The “Waiting Hell”: Refugees trapped in Greece

Johanna Mitscherlich
A woman and girl outside a tent as the life of Piraeus port goes on behind them

About 2,500 people, most of them from Syria, have been waiting for weeks and months at Piraeus port in Athens, not to go on holiday to the Greek islands, but to find a safe place for themselves and their children. These are some of their stories.

A woman and her children in the departure hall at Piraeus port

Reem (above) fled from Aleppo with her husband and five children. She says that for the first few weeks on the run they played a game with their children, pretending the struggles were all just part of a big adventure.

Children are very adaptable. But when your house is bombed, when you lose everything, how do you explain this?

But now her children know that is not a game. “All of my children are sick. We have few bathrooms for hundreds of people here and only cold water. Some children here have scabies; I pray that mine will not be affected.”

We are sleeping on the ground and the conditions are really difficult.

For the 2,500 people living in the informal camp at Piraeus port, there is no privacy, no safety, and only a little food handed out by volunteers. Reem says:

“We managed to stay together and all of us are still alive. That is the most important thing.”

But I can see how this takes a toll on all of us. I have not slept properly in years, and over the past months I feel like I have become a shadow of myself.

Tahani, a Syrian refugee, in the refugee support centre

Tahani (above) fled from Damascus with two of her four children. She says:

For the past years all I could think about is that there are places where there is no war, places, where people do not kill each other, where my children can go to school.

“This was the only thing that kept me going. So when I heard that Europe closed its borders I got sick. We had come so far and I had spent all of my money.”

A woman and her son

Maize (above) fled from Golan with her 16-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son. She says: “We were constantly under fire.”

Once, we could not leave our house for over a week and did not have anything to eat. We were too scared to go outside and buy bread.

Two of her sons and her husband had already fled to Sweden a few months ago. “My husband was in prison for two years in Syria. Men were coming to our house almost every day, asking for him and harassing my daughter and myself.”

I am a teacher. My son has never seen a school from the inside and my daughter has been out of school for three years. I want a better life for them, whatever that costs.

A boy outside tents at Piraeus port
One of Sherine's children in the temporary camp set up by refugees at Piraeus port

Sherine and her family fled Aleppo when their home was hit by a bomb. She says:

“This is not a place where anyone would want to stay longer than one day. It is not suitable for children. There is no safety, no school, and few toilets for hundreds of people.”

We were fighting against terrorists. I was so naïve to think that Europe would welcome us with open arms just because of that. But when we arrived I realised that people think that we are the terrorists.

“I am only a mother who wants her children to go to school and live in safety.

I want to invite the politicians who make such laws into our tent and stay with us for just one day. I wonder whether they will then feel like me, stripped of their dignity, their humanity, their future.

Alexamdre Zavvos from CARE partner organisation Solidarity Now

Alexandra Zavvos (above) works for CARE’s partner organisation Solidarity Now. She says:

“Our work has changed a lot over the past months. [Before the borders were closed] we were used to waving people goodbye and wishing them a good journey. Now we need to support people who have been stranded here, not a transit population.

“Hardly any of the refugees knows where and how to register for relocation or family reunification.”

Everything is uncertain and the biggest challenge in this crisis is the lack of information.

“The Greek people are incredibly hospitable and generous. But many of them have very few means due to the economic crisis and around one-fifth of the Greek population themselves live below the poverty line.”

The Solidarity Centres run by Solidarity Now act as “one-stop-shops”, where organisations with different expertise offer legal, social and medical assistance to refugees and migrants. CARE is supporting refugees in Greece with cash assistance, hygiene kits, and water and sanitation facilities. CARE will provide free internet and telephone charging services in some of the camps and work with the refugee communities to raise awareness for better hygiene.

A familiy in the waiting hall at Piraeus port
Reem and Walid and their children in the departure hall at Piraeus port

Reem still hopes for the best. She says: “I think people in Europe just do not know our situation here. If they did they would come and help us. It is only a matter of time and things will be good again.”

But her husband Walid is closer to despair. “We sold everything we ever owned to take our children into safety, out of the war in Aleppo,” he says.

Where did we take them? How did we end up in such wretchedness just trying to keep our children out of danger?

“We don’t have any hope for the future anymore. I feel like I see in my children’s eyes, ‘Daddy, take us back to Syria, take us back to the war’.

They have not had an education for years, but they can differentiate between the sounds of shelling, planes, tanks, different types of bombs and war machines. This is what they grew up with, this is what they know.

Now they are stuck in a hellish limbo – not a ‘waiting hall’ but a ‘waiting hell’. As Reem says:

Waiting for us to finally be somewhere where we are safe, where we do not have to worry anymore, where there is no war.

Through her eyes: read these photo stories by young women refugees living in Greece:

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Johanna Mitscherlich's picture

Johanna Mitscherlich is Media and Communications Officer for CARE Germany-Luxembourg.