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The following is the third in a short series on refugee camps. To read the previous article in the series, click here.
Ahmar is a twenty-one year old refugee. He lives in a refugee camp 2,500 miles away from his family. He knows he may never see his family in person again, but he also knows if he had stayed at home, his life would’ve been in danger from the Taliban. Ahmar is not his real name, for security reasons his identity must be protected.
Ahmar taught himself English as a teenager. He was hired to be a translator during the war in Afghanistan. But the Allied forces pulled out, and he became a target for the Taliban. He saved over $5,000, obtained a legal visa to visit Iran, and left home, knowing he may never get to return.
His journey from Afghanistan to the refugee camps of Greece is a common one among refugees. Once in Iran, he hired a guide to take him through the Zagros mountains, with elevations of nearly 15,000 feet, into Turkey. (At its highest peak, Mount Timpanogos is 11,752 feet.) While crossing the mountains he was injured and had to remove his shirt to wrap around his bleeding knee. If he had stopped the guide and the other travelers would have gone on without him. Stopping to heal for a few days wasn’t an option.
Technically while he was in Iran he was still on a legal visa. But once he crossed into Turkey he became an illegal immigrant hoping to obtain refugee status. He bought passage on one of the death boats out of Turkey on to the Greek Island of Lesbos. Over one million refugees have entered Greece in the last two years, many of them through Lesbos.
To obtain refugee status and officially enter Greece, a person must first arrive on Lesbos, and then go through the application system. This requires documentation, proof of identity and citizenship, etc. All things a person who has walked over 1,000 miles with nothing but the clothes on his back doesn’t have. There are still other ways to obtain refugee status, but it can take a very long time. Many hopeful refugees pay for illegal documentation in order to apply. Ahmar, like so many other refugees, paid for fake identification cards, and unfortunately got caught.
“They were bad police. They beat me in a very bad way,” Ahmar explained, but refrained from sharing details. Despite his difficulties, he’s a very positive person. He doesn’t let the hard parts of his past get to him.
He spent six months in a prison on the island. While imprisoned he put his time to good use. “I wanted to help other refugees have a better chance.” So he created a class and taught English to other prisoners. This is very indicative of Ahmar as a person. He is kind, thoughtful, giving, and very smart.
After he was let out he resumed obtaining official refugee status through proper channels. During this time Pope Francis visited the refugees on the island. Ahmar had the privilege of translating for the Pope. “It was a very special experience,” was all he said. Ahmar is also a very humble man.
He eventually received refugee status, and was assigned to a refugee camp on the mainland. He has lived there for nine months. It has been over two years since he left home.
He has high aspirations. He wants to get out of the camp and move to a different country to attend university. Despite all that Greece has done for the refugees, attending university is not one of the options available to them. He eventually wants to become a cardiologist. “I want to be able to help other people, and teach them to help other people. If I help three people, and they help three more people, we can make the world better, with understanding.” Ahmar says a lot of things like this. He’s sincere in his generosity and compassion. I asked if he’s heard the expression, “pay it forward.” He said no, so I explained it to him. He smiled. “That’s a very good idea.”
Life in a refugee camp is not desirable for anyone. Each camp is a little bit different from the others. Some are run by the Greek military, some by the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM, sometimes also referred to as the OIM), and some by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The IOM makes sure that the camps receive food. It is also responsible for the distribution of the money cards each official refugee receives.
The money cards are similar to food stamps or welfare assistance in the U.S. The amount received depends on the size of the family, and the available resources at the camp. Ahmar receives around 100 Euros a month to live on. A family of four might receive as much as 130 Euros each month. Most camps also distribute bedding and clothing to the residents. The bedding comes from the IOM, and the clothing from donations around the world.
Ahmar’s camp distributes food by the day. A family member goes to the distribution window at the assigned time of day, stands in line, and is handed a large bottle of water, and a small crate of vegetables. Usually several onions, some cabbage, carrots, and potatoes. The camp is raising chickens, so eggs are always available as well. Various NGOs make sure the camps have enough diapers and baby formula on hand at all times. (With not much more to do to stay occupied, there are many babies being born in the camps all of the time.)
No one wants to stay in the camps long-term. The camps aren’t set up to be long-term facilities. However, the process refugees must go through to legally get out of the camps can take years. The Greek government is attempting to shut down many of the camps (including Ahmar’s) over the next year. The refugees, and the NGO’s running their camps, have no idea what the government plans to do with them once their camps are shut down. It’s a very frightening prospect to know someone else can just come in and take your home away, and leave you with nothing. Or what if they get moved to an even worse camp?
The legal process to get out of a camp can take years and thousands of dollars. It’s basically a lot of bureaucracy, paperwork, and hoping someone on the other end cares. Many refugees don’t feel like the legal method will ever work for them. There are less legal ways that also work. For instance, they can pay a “smuggler” (which is more like a forger) to create fake documents, buy plane tickets, and maybe provide a ride to the airport. This can also cost thousands of dollars. So rather than saving up money for a whole family to get out of the camps/country, a family splits up and sends only one person to a new country.
Once they have arrived there (usually somewhere like France, Germany, or Sweden), they can apply for asylum there. Once they have asylum, they can apply for reunification with their families. This process can also take years. Husbands and wives are split up from each other for a few years, waiting to be reunited in a new country. It’s hard on the families. It’s no one’s first choice, but it’s often the only choice they have.
This process of using a so-called smuggler is fraught with unsafe possibilities. The smuggler may not be trustworthy, and may run off with their money. Or like what happened to Ahmar in Lesbos, the refugee might get caught with fake documents. Or the smuggler might get caught.
Every option is a scary one for a family searching for freedom. The refugee camps are not good for families. They are unhealthy, unsafe, and unhappy places.
Ahmar is not unique or an unusual person. He’s very indicative of most refugees. His back story is a familiar one in the camps. He is unique in that he hasn’t let the difficulties and struggles keep him down. He is a positive man with high hopes for the future. Many refugees used to have similar hopes and dreams, but their current trials have discouraged them past the point of hope. Ahmar holds out. He dreams of university, a career, marriage, and a family. He’s a young man with potential for a full life ahead of him – if he can just get out of the camps.
I sent Ahmar this article for his approval before publishing it (after all it is his privacy and security on the line). He made one small request, to include his favorite quote – which I heard him say on more than one occasion. “Life is hard, but not impossible.”
If you would like to learn more about the reality of poverty, and more effective ways to help and serve the refugees and needy populations, I recommend the following books. “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti But Left Behind a Disaster,” and “Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal,” “The Berlin Turnpike: A True Story of Human Trafficking in America.”
Erin Ann McBride is a native of the Washington, DC area, but currently calls Salt Lake City home. She recently left her 15 year career in marketing to pursue her lifelong goal of a degree in social work. She has worked in humanitarian causes around the world, and is very interested and involved in the refugee crisis, international adoption, and fighting human trafficking. She is the author of 3 fiction books, 3 nonfiction books, and hundreds of articles. You can learn more about her at www.Facebook.com/AuthorErinAnnMcBride.