A Syrian in Greece: remembering better days, hoping to return one day

News Stories, 17 May 2013

© UNHCR/B.Szandelsky
Leilah holds a photo album, the most important thing she managed to bring with her to Greece. It reminds her of happier times with her family and her missing husband back in Syria.

ATHENS, Greece, May 17 (UNHCR) Leilah can't hold back the tears when she leafs through the family photo album. It's the only thing she managed to bring with her from Syria a potent reminder of better days with her husband and six children in their home country.

They led a happy and relatively comfortable life running a small village shop in northern Syria until the war broke out more than two years ago. Today, the 40-year-old Leilah lives in a dilapidated apartment in Athens with her children, two of whom were out looking for work when UNHCR visited. Her husband remained in Syria and she has no idea if he is safe or not.

Leilah, who asked that her name be changed, is among several thousand Syrian civilians who made their way to Greece in search of safety. Many of them thought that their ordeal would end when they reached Europe. But they got a rude shock the Syrians were regarded as irregular entrants in Greece.

Until recently, they were detained in substandard conditions, following the issuance of deportation orders. "Administration detention for the purpose of removal was ordered in cases of irregular entry and stay in a systematic manner, irrespective of the fact that returns are impossible to implement [because of the continuing conflict in Syria]," said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, who heads UNHCR's office in Greece.

When released, Syrians have to fend for themselves. They receive no welfare, nor legal documentation that would provide them with a chance for a decent living in the country.

Things have been no different for Leilah during her nine-month ordeal in Athens. One of the most difficult times for the family was when the Greek police arrested Leilah's two eldest sons for lacking documentation. "It felt as if one of my limbs was torn off. I was at a loss," she recalls.

"I used to visit the police station where they were detained almost every day and asked for my sons. But every single day I was turned away, without being given any specific information about the fate of my boys." Leilah's sons were eventually released after 33 days in detention.

Following UNHCR requests for an improvement in the treatment of Syrian refugees, the police last month issued a directive suspending the execution of expulsion or return orders for six months, renewable for as long as the situation in Syria remains unchanged. As a result, Syrians are being released from detention once their nationality is identified. The development was welcomed by UNHCR.

Today, Leilah is happy that she is reunited with all her children. She is also relieved that, thanks to assistance provided by fellow Syrians in Greece, she was able to find better accommodation than her former damp basement in the red-light district of Athens. The family had to share a few square metres with 16 other people.

Maarouf, a Syrian doctor who has lived in Greece for the past 28 years, is one of the few people offering assistance to needy Syrians. He knows their problems from experience. "Syrians arriving in Greece, mostly families with children, live under dramatic conditions," he says. "They have no means to survive and depend on help offered by other Syrians or non-governmental organizations. But their needs are huge."

As she looks at the photos of her husband and other relatives still in Syria, Leilah wonders whether she will ever see them again. "Leaving my country, my home, was like death for me," she says. "What keeps me going are my children and the hope that one day, when peace comes back to my country, I will be able to return home and feel alive again."

Until then, UNHCR believes that Syrians in Greece, like Leilah and her children, deserve appropriate levels of protection that allow them to live in dignity and safety.

By Stella Nanou in Athens, Greece