Last September, while my granddaughter Hailey was excitedly preparing to start the new school year, I was preparing to travel to Greece to help with the refugee crisis. At the same time, in Homs, Syria, the house of 13-year-old Farok and his family was bombed, and his father, mother and two younger siblings were deciding what to do next. Farok would soon be turning 14, the age where he would be forced to join the army.
I met Farok and his family in October on the shores of Kos, Greece. They were members of my first rescue – from a dinghy with 45 passengers, including nine small children and a five-day old baby. Through a miracle of people being in the right place at the right time, Farok’s family survived the perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece on the Aegean Sea. Kos was their first stop in Europe, the land of their future. They continued on to Germany: excited and nervous, yet ready to start rebuilding their lives in a safe new country. Farok could speak and write English brilliantly. He, his brother Yousef and sister Thorya were eager to get into school and continue their education.
Prior to the war, Syria was considered one of the most forward-thinking countries of the Arab world. It had the highest school enrollment rate, and the majority of the workforce were middle-income earners. Now over nine million people have been displaced, most to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Three-quarters of Syrians now live in poverty and only 25% of children aged 6 to 18 are in school.
The Syrians who have fled their homes since the war hoped their absence would only be temporary. They love their country, and their greatest wish is to go back. But, as the war has now raged on for five years the prospect of returning is bleak.
There are many Syrians who manage to get out with their savings and move to the cities, many of them buying apartments or renting, and living off their savings and finding work. But, there are many others who rely on humanitarian aid. The World Food Program (WFP) pays each family $27 each person, to a maximum of five people per month, to purchase food. For many families this funding is their only source of income, so the money that is intended to buy food gets used to help pay rent. Early in 2015, due to a lack of funding, the WFP cut the food program in half, to $13.50 per month. This reduced funding for the families now living in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the inability to work, and the lack of education is what started the dangerous sea route migration to Europe.
Note: In the hopes of stopping the migration, the WFP received funding and raised the monthly allowance back to $27 per person. However, it was too late and is insufficient to cover the cost of food in Lebanon.
What we saw last fall on the shores of Greece and on the route through Europe was that the UN’s humanitarian aid model was a complete and utter failure. Over one million people landed on Europe’s shores, travelling from countries where they are fleeing war and persecution, seeking safety and a future for their children. There were close to 4000 people lost or missing at sea. Over 10,000 children went unprotected and are now missing, lost or exploited somewhere along on the route. The large aid agencies were slow to act, and some didn’t act at all. Without the independent volunteers and grassroots organizations helping the refugees, on the shores and along the route through Europe, thousands and thousands more would have died.
The migration continued through the winter, and many lost their lives; January 2016 we the month when we saw the most deaths. The borders of Europe from Greece were closed early in 2016, and on March 20, in an attempt to stop the crossings, the EU and Turkey made a deal. New arrivals would now be detained by the police to await possible deportation. Those who arrived before the deal was made were rushed to mainland Greece, and were stuck sleeping at the ports and up at the Greek border with Macedonia, hoping for the borders to open. They never did. Now all but a few are left at the ports. The rest have been placed in camps scattered around mainland Greece. Some who have resisted going to camps have found squats in empty buildings – in one case, in a hotel – and turned these into homes.
The camps on mainland Greece were set up by the military, and they are responsible for the food. There is no standard; every camp is of varying quality and care. Some camps have IKEA houses, some have tents inside warehouses, some have tents on gravel with no floors or shade, and there is one at a nice hotel. Some camps allow independent volunteer groups to set up programs and distribute additional aid and some don’t.
There are 57,000 refugees (38% children) from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan left on mainland Greece. They won’t be stuck there long, though it may seem like it to those who are anxious to get on with rebuilding their lives. The reunification and the relocation process has started. People who have family that already made it to somewhere in the EU will be reunited. The rest – well, eventually they will be relocated to another country: a country not of their choosing, but a country that will accept them and help them get on with their lives.
While it is tragic that these people have to live in limbo I am not as concerned about the situation in Greece as I was previously. The crisis in Greece and Europe has had some breathing room, and there are many volunteer groups active on the ground (and online) getting done whatever needs doing. In regards to education, Greece has already started to hire teachers to work with the camps and have even arranged for some children to go to local schools. Many volunteer groups are working at the camps and in community centres, in parks and even in shipping containers, to teach languages to the children and adults.
But mainly I am not as concerned about Greece after witnessing camp life in Lebanon. I realized the parents who reached Greece accomplished what they set out to do, and that is to get their children to safety in a place where the children will have a future. They have reached Europe, and their children will be given a chance to go to school and grow up to be our future doctors, lawyers, and engineers.
But parents will continue to risk the journey to reach Europe unless host countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan work harder at assimilating the families into society; allowing them to go to work and to school; and building a future for their children. And if warnings are correct and the EU/Turkey deal fails and Turkey’s President Erdogan reopens the migration floodgate we must fight to ensure that the EU follows the 1951 Refugee Convention. I would hate to see what is happening in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan happen in Greece.
Right now, children in the camps of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have no hope, no future.
I will explain why in The Lost Generation – Part 2 – Education in the Camps.