Waiting in Ritsona Refugee Camp

A photo and story series on the emotional toll of waiting for relocation and family reunification in Ritsona refugee camp in mainland Greece.

In Ritsona refugee camp in Greece, the weight of waiting is nearly inescapable.

Some residents have been stranded here for as much as a year and a half, awaiting decisions on their relocation and family reunification requests. The process is complicated and painfully slow. Waiting is taking an emotional toll as people continue to wait day after day, month after month, for their futures to start. Produced by Lighthouse Relief, Waiting in Ritsona shows the despair and frustration of waiting — but also the amazing capacity for strength, perseverance and hope.

Zera with her oldest son in Lighthouse Relief’s Female Friendly Space in Ritsona. (Photo by Aanjalie Collure/Lighthouse Relief)

“I feel like I’m not a normal person. I cry all day. There’s not a day without crying because I stay here because of them [points to her sons]. It’s too tough to have two boys.”

Zera, 24, from Aleppo, Syria, has been waiting in Ritsona refugee camp for over 180 days with her husband and two sons.

Before she arrived in Ritsona, she waited for two years in Turkey after fleeing Syria. There, she had her first son.

After making the treacherous journey across the Aegean Sea, she arrived on the Greek island of Chios, bleeding and in great pain, only to face her most trying period of waiting yet. She waited in agony for several days before being taken to the hospital, despite asking for medical care as soon as she arrived. When she finally saw a doctor, she discovered that she was pregnant. Without access to adequate and reliable care, she gave birth to her second son three months early.

Now in Ritsona, Zera waits to regain her strength to apply for asylum. She was told that her family must return to Chios to begin their asylum process — but with so many heavy memories there, she must first find the courage to go back.

She also waits for a place where she can feel free and safe. She spends most of her time inside her caravan with her children, fearful that her babies might get injured if they wander too much in Ritsona camp.

Finally, she waits for the chance to feel beautiful and have fun like she used to. In Syria, she would frequently stroll the busy streets with her husband, stopping at a cafe to have some milk or a cappuccino. She reminisces on how she would pick out an outfit and apply a little makeup to prepare for the day’s activities.

Zera’s desire for a safe and dignified life for herself and her family should be uncomplicated, but she still waits in Ritsona until these basic needs are met.

Europe, why continue to make her wait?

Negar with her sons, aged 4 and 2. (Photo by Aanjalie Collure/Lighthouse Relief)

“I miss my mother and miss my family. I cry, but my mother said no cry. You start a new future.”

Negar, 26, from Tehran, Iran, has been waiting in Ritsona refugee camp for over 300 days with her husband and two sons.

She waits for the chance to build a better future for her children. She dreams of sending her sons to a good school in Europe, and welcoming them home at the end of the day in a big, warm house with a beautiful garden.

She also waits for an opportunity to reach her full potential through gainful employment. She holds a university degree and her husband is a skilled electrician, but they were unable to find reliable and fulfilling careers in Iran. She hopes to one day run her own business — potentially a Persian restaurant — when she is resettled.

Finally, she waits for the chance to feel welcome and at home. She feels lonely in Ritsona because no one else in camp is from Iran and speaks Farsi. She regularly attends English classes whenever she can, and makes time to go to a church in Athens every Sunday to regain a sense of community.

Negar’s hopes for the future are not unlike our own, and waits in Ritsona until they can become a reality.

Europe, why continue to make her wait?

Zahra in front of her caravan in Ritsona. (Photo by Maro Verli/Lighthouse Relief)

“We don’t know how long we will wait here. The organization who is responsible, they don’t give us a hope. We want from them to tell us the next year we are traveling, tell us the next month. We want an answer. When?”

Zahra, 43, from Syria has lived in Ritsona refugee camp for over 550 days with two of her three children.

She eagerly waits for the chance to be reunited with her husband and oldest son, who were relocated to Germany a few months ago. It pains her to know that they currently live so far away — but the uncertainty of when she’ll finally rejoin them in Germany hurts even more.

She also awaits the opportunity to give her children the chance at the good education they rightfully deserve. All her sons are brimming with creativity, intelligence and untapped potential, and she dreams of sending them to universities where they can learn and thrive.

Finally, she waits for the chance to raise her voice about issues she cares deeply about. She misses Syria, and feels sad that the world has turned their back on the country she called home for so long. She can’t believe that their beautiful country is now engulfed in violence and hate where there was once so much love.

Zahra just wants to be with her family and be heard, but waits in Ritsona while her future remains in the hands of others.

Europe, why continue to make her wait?

Hamza reads a book in his caravan. (Photo by Aanjalie Collure/Lighthouse Relief)

“When I go to Germany, I want to go back to school, to have friends, to learn, to go to university, have a future. I don’t want to stay here without school. I’m losing my age here. I haven’t gone to school for 3 years and half.”

Hamza, 16, from Syria, has lived in Ritsona refugee camp for over 550 days with his mother (Zahra) and now one of his two brothers. His oldest brother now lives in Germany after residing in Ritsona for over a year.

Hamza’s family has waited too long to find safety and security. They originally lived in Damascus, but moved to the countryside in northern Syria when the city was engulfed in war. When violence moved closer to the north, his family fled to Turkey, where they inquired about reunification with other relatives in Germany. They were told it would take four years.

Instead, they came to Greece by sea. While his father and brother have been able to relocate to Germany, Hamza now awaits the moment that he can see them again. He misses them dearly.

Hamza is also waiting for the chance to go back to school and attend university. He’s passionate about politics, writing and art, and finds fulfillment in helping NGOs with translation, writing for the Ritsona Kingdom Journal, learning English and listening to music.

Hamza is an inspiring young man with big dreams, and eagerly waits for the moment that he can begin to pursue them with full force.

Europe, why continue to make him wait?

Farhad with a mural he painted in Lighthouse Relief’s Youth Engagement Space in Ritsona camp. (Photo by Maro Verli/Lighthouse Relief)

“I fled from Syria because of war, not because I am poor or because of money or food. I am war refugee. My country is now destroyed. Armies are bombing always my city. It’s destroyed.”

Farhad, 21, from Syria lived in Ritsona refugee camp for over 600 days with his mother and two sisters. They finally left for Switzerland one week ago.

Farhad waited for the horrible conditions in Ritsona camp to improve. He lived in a tent with no water or electricity during the cold winter months when he first arrived. He participated in a week-long hunger strike to protest the inhumane treatment the residents received. Over time the situation greatly improved, but Farhad was still waiting.

Farhad is proud that he learned English and helped others by working with the local NGOs who operate in camp. While waiting, residents have created a community and feeling of family because everyone is willing to help each other despite their differences in language and culture.

While Farhard is now in Switzerland finally able to start a new life, he still waits for the world to truly understand what the term “refugee” means. He fled certain death from constant bombing, ISIS violence and forced service in the Syrian army. He is very outspoken that war refugees seek asylum and have a right to protection from violence in their homelands.

Europe, will you uphold your responsibility to protect basic human rights?

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