To better welcome refugees, we must get to know them, where they’re fleeing from and why.
They have left everything behind, carrying only the bare minimum. Above all, they have left their lives behind, lives that until recently could have been called normal, even happy, but are now shattered. They are migrants from Syria, and elsewhere, and they share the same goal: to find a place to start anew.
But as soon as they reach a Greek island or the port city of Piraeus, refugees discover their first challenge is to endure prejudice, from those who consider them poor and potentially dangerous.
“The first step the EU countries should take is to inform their citizens about who the refugees really are, because there’s too much confusion”, said Yonous Muhammad, president of Refugees Greece, a migrant aid organization. “Everyone working in our association has a migrant past”, he said. “Our main objective is to provide refugees with information about the first country they reach, to facilitate their stay and subsequent transfers. We’re also trying to raise public awareness and get people to realise that there are unjustified preconceptions of refugees”.
Refugees are people – with lives, professions and experiences that they have brought to Europe. Take Mohammed, for example, who fled Damascus at the age of 32 with his wife and two children (aged 7 and 3). “I never thought I’d have to leave Syria”, he said upon arriving in Piraeus.
“Right up to the last day, we kidded ourselves we could stay. But in the end, we decided to abandon everything and go. I was a manager at a company providing IT support. I had a good wage, our life was peaceful, we never would’ve left if we hadn’t been forced to. Now we haven’t got a clue what we’ll find, but it will be better than the bombs and what we’ve suffered in the last month. In Kos we were treated like animals. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And during the journey from Turkey to the island, I feared I’d be watching my children die. They loaded 43 of us on a boat nine metres long. For me, even just standing here on solid ground feels like an achievement”.
First they faced the humiliation of subhuman treatment and later, the mistrust in people’s eyes. “After the experience in this village”, said Saad, 21, “I have the feeling that there’s not much hope for us Syrians. My city, Aleppo, is unrecognisable. I’ve already spent two years in Istanbul. Now I’m trying to reach Germany, where I have some relatives. Perhaps I can start studying again. I’d like to graduate, which is what I’d have done if I’d stayed in Syria. We’re a group of eight cousins and friends, the youngest is 15. I manage to get in touch with my parents in Syria from time to time, but when the interval gets longer I always fear they’ve been killed. I have no idea how we’ll be received in Europe. If I could, I would have gladly stayed at home”.
There are those among the refugees at Piraeus who accuse Europe of being partly responsible for this unprecedented situation. “If the European Union doesn’t want us”, said an irate Abdel, 23, “it should have done something to ensure that Syria wasn’t torn apart by civil war. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to go home because Syria no longer exists. Plus, there are thousands, if not millions, more people who are ready to flee not just from my country but also from Iraq. Wouldn’t you do the same, if you saw your life and your loved ones’ lives in constant danger?
“I’m here with my cousin and his family; there are six of us in all including three children. The older people don’t even try to leave. They’d never survive the journey. We consider ourselves lucky because we’ve at least managed to bring two sacks of our personal belongings. That’s right: six people’s personal belongings are all inside two sacks. I graduated in medicine in Syria with top marks, and I hope to become a doctor in Germany. But first I’ll have to learn the language. Anyhow, if Europe wants to stem the migration, they should do something to stop the wars that are tearing the Middle East apart”.
Europe is a goal but also an unknown quantity. “My journey won’t end until I reach Sweden”, said Alla, a disconsolate 27-year-old from Damascus. “In fact, for me, as a woman and a Muslim, the toughest part will begin when I’ll have to try to get a community that knows nothing about Muslim society to accept me. In Syria I had a job. I worked as a secretary in the management department of a cosmetics firm. I’m a graduate, I speak four languages, and I’m not married. I’ve set off on this journey alone, but I’m fully aware I’ll be kept at arm’s length because I wear a veil”.
These are the stories and experiences of people who have had fate imposed upon them and who harbour great expectations for Europe. The Old Continent, however, is struggling to provide a bright future for its current population, let alone physically and strategically reconsider a phenomenon of historic proportions, one that will continue for years and for which it should have been much better prepared.