As the Syrian civil war enters its 8th year, frustration grows amongst the millions of people displaced in refugee camps across the world. An estimated 11 million Syrian people fled Syria when the civil war struck in 2011. As of March 2018, UNHCR counted nearly 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees worldwide, many of those located in refugee camps across Europe and the Middle East.
Just one hour North of Athens, situated in the small town of Ritsona, a refugee camp houses over 850 refugees. Established in 2016, Ritsona refugee camp took in refugees mainly from Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Today, the camp’s demographic is ever changing but the uncertainty still remains. We spoke with residents about their experiences in camp and back home in Syria since the beginning of the war.
WARNING: Content might be disturbing to read for some audiences.
Karam, 27 Damascus, Syria
“In 2011 I was arrested for failing to carry my ID card, I was in jail for 12 days. A year later in 2012, I was arrested again for participating in demonstrations that opposed the government. This time I spent 38 days in jail and a further 15 days in hospital after being tortured by prison officers. The hospital had no security and I managed to escape before I could be returned to jail.
My father was an officer general in the Syrian army and wanted to leave the regime. He knew information about the government and was executed after he tried to leave in 2015. Being the son of an officer general meant I was a wanted man. I needed to leave Syria.
In the same year, two of my cousins were killed in an airstrike. My brother was shot in the head and suffered brain damage in Douma; he is still unable to walk properly. The bullet is still in his head because my family feared going to a government run hospital. An ordinary hospital would’ve been too scared to treat anyone with injuries caused by government officials. Now, my mother and sister take care of my brother in Syria.
In 2017, I paid 1000 Euros to get from Idlib to Turkey after trying four times previously. Smugglers opened a passage in the wall when we arrived at the Turkish border, it was three metres tall and we had to get over without being detected.
After I arrived in Turkey, I spent 13 days in a forest. Two or three days were spent surviving in the forest where we didn’t know if we would wake up to see another day. The forest was dangerous, it was damp and lacked shelter.
I came to Greece in November 2017 through Turkey. I paid smugglers $350 to get onto a boat to Chios, Greece. Smugglers were taking less money for Syrian people at the time. The boat ride took approximately 40 minutes to reach land; there were about 60 people on-board, amongst them 20 distressed children.
I came to Ritsona refugee camp after living through the war for seven years. Camp seemed like paradise in comparison to Syria. There are positives and negatives in every country but at least I know Greece is a safe country and have been very accommodating to refugees. The police here know about human rights and respect people unlike what I experienced in Syria for years. Lots of countries refused to take in refugees so I am forever grateful to Greece.
I would love to bring my family to be with me in Greece. It isn’t safe for them to travel alone. I want to try to study or get a job here in Greece but my priority is to bring my family to Greece or Europe.
The war has affected my mental health greatly. People have been and still are suffering in Syria. I hope the war will stop but I don’t believe it will end until Syria is completely destroyed.”
Hassan 32, Afrin, Syria
“I am from Afrin in Syria where I lived with my wife and daughter who is almost two years old. In 2010, I spent one year in prison for political reasons before the war started. I had to leave Syria because I am wanted by the government to join the army. My whole family is still in Afrin, including my parents. I’m worried for them because Turkey has occupied Afrin and people are being killed.
To leave Syria I walked along the Turkish border for three days and then spent a few days in the wilderness before being picked up by a car. I came to Greece in a boat and left my wife and daughter in Turkey where they are safe.
I have lived in Ritsona refugee camp for four months. I stopped studying in Syria as soon as I was arrested so have been attending I AM YOU English lessons to pass the time. The English language can be used anywhere in the world, it will pay to know how to speak English in the future. If it wasn’t for the classes and the nature around the camp, I would go mad with boredom.
There are some tensions between the Arabs and Kurds in camp but we need to learn to live together. We have all lived through the same war.
In the future I want to bring my wife and daughter to Europe where we can start our life again. I don’t plan on returning to Syria, Europe is safe, anything can happen in the Middle East at any time.”
Asma 21, Deir Ez-Zor, Syria
“I was 15 years old at the beginning of the war. Everyday we lived not knowing when missiles or bombs would hit us. It became hard to remember what life was like before the war. People changed after the war, they became unrecognisable. Everyone would talk about Turkey and how they were accepting refugees. All of our closest neighbours and relatives left to take their chances in Turkey. We didn’t know who had died and who was still alive after they left.
The siege became so bad in Deir Ez-Zor that we became strangers in our own town. They were in charge of everything, water, nature, animals and food. Teaching stopped because teachers were threatened when they tried to enter the town. Life was like this for three years. I was studying before the war, now at 18 I was getting ready to take my exams when there was a ban on all exams and university admissions.
I was tired. I had given up and accepted that this was my life now. At 18 years old, and an unfinished education, the only way to ensure a decent future was to marry. I was introduced to a distant relative of mine and we married. It wasn’t how I had imagined I would marry, it wasn’t a love marriage, and it wasn’t meeting for coffee or meeting at university…
Despite not knowing or having loved him before marriage, we lived together for 10 joyful months. One day when my husband was leaving for work, a missile hit him in his head and he spent eight days in intensive care. I was eight months pregnant when my husband died. The biggest sorrow in my life is knowing that my husband never met his son and my son will never meet his father.
After my husband died, I told my mother that I wanted to leave Syria. We left Deir Ez-Zor and were placed in a Kurdish town in the middle of the desert. We were in tents, hungry and exhausted for 25 days. A smuggler promised us the world if we gave him all of our money and valuables, he said he would take us to Turkey where we would have money, a house, clothes and everything we’ve dreamed of. At this point we were desperate to leave Syria and headed towards Idlib with him. He said we would arrive in Turkey in two hours but we were on the road for two days without water, food and surrounded by the sound of airstrikes. My son was 20 days old and was about to start a life in Turkey where we were promised paradise.
My life in Turkey was much worse than Syria. The Turks didn’t treat us like humans, we had no heating or blankets in our tents. We spent 40 days in terrible conditions and were disrespected by so many people in Turkey. We had heard people talking about leaving Turkey and travelling to Europe. The conditions were better and people weren’t going without shelter. My mother and I put our trust in another smuggler and set for Azmir where a boat was waiting for us to board.
There were many people on the boat and the smuggler hadn’t paid for someone to steer the boat so one of the men on-board had to navigate. We were in the middle of the ocean, waves were hitting the side of the boat and all around us was water. We all wanted to touch land, even if it meant going back to Turkey. The boat had run out of petrol metres from the shore, all the men jumped out to push the women and children to safety. The whole journey had taken us almost two hours.
We arrived at Lesbos, Greece and were welcomed with warm hugs and smiles. There were people handing out blankets, food and clothes. The Greek people treated us like humans; they wanted to help us to safety. My family spent three months in Lesbos at a refugee camp before coming to Ritsona. I have been at Ritsona camp for a year exactly. I am grateful to Greece for all they have done for us. In the future I want study journalism so I can get the truth out and bring justice to all those who died needlessly.
I want my son to see Syria because it is his home country. Nothing will bring back the dead, (God bless their souls) or rebuilt the houses or fix the broken hearts but it is never too late to stop the war.”
***This account was provided by Ritsona residents, and written by I AM YOU staff member Nivine.***