“Dear Sisters…”

Women refugees walking through Serbia and Macedonia have written powerful letters for those who might follow them.

The Open Letters project was organised by Atina with the support of UN WOMEN and Oxfam to support the women and girls stuck in a state of limbo after the border closed.

“I left my injured country to meet with my husband who went to save himself from the war and he was killed. I left with my children, but I saw the worst of the world. I crossed that hungry sea that was thirsty for the bodies of children and women from Syria, only to reach the land that was kingdom of famine, and another state where death lurks at every step. I lived out in the open, where it was cold, and where I had nothing to warm my children with. We have waited for more than three months for them to open the borders, to reach that country without any life conditions.”

So reads an open letter of Amira, from Syria, who has been travelling alone with her six children while still having pieces of shrapnel in her leg.

In the last 18 months more than a million refugees and other migrants have arrived in Europe seeking refuge. In 2015 and early 2016 thousands of those people were moving along the Western Balkans route. By early 2016 the majority of people on this journey were women and children. Women and girls have experienced psychological abuse, robbery, blackmail, sexual assault and harassment on route. In March the Macedonian and Serbian borders were closed leaving people stuck in limbo and facing an uncertain future. Today there are over 4000 refugees and migrants in Serbia, either waiting in centres, out in the open in Belgrade, or in informal camps at the border with Hungary.

A major consequence of the border closures is an increase in people going underground into the hands of smugglers and traffickers. Lacking safe and regular alternatives people have been forced to turn to smugglers network, criminalizing them and increasing the danger and uncertainty. Border closures have been maintained with aggressive border controls, fences and militarizing border patrols. People are facing violent and repeated pushbacks.

People do not have access to the necessary information about their rights, legal status or options. Women are especially vulnerable to this as they are often in groups where culture and tradition means that men are taking the lead. This situation has worsened with the border closures, as smugglers miss-inform people of there rights and options. People must be informed of their rights to humanitarian protection and asylum and have access to all relevant information in their language.

In Serbia, reception capacities are overstreched and therefore not able to provide adequate conditions for accomodation of women and girls refugees and migrants. There is an urgent need for a gender-sensitive approach in the provision of basic services within the centres. In particular the recognition and response to gender based violence.

The situation on the former Balkans route demonstrates that fortress Europe is not a deterrent for people determined to build a safe and dignified life for themselves and their families. Closing borders only leads people to take even more dangerous routes to Europe. People are continuing their dangerous and difficult journey through the Balkans despite border closures, fences and violent pushbacks. Collective action by all European countries is needed to provide safe and regular routes through the European Union and the Balkans, EU leaders must agree to new ways of providing safe and regular routes for people in need of protection.

The “Open Letters” project was organized by Atina with the support of UN WOMEN and Oxfam to support the women and girls stuck in a state of limbo after the border closed. This activity was one of many aimed at women and girls that Atina conducted in order to empower them and provide assistance to those who have been recognised as the most vulnerable and exposed to greatest risks. 74 women and girls took part: Of them 33 were Syrians, 14 Iraqi and 27 from Afghanistan. They were aged between 16 to 45 years old. Here are some of the moving letters they wrote about their experiences and feelings as they attempt to reach safety and a dignified life in Europe.

Amira, from Syria, is travelling alone with her six children, the youngest Iman is 3 years old and still has pieces of shrapnel in her leg.

“I left my injured country to meet with my husband who went to save himself from the war and he was killed.
I left with my children, but I saw the worst of the world. I crossed that hungry sea that was thirsty for the bodies of children and women from Syria, only to reach the land that was kingdom of famine, and another state where death lurks at every step.
I lived out in the open, where it was cold, and where I had nothing to warm my children with.
We have waited for more than three months for them to open the borders, to reach that country without any life conditions.”

This letter is from a group of six women from Syria who have been travelling for months alone with their children.

“We were in the camp Idomeni, in Greece, with another 14,000 refugees. We escaped from the suffering in Idomeni because of the problems we had with other refugees from the camp who were trying to touch us in a sexual way. It was a terrible situation.
We left the camp and walked alone until we reached the Macedonian border. We walked for 25 days, and during that time on the road we were stopped and robbed. The mafia took everything we had, and they tried to rape us. It was terrible and very difficult, especially because of our children. This is why our advice to all women is not to go on this journey alone, to always be in a group. It is dangerous, difficult and frightening.”

17-year-old Leila is from Syria. She is travelling with her uncle Hasan and Aunt Nur to Germany where her brother and father are waiting for her.

“This journey is difficult and exhausting. Death is all around us. I have had bad experiences on the road. In a previous country, I got slapped because I asked for a backpack to pack my belongings and continue the journey. We did not deserve that. I left my own country where I watched my friends being tortured and killed.
“In Macedonia, we tried to make contact with the smugglers, but as we did not have enough money, they suggested taking us to Serbia in exchange for sex with the women in our group. We were terrified, because they were armed.”

A woman, traveling alone, fleeing gender-based violence and death threats sent this powerful message to other women facing the journey:

“Hello dear friends,
The sun is shining, the weather is nice… That is good. At least it will not worsen your mood, just make you feel at least a little better. But, what makes you sad? Unhappy? No, you will not answer my questions, and I will not either, because you are used to being silent and hiding your concerns from others. Who are those OTHERS? Those are the people around you. THEY live in accordance with the norms of the group, THEY are the ones who have mutual points of view based on culture, family rules, and so on. And, what will you do if your views are different from THEIRS? The only thing you need to do is be silent, because THEY will not understand you.
Who will you run to?
Who will help you?
Who cares enough to help you?
By the way, who do you think you are to ask for their help?
Who will help you? The police? Go to the police… Tell them your story. They will write down your worries, problems… Just a piece of paper. Will the paper help you? No… Who will take care of you? No one… Well, will you continue to be silent, or will your conclusions send you back to the beginning of this letter: “You are used to being silent and hiding your concerns from others” (family members, relatives, friends)
Are you brave enough to make a move? Let’s see.
Make a move. Just a single step…
Make a decision. Move on.
The problem is global.
And you are alone with your thoughts? Without any friends to share them with?
No shoulder to cry on?”

