Europe’s Refugee Crisis

These were originally published in Women Under Siege

Playtime For Refugee Girls in Greece

By — August 4, 2016

Samos, Greece—“My friend, my friend!” Two little Syrian girls come running toward me as they see the camera around my neck. These two words are part of their limited English vocabulary, a language they are being taught in school at the Vathi refugee center—known as a “hot spot”—on the island of Samos in Greece. The center is 2 to 3 miles inland from the children’s park in the town square but every evening they walk that hilly distance, eager to ride the swings and merry-go-rounds, singing Arabic songs and dreaming about a new life in a new place.

The simple connections that matter most in the EU’s ongoing refugee nightmare

By Priyali Sur/Contributor — October 14, 2015

In a swirl of humanity punctuated by police geared with batons, riot gear, and even machine guns, a sense of solace can be hard to find. But for many of the refugees I met at the Hungarian border with Serbia and Croatia, they sought to locate that saving grace in their families, who were both a source of anxiety on this unending journey, and also their succor.

A Syrian woman at Tovarnik told me it’s the peaceful face of her child that keeps her going. Restless wives focused their energy on avidly searching for their husbands in crowds of men being pushed back by police, as authorities prioritize placing women and children on buses and trains. A father waited his turn on a long line to get a blanket to keep his children warm. I remember a father in Horgos, in Serbia but at the Hungarian border, very worried that his little boy had torn his left foot shoe and that it was his only pair. “I’d give him my shoes but he has such tiny feet. How will he cover the rest of the long journey without shoes?” he asked.

As the influx of refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa continues to rise in Europe, a comprehension that these are individual lives in danger can be easily lost in media coverage and political discourse. With an estimated 533,591 refugees and migrants having entered Europe by sea in the past nine months, according to the International Organization for Migration, more than half a million individual stories have been added to the ever-increasing pile of human lives vying for attention and relief.

Yet each person’s story is everything to them, the connections to loved ones the most honest thing in an Orwellian struggle for their very futures.

During a day at the end of September on the Hungary-Croatia border, I met many Syrian women and families in the crowd. One in particular stood out as I watched an act of primal human kindness play out in front of strangers’ eyes.

I saw Faiza in a white hijab lying on wet grass in a field near some railway tracks in Tovarnik, at the Croatian-Serbian border. In the background hummed the commotion of police barricading off migrants who wanted to board Croatian buses bound for Hungary. It was drizzling and she looked cold and ill as refugees, cops, journalists, and aid workers moved dizzyingly all around her. Just as I started making my way over, a 10-year-old-boy came running, and, removing his poncho, covered her with it. Lovingly and gently he ran his tiny hands along her forehead. The boy, Ahmed, was Faiza’s youngest son.

Faiza’s oldest son had been killed in Syria at the age of 21. After that, she said, she decided to leave Damascus with Ahmed and her other two older children (ages 18 and 19). The day I met her, as she lay exhausted in the grass, her older children remained temporarily caught on the other side of a barricade. Without his siblings next to him, Ahmed, 10, took care of his mother like an adult. His only true concerns were how to keep his mother warm and how to bring his siblings to his side. He wasn’t bothered about which country they will ultimately land in, which school he will go to, or what he will grow up to be. It was the moment that was important to him—it was his family that mattered above all.

It is Ahmed’s story and a million others like his that once again reveal the strength of the human spirit as so many struggle through one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time.

From Afghanistan to Hungary and beyond: The journey of one refugee family

By Priyali Sur/Contributor — September 25, 2015

“Do you know where this road goes from here? We are hungry, and my baby hasn’t eaten much,” an exhausted young Afghan woman asks me.

Roma, her 2-year-old son, Abraham, and three men from her family were walking on the side of the road in the Hungarian village of Roszke, looking completely lost, when we stumbled upon them. They had fled Kandahar three weeks ago after another family member of theirs was shot dead by the Taliban. They managed to cross the Serbia-Hungary border on the first day that it was shut down and were trying to figure out how to get to the Austrian border.

“I just need a little water for my son,” Roma pleads with me. The others in her group want water too. They crowd around us, desperate for water.

I check the bottle in my backpack. There’s only about half a liter left. I decide Roma should get priority over the others since she has a baby to feed. She takes the water and mixes baby food with it to feed Abraham. That is perhaps his first meal of the day.

Very few refugees can be seen in Hungary now. The Roszke refugee camp has been dismantled and is now deserted. The Keleti train station, which once accommodated thousands, has only two Syrian families left—and they too are being harassed by the cops to leave. The few who have somehow managed to find gaps in the Roszke-Horgos border fence and cross over to Hungary must somehow evade the police and make their way to the Austrian border. But most get arrested. A government spokesman said that those who were caught for illegally crossing the fence would be prosecuted and face up to years in prison.

“Do we really have to walk another 20 kilometers to get to the train station? Can someone arrange a [vehicle] for us to go? I have a baby. Please,” Roma begs us.

The Hungarian journalist with me wants to help, but is scared. “I can’t give her a ride in my car. With the new law in effect, anyone helping a refugee will be seen as a smuggler or trafficker and can be prosecuted,” she says.

Roma’s brother tells me that they faced a similar situation when they traveled across Greece. They had to walk more than 50 kilometers to get to the authorities where the paperwork is done. “It’s against the law for citizens to give the migrants a ride. Some women and children get lucky if [good] Samaritans take the risk to come forward and help,” he says.

