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.
December 8th Nihal and Rimas
Written by Jamie Janson and photos by Nickie Mariager-Lam
A Pink Smudge
The grainy procession of bedraggled figures pass by a camera onboard a Turkish Coastguard ship. The Turkish news story announces they have been rescued from drowning in the Aegean at the hands of people smugglers. As the video of the refugees plays on Hussein, our translator’s mobile phone, he points out a smudge of pink being carried past: Rimas, an 18 month old child.
She sits opposite us now on her mother’s lap in a Chios harbour cafe, her huge, dark brown eyes switching between the earnest adults around her and a plate of chips on the table. She is still dressed in the same clothes as in the TV news clip, with the addition of some leopard teddy bear slippers.
Her mother, Nihal, aged 26, remembers that night a little differently. It was one of her six attempts to escape from the wreckage of Syria to the safety of Europe, via Turkey, in an overcrowded boat. Each time was “terrible” and “indescribable”. On this occasion she says the Turkish crew purposefully tried to sink their dinghy by upsetting it with their bow wave and firing plastic bullets into the rubber sides. She clutched her tiny daughter and thought they were about to die. That part of the ‘rescue’ didn’t make it onto the news.
Nihal perhaps had a life closer to ours than many of the thousands of other people now trapped in chilly refugee camps across Europe. This is someone who would never have dreamt of looking for a better life in another country because she grew up in a comfortable home in Damascus, surrounded by the love of a close family. She was enjoying her university course, studying Arabic and Literature, and was in a happy marriage. As Nihal recalls her past life she gazes out over Chios harbour. The hills of Turkey are visible on the horizon.
Then the war came, her three sisters and two brothers were scattered to Saudi Arabia, Germany and Sweden, and her parents were left trapped in a city controlled by ISIS. The last possibility for a normal life for Nihal ended on the day, four months ago, that her 34 years old husband disappeared. She was two months pregnant.
Like so many other wives she was left with nothing but rumours and stonewalling by the Syrian Regime: she was told no-one knew where he was, she was told he would be released one day, she was told he was dead. She decided to flee the country while she still could.
At a Regime checkpoint between cities she was taken off the bus with around 20 other women, detained for 14 hours and almost executed, suspected of planning to join a militant opposition group. Only a bribe from the bus driver persuaded the soldiers to release the passengers to continue their journey.
With the help of relatives, who recommended a reliable people smuggler, Nihal and Rimas made it out of Syria to the port of Izmir. Nihal’s usually gentle face twists at the recollection of her time in Turkey. She had to stay in squalid ‘jungles’ – refugee camps consisting of roofless, derelict buildings, conditions little better than being left on the street. A pregnant woman, travelling alone with a small child, she was given substandard food and mocked for being a refugee. She was detained several times. On one occasion she suffered stomach pains but was given no medical assistance. Dismayed by the hardship and humiliations, she almost gave up and returned to Syria, but a message reached her from her parents: she was in danger and would be killed by the Regime if she returned home.
Added to the inhumane conditions was the stress of finding a smuggler to take them across the choppy Aegean to the Greek island of Chios. Peddled the usual lies about a safe, comfortable crossing in a yacht, Nihal found herself creeping down beaches at night, forced to keep Rimas silent for fear of being detected by Turkish police, wading waist-deep into the dark ocean, and being wedged into overcrowded dinghies, all the while terrified of suffering a miscarriage. Finally, her sixth attempt managed to evade the Coastguard and reach the longed for safety of Chios.
Little Rimas is quick to smile at us as we discuss her experiences, but she is more interested in getting her hands on a chip than these earnest volunteers scribbling notes. It seems unimaginable that this child has been put through so much unnecessary trauma. No-one, who is sane wakes up and goes to work in the morning intending to traumatise a child, but that is what thousands of European politicians and bureaucrats did to Rimas, with their grubby human trafficking deals with Turkey, lavish, continent-wide security infrastructure, and grudging humanitarianism.
Like the millions of others fleeing persecution and war (often partially or wholly caused by our governments), and the thousands who don’t survive their journeys across the Aegean and Mediterranean, Rimas has been let down by Europe, which, in the aftermath of the refugee crises of the Second World War, promised to never again abandon those fleeing to our borders from ‘a well-founded fear of persecution’.
Rimas is growing impatient with the chatter of adults, and the end of the plate of chips, so it is time to end the interview. Hopefully she is too young to be scarred by her experiences so far in her life. As for Nihal, she constantly worries about their uncertain future, but dreams of a life in Canada. She hopes that one day her husband, if he is still alive, can join her there, where they can give Rimas, and her second child soon due, the safe, secure family life that every child deserves.
(Note, people’s names and some minor details have been changed to protect their identities.)