Slovenian centre provides warm welcome after escape ordeal
“I have to pinch myself because I think I’m dreaming,” says pharmacist Mazen Al-Khatib Al-Masri, whose family is finally safe in Slovenia after fleeing the dangers of Damascus.
He still remembers landing on an uninhabited Greek island and living “like Robinson Crusoe”. “There were just the dolphins in the sea,” adds his wife, Heba Kanon, showing a photo of their boat on her smartphone.
Mazen, 43, and Heba, 30, along with their daughter and two sons, are among 34 asylum-seekers relocated to Slovenia under an EU scheme to share the responsbility around Europe. Altogether, Slovenia, with its population of just over two million, will take 567 refugees by the end of next year. Twenty-eight of the new arrivals are Syrians and Iraqis who came via Greece. The other six are Eritreans who came via Italy.
“We are attaching great importance to the EU relocation scheme,” says Vito Trani, head of the UNHCR office in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. “We hope it will decrease pressure on Greece, Turkey and Italy. The refugees will see how it works and pass the information on to others. Of course, the refugee crisis isn’t over. With Balkan borders closed, many refugees may try alternative routes this summer.”
"With Balkan borders closed, many refugees may try alternative routes this summer.”
Set among lawns and trees, the Logatec Temporary Accommodation Centre, where refugees wait until their residence applications have been processed, is more like an alpine holiday village than a refugee camp. The dormitories are brightly painted. Washing hangs on lines, not on barbed-wire fences. Children ride bikes and through an open window comes the sound of adults chanting numbers from one to 20 in an elementary English class.
“Iraq and Slovenia? You just can’t compare them,” says taxi driver Tarek Selman Husain, 57, who has come from Baghdad with his wife Zeinab Muhsain Mahdi, 37, and their children. “This country is beautiful, the people are nice. I love, love, love you Slovenia, because you are like a mother who hugs her children.”
Germany was top of Tarek's list of choices for relocation but, to his surprise, he has discovered that Slovenia can provide the things he was looking for – “safety and education and a good future for my children”.
Tarek and his family are Sunni Muslims who lived in a Shia district of Baghdad. “People came at night – militia in masks – and told us if we wanted to live, we should leave immediately,” he recalls, showing a video of his yellow cab, burnt out by the attackers. “My blood pressure soared, my feet failed. We packed up and went to my brother’s place but still we did not feel safe.”
The next photo on Tarek’s phone shows the bloodied corpse of his brother. Tarek breaks down and leaves the room for a few minutes to compose himself.
Then, continuing the story, he recounts how the family travelled to Turkey in 2014, only to find that refugees were unable to work. In desperation, they borrowed money for the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and arrived on the island of Samos in March this year.
“The UNHCR told us about the relocation scheme,” Tarek says. “By then, I was in a wheelchair because my legs were swollen. The smuggler put me in the bottom of the boat, with others on top, and my legs got crushed.”
Relocation was quick and orderly, according to Tarek. The family flew from Athens to Ljubljana on 12 May.
Now Tarek dances with his wife on the lawn at Logatec. “I sleep at night,” he exclaims. “I will walk in the mountains, inshallah. I dream of driving a minibus. Why not? That’s life – tears and laughter.”
For Mazen, the pharmacist from Damascus, the relocation process was more traumatic. The family fled Syria because of rocket attacks near their home and tried without success to settle in Turkey. In March this year, they left elderly parents behind and took a boat to Greece. The trip turned out to be an ordeal. “I can’t believe we actually survived the journey,” he says.
From the uninhabited island where they first landed, they were taken by Greek rescuers to Chios. “I had heard about the relocation scheme on the internet, but when we got to Greece, it looked like it was just a big lie. On Chios, nobody knew anything about it.”
Transfer to Lesbos proved equally stressful. “It was chaos and mess. We spent nine days in a tent without electricity, and with a long walk to get water. I understand it was only nine days but it felt like nine months. After all we had suffered in Syria, this chaos in Europe came as a shock.”
"After all we had suffered in Syria, this chaos in Europe came as a shock.”
Now in Slovenia, Mazen is anxious to restart his life as soon as possible.
“So far, so good,” he says. “We go to English and Slovenian classes and play ping-pong. But I feel I have fallen very low. I cannot even afford to buy my child a bike. My sons talk more about tanks and guns than their schoolwork. I don’t have any dreams anymore. I just want to provide for my family and give them a good life.”
In the next room, Mazen’s neighbours are another family from Syria. Tailor Mahmoud Sabagh, 49, and his wife Zahra Zamar, 40, fled Aleppo with their two youngest sons because, as Mahmoud puts it: “You can leave your house in the morning and not know if you’ll come home in the evening, alive. There are choppers dropping barrel bombs, snipers, kidnappings and robberies. It’s dangerous all round.”
The family is happy to be in Slovenia. “We don’t have all we would wish but we are positively surprised by the local people and the environment,” says Zahra, who hopes to return to work as a hairdresser “to feel useful and have a purpose”.
When I ask what is lacking, Zahra starts to cry and answers in one word, “Aleppo”.
"The UNHCR and Red Cross were waiting on Lesbos."
Mahmoud explains that they left an older son behind in Lebanon. “We didn’t want him to be recruited into the Syrian army. We also have two beautiful daughters. I was afraid they would be raped. I married Nour to a man from Damascus and they are in Turkey. Our other daughter Sara is in Lebanon.”
The journey from Aleppo was harrowing. “We left for Turkey four-and-a-half months ago,” says Mahmoud. “We took the route controlled by ISIS. It usually takes an hour but it took us 20 hours. We were shot at from the Turkish side, with rubber bullets and real bullets.”
The boat crossing to Greece was easy by comparison. “The UNHCR and Red Cross were waiting on Lesbos. They took so much care of us, it was almost embarrassing. They even checked to see if our feet were wet.”
Now in Slovenia, Mahmoud’s dream is to rebuild and be self-sufficient. “I want our own home – by the sea, even better – and far from the nightmare we left behind.”