Fleeing Syria, Refugees Arrive to a Different Kind of Hell in Greece

Thousands of Syrians are seeking refuge in Greece, but the country's economic and asylum problems make for an unwelcome new home.
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The Ibrahim family left Syria after the conflict started; they spent time in a refugee camp in Turkey before coming to Athens. Konstantin, left, regrets bringing his children, from left, Siman, Oskar, Rozalin and his wife Jaklin to Greece. (Tom Bateman)

There were more people than seatbelts in the black Kia Sportage, so Reema Ayoub sat on her father's lap. The 6-year-old's hands held on to the dashboard as she watched Athens pass by from the motorway. She had just left Hygeia, a private hospital in Athens where she spent 15 days recovering from surgery needed after being shot in the civil war in Syria.

In the driver's seat is Dr. Maarouf Alobeid, but they all call him The Doctor. He performed Reema's surgery for free after her father told him their story by email.

"Lots of Syrian families, they want to get back to Syria. Even with the war it's better than here."

Past abandoned buildings and empty car showrooms, The Doctor drives Reema and her father Samer to the one-bedroom flat where they'll stay with Mouhanad Badawi, another Syrian who's lived in Athens for six years working as a painter. He invited Reema and Samer to stay with him when he found them living in a smuggler's flat.

They had been there for weeks. Reema's wound had opened, her insides were coming out -- a pink protrusion as big as a fist that smelled like "death." They had come to Athens for medical help. It took them four months to get it, and then, only because of The Doctor.

Greece is the gateway into Europe for thousands of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. They cross into Turkey and hire smugglers who transport them into Greece, but more importantly into Europe. It costs thousands of Euros, but it's worth the promise of freedom. Still, the economically derelict and unwelcoming landscape that refugees like Reema and Samer find here is often far less hospitable than they had hoped.

Greece has enough problems of its own. The anti-immigrant Golden Dawn is now the third largest political party in the country, on track to become the second. The party wants "Greece for Greeks" and blames economic troubles on refugees and immigrants. Supporters routinely attack refugees in the street, beating them, spitting on them, and calling the authorities to collect them.

The Arab Spring and the Euro crisis have met head-on here, and it's proving to be a toxic mix.

Most refugees don't have a government-issued pink card - the document they need to stay in the country legally for a few months. Without it, many are arrested and thrown into detention centers where they are given little food, no clean clothing, or bed linen. They have no soap to wash themselves, no opportunity to call family or friends. They are beaten.

When released after six to 18 months, they must leave the country; but having fled their own, most don't have authorization, and trying to leave Greece without papers is also illegal. They can't stay in Greece; they can't leave.

Right-wing parties are gaining traction across Europe. Ukip, the United Kingdom Independence Party, placed second in a local by-election last month, beating the Conservatives.

But it is Greece where the rise of an ugly, nativist nationalism is most blatant and violent.

***

According the Greek Forum of Refugees, the country has a backlog of 40,000 applications for asylum. Most will never be seen.

Realizing this, The Doctor began to help Syrians himself.

He met a family living in a park and found them a place to live. In the year and a half since, Syrians in Athens have contacted him mainly through Facebook and word of mouth. Alobeid takes them off the streets, finds them housing, and provides them with medical care.

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Samer Ayoub reveals the scar left on his 6-year-old daughter, Reema. The family was shot at a checkpoint in Syria in December. (Tom Bateman)

He left Syria in 1984, when the country was in similar disarray, came to Greece to find freedom, and he did.

He enrolled in medical school, and after gaining citizenship served a year in the military as a physician. His wife and daughter are Greek and so is he, but he's also Syrian.

"I'm in the middle," of the two countries, he said. "One is destroyed with the war, the other, destroyed by everything but war. I'm lost between them. I feel the pain for both countries."

He keeps a ledger of the families he helps -- they total more than 100.

"It touches me when I see people suffering in Syria and they run away to get some dream in Greece, and I see all the suffering in Greece," he said.

Hundreds of Greek doctors have left the country for northern Europe where they have more security and more pay. It's a different Greece from the one that provided him freedom 28 years ago.

"I feel pain, not only for Syria as my country, but for Greeks. I am full of the old photo of Greece. The oldest civilization, the first democracy in the world, and now it's getting to be the worst. The lowest situation."

He held his hand out and let it drop.

"Down, down to the hell," he said.

***

According to Muhammadi Yonous, president the Greek Forum of Refugees, there has never been a just asylum system in the country. Lacking federal support, the organization holds seminars and cultural events to help integrate refugees into the community.

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Lauren Bird is a freelance journalist based in London.

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