When we met Fadi Katamesh, he was sitting on a white plastic chair, admiring his freshly plotted plants neatly arranged outside his cottage home on the Greek island of Lesbos. As the 33-year-old Syrian refugee from Damascus began to tell us about the atrocities he witnessed during the country’s ongoing war, he kept his eyes on his garden, which clearly brought him ease.
“There were so many steps in my life…so many places I had to flee from,” he says, with more than a hint of sadness in his voice. “But each step, each place I went, I planted something green.”
Fadi is among the more than half million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries who have fled to Greece for a new start in Europe. But he’s one of the few who have decided to stay on Lesbos and seek asylum here.
“We have lost our home, we have lost our country,” he says. “But we now have Greece.”
When Fadi and his family first arrived on Lesbos, they found shelter in what was once a children’s summer camp outside the capital city of Mytilene. The camp was converted into housing for refugees who need additional support or are waiting for their papers to stay in Greece. Residents include individuals who have serious medical conditions, as well as those who have lost loved ones on the risky sea voyage to the island.
“It was so sad,” Fadi recalls. “So many families have lost so much. So, we put many green plants around. It’s like a gift for the people who come and a thanks to the people who created the camp.”
The camp is run by volunteers with support from organizations such as the International Rescue Committee that provide technical expertise, psychosocial support and other specialized assistance. Fadi expressed interest in helping his neighbors and other new arrivals. He now works full-time with the IRC and has moved to an apartment in Mytilene, but his life on Lesbos remains deeply tied to his past in Syria.
Saving the injured, burying the dead
Back in Syria, Fadi divided his time as a communications engineer and an aid worker. Growing up, his father supported local organizations helping orphans and the homeless.
“My father taught me to help people,” Fadi says.
So when fighting erupted in 2011, Fadi and his friends organized a team to care for the displaced Syrians fleeing from the embattled city of Homs. As the war drew closer to their suburb in Al Nabk, Fadi and his fellow volunteers struggled to keep his community from collapsing.
“Civilian life became extremely difficult. They were bombing…they stopped food from coming into the city. They shut off the electricity and the water.”
As the fighting intensified and the bombing became more frequent, Fadi and his group redoubled their efforts to assist the injured, deliver aid, and find new water sources — sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Three of his friends were killed. He remembers roughly 300 civilians suffering injuries daily.
While thousands fled, Fadi remained focused on helping those caught in the chaos of war. Then he received warnings that his name was on “the list,” and he knew it was time to go. “It was not my decision,” he says. “I was forced to go. It was not easy.”
In December 2013, Fadi left for Yabroud, a city in the east untouched by the war. It too became a target. Fadi took his wife and two small children and crossed into Lebanon, where he stayed in the mountainous town of Arsal. There he met several families from Homs whom he had hosted for two years.
“I was living in a camp. It’s the worst life you can ever imagine and you cannot compare it to anything else. It’s very cold, very few tents.”
Although exhausted and desperate, Fadi looked for ways he could lend a hand. He joined a team responsible for evacuating the injured and dead from Syria across Lebanon’s rugged mountains. Empty trucks would come back full — some loaded with the wounded, others carrying the dead. He remembers that the volunteers would check the bodies to make sure they were deceased, “to make sure it wasn’t a temporary heart attack from the shock,” he says. “But because we were under such pressure, we sometimes messed up.”
Fadi cannot forget one particularly bad night. The volunteers had just emptied one of the trucks carrying the dead in order to clean it for a return trip. “By daylight, we saw a lake of blood,” he recalls. “I found half of a baby…the worst scene I saw in my life. We rarely found the people whole.”
‘Greece saved my life’
Fadi stayed in Lebanon for five months before heading for Turkey. He worked odd jobs as he journeyed from Istanbul to Konya to Izmir, learning the Turkish language as he went. After a year, he and his family had enough money saved to take the sea route to Europe as thousands of others have done.
“We decided at whatever cost, we should do it and begin a new life,” he says. When he and his family arrived on Lesbos, however, they had mixed feelings about their choice.
“We had the feeling of happiness, scared and sad when we arrived — I cannot explain. You’re happy to have saved your life, but scared of the future and the risk of [being] forced to turn to back. People were so happy we started to pray on the beach, for our lives and for Greece.”
Today, as the sun begins to set, Fadi thinks about his father and his former home, how his now almost five-year-old son Rayan would visit his grandfather’s farm to see the horses and birds.
“He asks me, ‘Where is my grandfather, where is my aunt, where are my friends?’ This is difficult for me. I tell him, “Now we live here.”
Nevertheless, Fadi believes his family has a future in Greece. He has started taking Greek language classes and Rayan has started school. “The Greeks helped me and my family,” he says. “Now if I can, I need to help everyone here. This country saved my life and I will try with all my power to give back.”
He will start by planting new trees with his sons.
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.