Greek couple offers a welcome haven to Syrian family
ATHENS, Greece, April 27 (UNHCR) -The experience of one refugee mother from Syria, who fled war in her home country with her two young children, is typical of many Syrian families who have arrived in Greece to be greeted with warmth and hospitality by the Greek people.
A few months ago, Fatima Alsulayman, 34, lived in the north-eastern Syrian city of Al-Qamishli and worked in a chocolate factory.
Now, she and her children are living as the guests of a retired Greek couple, Georgia and Christodoulos Miliotis, in a middle-class suburb of Athens, and their application for asylum is being processed.
''My husband left Syria 18 months ago, as the conflict spread to our home town, and made his way to Germany through Bulgaria," Fatima said. ''He did this in order to find a job and send us money to flee from Syria, where things got worse by the day.''
He found a job in construction and managed to send cash to help Fatima escape the nightmare of war. She reached the Greek island of Lesvos with three-year-old Kharuan and Karine, two, in late February, a month before the EU-Turkey agreement came into force. From there the family, who are Kurdish Muslims, crossed the Aegean in a flimsy boat and reached the Athenian port of Piraeus.
Fatima had only ever seen the sea on television and had never learnt to swim. ''When I saw it for the first time I was really scared," she said, speaking through an interpreter at the Miliotis's home in the suburb of Chalandri.
The journey through Syria and Turkey cost them 800 euros and the boat trip to Lesvos another 1,200 euros.
After arriving on the Greek mainland, she decided to try to cross into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to continue the journey westwards. However, the border crossing at Idomeni was closed and they returned to the port of Piraeus in Athens.
By this time, all were ill and in need of medical attention. Fatima had a fever and fainted continually and the children were suffering from diarrhoea.
Elena Miliotis, a dentist who in her spare time worked as a volunteer among the refugees in Piraeus, saw they were in desperate need. She asked her mother, Georgia, for help.
"I was not at all prepared for what I saw," said Georgia, a retired architectural engineer. "I have never seen such wretchedness. They didn't even have a set of spare clothes to wear. We gave the little ones a bath, and I found a few of my grandchildren's old clothes, which I had kept as souvenirs, to keep them warm."
The children were unable to eat at first, so she gave them tea with honey.
Her home became a makeshift hospital. "Luckily, my son-in-law is a doctor, and so we knew what we had to do," she said. The family has the use of one room with two double beds and their own bathroom.
'PEOPLE OPENED THEIR ARMS'
When they began to recover their strength, Georgia and Christodoulos, a retired economist, took them to the Greek authorities so they could apply for asylum. Fatima has also formally requested a family reunion with her husband in Germany.
"This is yet another example of how the Greek people all over the country opened their arms and gave a warm welcome to refugees, just like that, spontaneously," said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR representative in Greece. "It is amazing."
According to Greek government figures, there were almost 54,000 refugees in the country on 20 April. Some were living in official reception centres, but many were living in unofficial sites, at the Idomeni border crossing, in Piraeus port and at the former site of the 2004 Athens Olympics at Hellenikon.
After a month of using sign language and drawings, Georgia and Fatima are now able to communicate better thanks to Lebanese artist Eliane Choucair, who lives in Greece and volunteers as an interpreter for UNHCR.
With Eliane translating, an emotional Fatima said the generosity and warmth of the Miliotis family had deeply touched her, although her relatives back home in Syria were less sympathetic.
When she spoke to her cousins and sisters by phone, "they asked her how on earth she is staying in a house that belongs to some Christian strangers," Eliane quoted her as saying.
Fatima's response made it clear that, based on her experience, friendship can be stronger than the barriers that divide communities. "They are such good people. They welcomed strangers into their home. If you think about it, they had no idea who we were and they took us in. I will never forget that."
The Miliotis family are trying to find more permanent accommodation for Fatima and the children. Their apartment is rather cramped and everyday communication remains a challenge.
Georgia is full of admiration for the young mother and the efforts she has made to take her children to a safe place, away from the bombs of Al-Qamishli. She said a strong bond had grown between them, telling Fatima: "You have a new family here in Greece. Our house will be always open for you and your children."
By Maria Daliani in Athens, Greece