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Trapped in Greece: “Syria’s war has walked with us”

“We don’t know our destiny,” said Um Safwan, trying to speak to me through the barbed wire fence of Moria detention center.

Moria- Idleb Woman closeup
Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

The 48-year-old mother is one of thousands trapped in the detention center – formerly used as a refugee registration camp – on the Greek island of Lesvos. Um Safwan’s three children had passed through the same island on to Germany in 2015, under drastically different conditions. She was unable to reunify with her children through legal means in Turkey, and decided to trek the same smuggling route with her husband, the shrapnel in his leg a reminder of the war they left behind in Syria.

Um Safwan was describing the humiliating conditions in Moria, where she said there is not enough food, shelter, or information, and her fear of being returned to Turkey, when policemen took my passport and escorted me away from the camp. Since the military started running the camp, press is no longer allowed access there.

The controversial EU-Turkey deal announced on March 18th claimed to target human trafficking and smuggling networks, in an effort to stem the flow of refugees on rubber dinghies arriving on European shores. All refugees who arrived to Greek islands “illegally” after March 2oth are taken to detention centers, where like Um Safwan, they await an obscure fate.

The deal states that almost all migrants and refugees arriving to the Greek islands after March 20th will be returned to Turkey. Those who apply for asylum in Greece may be returned if their applications rejected. Even refugees fleeing war from places like Syria and Iraq need to individually prove that Turkey is unsafe for them. For every Syrian refugee on European soil returned to Turkey, a Syrian refugee in Turkey is legally resettled to Europe. In exchange, the EU gives Turkey 6 billion euro,  grants Turkish citizens visa-free travel to Europe as early as this summer, and reopens negotiations for Turkey joining the EU.

As we walked away from the camp, another Syrian man behind the fence, Mohammad Rifae, called out.

“We are a toy in everyone’s hands. The EU is trafficking people’s souls,” Rifae said.

The first boats returning refugees to Turkey departed from Greece on April 4th. As one of these boats left the main harbor on Lesvos, another rubber dinghy carrying refugees arrived nearby on the island, its passengers either not knowing, or not caring, for the new agreement.

“The people arriving from the Turkish coast? It’s like a river. And you can’t stop a river,” said Stavros Mirogiannis, director of the Karatepe Hospitality Site in Lesvos.

Karatepe drawing
On a wall in Karatepe. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Karatepe, perched on a hill overlooking olive groves and the Aegean Sea, currently has the capacity to shelter 2,500 people. The usually full site, however, is now eerily empty, with less than 100 refugees there. Most of Karatepe’s inhabitants were either lucky enough to arrive to Greece before March 20th, or were deemed as “vulnerable” cases and moved there from Moria. Some have applied for asylum, others have registered with relocation programs to other European countries. All are waiting.

Standing by Karatepe’s gate, Mirogiannis said that as a local, he would continue to stand by the refugees arriving to Greece.

“This situation may be stopped if someone stops the war,” Mirogiannis said.

Volunteers are cleaning and packing up at Better Days for Moria, an unofficial refugee camp and service center on Lesvos. Located beneath Moria detention center, the volunteers had provided much needed medical care, food distribution and shelter when the official Moria camp did not have the capacity to do so. Since the EU-Turkey deal that has seen Moria turned into a detention center, refugees are not allowed out, and volunteers are not allowed in.

“It’s not how we expected to be irrelevant,” said Amy Pappajohn, a field coordinator at Better Days for Moria. “To be irrelevant was that there would be safe passage (for refugees) and we wouldn’t be needed here anymore.”

Better Days for Moria - Amy
Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Pappajohn doubted that the EU-Turkey deal would stop the refugee flow, referring to the deal as asinine. Looking around at the empty camp surrounded by olive trees, she said refugees will simply find a different way to Europe.

“If there’s anything this deal did, it made a great business for smugglers,” said Pappajohn. “It’s opened up new doors and ways for smugglers to try to take advantage of people.”

A smuggler in Greece is far more expensive than the short, albeit sometimes fatal, passage across the Aegean. Offers start at 1,800 euro for an unclear land route to Western Europe. The numbers skyrocket for fake passports. At least three refugees have drowned trying to cross the river at the northern border between Greece and Macedonia. Most of the 53,000 refugees in mainland Greece just wait, some in official camps run by the military or municipalities.

idoemeni graffiti
Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and poverty from mostly Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan passed through the Greek border town of Idomeni last year onwards to Macedonia, taking the Balkan route now sealed shut to northern Europe. The former point of passage is now a massive unofficial camp, with more than ten thousand refugees stranded near the abandoned train tracks there.

