As many of us get excited about what the new year will bring, the future for refugees is still full of uncertainty. I moved from Syria to Greece 22 years ago to live with my brothers who had emigrated already. For the last few months I've been helping run ActionAid's mother and baby centre in Kara Tepe refugee camp, in Lesvos. Being from Syria myself, I've built strong bonds with the women we've been supporting, many of whom have shared their heart-breaking stories.
When I first arrived in Greece it was really difficult, especially not speaking the language. I'm a trained mathematician but did various jobs at the beginning, including washing dishes and babysitting. So when I first saw TV news images of refugees arriving on the islands, I knew I wanted to help and when I heard ActionAid said it was looking for Arabic-speaking women, I called immediately.
ActionAid's mother and baby centres are safe places where women can breastfeed in private and are given essential supplies for them and their children, like nappies, wipes and sanitary towels. Here, I forget about everyone: my family, my friends… my mind is 100% at Kara Tepe.
My hardest moments
One of the hardest moments for me was when I met a woman who approached me in tears. She had lost her husband and her seven-month-old baby. They drowned. They found the baby, but not her husband. Her husband had been holding the baby in his arms while on the boat, and they were both gone. She was crying all day. There is no comfort in cases like these.
I met another family who lost their son at sea. He was 25-years-old. I have his photograph on my mobile phone, his mother sent it to me. I can’t help but cry. At first no one told the family that he was dead. They found out several hours later, at noon. The family just lost it.
Another day some Syrian kids told me that ISIS forced them to go out and watch the beheadings. My heart aches when I listen to such stories from young children.
When these people go through all these things, I have to be strong, I can’t be the one who’s vulnerable. I need to be there for them. Where do I find the strength? I don’t have a choice, it’s a moral issue.
The whole family relies on women
When the women first arrive here at the centre, they are really tired, they have suffered a lot. When they hear me talking in Arabic, they calm down. Then when I tell them that I am from Syria, I see their faces light up with joy. Bit by bit, we start to talk. We talk about their journey at sea, about their life back home, about what happened to their city and about the relatives they left behind. They want to talk about their life in Syria.
Then I start telling them about their rights. I notice that some of the women have trouble leaving our centre, although they want to get registered as quickly as possible and get on with their journey. But I think they when they leave ActionAid’s centre they are stronger and more serene. They leave knowing what lies ahead of them in terms of their journey, and they know their rights as refugees and as women.
It’s a good thing that ActionAid set up this space which places an emphasis on women. This was the right thing to do. The whole family relies on women. When you do something to support the women, the entire family will benefit. How will these women be able to support their children if they are not strong enough themselves?
There’s no place like Syria
When I first moved to Greece I didn’t speak the language back then. It was very hard. Now it feels like home. Here on Lesvos it’s the first time since I came to Greece that I actually feel I’m doing something meaningful. Here, I’m the same person I was in Syria.
I never imagined this would happen to Syria. There’s no place like it. What makes it unique? It’s the people. The Syrians are very good people. We all take care of each other. For example, if you are pregnant, the people in your neighbourhood will look after you until you have your baby. In Syria you are never alone, not even for a day. There’s always someone at your place.
There was a woman sitting on the ground and crying yesterday. She wasn’t crying because of her suffering. She was crying for Syria - because it’s gone. All she kept saying was; ‘Syria’s gone; it’s gone’.
To me, this is not a job. Nor does it finish at 5pm. When the women I’ve supported in the centre see me around the camp they call out: ‘Come here, hug’. Well, when that happens, you can’t see this as just a job. And when the women leave the centre they say a whole-hearted ‘thank you’. It makes everything worthwhile. I won’t ever forget these women."
ActionAid will continue to be there to support women in Lesvos as they bravely search for safety, a new home and a new life, just as we are continuing to help homeless children across the world. If you want to help, you can, by donating to our Winter Homelessness Appeal. Your support will help give children the essentials they need to survive and the long term support they need to have a better future.
Photos: Anna Pantelia/ActionAid