When we each agreed to participate in the Catholic Relief Services Global Fellows trip to the Balkans we knew we would encounter many refugees and have an opportunity to spend time with some of them to better understand the human dimension of the overall refugee problem. We knew there would be some commonality in the personal stories but that each story would be as unique as the person we were sitting with. Among all of the people that we encountered there are some that particularly stand out and we will remember them the rest of our lives. For me, a woman named Hiat is in this category.
Briefly, Hiat is a woman in her 30s who is a refugee from Syria. We met her with five of her six children at a free hotel in Athens which is run by Caritas Athens and supported by CRS. Hiat is the only adult in her family because her husband was killed in the Syrian civil war a short while ago. Hiat is beautiful with a wonderful smile that we only got to see when we complimented her children. She is exhausted and fearful.
It is not only difficult but it can be dangerous for a woman to travel this route without a male companion. This is not due to danger from her fellow refugees but from those who would prey on the vulnerable. We heard stories of smugglers taking vast sums of money from refugees for transportation when a cheap bus ticket would suffice and others who told of the Bulgarian police “examining” the refugee’s meager possessions and stealing whatever they wanted, including money.
Hiat, had arrived in Greece the day we met her and did not know when she would leave. She was worried about her children as any mother would be. In a real way, she is trapped. She fled Syria to save her children from war after her husband’s death, she is now in Greece where she has 30 days to move forward, request asylum or be returned to Syria. In addition, she fears some of her children might not survive the onward journey. Hers is not the anguish of a mother who is a nomad, a pioneer or one living in the Middle Ages. She is a 21st century mother on the run who just a few years ago had a husband, home, children and future.
Hiat is receiving help from CRS and Caritas Athens, she and her children have a warm room, they will receive two meals each day and she can get counseling and assistance to plan and understand the next phase of her journey, but she has hard decisions to make.
There is much more to Hiat’s life and story. It is a long post but I encourage you to take the time to read it all and reflect upon it. I ask this not because I’m writing it, but because I believe it will convey to you a more accurate sense of who the Syrian refugees are, what they have left behind and why, as well as their hopes for the future.
Normally, I would post a photo of Hiat and her son on this site. We asked permission to take her picture and she asked that we not do that. Refugees, especially those just arriving need to build trust in those who are helping them. Until that trust develops over the course of a week or two, they can be reluctant to allow photos. We respect her wishes. To see her full story, just click here.
When we met Hiat she had arrived a few hours earlier at one of two Athens hotels that Caritas Switzerland has rented. These entire hotels are intended for the use of refugees who don’t have the ability, energy or courage to immediately begin the phase of the journey toward northern Europe. These hotels provide refugees with a room, shower and two hot meals each day. The refugees can also receive counseling and information on the journey north. The staff are multi-lingual speaking Greek and Arabic or Farsi. The services in the hotel are provided by Caritas Greece, supported by CRS.
Other humanitarian partners are also present, for instance the organization Save the Children provides parents with a break by playing with the children in the hotel play room. Most refugees stay in the hotel fewer than five days. Some stay only a few hours.
Hiat had been directed to the hotel by the volunteers from CRS and Caritas Athens upon her arrival at the port. (For more information on the process at the port, please see an earlier post). Hiat very graciously agreed to speak with us and through an Arabic interpreter patiently answered our questions.
Hiat lived with her husband and six children in the Syrian town of Hama. Her children are now ages 12, 9, 8, 5, 4 and 2. Her family lived a quiet middle class life with her husband working, her older children in school and Hiat caring for the smaller ones. Her family’s day to day life was much like the life of many other families throughout the world. For example, Muhammad, her oldest child went to school, did his homework and played both tennis and soccer. Their life was disrupted when things in Syria began to fall apart. With the “Arab Spring” rebels opposing the regime of Assad began to gain strength and ultimately civil war broke out between the regime and the rebels.
The city of Hama is about halfway between Damascus and Aleppo. It is north of the city Homs, where some of the most intense and brutal fighting of the war has taken place. A map of Syria which depicts the relative positions of the fighting forces shows that her city of Hama is in what is called a “contested area” meaning the combatants have traded possession of the area many times. The emergence of ISIS has added to the suffering in this general area as they too have fought for this same territory.
Sometime in the past year, Hiat’s husband was killed. It seemed clear that Hiat did not want to go into the details surrounding his death and it would have been insensitive for us to ask. Later an aid worker said that from what she had told him, Hiat’s husband was not a combatant but one of many civilian casualties.
