“Life in the camp was difficult”, says Mohamed Salem, 26 year old shoemaker from Aleppo, Syria as he looks at his wife Khadija. “Some people were screaming and there were unpleasant situations”, he remembers their first days in the overcrowded Reception and Identification Centre Vathy on the Greek island of Samos which hosts 1,400 refugees and migrants while its capacity stands at about 700. “We were eight families in one room, it was too cold, even the water was cold and our little ones got eczemas”. Their boys, Salem, 2 years, and 1 year old Hassan, needed “eggs and vitamins, not the normal food”, he adds. “So I am thankful you brought us to this apartment where we sleep warm and comfortable”, Mohamed says as UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, visits him in a building with several flats rented for vulnerable refugees and migrants. “And what brought us happiness is that our children have started to play again!”
Mohamed is among 70 asylum-seekers on Samos for whom UNHCR facilitated temporary apartments in which partners such as the NGO Praksis provided services to the new vulnerable residents. Together with the Agency’s support for increased official transfers of asylum-seekers to mainland Greece, alternative accommodation on the islands reduces the overcrowding of public refugee sites which is the result of slow procedures on the Aegean islands. On Lesvos, since early January, some 500 men, women and children do not have to live in sites such as Moria anymore, but were accommodated in hotels that UNHCR rented at special rates, and an additional 300, including unaccompanied children, are now in apartments. On Chios 240 people are currently staying in buildings and hotels outside the camps.
Mohamed and his family arrived on Samos just three weeks ago, leaving behind a life under bombs in central Aleppo, occupied by different armed groups and troops. “For five long years, it was just horrible”, sighs this slim, hollow-eyed man with the eyes in hollow grounds. If hell exists, the place he describes comes close to it. “It was impossible to buy bread. Even the injured did not get treatment. If someone lost his arm, nobody would take care of him.” In such conditions, Mohamed had to do different things to make a living – the days working on other people’s shoes in his shop in peace were long gone. And there was no way out. “We could not flee because the city was besieged.”
Eventually, one day, the family could pack a few belongings, walk through the rubble of what once had been the vibrant economic and cultural metropolis Aleppo, and take one of the green buses provided by the Syrian government to leave. The family made it to the Turkish shore, but did not take a flimsy rubber dinghy to cross into Europe. “They put 50 people into these dinghies – we did not want to do this to our little children”, explains Mohamed. “We embarked on a jet boat that took only 18 minutes to a small island in the middle of the sea.” After climbing for two hours they reached the top of the rocky island. “If I had been by myself, this would not have been a problem, but with the family… they were crawling up the hill rather than walking.” Together with his brother who had fled with them, they called for help by phone. As night fell in, a boat arrived. “So we had to crawl down the hill in the dark – that took two more hours. In total, we stayed ten hours on this island.” As they finally set foot on Samos, they felt “comfortable as finally everybody was safe”, recalls Mohamed.
Life under the bombs left a heavy burden on the family. “I felt so terribly sad for my children. The psychological health of all of us has deteriorated”, says the young man. “For the past two months, I repeatedly fainted and fell.” Doctors are now looking after Mohamed.
The family has hardly settled into the humble apartment in Vathy town, but Mohamed sets his mind on the future already. He dreams of a solid education for the family. “Which language should we start to learn?”
Roland Schönbauer in Vathy, Samos