The “Waiting Hell”: refugees stranded in Greece

CARE’s Johanna Mitscherlich was recently in Greece where more than 50,000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are stranded. She describes the awful conditions families are forced to endure and the uncertain future one family in particular is waiting for.

I have been here before. It has been a long time, but I still remember sitting in these very same chairs when I was 15 years old, waiting to buy tickets for the ferry to spend a vacation on the Greek islands with my friends. Now, hundreds of people are waiting in the departure hall at gate E1 in Piraeus port. They have been waiting for weeks, for months, not to go on a holiday, but to find a safe place for themselves and their children.

About 2,500 people, most of them from Syria, have been holding out at the port ever since the border to Macedonia closed in the end of February. The port is a busy place. The big ferries are still leaving for the islands, trucks are roaming around, tourists are carrying their own tents and backpacks onto the ships to spend their holidays on the beautiful Greek islands – all amidst hundreds of refugees.

Some sleep in tents out of choice, some out of necessity. In the departure hall, people have set up what is left of their lives. On a few square metres, they have stacked the things they were able to take with them in a very orderly fashion, as if this was at least something over which they still had control. Little suitcases, backpacks, toys for children, photos.

Children are playing with balls and skipping rope while mothers are changing diapers of their little ones. A hand grabs mine and little five year old Salam drags me to the little mat her parents and siblings are living on.

“I am really sorry,” her mother, Reem, apologizes. “She just likes to meet new people and to have a little bit of a change.”

Reem is 27 years old and has fled with Salam and five other children between the ages of one and 13, plus her husband. They are from Aleppo, where her husband worked as a mason. As soon as I sit in their tiny, confined space, Salam hands me a plastic fork with a peeled apple.

“Do you want tea?” she cheerfully asks me, as if she was about to disappear in a fully equipped kitchen, but instead starts digging around in the few belongings that she and her family have in their six square metres of living space.

Living in limbo

Reem says that for their first few weeks on the run, they played a game with their children, pretending the struggles were all just part of a big adventure.

“Children are very adaptable. But when your house is bombed, when you lose everything, how do you explain this? I just pretended this is all part of something very exciting to keep them happy.”

But her children, she says, were quickly starting to realise that it is not.

“All of my children are sick. We have few bathrooms for hundreds of people here and only cold water. Some children here have scabies; I pray that mine will not be affected. We are sleeping on the ground and the conditions are really difficult.”

In Piraeus Camp, there is no privacy, no safety, and only a little food handed out by volunteers.

“We managed to stay together and all of us are still alive. That is the most important thing. But this takes a toll on all of us. I have not slept in years, and the past months I feel like I have become a shadow of myself,” Reem says, while caressing her children and keeping up a show of cheer for her little ones.

Her husband looks at her, very gently, takes her hand and tries to explain.

“I think people in Europe just do not know our situation here. If they did, they would come and help us. It is only a matter of time and things will be good again.”

Then, Walid says the same thing, over and over again, like a mantra, something that he really strongly wants to believe in himself.

“We sold everything we ever owned to take our children into safety, out of the war in Aleppo. Where did we take them? How did we end up in such wretchedness just trying to keep our children out of danger?”

Waiting for the unknown

Watching Reem and her husband try to entertain their children and make an insane and indefinite situation bearable leaves me feeling immensely frustrated. The family has tried to apply for relocation to go to Germany and can call a few hours every day via skype to make an appointment. So far however, they have been unable to reach anyone.

According to the EU, between 35,000 and 40,000 persons in Greece would be eligible for relocation and it has set a target to relocate at least 20,000 people by Mid-May. As of today only 876 persons have been relocated. With such a slow system, and many refugees like Reem being unable to even start the process, they are left stranded in limbo without the resources for even the basics of a dignified life. For the refugees here, this waiting hall has turned into “a waiting hell”, as some of them call it.

“Waiting for us to finally be somewhere where we are safe, where we do not have to worry anymore, where there is no war,” says Reem.

UPDATE: a few days later, the family was relocated to another camp. “We don’t have any hope for the future anymore,” says Walid. “When I look into my children’s eyes, I feel like they are saying ‘Daddy, take us back to Syria, take us back to the war’. They have not had an education for years, but they can differentiate between the sounds of shelling, planes, tanks, different types of bombs and war machines. This is what they grew up with, this is what they know.”

You can help provide families like Reem's with basic essentials.