Following her husband’s death Hiat decided to leave Syria. She said with the war raging around them there was so little food that people were starving. The schools had closed three years ago after there were killings there. It was clear that in the area Hiat lived, all civil services were gone, it was completely lawless and any semblance of community and society had collapsed.
One of Hiat’s brother in laws (her husband’s brother) lives in Germany and with the current openness Germany is showing toward refugees, migrating there made sense. While Germany is still fairly open to migration, receiving asylum is far easier if an immediate family member has already gotten that status. Obviously Hiat would not abandon all of her children to gain asylum first and she needed the help of the oldest children so the decision was made to send her 8 year old son to Germany.
A second brother in law living in Syria agreed to take the 8 year old boy to Athens to meet the brother in law who lives in Germany. They departed Syria seven months ago, successfully crossed the border into Turkey and survived the dangerous trip across the Aegean Sea to Greece. The boy and his uncles made it back to Germany where they applied for asylum for the young boy. Recently his asylum was granted, prompting Hiat to begin her journey.
Hiat and her remaining five children traveled to the Syria-Turkey border. This area is hotly contested by all three warring parties and heavily defended by the Turkish army on their side. Hiat said in that area they saw, “many, many people” who had been killed, including refugees who were trying to flee just as she was, as well as combatants. To get her family across the border into Turkey she paid a smuggler €2,000 or about $2,500. There was no guarantee they would get across, it was the price for the attempt, which was successful.
Once in Turkey, Hiat and her children took the long hard journey across the country by bus to the shore of the Aegean Sea. Next to getting across the Syria-Turkey border, the crossing of the Aegean Sea is the most hazardous and deadly obstacle faced by the refugees. While there are a few large ships that are sea worthy for operation in the open waters of the Aegean, most of the transportation consists of small boats, motorized rubber inflatable rafts and older vessels. Literally thousands of refugees drowned in the Aegean during 2015 when their boats capsized or were swamped. During the past week around 100 more drownings have occurred. In one infamous case the smugglers sunk a boat full of refugees when they failed to come up with more money after they were well underway and at sea.
Hiat was able to arrange passage for herself and her five children for €2,500 or about $3,000. The payment used the last of her money, leaving her completely broke. The small boat held about 55 people and the trip through rough seas took around four hours. During the entire trip, her young children and the children of other refugees screamed and cried. They were given simple flotation devices. Due to a language difficulty, Hiat was unable to say if the flotation devices were real life preservers or as is often the case, inflatable pool toys ill suited for that purpose.
Arriving on a small Greek island the family was met by Caritas and other aid workers. They were then registered as refugees by the Greek authorities for the purpose of letting them into the country. Hiat and her children spent the night on this small island and then boarded a large ferry for the short trip to Athens. The Greek government and private ferry companies collaborate to operate the ferries at no charge to the refugees. Arriving at the port Hiat received gloves, hats scarves and other cold weather clothing for herself and her children. At the port she was directed to the hotel where our interview took place.
Hiat greatly misses her 8 year old son and if he was not in Germany she would end her journey in Greece. She told us she has been, “greatly helped by Caritas she never expected such help and that she is very grateful.”
We had an opportunity to talk with Hiat’s 12 year old son Muhammad. Muhammad wants to go back to school, he said he misses learning. He wants to eventually be a doctor. We asked how he was doing on the trip and this courageous little boy said all he wished was that they had an airplane so he could get to his brother.
In closing we asked Hiat if she had questions for us or wanted to tell us anything else. She said that, “she did not understand why this is happening” that “they didn’t do anything wrong, why is this happening.” She believes that the United States could stop the war, “if they would try.” Finally, like any mother anywhere in the world, Hiat’s thoughts were on her children not herself. She told us again that her husband was dead and she would rather die than harm come to her children. She asked, “my children have not lived at all, why should they die; they have done nothing wrong, why should they die?”
We all know the answer to Hiat’s question, “why should they die?” Hiat, they should not die. They should have lives, families and happiness.
Dear reader, it is our shared responsibility to help Hiat, her children and the many other refugees have lives of dignity and happiness. Christians call this ‘solidarity.’ We are one human family, each person possesses human dignity. That is the faith of all Christians.
Your children don’t deserve to die, my children don’t deserve to die and Hiat’s don’t either.