A young Middle Eastern boy, no more than 6 years old, approached me in the warm sun at the Port of Athens in Greece in February 2016. He was wearing worn jeans and T-shirt, and he looked like he had not seen a bath or comb in some time. Only minutes prior he had walked off a ferry boat arriving from the Greek island of Lesbos — a landing place for refugees, and another step closer to safety.
In clear English, he asked me to tie his shoe. I bent over and talked through the instructions of shoe tying like I did with my three children a decade ago. After the final tug on the laces to secure the knot, he hugged me. When I asked him about his parents, he told me that his dad was searching for infant formula for his brother, who was just a few weeks old, and that his mother was dead at the bottom of the sea.
Their journey started with bombs dropping around their home in Iraq and ended when he got on an overcrowded raft with his father, mother, her sister and his five brothers, including one born during their escape. I hugged him tight and as he walked off to find what was left of his family.
Over the past five years, more than 1 million refugees have landed in Greece. The flow of refugees to Greece has dramatically reduced since March 2016, when the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey that allows Greece to return migrants back to Turkey. But the United Nations Commission on Human Rights estimates that more than 50,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are stranded in Greece. The Greek government, with funding from the U.N. and other entities, has placed most refugees in camps throughout the country. With the assistance of nonprofit organizations, some refugees have moved into apartments while others have started to occupy abandoned buildings in Greece. The government provides varying degrees of housing and food at the camps and facilitates their asylum and resettlement process. Nonprofit organizations from across the globe oversee education, distribution of goods and other programs.
While in the camps, the refugees are free of war, but their lives aren’t much better. The “lucky” refugees live in glorified one-room sheds with beds while others live in tents made with tarps. They have lost choices we take for granted. The clothes they wear are all donated, and the food they eat comes from government food supplies. Regular medical care in the camps is a rarity. They ration and reuse disposable diapers because they are unsure when they will get more. Many are unable to work and go to school, and have succumbed to depression. Many refugees have decided to return to their war torn and dangerous home countries simply for the ability to move about freely without imposed confinement due to heavy regulation of their movement in the camps and inhumane living conditions.
I have traveled to Greece three times since February 2016 to assist with humanitarian support. I have seen the situation transition from hope to despair. On my first trip, the borders in Europe were open to allow people to reach welcoming countries. During that trip, I provided aid as people disembarked from the ferries from the Greek islands to board buses bound for the Macedonian border. Refugees were optimistic, kissing the Greek ground when they arrived and hugging me when learning that they were in Greece.
My second trip was in November 2016. Borders were closed, but the refugees were optimistically applying for asylum. Camps were considered temporary communities while refugees were strictly vetted and then resettled in their new home countries, including the U.S., and given a chance at a better life. Aid was focused on things to get people through the winter. It was during that trip — during the U.S. presidential election — when attitudes dramatically changed. Knowing the platform on which the new U.S. president ran, refugees starting losing hope about having a new life outside of the camps. The morning after the election I walked into a refugee camp with a heavy heart knowing that resettlement was going to change. This became more obvious with my most recent trip in March with my daughter and students from University of New England. With President Donald Trump’s executive order to halve refugee admissions to the U.S. and restrict travel to the U.S. from six majority Muslim nations — currently undergoing a legal fight — and growing anti-refugee sentiment in other countries, the camps have become long-term entities requiring infrastructure like schools, community gardens and other programs.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts to end Maine’s participation in the federal resettlement program adds additional obstacles to refugees obtaining a safer life and contributing to the new communities abroad.
I often think about the Middle Eastern boy and how our lives crossed that day. As he walked about from our chance encounter, I could not stop asking myself, “why would a mother risk the lives of her children and herself?”
They wanted a better life. Not a better life in American terms, but they wanted to wake up in the morning and not find family members among the dead from overnight attacks. Men do not want to be forced to fight for the government, anti-government or terrorist groups, or be shot dead. Wives and mothers want to be reunited with their husbands who went before them to ensure their passage would be safe. Adults want to be contributing members of their communities as teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, tailors and electricians as they have been trained, worked and took pride. Unaccompanied minors hold onto the hope of being reunited with their families. Children of all ages dream of going to a school not in danger of becoming rubble in the blink of an eye.
There are glimmers of beauty and dignity. The Greek government passed a law to allow refugees to start small businesses in camps to earn an income. Refugees are moving out of camps and into apartments. Organizations and volunteers from across the world are helping refugees hold onto their beautiful cultures and humanity. There is the teenager who will be reunited with his parents after he was separated from them when their convoy came under attack in Iran during their travel to Greece.
And there is the young boy who needed his shoes tied I met during my first trip to Greece. Not long after that first trip, while I was shoe shopping with my daughter, I received a message from the boy’s older brother telling us they arrived in Germany and found a better life.
Jennifer Gunderman is a faculty member with the Westbrook College of Health Professions at the University of New England in Biddeford. Her background is in epidemiology and global health. She lives in Waldo County with her three children.