Fieldset
Trapped between Europe and COVID-19: The families stuck in Greek camps

On the fringes of Europe, thousands of refugees and migrants feel abandoned and unprotected, highly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. MSF communications specialist Dora shares the hopes and fears of one young Syrian family held in Vathy Camp on the island of Samos.

Shaza with her two sons in the summer tent where the family sleeps in Vathy camp, Samos

For the past four years, I have worked in media and communications, aiming to raise awareness of the plight of refugees, asylum seekers and people affected by humanitarian crises mainly in the Middle East and Greece.

My job usually involves interviewing people, writing about their challenges and depicting their hardships with the aim to shed light on the major disasters of our times and advocate for change.

But, today, and after almost a year working with MSF in Greece, I feel I am out of words again.

The night of the fire

I am sitting on a grey blanket inside a small green tent in a part of Vathy camp in Samos, which was recently affected by the fire. The smell of the burned wood and melted plastic is mixing with the smell of garbage that piles up behind the flimsy tent.

This is where, Shaza, a young lady from Syria, now lives with her husband and children. Their previous makeshift shelter was destroyed in the fire that broke out in Vathy camp at the end of April 2020.

They were bleeding and I was just crying for help. It was a night of chaos

Shaza is 24-years-old and has two sons, eight and three years old. She is expecting her third child and is currently in the ninth month of her pregnancy.

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Part of the burned area in Vathy camp where around 500 people lost all of their belongings - new shelters are now starting to be built
Part of the burned area in Vathy camp where around 500 people lost all of their belongings - new shelters are now starting to be built

The evening of the fire, the family was in the upper part of the mountain for a walk and to break their fast with their first meal of the day – according to the tradition of Ramadan – right after sunset.

“Thank god we were not there when the fire broke out,” she tells me.

“I was so scared, I could not stop crying for the whole night. Everything we had was lost, our only shelter was destroyed, and my children were wounded from pieces of glass and plastic that were spit in the air by gas explosions. They were bleeding and I was just crying for help. It was a night of chaos.”

She shows me the scars on the hands of her three-year-old boy, who will not leave her side for a second during our conversation. She is trying to hold back her tears.

“Europe was our only hope”

“When I arrived in Samos, almost six months ago, I was completely shocked,” Shaza continues, “Europe was our only hope and I had no idea it would be like this.”

“Today, here we are with our children, waiting in limbo and hoping someone will offer us safe accommodation before I give birth. Soon I will have another child. It will be very difficult. What will I do?” she tells me.

“The hygiene conditions in this camp are putting our health in danger. There are a lot of rats everywhere, snakes and scorpions.”

I am trying to teach my children what social distance is and how they should wash their hands, but it is impossible to follow the preventive measures in the camps

Men, women and children, like Shaza and her family, who live in hellish camps in the Greek islands take no break from these worrying thoughts.

Often times, they do not sleep at night because of tensions and fighting. During the day, they have to queue for hours to get food that often, as our teams report, is expired and rotten.       

Unprotected in the pandemic

In these camps, mothers are seeing their children being deprived of their childhood in a nightmarish everyday reality. Every simple thing, is an everyday struggle.

“My son is afraid at night and he cannot sleep. He wakes up in the middle of the night crying,” says Shaza.

“When we first arrived in this camp, for the first two months, he didn’t even want to go out of the tent. He didn’t want to play with other children. He would spend the whole day, sitting alone in the tent.”

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Nine-months pregnant, Shaza is worried about having somewhere safe to give birth
Nine-months pregnant, Shaza is worried about having somewhere safe to give birth

Soon her neighbour, Jasmine, joins our conversation to help describe how they managed to help the young boy overcome his fears by cooking his favorite traditional Syrian dishes and taking him for long walks in the city.

They tried to make him feel safe, even if there is nothing safe to feel safe about in Vathy camp – especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has reached Greece.

We know for a fact that if the virus reaches the camps in the Greek islands it will be disaster, yet people trapped there cannot do anything to protect themselves.

“My three-year-old son is asthmatic,” explains Shaza, “I am trying to teach my children what social distance is and how they should wash their hands, but it is impossible to follow the preventive measures in the camps.”

Denied a safe place

I have met refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and I have seen their suffering. More than 6.2 million people have fled their homes and remain displaced within Syria. More than five million are living in dire conditions in countries neighboring Greece.

I cannot have the luxury to lose my patience or my hope. I have to believe that we will be able to have a better life

But the people here are not in faraway places and there are not millions of them. They are in Europe and they number 37,000 in the Greek islands.

They are seeking a safe place and a better future and instead, we, the Europeans drop them in nightmarish camps, declaring a war against their resilience. And they keep trying to survive.

“What keeps me strong is my children,” says Shaza.

“I cannot have the luxury to lose my patience or my hope. I have to believe that we will be able to have a better life and that my children will go back to school. I hope someone will listen to us.”

Europe: Failing to act

The European Union has a population of 445 million people and is among the world’s driving economies…

What can possibly be so hard to act decisively and establish an effective process that ensures safe access to asylum?

Why does it take so long for policy-makers to stop putting people’s health in danger?

Why, even now that a pandemic is threatening the camps on the islands, is nothing really changing?

I do not have all the answers and, as I said, I feel I am out of words again for what is happening in Greece. But I will not give up. The least I can do is to share the voices of people like Shaza with the world and hope, along with her, that someone will finally listen.

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