I met Fatima in August while I was working in a refugee camp in Katsikas, Greece. Like me, Fatima, who asked that I only use her first name, is 26. Unlike me, she has a husband, and two children, ages 3 and 4. She grew up in the Golan Heights in Syria, before moving to the capital of Damascus. A once-vibrant cultural hub, Damascus is now a city of death, where private homes and public hospitals are routinely bombed. These days, even the world’s biggest aid organizations consider Damascus too dangerous to enter.
Fatima and I once spent a day baking traditional Middle Eastern pastries for camp residents in an event organized by a local nonprofit. She was ecstatic at the chance to escape the monotony of camp life, and is a pretty good pastry chef. So, with the help of a translator, and fueled by shaabiyat, a delicious dessert of phyllo dough layered with butter and cream, Fatima shared her story with me.
Her family could only cobble together enough money to pay a smuggler for one person’s passage to Greece…So last year, Fatima made the gut-wrenching decision to flee to Europe by herself.
When unrest spread after the Arab Spring, Fatima wanted to get her loved ones out of a war zone and into Europe. But her family could only cobble together enough money to pay a smuggler for one person’s passage to Greece. With a seriously ill husband and two young children, that person had to be her.
And so last year, Fatima made the gut-wrenching decision to flee to Europe by herself. “There wasn’t enough money to bring the whole family; I couldn’t even bring a child with me,” she remembers. They could just pay for her husband and children to cross the border, to wait out the war in the relative safety of neighboring Lebanon. The family hopes to reunite in Europe once Fatima is settled.
In September, the U.S. State Department announced that the Refugee Admissions Program had successfully granted entry to 85,000 refugees over the 2015-2016 fiscal year. Of that number, 12,500 are Syrians, a figure surpassing President Obama’s original target of 10,000. Still, that is a drop in the proverbial bucket.
How many refugees will be allowed to enter the U.S. is a question that raises much political controversy right now: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to slam his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s views on immigration, compares Syrian refugees to snakes, and voices his intention to block displaced people from countries tied to terrorism from entering the country if he is elected. (FWIW, 78% of those resettled in the U.S. so far are women and children.)
I had to lie on the ground so that I didn’t get hit by the bullets… I risked my life to come here.
When she first left Damascus, Fatima headed for neighboring Turkey, a life-threatening experience. “We [tried to enter] three times, and then every time we would be sent back” due to gunfire from the Turkish border guards, she remembers. “I had to lie on the ground so that I didn’t get hit by the bullets… I risked my life to come here,” she tells me, gesturing to the camp.
Turkish guards shooting at women and children fleeing Syria isn’t an isolated incident: The Times reported in April that guards killed 16 asylum seekers as they crossed into Turkey, and refugees and activists have reported similar incidents on the Turkish-Syrian border as early as 2013.
Since war broke out, Turkey has taken in more than half of all Syrian refugees. A 2015 poll shows that 85% of Turkish people believe that since the Syrian civil war began, immigration is making it harder for them to get jobs, while only 2% view immigration as a positive thing.
The risks of the Mediterranean crossing are well-documented: Cheaply made life vests filled with nylon and paper offer a false sense of protection, while rough seas, freezing temperatures, and overloaded vessels mean that thousands have already lost their lives making this journey. Fatima also remembers a malicious “aircraft was flying over the boats so close, and we were almost flipping over.” (I heard similar stories in other Greek refugee camps I visited, of armed assailants intercepting, even disabling refugee boats, and sometimes towing them back to Turkish waters.)
Soaking wet, chilled to the bone, and terrified for her life, Fatima eventually spotted help in the form of a “big Greek ship that came and saved us.”
The complex process of seeking refugee status keeps Fatima and more than 60,000 other refugees across Greece in long-term limbo. Almost eight months have passed since she left Turkey, and Fatima feels no closer to leaving the camp. Worse, she is farther away from her children. While she’s able to speak with her family on the phone, that limited contact is bittersweet.
“I don’t even open my cell phone because I miss them so much that I can’t handle talking to them,” she says, tears spilling over for the first time in our conversation. “My 4-year-old son would say, ‘I’m saving money for you so you can come back.’”
“Do you wish you never came here?” I ask her. “Yes.” She looks me dead in the eyes. “I don’t have anybody here except for God.”
Author's note: To support refugees, consider donating to aid organizations such as Lighthouse Relief and Doctors Without Borders. Every little bit really does help.