Although they had arrived well before the decisive date of March 20th, refugees in Idomeni are stuck.

highway protest 3
Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

“Why did they let one million (refugees) in and just shut us out?” asked Abu Aous, a Syrian man protesting on the international highway between Greece and Macedonia.

He is one of hundreds of men, women and children who occasionally protest their condition, holding up signs and cutting off the highway to all commercial trucks from Macedonia and Serbia.

Another protester, Mohammad, listed lack of medical services, delayed relocation meetings, and misleading information all as reasons for their protest alongside the closed borders.

“Give us clear information,” Mohammad said.

Lack of information dominates the landscape in Idomeni. While INGOs like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and others are putting up and distributing tents for shelter, rumors spread about the camp being closed down. Others whisper that the borders may open. The Greek police has arrested 17 mostly foreign activists on suspicion of spreading false information in the camp. Refugees hold peaceful sit ins on the train tracks, holding up signs denouncing the poor conditions and lack of information.

“It’s as if Syria’s war has walked with us,” said 27-year-old Assoum, inching closer to the smoldering camp fire. Her five-year-old daughter coughs as the wind blows the soot her way.

Asoum
Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Indeed Idomeni can look and feel like a conflict zone, with thousands of camp fires burning every night as refugees try to keep warm. The calm green of surrounding farm fields and mountains is juxtaposed against the searing uncertainty of thousands entangled from war behind them and closed borders in front of them.

Rumors took a violent turn on April 10th after Arabic-language leaflets suggesting the borders will open were handed around the camp. About 100 refugees tried to climb the razor wire border fence, and the Macedonian police responded with tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets, canisters falling on tents with women and children. Suzan, a 25-year-old woman from Syria, said she suffered a miscarriage after a tear gas canister fell on her tent. At least 300 people were injured, according to MSF.

A military training exercise brought more fear and confusion to Idomeni. Greek fighter jets circled low over the makeshift camp last week, their drill setting off rampant fear among the refugees. Many of the Syrians there had fled their homes because of similar warcraft strikes.  A young Syrian woman from Idleb grabbed my arm, holding her infant close.

“Are they going to strike us,” she asked between tears. Idleb has been severely pummeled by Russian airstrikes claiming to target terrorists, instead destroying civilian court houses, hospitals, schools and countless homes.

ideomeni signs 2
Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Everyone in Idomeni arrived before the EU-Turkey deal took into effect, but after Macedonia gradually closed its border. Technically, they have the options of applying for asylum in Greece, or registering for relocation within Europe. However, since Idomeni is considered an unofficial camp, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has still not opened a registration center there, and there are doubts it ever will. The five Skype accounts distributed by EASO to call for relocation appointments are always busy or out of order, or the internet is not strong enough to connect into the weekly designated five hours for calls.

The official camps run by the military and municipalities are supposed to have relocation registration centers, but many refugees in Idomeni refuse to budge. They say the military run camps are even worse than Idomeni, and they have no faith that the registration process will actually work there. After fleeing military dictatorships and militants, the idea of being trapped in a military run facility is too much for some refugees. Many echoed the same sentiment: staying in Idomeni is in itself an act of protest  against the shifting European laws they feel they are pawns in.

ahlam
“You should visit my tent. I’m making dinner, and I know you’ll like our cooking. I had a few journalists visit the other day, you should have seen their reaction. No one thinks they can eat this well in Idomeni. But I can try.” Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

An uneasy yet inevitable sense of routine has settled in Idomeni, where many have been stranded for months. Ahlam escaped the hunger siege of Yarmouk Camp, a three-year siege on what was the largest Palestinian neighborhood in Syria. Long besieged by the Syrian government, the neighborhood is now also under attack by ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al-Nusra.

Ahlam and her family were attempting to reach and rebuild a new life in Germany, where many of their relatives are. Stuck in Idomeni for two months now, Ahlam tries to fill the time making traditional Palestinian bread on a makeshift stove: metal scraps over a camp fire. A few of her neighbors fish at the river, occasionally catching something, a welcome break from the long food lines for daily soup portions in the camp.

ideomeni barber
Many children in Idomeni are getting haircuts because their parents fear them getting head lice, not unlikely with the lack of water and generally poor sanitation conditions in the camp. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Young men call out “Marlboro for two euros!”, wandering around the camp selling cigarettes. Little tents selling eggs and baby formula are scattered around the camp. A line of barbers hover on the dirt road by the camp.

Abdulkarim, a 27-year-old barber from Syria, had actually brought his hair kit with him all the way from his hometown of Ghouta. He shrugs, saying it passes the time as he tries to figure out a new route to Germany. He had tried to live in both Lebanon and Turkey, but said the endless exploitation pushed him to pack up and leave again.

“As long as there is a war, people will continue to make their way,” said Abdulkarim. “Even if they have to swim there.”

pick me
Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati