In Greece, stranded as a refugee and raising a newborn

Fawaz’s mother Wedjan cradles her son outside their tent pitched in the Idomeni camp. Photo: Kathleen Prior/IRC


Part I: Forgotten faces | Part II: Newborn in squalor | Part III: Our jobs

In this series, Lucy Carrigan and Kathleen Prior from the International Rescue Committee document the plight of refugees trapped by border closings along the Balkan route.

Swaddled in a blue blanket, the baby boy’s newness and fragility are heartbreaking. The infant is sleeping and still, with shimmering skin and a light fuzz of hair. This is Fawaz, born just three weeks ago. His home is a small tent in the Idomeni camp in northern Greece, where thousands of refugees remain trapped by border closings.

It was at Idomeni where his mother Wedjan went into labor. After her water broke, she was taken to a nearby hospital. She gave birth to Fawaz alone while her husband Isak rushed to join her. None of the hospital staff spoke Arabic, and the birth certificate the couple received was in Greek.

Like many of their neighbors in the surrounding tents, Wedjan, Isak, and their two other children have escaped Syria’s brutal civil war only to find a life in limbo. They spend their days in the squalor of the camp, sitting around the fire where they cook food for meals and warm water for washing. They have been living here for over a month, along with Wedjan’s brother and his family.

Despite the fierce sun, the day is crisp and cool. A campfire burns beside us, occasionally blasting abrasive smoke into our faces that we try to ignore. Isak says the baby coughs and chokes every day from the debris.

“Look at our life,” looking around the campfire at his family. “What is our destiny? Can we die without humiliation? With dignity? Dogs live better than we live now. This isn’t a life for a human.”

Three-week-old Fawaz was born in a hospital at Idomeni in northern Greece where thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries experiencing conflict have been stranded due to border closures along the Balkan route. Photo: Kathleen Prior/IRC

Isak’s voice remains steady and controlled as shares the story of his family’s flight. He tells me he’s frustrated that circumstance has denied him the chance to be the father and husband he wants to be; but he’s not bitter — at least not yet. He rummages in the pocket of his sports jacket and pulls out a plastic envelope containing Fawaz’s birth certificate.

“We have a birth certificate. It is in Greek. I don’t speak Greek. I can’t even read this document.”

Wedjan carries her son Mohammed after giving him a bath at Idomeni. Photo: Kathleen Prior/IRC

Forgotten in Idomeni

Isak calls the difficult journey to Greece a “death trip.” With Wedjan eight months pregnant, the family fled to Idlib in northwestern Syria after escaping from harsh fighting in their hometown of Daraa, where Isak was a farmer.

“We walked across the desert for 10 days. And then we traveled in a truck for sheep, as if we were animals,” he recalls, his face etched with disheartened disbelief.

He looks at me quizzically and asks me to guess his age. This is not the first time I have been asked this by refugees at Idomeni, but it makes me uneasy. The point is always the same; the men feel they look older than their years. The war, stress, life on the move — all have taken a toll evidenced in the lines on their faces and the grey flecks in their beards.

I know this game though, and I aim my guess well below Isak’s visual age. I still overshoot. It ends up that he is 36 years old, much younger than the weathered mask he wears.

“It is like I am homeless beggar,” he says. “Look at what I have become. I am begging for food for my children, medicine for my baby. Here, we all have nothing.”

Back on the family farm before the war in Syria, life was safe and social. Isak remembers: “On Fridays we would all go out to eat and drink and dance and chat and laugh.”

He goes quiet and picks up a stick to poke at the burning embers of the fire. Then he turns and asks rhetorically: “When will the borders open?”

Photos: Kathleen Prior/IRC

Taking the babe in her arms, Wedjan clambers into the privacy of her tent. It is cramped and hot and stuffy, yet immaculate, with blankets smoothly laid on the floor and clothes in neat square piles. She changes his diaper and wriggles him into a clean onesie. The new one is bright pink, and I doubt it was one they chose for their son.

Wedjan smiles adoringly at her baby, who screws up his face and begins to wail with a tiny toothless mouth, his wrinkled miniature fists waving helplessly in the air. She goes to breastfeed him and he latches on immediately.

After the baby is fed, his mother wraps him tightly into a blanket and lays him down to sleep. She then gathers some belongings from around the campsite, calls her other children and wanders over to the water tap to fill up bottles.

A plastic tub is put out and heated water poured in. One by one the children of the family are dunked naked into the bucket, as Wedjan and her sister-in-law commence bathing duty with vigor.

The youngest ones wince as shampoo is squeezed onto their heads and exuberantly rubbed and rinsed. It is a fast, efficient process. They are in and out and bundled into towels before they know it, sulking and sucking on their thumbs.

The bath water is carefully put aside, as here there is no end of things that need to be cleaned. The ground turns to mud as soon as it rains, and despite IRC cleaners working throughout the day to pick up trash, the overcrowded camp soon gets littered. Queues for the portaloos — 50 of which are supplied by the IRC — mean that some children relieve themselves in the grass where they later play.

Now, the women’s attention turns to food, and they sit by the fire and begin to peel potatoes and chop leafy greens. The children scramble around, bored and fidgety.

Here, every day is the same. The only thing that changes is the date and the weather. Yet Wedjan, Isak and the other parents are forced to try to make a home in the camp for now and do their best bring up their families.

With little information about decisions that will affect them, they have no idea if the borders will ever open, or if they will be sent back, nor what the alternatives are for their families. All they can do is wait, get through today, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Refugee Crisis: How the IRC helps

The International Rescue Committee is providing relief to millions of uprooted people inside Syria; in neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan; in Afghanistan; in Greece and Serbia; and in our 26 resettlement offices in the United States. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.

Nearly 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes by war, conflict and persecution — more lives uprooted than at any time since World War II. Produced by the International Rescue Committee, “Uprooted” keeps the spotlight on the individual human beings behind the tragic numbers in this global refugee crisis.

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