In order to give people outside Chios the possibility to understand how it is to be in a refugee camp on the island, A Drop in the Ocean will present an alternative Christmas calendar this year. Each day until Christmas, we will post the story of 24 amazing people, that we are so blessed to spend our everyday with.
The stories are written by our wonderful volunteer Diana Valdecantos and photos will be done by our amazing coordinator and photographer Nickie Mariager-Lam.
December 4th: Loay
Written by Diana Valdecantos and photos by Nickie Mariager-Lam
Loay lived in Germany for almost two years not so long ago. He was a decorator and made more than 3.000 euros per month. But this 27 years old Lebanese missed his family and went back to his country to start his own business. Now he is trapped in Souda Camp waiting to go back the European adventure that, that it seems, he should have never abandoned.
Loays’s life has never been easy. His sweet smile and calm temper allows him to accept his fortune in a peaceful state of mind. “My father always advised me to use my head, to think and reflect before acting”, he explains. And so he does. Maybe it is because being an atheist in a Muslim country gave him a broader life perspective and a strong sense of respect. He was born in Homms, Syria, were he lived for the first twenty years of his life. However, he never got Syrian nationality because his parents were Lebanese. Misfit became his reality. Not only because the people from Lebanon are an easy target to mock, apparently, their accent is considered too soft and are pointed out as gays; but because as a non religious person his options are drastically reduced in every single aspect of everyday existence.
For example, such a simple routine as getting an id card became impossible. No religion, no identity. He also wasn’t allowed to work, or marry Christians or Muslims. Religion is a very controversial matter and in Syria, Muslims work with Muslims and Christians with Christians. There are no other options – mixing amongst religions is not common in Syria, and Loay felt kind of left out his whole life. “There were 103 atheists in my city and I was one of them. Probably there’s more but they don’t admit it to avoid problems. They greeted me with a ´hey atheist´ when they saw me and criticized my way of life. They told me that I shouldn’t drink or meet girls I wasn’t going to marry, and I couldn’t speak freely about religion or many other topics”, he remembers.
When he turned 15 he combined school and learning with working very hard in a decoration shop. “Me and my four brothers had to work to help our parents. My day to day was a non stop run from the family house to school, from school to work and back again to sleep with my family”, he says. As he grew up his different way of believing became a more serious problem, even dangerous. “People didn’t want me to work for them, or be friends with me, they even blocked me on Facebook when they found out I was an atheist. It was very hard and sad. I also had to be very careful with girls, my life depended on it.
The families of some of my friends threatened to kill me if I got close to them and I was always kind of scared”, he admits. After some years of combining school and work, he was fired and wasn’t able to find any other job, so he decided to visit the country were his passport was from. At 20 years of age, Loay set foot in Beirut for the first time in his life. “It was good. There’s a different culture of freedom in Lebanon, though maybe not so different. You can drink, you can have sex before marriage, we have nudist beaches; but still, I was part of a minority. I was still the atheist. It was still very hard to find a job, so I decided to go back to Homs with my family. I´m very close with them, I need them near”. Syria was still dangerous and tough, and after awhile he decided to try his luck in Europe, so he travelled to Germany. “I was suddenly free. People didn’t ask if I was a Muslim or Christian, they didn’t care. For the first time, the deep religious people were the minority. They were the 103”, he remembers with a smile. So he had a nice simple life in Germany where he saved most of his money thinking of a near family reunion where they could all work and live together peacefully and without feeling in danger.
After 18 months of hard work and daily Skype calls with his siblings, he went back to Beirut to achieve his dream. Nevertheless, he was still “the atheist”, and after buying loads of equipment and spending his money in his new shop, he discovered his own neighbours didn’t want to work for a non-religious guy, not even if he offered them a significant salary. That’s how bad it was. Loay’s plans fell apart and he had lost all his savings trying just to be himself but then, when he tried to return to Germany, he wasn’t allowed by his own government to continue what he had achieved in Europe.
In his mind however it was clear. He had to go back. He flew to Istanbul and made his way to Izmir where he stayed in a 50 euros per night hotel with the promise of a boat trip to Greece. “Everyday the smugglers told me, you will travel tomorrow, but tomorrow never materialised and I spent a lot of money in Turkey waiting for a reasonable ticket price. At first they told me I had to pay 5.000 euros for a seat, but I didn’t believe it and I waited until a 400 dollars offer was presented to me. Then we went to Shichena, a beach near Izmir, where the boats set sail.”
Turkish police was however very vigilant, and five days went by before he was able to begin his journey. “That first time I was very frightened. I know how to swim and didn’t fear for my life, but was surprised to see that some of the other passengers didn’t even know they had to tie their life jacket. There was this 12 years old girl whose father was tying her to himself with a rope because she didn’t swim – she furthermore had no life jacket, so I gave her mine. I feared I wouldn’t be able to save the kids if something happened”, he explains.
As in almost every journey, waves made it extremely dangerous to sail. Water got inside the boat right where the kids were placed and everyone panicked. It was difficult to keep calm and the cries of the little ones were unbearable. At that time, they were intercepted by Turkish police and were taken to the Police department for identification. A few hours later they tried again to get into another boat, but they couldn’t travel and had to wait again until the following day. On the 18th of August, Loay reached Chios in Greece where he is still, now three and a half months later, waiting for an answer from the Greek government about his asylum.
Since his arrival, Loay he has become a really important figure in Souda Camp. His profound sense of respect and his instinct to help others has given him a certain status among the rest of the refugees. Whenever someone has a problem, Loay tries to solve it and his special heart has touched not only his “comrades”, but also the locals and the NGO volunteers. He arranges meetings with members of all the different nationalities in his tent were he cooks delicious meals and everyone feels at home. He is always ready to aid anyone who has difficulty within the camp, maybe because he understands first hand how you feel when you’re having a tough time. How differences are not a bad thing but just a colourful pattern.