I meet 16 year old Akilah in one of the transit camps with her friend and three siblings. They arrived this morning from Syria and are waiting for the bus to the processing centre. Three years ago a bomb was dropped on their family home in Damascus and the house burnt to the ground. None of the children were inside, but Akilah tells me, ‘my father and my mother, they are dead’. She says this so casually that for an instant I think I must have misheard her. But she goes on to explain that the fire truck showed up too late and she came home to find both her parents had been burned alive. The shock on my face is clearly visible and she elaborates for my benefit, ‘plane war- you understand, the government drops bombs and now all the houses are in the ground’. I dumbly nod that of course I understand, because my early teenage years were obviously characterised by having a bomb dropped on my house and losing my parents rather than thinking about who would drive me to netball training.
Following her parents’ death the family moved to Douma, a town outside of Damascus which fell to rebels, lost all government protection and is basically a never ending battleground. She describes the daily bombings and explosions, the curfews and barricading of neighborhoods, and the men with guns. But the less violent details are just as shocking. A government blockade on supplies meant almost no fresh food got through, so for weeks her family ate only pet food. When food did get through it was so expensive that they couldn’t afford vegetables, rice or bread. They could not attend school or leave the house, and when they heard the planes they had to run down to the building’s basement. She acts out how her younger sister would cover her ears and rock back and forth crying as the bombs were dropped. She looks too small for an 11 year old, possibly because she hasn’t had a proper meal in 3 years.
They left Syria 5 days ago and paid a smuggler 800 Euro per person. They have an aunt in Sweden who is waiting for them, but Akilah tells me she would prefer Germany because the weather is better. It’s all relative I suppose. It was fear of conscription that finally forced them to flee Syria. The government ‘maybe take my brother to fight’ she says. Her brother is five years older than her, but seems withdrawn and lacking in the confidence of his younger sister. He smiles hello, but Akilah does all the talking. I ask her who they were afraid of, she tells me Assad, Daesh, the rebels, everyone. This is a common thing I’m hearing from Syrians, they almost can’t identify what was the final threat that made them run, so many forces they’ve been targeted by. One refugee told me that he had been detained by everyone except the Kurds.
I ask her why they didn’t stay in Turkey where they were no longer being bombed; she says they were afraid of the Turkish government ‘catching them’. They do not speak Turkish and have heard that they could have no life in Turkey without the language. She acts out the rocking in the boat and says they all had to be very still because the water came up to their waist. When I ask Akilah about her friends she is again oblivious to the power of her words. ‘Some are in Europe, some are in Turkey, some are still in Syria, and some are dead’ she says. She is hoping to get wifi so they can call the 94 year old grandma they left behind. ‘When we said goodbye, it was so sad, we cry, because she will die and we will never see her again’. I think of the scenes on the beach. When a boat lands and people get out, the first thing you see them do is grab the people they know in a giant bear hug, the kind you get from whoever’s picked you up from the airport after a long trip. The second thing they do is pull out their phones and call whoever they’ve left behind. I don’t know the words they use, but it’s easy to understand what they’re saying from the emotion on their faces.
Akilah breaks into a huge smile and tells me she wants to go back to school. Her English is remarkable for someone who hasn’t been in a classroom for years and she often corrects herself. ‘I like study so much’ she says, ‘I want to be a doctor’. Her 24 year old sister is shyer but tells me she was in the middle of studying surgical dentistry when they lost their parents. She too wants to pick up her studies. ‘I just want to be happy she says, I want to go back to life’. They are all grinning from ear to ear because they believe they will get an education and food and work in Sweden or Germany, but also because they are outside. For three years they have been under a blockade and afraid to leave their home. She tells me how amazing it was to come from the boat to the camp because they could walk without worrying about bombs.
Like any 16 year old, Akilah is obsessed with her mobile. She takes a selfie of the two of us and then proceeds to show me the other photos in her phone. The content is a bit different from the average 16 year old Australians. First I see a short clip of their house after the fire. It is charred, but you can make out a kitchen that looks like any other, a washing machine that looks like mine at home, blackened picture frames, a melted clothes rack. Her sister shows me photos of their mum and dad, they are eager to tell me what wonderful parents they were and how beautiful their mum was. And then they show me photos of Damascus. Both of them are bragging the way I do about Sydney, almost conceitedly about its beauty; at night the light is amazing they tell me, and the mosque is magic. ‘I wish the war is finished so we could go back to our country’. While they are ecstatic to be in a place where they can walk on the street without fear, there is still no place like home. ‘We liked it because we have always lived there’
This evening several boats arrived in the space of an hour. On the walk back from a fishing village I see a group of teenage boys dripping wet stop to help a Greek local and his son carry their boat into their garage. These young men stopped, possibly losing a spot on an earlier bus out, put down their sad-looking belongings and picked up the other end of the raft as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. As if they hadn’t just got off a rubber dingy and didn’t have weeks of arduous travel ahead of them. As if they had all the time in the world to help a stranger.
Before I head back to town another boat comes in. It is very dark now, I am on the side of the road doing what has become my usual contribution, taking off life jackets and trying to get people to remember to breath. A woman who must be younger than me is shaking in a very strange way, but physically seems to be alright. After I get her out of the vest a medic appears by her side holding what looks like a bundle and turns out to be a screaming 10 month old baby. It is so, so small, and if this is what a ten month old baby looks like I can’t image how tiny the several day old ones were that have arrived. The baby’s clothes are wet and we can’t find any dry ones so it is wrapped in someone’s jacket while the medic tries to calm it. The woman is still shaking and a camera man who I could throttle actually sticks a microphone in her face until the doctor tells him to piss off. Eventually the baby stops screaming and they get them into a car and drive them to the camp. The medic then gives an interview where she does her best not to break down and slams governments for allowing this to happen and tries to appeal to a common humanity. ‘People don’t risk their children unless they have to’ she says. She is crying, I am crying, the arsehole camera man is crying. Everyone here is crying but it seems that no one who can stop it is listening.
Tonight I met with representatives from UNHCR who told me that 93% of people who have passed through Greece come from the top ten refugee-producing countries. Yet some people will still label them economic migrants. UNHCR has begun a brilliant initiative where children are put through a simulated asylum journey. From playing with their friends on the beach, to having to flee, crossing a border and being separated from their buddy. Although Greece is not a paradise for asylum seekers, genuine effort is being made to improve the situation and increase peoples understanding, starting with children. So that when kids see and meet refugees, they have an idea of what they’ve been through. So that when kids grow up they become more compassionate individuals than the governments running the show today. I can think of several adults I’d like to put through the same passages program.