9 January 2017

The terror and trauma of life as a Syrian refugee

By Jamie Janson

The footage from the Turkish coast guard ship shows a grainy procession of bedraggled figures. The news story announces that they have been rescued from drowning in the Aegean at the hands of people-smugglers.

As the video of the refugees continues playing on his mobile phone, our translator points out a smudge of pink being carried past: Rimas, an 18-month-old child.

Now, that pink smudge is sitting opposite me in a café in Chios harbour. Perched on her mother’s lap, Rimas’s huge, dark brown eyes switch between the earnest adults around her and a plate of chips on the table. She is still dressed in the same clothes as in the TV news clip, with the addition of some furry, leopard-shaped slippers.

Her mother, Nihal, aged 30, remembers that night a little differently from the news story. It was her sixth attempt to escape from the wreckage of Syria to the safety of Europe, via Turkey, in an overcrowded boat. Each time was “terrible” and “indescribable”.

On this occasion, she claims, the Turkish sailors purposefully tried to sink their dinghy by smacking it with their bow wave and firing plastic bullets into the rubber sides. She remembers clutching her tiny daughter and thinking they were about to die. That part of the “rescue” didn’t make it on to the news.

Among the thousands of Syrians trapped in chilly refugee camps, Nihal probably had one of the most comfortable lives pre-war. She grew up in a comfortable home in Damascus, surrounded by a close and loving family. When the war broke out, she was enjoying her university course, studying Arabic and literature, and was in a happy marriage.

Then the war came. Her three sisters and two brothers were scattered to Saudi Arabia, Germany and Sweden. Her parents were left trapped in a city controlled by ISIS. The last possibility for a normal life ended on the day, four months ago, that her 34-year-old husband disappeared. She was two months pregnant.

Like so many other wives, Nihal was left with nothing but rumours and stonewalling from the Syrian regime: she was that told no one knew where he was, that he would be released one day, that he was dead. She decided to flee the country while she still could.

At a checkpoint between cities, manned by troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad, she was taken off the bus with around 20 other women, detained for 14 hours and almost executed on suspicion of planning to join a militant opposition group. Only a bribe from the bus driver persuaded the soldiers to release the passengers to continue their journey.

With the help of relatives, who recommended a reliable people-smuggler, Nihal and Rimas made it out of Syria to the port of Izmir. Nihal’s usually gentle face twists at the recollection of her time in Turkey. She had to stay in squalid “jungles” – refugee camps consisting of roofless, derelict buildings, conditions little better than being left on the street.

As a pregnant woman, travelling alone with a small child, she was given substandard food and mocked for being a refugee. She was detained several times. On one occasion she suffered stomach pains but was given no medical assistance.

Dismayed by the hardship and humiliation, she almost gave up and returned to Syria, but a message reached her from her parents: she would be killed by the regime if she returned home.

On top of the inhumane conditions was the stress of finding a smuggler to take them across the choppy Aegean.

Told the usual lies about a safe, comfortable crossing in a yacht, Nihal instead found herself creeping down beaches at night, wading waist-deep into the dark ocean, and being wedged into an overcrowded dinghy – all the while terrified of suffering a miscarriage, and forced to keep Rimas silent for fear of being detected by Turkish police.

Finally, on their sixth such attempt, they managed to evade the coast guard, and reach the longed-for safety of Chios.

Little Rimas is quick to smile at us as we discuss her experiences, but she is more interested in getting her hands on a chip than the earnest volunteers scribbling notes.

Like the millions of others fleeing persecution and war – and the thousands who don’t survive their journeys across the Aegean and Mediterranean – Rimas has been let down not just by her government, but by ours.

I was in Chios as a volunteer for the small Norwegian charity Dråpen i Havet (A Drop in the Ocean): like dozens of other groups, it helps to fill in the gaps left by the larger NGOs and relief organisations, who have often found themselves unable to adapt fast enough to Europe’s refugee crisis.

The island, I found, has become part of Europe’s refugee archipelago – dozens of freezing camps and derelict buildings within which are trapped tens of thousands of refugees, some for their second winter.

Chios was admittedly in a better state than the Calais “Jungle”, where I’d volunteered, in a very British way, as part of a litter-picking group, only to find myself helping to distribute the thousands of tons of donations pouring over the Channel from churches and Facebook groups. Calais had been a place of mud, incessant rain, raw sewage, the exhaustion of unlimited demands for food, clothing, shelter.

In the nearby, smaller Dunkirk Camp, I met a Pakistani man with photos of the Victoria Cross his grandfather earned posthumously, fighting for Britain in France during the First World War (now buried in a box under his house, so the Taliban will never find it). He asked if I could arrange an audience at Buckingham Palace: surely the Queen would grant him asylum in view of his family’s sacrifice?

Obviously, there are no simple solutions to the large-scale resettlement of people. But up close, it is glaringly evident that what we are experiencing is not so much a refugee crisis as a hospitality crisis: our security infrastructure is as lavish as our humanitarianism is grudging.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Europe promised never again to abandon those fleeing to our borders from “a well-founded fear of persecution”. Instead, those battling through unimaginable hardship are greeted by trauma and ignorance: the camp in Chios, for example, was recently attacked by supporters of the far-right Golden Dawn party.

Rimas is, hopefully, too young to be scarred by her experiences so far. As for Nihal, she constantly worries about their uncertain future, but dreams of a life in Canada: she hopes that one day her husband, if he is still alive, can join her there.

I flew out of the refugee archipelago for Christmas with my family, on a magic carpet shaped like a small, maroon booklet. The people I left behind, trapped in the flypaper of EU asylum bureaucracy, were not so lucky.

Some names and some minor details have been changed to protect identities. For more refugee stories from Chios, see the Dråpen i Havet website.

Jamie Janson is currently travelling along the refugee route and volunteering in camps along the way.