“We always thought that Europe was civilised” – a refugee’s story

Ghulam, Tuba and three of their four children, pictured at a refugee camp in Greece

Yes, I will tell you my story. And you can take my photo. But I want you to know that you are the fourth visitor this week asking to hear what my situation is. And no one is able to help me and my family. We are tired of this.

Ghulam and his wife Tuba are from Afghanistan. Their four children gather around while we speak. The oldest boy of the family, Sohail, age 14, talks in a way that seems way too adult for his age. He describes the dangerous journey from Afghanistan across Iran and Turkey to Greece: “We were terribly afraid that the military would catch us. The smugglers put 20 people in one taxi and we all had to keep quiet. For the ride through the mountains, we were put on pick-up trucks, about 100 people in the back of the truck.

“The driver sped across rubble streets, up the mountains, we were lifted up in the air and had to hold on to what we could not to fall off the truck.”

They would have just let us die there. I do not want to think about it…

Ghulam, his father, looks very tired when he speaks of home and the reason he had to leave everything behind. “You know, I was a colleague of yours. For 10 years I have worked for an international NGO. I studied political science. My wife is a midwife and health educator. My children went to an international school, we worked hard to give them an education.”

Ghulam points to his forehead and shows us a scar from a bullet. “The extremists said I worked for the enemy.”

There were continuous death threats. I was scared for my life and my family.

“I didn’t want to leave, but we had no choice. Being an aid worker, helping to improve my compatriots’ lives, actually made me a target.”

Tuba, the mother, recalls the dangerous sea passage between Turkey and Greece:

I was so afraid that my children would die.

“None of us knows how to swim. When we reached the shore, those people there who helped us out of the water – I pray for them to this day.”

But now, the family are stuck in limbo. Since the EU-Turkey deal was agreed in March, borders between Turkey and Greece as well as those along the so-called ‘Balkan route’ are more vigorously controlled. For roughly 60,000 people, the political decision had a brutal and immediate consequence: they are now stuck in Greece, waiting for their individual cases to be dealt with.

Syrians and Iraqis can apply for family reunification if they have a close relative already living in another EU country. They can also apply for relocation, a scheme that depends on EU member states’ willingness to take refugees. After thorough paperwork, they can move legally to their new host country. But Afghanis do not fall into either category. Their only chance is to apply for asylum in Greece, hoping to be accepted.

In the meantime, the refugees spend their days in camps, waiting for their case to be dealt with.

Ghulam and his family, along with about 200 other refugees, all of them from Afghanistan, are at Elefsina refugee camp, a former military camp outside Athens. Ghulam had hoped to go to Germany, where his brother is waiting for them. Basically, says Ghulam, his family has two options: “Either we pay a lot of money to a smuggler to take us to Germany illegally. Or we wait to be registered in Greece. And for our case to be dealt with, to receive asylum.”

But I cannot sit around and wait any longer. We are very tired.

There are four bright children sitting at this table, all eager to learn and become good citizens. They all won gold medals in school. Today, all they can do is play football, there are no classes offered in this camp. Ghulam would like to learn Greek, but the camp is a 20 minute taxi ride outside of Athens, with no public transport available. The family is literally stuck here. The boys play football in a refugee team, next week there will be a match against a Greek selection. Days go by like this, and nights are spent in a room at the compound, with 30 people in bunk beds, a little privacy arranged with sheets that families have put up around the bed posts.

What CARE is doing

To support refugees in Greece, CARE is now expanding its programme with Solidarity Now, a Greek NGO, to provide information as well as legal and psychological counselling to refugees in Athens and Thessaloniki. So-called mobile teams, comprised of two social workers, a lawyer and a psychologist, will operate in urban and camp settings, to provide direct support and refer people to in-house legal and psychosocial specialists and other specialised services.

After hearing Ghulam’s story, a social worker from Solidarity Now notes down his contact details and he hands her a printed CV. There might be a chance for him to work as a translator, a small beacon on the horizon, but not much more.

Yes, I was the fourth person this week interviewing Ghulam and his family. And yes, there is not much I can do personally to help them. His frustrations were so palpable and there was nothing I could do to ease his sorrows.

But in the end, the one thing we can do after such encounters is to write down what we heard, to pass on the message that governments, decision-makers and all citizens of Europe should hear:

I want all Europeans to know that we did not expect this type of behaviour from the civilised world. We are like prisoners here, and people look at us like we are beggars.

By Sabine Wilke, Media Director for CARE Germany

CARE's picture

News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.