In February 2017 I met two people that changed my life. Their names are Ahmed and Farres and they are Syrian refugees.
They are refugees because they did what you or I would do in the same circumstances – they left their homes because their lives were in danger. Up to the moment they left, their lives were like your or your children’s. Now their lives are not at all like yours or mine. Before, they lived comfortable lives in a nice home surrounded by friends and family. Now they live in a container with 4 or 5 other people with no cooking or washing facilities. They are stuck in Greece, a no mans land for thousands of refugees looking for a new permanent and safe home.
I think it is important to define the word Refugee at this point. Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. Refugee status or asylum may be granted to people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. So the two people I am telling you about are official refugees. They are not economic migrants, they are not criminals, they are people who have fled their home and left everything behind.
Farres was / is an entrepreneur. In Syria he was a successful businessman owning a large restaurant and developing houses. He and his wife had more than one home and two cars. They also have four young children. If you look at where they lived on Google maps, street view, you would know why they pooled all their resources and left. It is shocking – a pile of rubble. You would have done the same. But to get to Europe they had to pay people and after a traumatic journey where they got separated from their son and Farres’ brothers they are now living in a derelict military camp in the North of Greece. On the camp he and his wife are busy people, the main chefs in the wonderful kitchen Refugee Support has created and also busy building shelves, making cushion covers and curtains, and covered seating areas around his container in an attempt to make life better for themselves and their family. Farres has no formal qualifications but is obviously bright and a very hard worker – he never stops. But no country will take him in without a piece of paper to prove his worth. So he, his wife and his girls are stuck in Greece separated from the rest of his family. Farres, his wife and three small daughters are extremely warm and friendly when you meet them. They are what we would all consider a lovely family and one you would invite for dinner if they were your neighbour.
Ahmed is just 18 years old. He has no family and has been unable to go to school since the war started in Syria 6 years ago – in other words since he was 12 years old. Despite this, he is a very bright young man and already speaks several languages including Greek. This is because every day he gets up, makes himself look smart and goes to find something to occupy himself. This could be helping Katrina in the small Greek café next to the camp where he practices his Greek or talking to a volunteer practicing Portuguese, Spanish or English – four of the languages he has taught himself already. He told one of the volunteers that “I cannot die yet, I have not achieved my ambition to be a doctor”. Every time I think about that I start to cry.
Ahmed is the unofficial camp interpreter and the first time I met him I mistook his translation for his words. Later I realised that he has the ability to convey the feeling behind the words as well as the words themselves, so the delivery of annoyance was actually the annoyance of the person he was translating for (yes occasionally there are frustrations for everyone on the camp).
My mother was a child refugee so I know how lucky I am to have a British passport. Since the Syrian crisis made the headlines I have wanted to do something more than give money. After a lot of research I discovered Refugee Support but it wasn’t till I arrived at the camp I realised how unique the charity is and what an amazing job they do.
Refugee Support have been with the camp of 800 inhabitants in Alexandreia from when it was a group of derelict buildings with refugees living in tents, few facilities and nothing to do, to a place where refugees live in cabins, can wash themselves and their clothes in relative comfort and dignity. The refugees can shop for food (using a point system) in a well stocked shop, or visit the lovely boutique to chose their own nice clothes and toys (donated). They eat freshly cooked and delicious Syrian food (prepared in the community kitchen by refugees helped by volunteers) at least once a day and play board games, sew, knit or drink coffee in their community room while the children play in the lovely playground. They can attend language lessons in the new classroom while their children go to school. They can get a library book. All this achieved by Refugee Support in 10 months.
I am very proud to have been a little part of this transformation and now see my role as educational. I want as many people as possible to understand that we need to treat refugees with humanity because, as my own family are all too aware, your world can turn upside down very quickly and you or I could be the next refugee.