Relaxed tourists swirled around Walaa and her children on a quaint street washed in Mediterranean sun.
In one shop, she bought a small bag of peanuts for her 4-year-old son, Sami. A smiling fruit seller on the street offered a tart green plum to 2-year-old Salma. A group of young street performers serenaded the passersby, and one came out to sing and flirt with Fatima, 3, in her stroller.
In another life, these could be scenes from a dream vacation to the Greek islands.
Walaa’s family is far from home, but this is certainly no holiday. A waypoint between the desperation in Syria and the hope of peace and prosperity in Europe, Greece has become a kind of purgatory for Walaa and thousands like her.
“I was very happy when I arrived in Greece. My expectation was that I would be in Greece for a very, very short time, and then just move on to Germany,” Walaa said. Her husband arrived in Germany last summer. He is learning the language and trying to find a job to support the family.
But Walaa and her children made it across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece just a few days after Macedonia closed its border with Greece, basically closing the most common route into Europe. The family was stuck in Greece. Walaa heard the reunification process will take at least seven months.
Walaa and her children have had two asylum interviews with authorities so far. A third is scheduled. “Everything takes very long. And I am still here,” she says.
Daughter injured by rocket attack
Fatima, 3, smiles up at a street performer in Greece. She was badly burned when a rocket fell on the family's home in Syria.
Most of the refugees who make it to Greece carry invisible traumas with them; they tell stories of destroyed homes, broken families, nightmares punctuated by the sounds of war. Walaa’s daughter, Fatima, wears the scars of this war on her tiny, damaged body.
Fatima was 8 months old, sleeping upstairs in her family’s home in Idlib, when a rocket fell on their house and sparked a fire. Walaa ran into the wreckage. “I saw my daughter on fire,” she said. “I had to take her out.”
Fatima has had a dozen operations to treat her burns, but she can’t walk, hear or speak. As the war dragged on, it became increasingly difficult for Walaa to access medical care for Fatima. International physicians groups estimate that half of Syria’s doctors have fled the country, and hundreds more have been detained or killed.
Walaa and her husband decided their only choice was to try to get to Europe. They sold their car and borrowed money from friends to pay for the journey. Even then, they couldn’t afford for the whole family to go. So he went first.
He made it to Germany last July.
“Fatima's condition became worse over time. It deteriorated,” Walaa said. The process to get permission to join her husband in Germany seemed stalled. With the children missing their father and the situation in Syria becoming increasingly desperate, Walaa decided she could not wait any longer.
Smugglers stall trip to Greece
They left in January. For a young mother with three small children, walking out of the war zone was a different kind of ordeal. Walaa carried little Salma, pushed Fatima’s stroller and prodded 4-year-old Sami to stay strong on the physically punishing walk out of Syria.
“It reached the point that I felt that being in the war in Syria is probably even better than walking this route,” she remembers. After two days, they crossed into Turkey.
In Turkey, smugglers moved the family from house to house. Each day, Walaa hoped it would be their turn to take a dinghy to Greece. They were waylaid for weeks.
“Other people left the house and went on the boat, but I was kept behind and they told me to clean the house,” she said. “The more I stayed there in the house, the more they took advantage of me. I spoke to my husband in Germany, and he said to leave that house and go.”
Another smuggler found space for the family on a flimsy rubber dinghy like the ones that have transported more than 500,000 other Syrians to Greece in the past year.
They arrived in Lesbos like so many of their countrymen: exhausted and penniless, and unsure of what the future holds.
“Everything is hard. The entire situation is challenging. We are basically homeless, vagabonds. We do not know what will happen to us,” Walaa said.
How we are helping Walaa
Sami, 4, plays behind Walaa while she speaks to Mercy Corps team members. We provided her with a debit card to help her provide food, shelter and transportation for her family.
Sami ran around the Mercy Corps cash office in Mytilini, while Walaa waited for her turn to speak to a staff member. He peeked out from behind chairs and played with the other children who came with their parents to receive a stipend. It is a sunny space, with children’s art on the walls and tea and coffee for the parents.
Mercy Corps Country Director Josh Kreger says his team in the office wanted to “create an oasis in the midst of this grey experience.”
When refugees were streaming through Greece on their way into Europe, Mercy Corps issued cash cards to help meet their needs along the route. Now that the EU-Turkey deal has shut down the wave of migration, Mercy Corps has evolved the way we help vulnerable refugee families stuck here. Each month, we refill the cards with a small stipend that families can use for whatever they need most.
Many say they will use the cash to buy medicine, clothes for their children or ferry tickets to get to Athens for asylum interviews. Walaa said Fatima needs special, soft food since she can’t chew and swallow the food served at the shelter where the family stays.
She planned to to buy a stroller that is more supportive for Fatima’s injured legs with the money as well.
Walaa also uses the cash to create little moments of joy for the children, such as purchasing a treat of peanuts and soda for Sami and Salma. “So they can forget the hunger and the horrible days they’ve lived. So they can be happy,” she said.
No choice but to be brave and strong
Walaa snuggles with her youngest daughter, 2-year-old Salma.
For now, the family lives in a room in a basic hotel that has been converted to a refugee camp. Walaa laid Fatima down for a nap, and gave Sami and Salma her undivided attention. “Who loves Mama?” she teased, and they squealed, taking turns kissing her cheeks.
“The kids are away from everyone they know: their uncles, aunts, and friends, and far away from their father,” Walaa said. “We are alone, and it’s tough.”
“I want people to know they can't imagine how bad it is in Syria,” Walaa said. “And I want them to know that no one would leave their country if they are not in great need, to provide that safety and security for their children.”
For all the images of vulnerable and needy refugees, a day with Walaa reveals a different dimension to their stories. At just 23, Walaa has summoned extraordinary courage and endurance to protect her family.
“I wasn't brave like this and I wasn't strong like this. But when as a person you go through these things, you have no choice but to be strong and brave and do the things I had to do.”
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