Lives in the balance

What will become of the children stranded in Greece?

Refugees living in the Alexandria refugee camp in Greece. Photo: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the IRC

When you enter a refugee site in Greece, it is usually the children who will greet you first.

“Hello,” they will cry. In the beginning they would imitate you:

“How are you?” and they would repeat it.

“I am fine,” and the echo would come back. But now, they have the basics.

“My name is Ahmad, what is your name…?” They are learning the languages — English, Greek, German…

Children make up over 27,000 of the refugees currently stalled in Greece. Most are here with at least one parent — parents who have come here for them. Parents who want nothing more than for their children to be able to live safe, full, robust lives. They want their children to achieve their dreams. And yet, one year after the tragic death of Alan Kurdi they are all waiting in Greece, some living in unacceptable conditions, far too many with no sense of what the future holds and they watch their children’s futures hang in the balance. What will they become?

Below are a few snapshots of children’s lives lived in limbo.


11-year-old Zahraa escaped violence in Iraq with her parents and two brothers.

Name: Zahraa

Age: 11

From: Baghdad, Iraq

Zahraa is eleven years old. She has a sense of wisdom though that belies her age. She is her mother’s advocate. We met at Kara Tepe, a temporary respite for 961 refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. In English, she asked me to come with her. I tried to resist but she was quite firm and gracious, and with a smile said, “Come.”

She brought me to meet her mother at their prefab shelter where she lives with her 15-year-old brother, Omar, and her 4-year-old brother, Othman. When we got there, Othman was scrubbing the welcome mat outside their door. Soap out, a brush that was far too big for him, splashing water from a bottle, he was hard at work. He has some issues with his eyesight, his mother, Sanaa, told me. He was wearing the cutest glasses, round lenses, pink frames.

As soon as we said hello, Sanaa disappeared inside and came back with papers and started to explain to me what was going on — or not going on — in their attempt to reconnect with her husband who is now in Germany.

The papers were carefully kept in a clear plastic sleeve, their lifeline to what they hope is some sense of security and a new life somewhere in Europe. She started pulling them out carefully, one by one. The worry and anxiety on her face was clear. She was bereft. She didn’t know what to do. She said that the European Asylum office had “laughed” at her when she presented her case.

Sanaa and her children are Iraqi, and for reasons that are so very hard to comprehend, Iraqis are no longer eligible for relocation. She should be able to apply for family reunification to reunite with her husband. However, the process is unbearably long and unbearably bureaucratic and, because of her nationality, she is not seen as a priority. So she waits.

I asked her what it was like to get on the boat with her three children and make that journey across the Aegean Sea. “It was like death,” she said. “It was a miracle that we made it.”

Zahraa wants to be a pediatrician when she grows up because she thinks she would like it.

“I want to take care of children,” she said, with a smile.

9-year-old Amina (center) suffers from burns after a bomb struck her home in Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Lucy Carrigan/IRC

Name: Amina

Age: 9

From: Aleppo, Syria

Imagine this. A missile hits your home when you are not there. The reason you are not there is because you are attending a funeral for a friend who was killed in a bomb blast. Your whole family though is there, and although they all survive, your children suffer in varying degrees of pain:

Your 9-year-old daughter is burned over 25 percent of her body.

Your 11- year-old son has severe burns up and down his right arm.

Your 6-year-old son was so close to the flame that his hair turns yellow.

When you try to bring your family for treatment that night the missile decimated your home, four hospitals turn you away and you have to wait until the morning.

This is the way it is in Aleppo. Life. And this is the way it was for Abdullah Gasem and his family who have just arrived at Kara Tepe and are hoping that Europe will be kind to them.

“My first thought the moment I arrived to Greece was that this is the first day of my life,” Abdullah said.

We are sitting outside their shelter. He and his wife Na’hallah are here with their seven children, the youngest of whom is two months old. They want to go to either Germany or the United Kingdom because they have heard that this is where they can seek treatment for 9-year-old Amina’s burns. They want their kids to have a proper education in a place where they feel safe.

“So they can make decisions about that they want to do with the rest of their lives,” he said.

Little Lulu plays at a playground for refugee children in the Kara Tepe refugee site on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: Lucy Carrigan/IRC

Name: Lulu

Age: 18 months

From: Damascus, Syria

Lulu is a little bundle of mischief and joy. She loves freedom, her father, Maher said. She loves to run, to disappear and to be found again. Her father would like her to become a doctor.

Maher and his wife, Bayan, left Syria for Lulu.

Maher was afraid that he would be called up to join the military. He says there were checkpoints on every corner and that it was only a matter of time before his time would come. Every day, when he left home, he could not be certain he would return. Every day, he feared for his life and the lives of his wife and child. They first tried to make a living in Turkey but Maher, a fitness instructor, could not find work. They didn’t want to make the journey across the Aegean Sea and they kept putting it off but, when they ran out of money, they had no choice.

“Every time the waves are angry here, we remember our journey,” Maher said. It was hellish. The waves were high, the sea was rough, and the “life jacket” for Lulu lost all of its air in the sea. Bayan cried the entire way. “If the boat capsizes,” she told her husband, “don’t save me, save Lulu.”

Maher says that they arrived on March 19. Their claim for asylum was rejected he said, but they can appeal. That appointment is set for February 2017.

“This situation is very humiliating. We lived in the old city of Damascus. It was an easy life for us. The only thing that keeps me here is my baby.”

5-year-old Arezu’s left their home in Afghanistan for her and her brother’s future. Photo: Lucy Carrigan/IRC

Name: Arezu

Age: 5

From: Afghanistan

Arezu arrived on the island of Lesbos on with her parents, her little brother, and her father’s parents on March 18. They travelled on a boat that was supposed to hold 30 people. Instead it carried 65. They had no choice but to get on the boat because, as her father, Ehsanullah said, “Behind us was the police of Turkey. In front of us, just water.” They chose the water.

They have been waiting at Kara Tepe ever since, with nothing more to show for the five months they have been here than a so-called “police note,” which allows them to travel to and from Mytilene. They have not been able to make an appointment to pre-register for asylum, even though they arrived before the EU-Turkey deal went into effect. Because they are Afghan, they are not eligible for relocation to Europe. And so they wait.

Ehsanullah is lovely, and is someone I have gotten to know to a certain degree in the time he has spent here. His is a face I see often and although I am glad to see him, I’m also sad to see him because it means that his case hasn’t been heard and he continues to be blocked in his search for safety and sanctuary for his family.

I ask Ehsanullah if they would have taken the risk and crossed the Aegean Sea if he knew they would have to wait so long with, literally, no end in sight. He said, yes, they would have taken the risk.

At least, he added: “I am alive. If I go back to Afghanistan, the Taliban will kill me.”

Ehsanullah tells me he has a “wish list.” First, he wishes for proper care for his mother who has chronic pain in her knees and is constantly in pain. Second, he wants his kids to go to school.

“It’s an emergency for my children, especially for my daughter.”

And third, he wants a clear answer from the asylum office.

“They tell me wait, wait, wait, and we must wait. We don’t have another way.”


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 29 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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