“I want to build, I want to belong, I want to work for a better future for me and other refugees”

How a Syrian refugee created the first and only aid organization in Greece founded by refugees for refugees.

The desire not to stay inert in the face of so much suffering has kept me going the past six years, despite the violence in Syria and the uncertainty of fleeing. The dream to change the perception of refugees is what motivated me to create the first and only aid organization in Greece founded by refugees for refugees.

Houssam, a Syrian refugee living in Greece, has founded the first aid organization by refugees for refugees. Photo: CARE

Here in Athens, hundreds and thousands of refugees live in occupied buildings, without receiving any help. We could not have possibly left them like that. We started with food distributions and a shelter was also set up to house women and children who had nowhere to go. Our organization is called “Jafra R2R”, which stands for “Refugees to Refugees”. Its name is linked to a Syrian aid organization called Jafra Foundation, most of whose founders are either dead or in jail for helping people.

At the beginning of the war, I was 18 years old and I lived in the city of Yarmouk.

I have seen hundreds of people starve and I have distributed food together with the volunteers of the Jafra Foundation. In an effort to spread hope and fight the fear of war and despair, together with a friend, a doctor and musician, we used to organize small concerts. We played by candlelight as most of the time there was no electricity. The concerts attracted lots of people and at some point also caught the attention of an armed group. Of course they wanted to stop us. They searched our apartment and threatened us. I thought I was going to die but I managed to escape. That was in 2013.

I quickly realized that fleeing the war did not mean I would be able to return soon to a normal life. As a refugee, you are subject to isolation and other forms of psychological and physical violence.

In Beirut, some people beat me up on the street simply because I was a Syrian.

The war can follow you everywhere. I wanted to join my family in Turkey, but just before my arrival, a militant group killed a Syrian humanitarian and activist inside the building in which I was supposed to work for an aid organization. It was clear to me that I could not live with safety in Turkey after documenting the war crimes that took place in Syria. I had to flee again. This time I tried to go to Greece.

For six years, my life has been put on hold. I know that I have lost the best years of my life.

While I was supposed to build my future, I was fighting to escape war and survive. Unfortunately, this is the case for many Syrians and especially for children. I have met a 10-year old boy who refused to play with his toys or other children. The traumatic experience of the war has destroyed his childhood and he considered himself an adult. Refugees know how to deal with children like him, it is part of who we are. We have gone through so much that dealing with war trauma is something that we have learned from experience. When I was a volunteer in an aid organization in Lebanon, we provided psychosocial support to children through games and theater. When I arrived in Greece in 2015, I knew I had to do the same.

Refugee children in a camp in Greece. Photo: CARE/Konstantinos Tsakalidis

In February 2015, nearly 14,000 people were living in mud and cold temperatures in Idomeni and Lagkadikia in northern Greece. Holding on to the hope that the borders would reopen, we found ourselves trapped in this muddy camp. We were all refugees, we had to help each other. Together, we rehabilitated a wrecked building that was eventually used as a school. After a few months, drawings of trees and landscapes replaced the images of war and people who stayed in other camps asked us for advice on Facebook to do the same things. We were very proud.

When some of the big aid organizations arrived, we wanted to work with them but some were suspicious and did not understand our motives.

In the absence of official support and authorization, we had to stop our activities and I was forced to leave the camp. Now we have the support of people from all over the world, following us on Facebook. The humanitarian organization CARE is also helping us. We must continue with our actions because the situation in Syria is deteriorating day by day with the multiplication of actors with conflicting interests.

A Syrian family sitting outside their tent in a barrack that serves as a refugee camp. Photo: CARE/Konstantinos Tsakalidis

The outlook is grim: both government and opposition groups are killing the population, the international community is not doing enough, the smugglers take advantage of our despair and Europe has closed its borders. Until peace returns to Syria, we want to facilitate the integration of refugees in Europe, together with the generous help of Greek volunteers. I want to fight this feeling that has been haunting me ever since I left Syria and that I share with many other refugees: that I am not from here, that I have nothing and that I have no future here or elsewhere. I want to build, I want to belong, and I want to work for a better future for me and other refugees.

By Houssam, a Syrian refugee, living in Athens, Greece

With the influx of refugees to Europe, CARE started providing emergency assistance to refugees stranded in Greece, including cash, protection and accommodation. The project is funded by the European Union.