Athens – For Zeinab, growing up in Sanandaj, Iran, a mid-sized city known as a centre of Kurdish culture, should have been an experience as normal as any other.
But now Zeinab is living in a refugee camp in Athens, Greece, a country that hosts thousands of refugees Europe prefers to forget.
Ask Zeinab how she ended up here, and she’ll take you back to her days in Sanandaj.
“Zeinab was forced to marry at a very young age,” says Cecile Deleplanque, who works at JRS Greece and came to know Zeinab. “She was a victim of domestic violence since the earliest days of her marriage.”
After years of abuse and suffering, Zeinab succeeded in divorcing her husband. But that didn’t end her troubles: she struggled to retain custody of their son with her husband’s repeated attempts to kidnap him. The strife took a toll on the little boy, who was frequently sick and hospitalized. In desperation to be with her son, Zeinab did the unthinkable: she re-married her abusive husband.
“Zeinab told me how her life was so hard, then. She was scared for herself and her son. She didn’t know how they would survive. But she persevered, working hard to keep food on the table,” says Cecile.
The flight to safety
Two years passed. Life became a little better; Zeinab’s husband had improved his behaviour. But this sense of calm was fleeting. Her husband owed many debts to local criminals, who began making serious threats to his life. He had to go into hiding. This is when Zeinab’s life took another dramatic turn.
Cecile said: “The danger was so great that they decided to leave Iran for Turkey. They knew it would be risky, but were encouraged because they had heard of refugees being welcomed there. Their lives would be in danger wherever they went in Iran. There was nowhere else to go.”
Zeinab and her family crossed mountains by foot, walked for days without end. After spending a month in Turkey, they came to Greece to be within the safety of Europe, far away from the dangers in Sanandaj.
Alone and unwanted
In March 2016, Zeinab’s family arrived in Leros, a small Greek island just 32km west of the Turkish coast. They arrived into a hotbed of anger and frustration. The Greek government’s asylum process was barely moving, leaving more than 8,000 refugees and migrants stuck on Greece’s islands. Tensions in Leros boiled over, with local villagers attacking refugees and migrants, and even humanitarian aid workers.
Zeinab and her family were taken aback by the violence. Luckily, they were able to travel to Athens after just one month in Leros.
Conditions were hardly any better in Athens. Her young son’s health had deteriorated. At Eleonas camp, where they were staying, the medical treatment that the authorities promised her son never materialised.
Cecile says: “On the Greek mainland, most refugees and migrants are living in camps, some of which are terribly overcrowded and in abysmal conditions. Even healthy refugees become ill from living in the camps. The prognosis for people with serious medical issues like Zeinab’s son is very bleak because only basic medical care is available, and even that is a far cry from making people’s lives any better.”
The skeleton in Europe’s closet
Still, it could have been worse for Zeinab and her family. In Athens, many other refugees and migrants are forced to live in decrepit squats because if there is no room at the camps, or no places in hotels or hostels. Services in camps throughout Greece may be sub-standard, but at least there is something; in the squats, refugees and migrants are left with absolutely nothing.
In December 2016, JRS Europe joined 30 other refugee organisations in a statement blaming European Union leaders for “pushing people out of Europe” rather than helping Greece handle the huge numbers of refugees who went there in search of safety.
To Cecile, Zeinab’s story is like so many others she’s heard.
“By the time refugees come to us, they have already lived through tragedy upon tragedy. This is why it is important that we give them warmth and comfort, to be hospitable. Why? Because we are all human, and one day we may need to make excruciating choices just like Zeinab, in circumstances that are forced upon us. If that happens, we too will hope to be cared for by someone else. These are the fundamentals of humanity, which apparently have become lost on Greece.”