“There was war in Syria but at least there was food. I never imagined that I’d be worse off here, in Europe. This is not the Europe I expected. This is not humane at all”.
He is standing in front of me, in a surreal setting, an informal refugee settlement on a hill on the island of Lesvos. A Syrian refugee, father of three.
This place used to be a children’s traffic education park, with asphalted streets and tiny traffic signs. Now, the site is a temporary home to thousands of war refugees and migrants, living in brightly coloured tents, under the scorching sun.
It’s overcrowded, loud and there is a stench of sweat and bodily waste.
His eyes express disbelief. Hopelessness. We talk about Syria. What he has lost. What will happen.
“Everyone is a migrant or a refugee, all of us are descendants of refugees”, he says. I nod. I am the grandchild of a refugee myself.
I didn’t know it then, but 24 hours later, I will be reminded of his words when I pass some graffiti in the port of Mytillini. In black letters, the writing on the wall says: “We are all immigrants.”
There is anger and disappointment in the air in the makeshift camp at Kara Tepe on Lesvos. Just two days ago, when the refugees landed on the island, the Afghans and Syrians were thrilled.
There was a sense of newly gained freedom, relief, sense of being alive, of getting a second chance in life.
In order to reach the Greek islands, refugees need to cross the sea between Turkey and Lesvos. The journey takes a few hours and the refugees steer the motor dinghy themselves.
The boats are overcrowded, packed with men, women and children, willing to risk all.
“My husband took photos of the journey but I deleted them all as I don’t want to remember it. Ever,” Noor*, a mother of three tells me.
She said they want to reach Germany or Denmark. They’ve heard that there is a new more conservative government in power in Denmark, so Germany has become a more likely destination.
One in every 122 people in the world are asylum seekers, refugees or internally displaced in their own countries.
More than half of the world’s refugees are children. One of them is Sami.
He is 15, from Syria. Sami is here with a friend, his family are back in Syria.
“I called my mother yesterday. She was so happy to hear from me, to know that I was safe. She cried of happiness. No one would ever have known if I was alive or dead, if I’d managed to make the journey by boat safely or if I’d drowned. How would they know? Who would tell them?”
By now, it has dawned upon the refugees and migrants, just like thousands have realised in past weeks and many more will discover in coming days, that the path ahead isn’t as easy as they’d thought.
Or maybe they didn’t think too much about it, back in Damascus, back in Kabul, back in Baghdad. What was most important was surviving and getting out alive.
The road ahead is long and requires patience. Resilience. The 70 kilometres the refugees and migrants had to cover, some of them on foot, to reach the city on Lesvos where processing of their papers can start, was only a small first step.
Most refugees plan on leaving Greece and go to northern Europe. Some will be luckier than others, but the legal process will take time.
“My son has a stomach ache,” says an Afghan woman, and wants us to look at him. But I’m not a doctor. I’m a photographer, here with an assessment team from Save the Children, preparing a response to the immense needs of refugees in Greece.
Day after day
If there ever was a good time to receive close to 100,000 refugees and migrants in a few months, it is not now, neither for the Greeks nor the refugees themselves.
Greece is facing a serious economic crisis. The tolerance of local communities is not endless, when resources themselves are finite.
But most are helpful. The Greeks have opened their homes, cooked meals, distributed water, given lifts.
Nine out of ten of refugees the locals have helped are from war torn countries. The majority are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The remaining 10% come from Iran, Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia, Bangladesh.
Tomorrow, some 20 rubber dinghies, each carrying around 40 war refugees, will land on the shores of Lesvos. They will cry, sing and dance with joy. Someone will then tell them where they need to go in order to get registered and that help is limited.
They will start their journey and eventually arrive in Mytillini, exhausted.
The day after tomorrow, another 20 dinghies will land on the shores of Lesvos. And the day after that will be the same.
* Names changed to protect identity