Syrian refugee Moamar Zaqarit, his wife Rawan and their two young children have been stuck in Greece for a year. Like thousands of others, they are in limbo here, waiting to be transferred to another European country where they can begin new lives.
And although they are safe from bombing, the wait is taking a huge emotional and psychological toll, deepening the scars they carry as a result of being victims of war and exile.
“It just feels like time has stopped,” says Moamar, who likens his family’s stay in the port city of Patras to being under “house arrest”. “There is only so much mental pressure one can bear, and we are completely lost.”
Part of the reason he feels this way is because this was not the fate he expected when he and his family climbed into an inflatable boat in the dead of night on March 19, 2016.
They thought that once they left Turkey behind, and once they arrived in Greece, life would begin again, that they would be free, and that they would be able to make their way like hundreds of thousands of others before them up to Germany, where Moamar’s mother lives.
But since March last year, the Balkan migrant route has been shut. And a controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey brought the number of asylum seekers arriving in Greece down to a mere trickle.
A slow relocation process is under way, but only a lucky few have benefited so far. The rest, like Moamar and his family, remain stuck in makeshift camps and shelters dotted around the country. And feeling trapped has made it hard for them to recover from the emotional scars they have carried since war erupted in Syria in 2011.
“Every single day (in Greece) has felt like a year. Time is going by very slowly. I tell myself every day that this might be our last day here, and that we just have to wait. But we are tired of being here, and our mental health is badly affected,” he says.
Back in Syria, Moamar was jailed for nine months, after being convicted of “insulting the president”. As soon as he was released, he and his family fled for neighbouring Turkey, in the hope of making the crossing to Europe.
But now that they are in Greece, they face disillusionment day in, day out, as they watch their children suffer from isolation and a lack of education. “Syria is unsafe, and there’s no life for us here. What can we do? Our dreams have been destroyed,” says Rawan as she cradles her one-year-old son Ahmad.
“When I was in Homs (in central Syria) I was studying to be a hairdresser but the war shattered my plans. I thought maybe I could be a hairdresser in Europe, but it seems there’s no future for us here either. There’s no place for us to go. We’re stuck in time here,” she says.We’ve lost count of the days here, out of sadness and despair.”
Many others like Omar, a 27-year-old from Mosul, Iraq, are stuck on the Greek island of Samos. He tells the story of a fellow Iraqi who tried to take his life by overdosing on medication. “Many tried to commit suicide by cutting their veins or taking pills,” he says.
“I feel like a prisoner here,” says Omar, adding that he has difficulties sleeping in the makeshift camp that has become his home. “I sometimes wish I was actually a prisoner, because then at least I’d have a release date to look forward to. But the fact is that over here, we don’t know when we’re going to leave.”
Dr Jayne Grimes, an MSF psychologist in Samos, has seen many people who are depressed because of the state of limbo that their lives are in. People stuck in Greece have nothing to do with their time, nor do they know when they will be allowed to leave. Living conditions for the majority of asylum seekers stuck in the country are poor, and that affects their mental wellbeing too, she says.
“There are a lot of people who are very traumatised, who have had really horrific experiences. Some describe having had to pull the bodies of family members out of the rubble of their homes,” Grimes says. “And I really see the impact of the environment they’re in now. You’ve got the fences, the barbed wire… and (the refugees) are getting flashbacks. It’s really an environment that keeps their anxiety very high.”
Objectively, she says, conditions are not as grim on Samos as they might feel for people stuck here for months on end. However, many people still feel like they are in danger — just as they were when they were in places like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan — precisely because they haven’t had the chance to properly heal and move on.
Jamal, a 49-year-old Kurdish university professor, senses the dissonance between the beauty of Samos — once a tourism haven — and the daily lives of the refugees stuck there.
“One could call Samos the most beautiful jail in the world. It’s a lovely island, the weather is beautiful. But that’s only for tourists. For us, Samos is a detention centre,” says Jamal, who lives alone in a tent, and dreams only of being reunited one day with his family.
“I wish people would understand: no one leaves his country for a packet of juice and a biscuit.”
‘I don’t want to live here’
Disillusionment and sadness have a direct impact on life in the camps. Being in limbo breeds restlessness and antagonism among groups of refugees, hence the frequent fights that erupt.
At the same time, the austerity of everyday life for the refugees makes it hard for them to accept their waiting period. Asylum seekers say the food they are given is tasteless, leading people like Guhdar Ibrahim, a Kurdish father of six from Iraq, to seek alternatives.
Every day, he goes to the port of Samos to fish for eight to 12 hours, so he can provide his family with a tasty meal — to try to lift their spirits.
It is also at the port where Guhdar manages to find some peace, even though it is temporary, and where he clears his head.
But, he says, he feels invisible in Samos, as though the world had turned its back on him and thousands of others like him.
“None of us here in Samos came because we wanted to. We came because we wanted to stay alive and to ensure our children have a chance at a future,” the 45-year-old says.
Every day, Guhdar’s children ask him why they made the trip to Greece to begin with, begging him to return to Iraq. He has to explain to them that they cannot return because he had received death threats there. “All my options are bad,” he says.
Even now, in the safety of Greece, he fears for his children’s wellbeing.
His 18-year-old son, who is asthmatic, lives with terrible psychological pain. “Last month he cut himself with a knife and said: ‘Father, I don’t want to live here,’” Guhdar recalls.
And while those with families worry for their children, those separated from their loved ones by conflict and the refugee crisis are also going through a tough time.
Among them is Samira, a Palestinian-Syrian woman whose husband and daughter still live in Damascus, and whose other children reside in Germany and Sweden.
“It didn’t have to be this way, we were all supposed to be together. For the past four months I have been stuck all alone on Samos island,” says the 50-year-old, as she anxiously wrings her hands.
Samira describes horrific scenes in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp that was once home to 150,000 people but which has been destroyed by war. She saw people starve to death, and recalls resorting to boiling spices in hot water to make a semblance of soup.
She also describes being shot at by Turkish border guards once a smuggler finally managed to get her across the border.
Death, she says, has chased her all her life. “Now I am here in Samos, I feel I am dead inside,” says Samira, her face expressionless. “I come here to walk on the beach. I don’t feel anything. I spend my days here in Samos like a machine, running on battery, without any objective. I cry every day in my tent but no one hears me.”