Said, 26, and Nora, 22, are a young couple originally from the countryside of Aleppo, Syria.
They met at the University of Aleppo, where Said studied agricultural engineering, and Nora studied Arabic culture. They married on July 31, 2015, and shared a home with Said’s family for a time.
After Said graduated, he faced military service in Syria, and the couple decided it was time to leave. Using money they got from Nora’s father, they paid a smuggler to help them move through Syria to Turkey and finally to Greece. They are now in a relocation program that will eventually take them to another European country to begin their new life.
For today, they share an apartment in Athens with another Syrian family also in the relocation program. And—along with thousands of other refugees—they wait.
I sat with them one afternoon to hear their story. Said knew more English and did most of the talking. Nora, though, was naturally social and joined in as she could, often using props and her expressive voice and face to bridge the language gaps.
Tell me about your families.
S: I have four brothers and four sisters. Two are working in Turkey now. The others are in Syria… Two months ago there was a big bomb, so they left the house and went to another village. My mother went back one week later.
Why did she go back?
S: She loves her home. For 30 years she stayed in her home. Now she is with her mother, but she wants to come back to her house.
I have a brother and sister now in school. They had to leave school for three years [IS (or Daesh, as Said and Nora call it) did not let anyone go to school]. Now, in my uncle’s village they go to school. Syrian Democratic Force is in charge. Anyone can go to school. No problem.
N: I have three sisters and four brothers. One brother is in Germany. The others are in Syria. My mother wants to go. Father, no. He can’t walk in the mountains. He prefers to die in his home and not leave.
What made you decide to leave?
S: Before I left I was studying in university. I finished my studies, and in Syria, when a man finishes studies, he has to go to military service. I didn’t want to go, so I took my wife and left. There are many people dead in military service.
How did you leave?
S: We asked and were looking for a smuggler to help us to leave… The smuggler took from every person $100. We walked about seven hours in the night to Azaz near Turkey.
And then how did you get to Turkey?
S: On 8 March we walked in the dark through mountains. [They smile at each other and bring their arms high in the air to show the tall mountains.]
What was that like?
S: It’s very dark and mountain is [puts hand high in the air]. About nine hours walking in the dark the first day. When we arrived to the border between Syria and Turkey, the police hit us with guns. There were about 40 people with us. So we went back to Azaz. About nine hours we walked, and we came back the first day [they both laugh]. The next day, 9 March, we walked about nine hours and arrived to the border and passed the border, but the police caught us and fired guns in the air and took all 60 of us and put us in prison…
N: No water. For about 12 hours.
S: I wanted to talk with the police. ‘Why did you put us here?’ And they hit me. When she went to protect me they hit her, and she lost her baby. When she went to the WC, there was blood…blood. She was pregnant for one month. And they hit her tooth. [Nora opens her mouth to show me the chipped and discolored front tooth.] After 12 hours, they told us to go back to Syria. And after two days, the third time we walked at about 8 p.m. and passed the border in another place—another mountain. A very difficult mountain. Very high and trees and stone and water and you don’t see anything. The smuggler said, ‘No one speak. Shut up. Shut up.’ There are babies…
N: [Nora brings her hands up to the side of her head to show sleeping.] They give the babies something to sleep. And olive trees. When the police shined the light, we hid under the trees.
S: We stayed in the dark from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. and then two cars came to us. The smuggler had an apartment for us to go to. We stayed one day, and then in the evening we took the bus for $100 to Izmir to another smuggler.
In Izmir, we stayed about seven days. On 17 March, we rode the bus to go to the sea to go to Greece. On the road, the police saw us and put us in prison for 24 hours. From 11 a.m. to the next day at 11 a.m., and then the police let us go.
The next day we stayed in the smuggler’s home. On 19 March, we went to the sea and rode the boat. There are many people in the boat—about 85 people. The boat was about six meters. There were three layers—people and people and people. Two men died on the boat because of the crowding. The trip was about three hours. We arrived to Lesvos about 10 or 11 am on 19 March…
N: And give me bracelet!
S: This time we are very lucky. If we arrived after one hour, we would not have gotten the bracelet.
The police took us and put us in the camp. Everyone who arrived before 12 p.m. has a bracelet. Everyone who arrived after 12 p.m. didn’t get a bracelet. After one month, everyone who has the bracelet can register with relocation.
They didn’t give us the paper for about two months… It says we can register with the relocation system. From 20 March, we cannot [because of the European Union-Turkey agreement]. I know many friends [who forgot] this bracelet. They didn’t get this paper. [Nora pulls out the papers and shows them to me. They are written in Greek, so none of us can read them, but they point to the date—19 March—as the most important part.]
How long did you stay in the camp?
S: We stayed 15 days in one camp (Moria), and then the police took us to another camp for families. In Moria, we stood for food for two hours. Every meal. Six hours a day.
N: My husband didn’t get food the last three days.
S: The sun was very hot [He waves his hand in front of his face].
N: I gave him from my food. Women got food first because there were fewer of them.
Sometimes I say to the man [serving food], ‘Please, two.’ Sometimes he gave it to me. Sometimes no.
