It’s been 10 years. But the Syria crisis is still ongoing. For the people who fled. For the countries hosting them. For the entire region.
After ten years, half of the Syrian population has been forced to flee their homes. 6.6 million are refugees in the region and across 130 countries. Another 6.7 million Syrians have also been internally displaced. Syrian refugees continue to struggle to find shelters, to work, to make a living or send their children to school. Throughout this crisis, Syrians have shown incredible strength and resilience.
Ten years after, we go back to the faces and stories of Syrian refugees who crossed to Greece seeking safety in Europe. Some have been trying to rebuild their lives in Greece, others have moved to other countries. All of them are the real people behind the displacement numbers, none of them can afford lose hope.
Ten years already, the counting should stop here.
When Leilah* arrived in Greece in 2012 the most important thing she managed to bring with her after a difficult journey was a photo album. The photo album reminded her of happier times with her family back in Qamisli, Syria. She had to flee Syria when she felt the pressure around her growing and was very much afraid for the life of her children. “Leaving my country was like death for me”, she said.
© UNHCR/B. Szandelszky
By the time Malak and his family fled Syria in the summer of 2012, incursions and street battles had made their lives “a living hell”. The family had to make several perilous attempts to cross to Greece through Turkey, during which Malak was separated from his family. “When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can’t describe,” said Malak when he managed to reunite with his father. However, since then, the teenager had been haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. “I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?”
© UNHCR/Alfredo D'Amato
Tweens Awham and Hanan were four years old when they had to flee Syria with their two siblings and parents in 2015. Some 50 minutes into their boat journey across from Turkey to Greece, and in the middle of the night, the boat ran out of fuel. The Greek coastguard picked them up and the rescued family was taken to the island of Chios.
Their family had left behind the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus and a war that had already claimed their grandparents’ lives in 2013, when their home was bombed. Trying to forget their dangerous trip with broad smiles the little girls and the rest of the family hoped the worst is behind after reaching Europe and that they could finally bid farewell to a life that made them refugees twice over.
© UNHCR/George Kyvernitis
After losing the lower part of his right leg in a bomb blast in Deir ez-Zor, Ibrahim fled to Turkey where he spent much of the following year learning to walk again. In 2014, he boarded an inflatable boat to Greece, where he resumed competitive swimming. Ibrahim was one of two para-athletes who made history as the first ever Independent Paralympic Athletes Team who competed in the Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro. “Before the war in Syria, I dreamt about participating in the Olympics … After what happened and after my injury, I kept going and now I’m in the Paralympics. I kept my dream,” he stated in 2016. Being a refugee athlete with disability, life for Ibrahim in Greece remained full of challenges, but he didn’t lose his courage. “My goal is to never give up. But to go on, to always go forward. And that I can achieve through sports.”
© UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
Wafaa, a 33-year-old fashion designer from Aleppo - Syria, fled her hometown in February 2016. She hoped to rejoin her husband in Germany, who left their war-torn home almost one year ahead. Her family’s flight from war came to a halt in Greece, after countries along the so-called Western Balkan route closed their borders in March of that year. Wafaa and her three children had spent six weeks sleeping in a small tent near the village of Idomeni before moving to a new refugee site in northern Greece. Waiting for their family reunification she said “I dream of continuing my education. I dream of making dresses again. But, most of all I dream of making my family whole.”
© UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
“In August 2017, I left Syria with my five children. I would not have left my home if the situation was not so bad. From Turkey, we crossed to Lesvos and spent one month in a tent with several families. Life was very difficult. Eventually we were transferred to the mainland.” We met Manal in Athens in March 2018, where she said she could finally feel relaxed. “It is a quiet neighbourhood. Most importantly, the children are able to go to school, so they can continue with their education. I want my children to finish their studies so that when we return back home they are well educated. Children will be able to rebuild Syria with their knowledge. The happiest moment in my life is yet to come. It will be when we can return to Syria in safety."
© UNHCR/Markel Redondo
“I sensed that our lives were threatened [in Syria] so I said we’d better leave,” 50-year-old Ismain and father-of-three explains. “After seven years of war, it gradually got dangerous for everyone.” The cinematographer and artist fled Damascus with his family in 2017. On Crete island, while the asylum seeker waited with his family to reunite with his son in Germany, his love of fishing, finding friends and the sea brought him peace of mind. “Back in Syria we only heard screaming and bombs. When we come to the sea we feel calm. It makes me forget my problems.”© UNHCR/Markel Redondo
Among the rescuers who converged on the Greek coastal resort of Mati in July 2018 as hundreds fled deadly wildfires was a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, himself saved from a watery grave the year before. Obada “Ibo” Al-Nassar was trained as a lifeguard after arriving in Greece and became a volunteer with the Lifeguard Hellas organization, which joined among the first on the scene on the day of the fire in Mati. Asked about joining the rescue operation, Ibo would reply he is grateful to Greece and happy to give something back. Still, he would think of Syria from time to time. “The area I came from, Yarmuk, is completely destroyed.”
© UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
“Many women are afraid to talk. Or they feel that no one cares about them. But we cannot defeat gender-based violence with silence. That is why we have formed a team that stands alongside women who live in the camp and have gone through painful incidents of violence. We listen to their stories and become their voice” – Lana, 43, an asylum-seeker from Syria, speaks proudly of the Women’s Committee, a group of volunteers created by female asylum-seekers in the reception center of Chios island about a year ago. Lana was one of the first volunteers to join the group. Back in Damascus, she and her husband had set up a team to fight violence against women and children. But her husband went missing in 2018 and she then decided to flee the country.
“Solidarity and empowerment. This was the essence of my work in Damascus, this is what I’m trying to do in Chios, this is what I will do in Athens or wherever I live,” Lana explains.
© UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
“There are many single women living in Syria today that need our support. As soon as I am safe and back up on my feet I will make my sole purpose to help them get through this.”
38-year old Sahar* from Damascus has seen her life being turned upside down several times. Currently living on Lesvos island with her 13-year-old son, during the fires in Moria they saw their “home” and their few belongings being destroyed for the fourth time in their lives. Sahar says they were living a difficult but happy life, but despite her struggle, war would follow her everywhere. She remembers being shot in the leg while trying to hastily take her boy and run to save themselves. All she wants is her son to be safe and be able to go to school again. “I never stopped trying even when everything I saw around me was death and destruction.”
© UNHCR/Marios Andriotis - Konstantios