There are many stories at the reception centre for refugees and migrants in Gevgelija, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Every girl and boy, every man and woman who passes through this place has one. There are stories of war and hardship. Of bombed out schools and homes. Stories with many villains and very few heroes.
Yet the common thread running through each and every story here is that of loss and the dawn of a new reality in which cherished homes, communities, friends and even family members are gone.The new reality of seemingly endless travel in a foreign continent and chaotic queues at border checkpoints is a far cry from familiar surroundings left behind in places like Aleppo, Homs and Mosul. The new reality is not one easily endured.
Naham, a 37-year-old mother arriving from Idlib, Syria, is less concerned with her new reality than for the future of her three children Manar (10), Mohammed (12) and Moustafa (15). “We had to leave Syria so that my children could have a life,” she explains. “I know that if we stayed, we would have died.”
She recalls how the conflict in Syria devastated her city. “The war came to Idlib and it was as if all the fighters chose our hometown to meet . . . Syrian Armed Forces, Daesh, Al-Nusra . . . they were all there fighting each other, but it was the people who were caught in the middle. Many bombs were dropped in our neighbourhood, destroying schools, mosques and bazaars.”
One of those bombs left an indelible emotional scar on Naham as she suffered perhaps the greatest loss one can experience in life – the death of a child. Her eyes well up with tears when she explains slowly and quietly how a bomb blast claimed the life of her four-year-old son Ahmed, her youngest, while he was walking in the street with his aunt.
“But,” she says, “Our family did have happy times in Syria.”
Before the war, Naham was a physical education teacher for 12 years at a local school, while her husband was a contractor and plumber. Life was good. They had a nice home and financial savings. It was those savings which helped Naham and her children finally leave Syria after the death of Ahmed.
“In some ways, we were lucky because we had a little money,” says Naham, “Because the trip is very expensive. There are many people left in Syria who cannot leave because they don’t have the means.”
Refugees making the long and dangerous trip from Syria and Iraq to Europe are indeed forced to pay what are in some cases exorbitant sums to reach the Greek islands. Many people must pay militias and armed groups money just to make it through checkpoints on the way out of Syria or Iraq and into Turkey. From the border, families will take buses or taxis to the Turkish coast where they embark on the seabound and most hazardous portion of the trip across Aegean.
“We paid the traffickers in Izmir (on the Turkish coast) more than $1300 per adult for a place on the boat, but the children were half price,” says Naham. “Actually, it was more like a floating balloon. They gave us a fifteen-minute lesson on how to navigate and use the outboard motor. Then they left us to do it ourselves. We were the captains.” Naham and the other adults even paid an extra $300 to upgrade to what they thought was a sturdier boat.
There were 27 people on board, about a third of whom were children. The seas were rough and there were three distinct moments when the adults thought the boat would capsize. “People were terrified,” she remembers, “I was not afraid to die, but I was frightened for my children. I couldn’t let them die there.”
After more than four hours, they eventually reached the shores of Kos in the Greek islands. From there, they took a ferry to Athens and then a bus to the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia where they crossed at Gevgelija. After registering at the reception centre here, Naham and her family will board a train for Serbia. Ultimately, they hope to reach Germany and settle there or perhaps even apply for asylum in Canada.
“We don’t know where we will be,” says Naham, “But I know that at least my children will be safe and that, god willing, we can start a new life together with a more hopeful future.”
Christopher Tidey is a Communication Specialist based at UNICEF’s Headquarters in Geneva.