In the centre in Presevo, we met a family from Iraq, a married couple with two children who had been traveling for three months. They had expected to be able to reach Germany in three weeks when they left their home.

“The date was February 17, 2016. We arrived at the Greek island Farmakonisi. After that, on the same day, the police took us to the island Leros. We stayed there for 48 hours. We then bought tickets for the boat to Athens, and this journey lasted eight hours. As soon as we arrived, they took us to the football stadium that was turned into a camp, and we quickly continued our way toward the border. We did not manage to enter Macedonia, the police stopped us and told us that we cannot continue because there were too many refugees, and that we are not allowed to cross the border. We ignored the police and decided to try on our own. After we tried three more times, they took us back to Thessaloniki. We stayed there for two days, and then fled in a taxi and arrived at Idomeni. That is where our suffering began, because the camp was made for 2,000 people, and there were 25,000 of us, and more was coming every day. At one point, the police told us there were 35,000 refugees in Idomeni.
“We left Greece on March 5, because there was not enough food, not enough water, and to get the food you had to wait in a queue that was sometimes a kilometre long. Given the situation, some refugees, not all, were buying food outside the camp, but most quickly ran out of money, even my family. We were buying everything, because we could not wait for that long to get food in the camp, and there was not enough of it for everyone anyway.”

Women from Afghanistan we met at the Asylum center in Krnjaca shared with us the experience of life in Afghanistan. This is how one of them told her story:

“I am a refugee. Just one of many to come from Afghanistan. I am 27 years old, I am married, I have three children, two of whom I have not seen for two weeks. Three days ago I heard that they are well and safe. I grew up in Iran, where I spent my childhood. Life in Iran is also trying. I married when I was 14 years old.
A few months ago, we were deported from Iran to Afghanistan, it was the most difficult moment in the life of my family. We had no relatives or acquaintances there, all of our friends stayed in Iran. In Afghanistan, we were welcomed by bombs, suffering, corruption, lack of freedom, fear whether we will survive until the next day. My children could not go to school, and even if they did, I do not know if they would come home alive. Fear for life prompted us to move toward Europe. Through Pakistan and Iran, we reached Turkey. Together with my husband, children and two other families, I stayed in Istanbul for two weeks. We had to rest before we went further. From Turkey we went to Bulgaria. We were starving for days, without water, wet and exhausted we walked through forests. We paid to be driven to Serbia, and that is when they separated us and said that women must go in one car, and men in the other. The three of us arrived to Serbia with children. We did not sleep for nights, we prayed for them just to be alive and call us. It is hard, because our youngest children are not with us. They are two years old. My husband called three days ago, he told me that they are all well, and that they are in Bulgaria, in a camp in Sofia. UNHCR will help us be together again. Now we are here and waiting. We do not know for how long.
We did not leave Afghanistan willingly, we were forced to do it. The difficult life and conditions made that decision for us. We would have stayed there if it were safe for us and for our children. The war there lasts for 30 years, you cannot walk freely down the street. The girls are forbidden from going to school, not by their parents, but by the Taliban. If they see them on the street going to or from school, they will kill them. You cannot live a safe life there. We do not want that kind of life for our children. We do not want them to live the way we did. They did not deserve that.”

A.R. from Syria was writing the letter, as her way to support all the women who were still on the road, her three-year-old son was asleep, and her husband was trying to inquire about the possibilities of leaving the camp they were in and continuing their journey. When she finished writing, she told us that she hoped her message would help someone find the strength to realise their dreams and overcome the challenges they would face on the road.

“If you want to go on a journey from Syria through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia… have a patience. You must be strong. I have been suffering a lot because of my journey, but I am in Serbia now, and I will make it to Germany. In Serbia, we were given good food, clothes, and we were welcomed by a lot of nice people. That was not the case so far.
I plead those who are reading this, and who are trying to find a way to Europe, to be patient. That is the key to a better life. You will suffer, but in the end you will find your wishes have come true.
I ask all the women to watch their children, and be strong for them. I wish you all a long and good life. May God be with you.”

One of the letters came from Germany, from a group of women with children continued their journey from Serbia, where they had spent three months after the border closured. Looking back on their experience, 23-year-old Rima sent a message to women on the move:

“Dear sisters, I wish for everyone who seeks a life in Europe, the way we do, to arrive to a good place, where people care about them, hug them like a family would, where they will have food, water, warm clothes, shelter, comfort…
We were afraid, but now we are feeling good.
I wish for all of you to find asylum in Europe, because that is the way to have a better life, a future, to find safety.
Have a patience. Do not let yourselves become tired, or lose hope. You will walk a lot. You will suffer a lot. Take care of your children, make them warm, watch over them, keep them close to you always. It is a difficult journey, but God will help you make it through. Believe in God’s work, and He will guide you.
There are good people in Serbia, much better than in other countries we passed. You will not regret meeting them, they will make you feel good and help you as much as they can.
I wish you all to get asylum where you want it.
I wish all the best for you, and for us all.”

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