told us that they try to pretend that they are happy and that everything will turn out alright, for the sake of his parents. They have a few instruments and access to paints and paper. They play music together in the evenings and make art.
Oftentimes, refugees are well-educated and left good jobs in their home country. The man pictured above was a teacher in Afghanistan and would receive death threats from the Taliban regularly. He escaped with his family after deciding it was not safe for them to stay. Now he is the principal of the newly formed elementary school at the Oinofyta refugee camp. He plays a very important role in the structure and communication of this school at the camp, meeting the educational needs of more than 100 students. In this photo, he is introducing us to his beautiful daughter, one of his two children.
We talked with him about his journey the day after the attack by the Islamic State in Kabul, Afghanistan. He showed us video footage on his phone, sent to him by a friend still living in Kabul. One of his very good friends, someone like a brother to him, was in the square when the attack happened and died. The carnage was horrific.
This man was a teacher in Syria and now volunteers in cooperation with non-governmental organization I Am You with the children in the camp. He is paralyzed from the waist down, but managed to escape to Greece by crossing the mountains into Turkey on horseback and then traveling by boat to Greece. The inflatable boat he and sixty other people rode in was rescued by the Greek coast guard. He completed this dangerous journey with his sister (also a teacher and paralyzed from the waist down since birth) and mother. New wheelchairs were found to replace the ones they had abandoned in Turkey.
These people would not have left their countries and homes if not fearing for their lives and the lives of their children and parents. A quick Google search for "war in Syria" or "civilian deaths in Afghanistan" will yield more stories than you needed to hear about the WHY behind the exodus. There is war in these countries. Fathers are receiving death threats. Children are kept home from school because educational facilities are often targeted in bombings and shootings.
These families just want to live together in safety. Their young people just want to attend college and live out the rest of their lives in peace and security. What would you do if your family found themselves targeted by a radical group? What if your neighbors on either side decided they would be at war with each other and you're caught in the middle?
To read more about the refugee camps in Greece, click here.
If you have questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org