Roma says that her energy, like her money, is beginning to deplete but that she remains determined to find a better future for her child.

After the Hungary-Serbia border was closed on September 15, thousands of refugees fled to Croatia. Six days later, Croatian authorities said around “27,000 people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia had entered the country,” according to a report by The Associated Press.

Buses packed with refugees were taken from Tovarnik, a Croatian city that borders Serbia, to Hungary. From there, refugees are put in buses and trains and sent to the Austrian border. In one day, September 19, around 13,000 refugees entered Austria, news reports said.

Thousands of women like Roma have traveled across borders to get to the Schengen zone, an area made up of 26 European countries that functions as a single country for the purposes of international travel. According to data by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 50.5 percent of the refugees are women. Females aged 18 to 59 make up 23.9 of the refugees, while the males in the same age group make up 21.8 percent.

When asked about why they fled, many of the refugees say they were worried about their husbands and sons. They are scared that the men in their family might join the war. I spoke to one Syrian woman, Muna, at a camp in Serbia who told me that one of her family members had died in President Bashar al-Assad’s jail. She pointed to a young boy in the camp. “This is his son,” she said.

Muna, who worked as a bank manager in Damascus, told me she left Syria with her two daughters and that they were trying to get to Sweden. She said she left her husband and two sons behind. “There wasn’t enough money for them,” she says. “They will come when they have saved some more.”

People flee in groups. Some of them already know each other, while others get to know each other along the way.

Meanwhile, an exhausted Roma stops to rest in front of an empty bus stop, hoping that someone will give her family a ride to the train station. The small backpack she carries is packed with baby food and diapers. She and her family don’t know anything about the Hungarian border law.

Just then, a police van comes to the bus stop. The police surround them, question them, ask them for documents, and then put them in the van and drive away.

As I write this on my way to Tovarnik, I wonder what happened to Roma and her family. Were they arrested and sentenced to prison? Or were they sent back to Afghanistan? Did Roma and her family manage to find their way to the Croatian border?

I hope that someday we will meet at a happier place, where Roma will tell me the story of her successful journey.

‘We can’t go back. We have nothing left’: Syrian refugee women on the border

By Priyali Sur/Contributor — September 21, 2015

Almost every hour, the men run to the Serbia-Hungarian border crossing, shouting together, “Open the gate! Open the gate!” But the Roszke Horgos border remains guarded by Hungarian police after the government of Hungarian President Viktor Orbán ordered it shut on Tuesday.

As the men pace up and down, smoke, and play cards on the Serbian side of the border, it is the women who wear stoic expressions of calm and resilience. Wrapping their children in their shawls, they hide inside their tents. Most of them have been on the road for three to four weeks, many leaving their husbands and sons behind in Syria.

I try and talk to a woman who’s feeding her baby while she is surrounded by other women. My English, my Urdu, my sign language—nothing works. She nods at me to go away. I frantically look for an interpreter, and it works like magic.

The woman opens up to me like we have been long-lost friends. Fariyal has so much to say, but simply hasn’t been able to. “We don’t understand their language, and they don’t understand ours. That’s the biggest difficulty,” she tells me and smiles.

Fariyal is 32 years old and a mother of three boys. She left her two older boys (aged 11 and 8) with her husband in Damascus and is trying to go to Germany with her youngest son, who is three months old. “My house in Syria has been razed to the ground. You know, it is not easy to survive as a woman in Syria. At checkpoints, if they like a woman, they say, ‘Come with us.’ I desperately wanted to get out and for that I paid a lot of money—almost 400 euros. My husband and two boys will come after they manage to save more money.”

Fariyal is speaking very fast, and my translator, Halim, even faster. I glance at my phone, hoping that everything is being recorded. More women gather around us now. Those who were hiding in their tents also come out and try to tell me their stories. But Fariyal’s bold and authoritative voice soon silences them and she continues.

“This whole journey has been psychologically traumatizing,” Fariyal says. “I was such a healthy young woman. Now, I urinate involuntarily at night. I’m not ashamed to talk about it.” I can tell that my translator is trying his best to use the right words. The men, women, and children here are not shy of each other. They are just doing their best to help.

Fariyal goes silent. She is near tears. “At the Serbian camp after we entered from Macedonia, I had a very bad experience. I was trying to take my son to the toilet. I couldn’t understand that the cop was telling me to line up. I really couldn’t understand him. He kicked me and hit me. Others came to help me, and the cops hit them as well. It gets very hard to go and get papers in every country. That’s when the women are harassed and, at times, they also caress us. These are just some of the problems.”

All the women nod in agreement. One elderly woman lifts her gown and shows me scars and marks on her shin. She says the marks are dirt.

“We take a bath only once in 10 to 15 days. It gets difficult to find places,” Fariyal tells me.

I ask them if I can take a picture of them, and suddenly they all get shy again. “Please don’t. Everyone in Syria will see us on Facebook and attack our men back home,” one says.

I promise them I’ll take a picture that doesn’t reveal their face or identity. The women get excited. These are women who want to talk, who want to tell their stories, who want to be photographed, who want to see the world. Their biggest worry right now is whether they will be able to make it across the Serbia-Hungary border. “We can’t go back. We have nothing left back home.”


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