House for All: Faces of the Shelter
The following are 2 stories of residents of the Doctors of The World Greece House for All Shelter. They illustrate the importance of innovative and proactive initiatives that support vulnerable refugees and the vast scope of challenges they face.
Art for Aleppo
Probably one of the most loyal and enthusiastic participants in the weekly art therapy workshop organised by DotW volunteer psychologists is Izzaldin (63), an artist from Aleppo, and fulltime devoted husband of Raghda (57), father of Ahmad (30) and, although from a distance, 4 other children and 1 grandson living in other refugee camps in Greece and Germany.
‘I want to thank Doctors of the World, who have embraced us and are taking care of us like a family. It’s good to feel human again,’ he says. Since he left last January, bombs have continued to rain down daily on Syria’s largest city, devastating the residential neighbourhood where he used to live and mocking the cease fire agreed in February
Izzaldin, Ahmad and Raghda in their dormitoryroom at the shelter. (MdM Tess Vonck)
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 600 civilians were killed between 31 July and 31 August, including 217 children and many women, and hundreds injured in battles and bombing in the outskirts and centre of Aleppo city since the war between rebel, Islamic and regime forces reinforced recently.
Drawing made by a Syrian kid in one of the workshops organised by DotW volunteers at the shelter. The aim was to visualise memories of home. (MdM Tess Vonck)
With a degree in Fine Arts in his pocket, many clients from all over the world and a job as a scenography coordinator of the Damascus Art Festival on his CV, Izzaldin knows what beauty is. ‘The only way I could survive and support my family was by devoting my life to it and staying away from politics. I was afraid, did my job and shut up but the people of Syria are like a volcano. Years of oppression and corruption made them explode.’
Izzaldin: 'I devoted my life to beauty and my family and stayed away from politics. It was the only way to survive in Syria before the uprising. But the Syrian people are like a volcano. Too many years of corruption and oppression made them erupt.' (MdM Tess Vonck)
But now, the more he looks away, the more he sees. Too much beauty destroyed in his beloved Syria, too many lives forced to apply for a second life after death elsewhere. For Izzalldin, beauty is a thing of many layers.
When the war destroyed their house, he convinced 4 of his children to escape to Europe. Izzaldin took refuge with Ahmad, Raghda, and 1 other son and his family in a basement that used to be his art atelier, waiting in the dark for the last moment to pick up their things and plot their escape.
‘We lived in that basement for four years and left to Turkey because we couldn’t hide anymore. In Turkey, we were one of the few Syrians who managed to live comfortably making and selling art for months, until we we heard the news about the borders closing and rushed to Europe. This is how we got stuck in the harbour of Piraeus’, Izzaldin explains.
The makeshift refugee camp at Piraeus, a harbour town on the outskirts of Athens and the major entry point for ferries to and from the islands and big container ships, was cleared this summer but some refugees and homeless people still end up sleeping rough between the containers. (CC Bruno Abarca)
Ahmad, who is mentally and physically disabled since birth, didn’t sleep for 15 days while they were staying at the harbour. ‘The conditions were very though. Everybody slept rough near shipping containers and there was noise everywhere. He was afraid all the time’, Raghda explains.
Izzaldin and his son Ahmad in their room at the shelter. (MdM Tess Vonck)
‘One of the volunteer doctors in the mobile unit noticed him and brought us here. He understood Ahmad couldn’t live in these circumstances. If my other children weren’t in Germany, I would consider staying in Greece.’
The light from her phone lights up her face, her fingers scrolling endlessly through the picture gallery. ‘What I really want, is to see my son Mahmoud growing up in real life again. He is 16 years old and shouldn’t live without his mother.’ Izzaldin got inspired by the art therapy workshop and wants to start or join a similar volunteering initiative helping fellow refugees once he gets to Germany.
Kardastan and her family were among the first residents of the House for All shelter. ‘We only received love and met people who went out of their way to take care of us in Greece’, she says. ‘If it wasn’t for Doctors of the World Greece, I would have been a widow with three kids now.’
‘A doctor on the ferry from Kos to Athens brought us in touch with a DotW social worker when he saw how critical my husband’s condition was. We moved here as soon as the shelter opened, because it is easier to go to the hospital and we have more privacy.’
Before the war, her husband, who suffers from renal failure, had a little shop in a village nearby Damascus while she raised their 3 teenage sons at home. ‘We had a good life, better than most of our neighbours. I am glad we shared it with others as long as we could. You only realise how important something is when it is not there anymore, like friends and family.’
Every 3 months, her husband needs a blood transfusion to support a failing kidney. The war dried up all access to medical care, so the family of five was forced to escape on a strenuous journey with smugglers to Turkey. ‘In Syria, the only hospital that could treat my husband was located more than 13 kilometres away. It wasn’t worth taking the risk. You walk on the road and suddenly buildings start collapsing around you.’
‘You almost arrived too late.’ 16-year old Estifan still recalls the doctor’s words upon his father’s arrival in the hospital in Istanbul. Almost. Nothing more, but also nothing less. Just as everything worth defending can become defenceless, hopeless moments can give you superpowers. His father survived but couldn’t work and Kardastan had to take care of him and the youngest son (14), so Estifan and his older brother (17) did small jobs here and there in Istanbul for years, without work permit, to support their family.
They were hoping to join their eldest son who managed to make the trip from Turkey to Germany last summer when the route through the Balkans was still open, but are forced to put their hopes in family reunification procedures that could take months, even years.
‘He calls me every day, asking when we will be back together again. But I don’t know what to tell him. Nobody knows what will happen to us’, she sighs.
According to the latest UN’s refugee agency statistics, more than half of the estimated 50.000 refugees living in Greece since the EU-Turkey agreement came into action and the FYROM-Greece border slammed shut last spring are women and children.
Kurdestan: ‘My son will start studying German in September. A German host family is taking good care of him. I am blessed with my sons, but no family should be forced to live separate from each other.’