S: Kara Tepe—that camp was better. In Moria, [there were] about 13 persons in one tent like this. [He gestures to the room they share now, which holds one set of bunk beds, another single mattress and a small table.] Just blankets on the floor. The weather was very cold in the night. The United Nations gave us many clothes…
N: Many clothes very old. From Syria, I brought only this bag [stands up and shows me an off-white canvas tote bag with thick colored stripes] and bracelets and watch from my husband when we were married. And Said gave me a ring, but I sold it in Azaz. We needed money. And a ring from my mother we had to sell because we need money to live. [Nora points to her hand where the rings used to be and mentions a volunteer who brought her the dress she is wearing today–one that fit her. The UN clothes were all huge on her thin frame.]
S: In Kara Tepe, we stayed there from 4 April to 10 July. It was a better camp. It was open. Moria was a closed camp with a fence. No one could leave the camp. In Kara Tepe, you can go anywhere you want, and there were only two families in the tent…
…When we were in Kara Tepe, some days we would go to Moria camp because the center of registration was in Moria camp. Some days we went there for communication and appointments. Our appointment was on 14 July to make the interview for relocation.
We had a problem. We don’t have a paper saying she is my wife. In Syria, there are no courts or anything to make papers. Therefore, in Moria the camp made two files—one for her and one for me… I got my appointment on 14 July. Hers was on 15 July…
N: [Nora brings her hands up near her eyes and makes a face to show that she was crying] I was crying because I want to stay with my husband, and they stopped us and made the file together.
S: They gave us a list of 24 European countries, and they said you can choose eight that you want to go to. We chose Germany first because her brother is there, Ireland because they speak English, France, Holland, Belgium, Finland, Spain and Portugal.
We don’t know when we will get an answer. They said two weeks to three months. But now it’s three months and a half.
What do you do with your days here?
S: I want to work with landscape, but the man I want to work with told me I have to get a paper from Katehaki that says you can work in Greece. They said, ‘No, you have to wait.’ But now I’m trying to help my brother in Turkey. My brother studies English, and he is trying to translate advertising articles in Turkey. He writes the articles on paper because he doesn’t have a laptop. He takes a photo and sends it on mobile, and I type it. He was working in a factory but didn’t have work. He found this work, translating from Arabic to English. For every 400 words, he gets about 20 Turkish lira. [This is roughly $6 U.S. Said does this only to help his brother; he does not share the payment for it.]
How do you support yourselves?
The apartment is paid for [a benefit of the relocation program; compared to many refugees, they are fortunate]. We get money for food but not for clothes. 90 euro every month for food.
What are your hopes for the future?
S: Right now, we are very afraid for the decision of relocation… If we get a good country, maybe we want to learn the language and work. My wife needs to study because she didn’t finish…
N: I want to study English because I don’t know it. [Nora studied some French in Syria and starts to count off the numbers—un, deux, trois…]
What is it like to be here and to hear what is happening in Syria?
S: It’s very difficult. I want to be with my family but my mother says, ‘No, go out.’ Because she was afraid… People my age are the ones who have most died in the war. Others leave to Lebanon or Jordan and Turkey, and others leave to Europe. Now, in our country there are no younger men, just women because the men are dead or leave. Now, you can see just women and babies. There are no [young] men, just the oldest.
Do you have hope that things will get better in Syria?
S: We hope, but we see that it’s very difficult. Every two weeks, my mother calls me. I can’t call her because there is no internet there. When she gets internet, she calls me. She said it’s very bad. No food, no work. At our home we had many animals—sheep…
S: …And two cows. Our situation was very good. Two cows and about 10 sheep. We had milk and meat and yogurt…and cheese. And my mother had many chickens for eggs. It was very good. But now—no sheep, no cow, no hens. Nothing. The Syrian Democratic Force stole everything in our home… They stole from all the homes in the village.
Greece is very good, but there’s no work… We want to go to another country where we can study and learn and work. In Greece…we only sleep and eat… We want to work, to build our lives. And we want our [own] house, not one with other families.
I went to a mosque to get a paper to show that we are married but he wants 200 euro. We are still worried she could get one country and I get another country.
N: Woman in asylum office said, ‘No, they go one country.’
S: The staff said we will go to the same country, but I know families the men go to a country and the women went to another country because they didn’t have the paper. [The man at the mosque] told me you can come on Friday to get this paper, but he said to bring 200 euro. I asked a lawyer for this paper. He said, ‘No, you have to go to the mosque to get this paper. After that, you can go to a court, but first you have to get this paper from the mosque.’
If she gets Germany, it’s ok. She can go to her brother, and I can get there eventually.
…I hope to stop war in Syria and come back to our country, because Syria is the best country for us.
UPDATE (February 14, 2017): In late 2016, Said and Nora got the news that they would be going to Germany, and they flew there in early February. I will try to do an update later in 2017 on how things are going for them.
Some Ways You Can Help
This article from Harper’s Bazaar lists several organizations to which you may want to consider a donation.
A woman who volunteered in Greece told me that these are some of the organizations doing good work there:
You can find out about volunteer opportunities in Greece on the websites listed above, as well as on this Facebook page.
Do you have additional information on how to help refugees through donations, volunteering, ways to help with resettlement or otherwise? Please share in the comments below!