Follow our Advent Calendar, where we will introduce 24 stories from people in the refugee camps where we work and from people we have met over the years in Greece. Every day we present a new story and let you have an insight into who the people on the run are.
By: Diana Valdecantos, edited by Jamie Janson Photos by: Nickie Mariager-Lam – all previous volunteers for A Drop in the Ocean
Samira and Ayaan
Peace is just a word in a dictionary for Samira and Ayaan. An unknown reality they have never experienced. These two sisters’ fate was determined the minute they were born on the wrong side of our planet. A place where death wins over life almost every time, and where growing old is a strange and lucky occurrence. Welcome to Mogadishu in Somalia.
Ayaan is 35 and Samira 27 years old. For the last six years they’ve been inseparable, like two peas in a pod. As the eldest, Ayaan takes the lead and tries to explain what growing up on the Horn of Africa is like. As Marguerite Duras once wrote, “Very early in their lives, it was too late”.
She speaks in a level-headed, almost impassive, manner, as she describes hunger, violence and poverty. “We’ve never witnessed a calm situation, we haven’t experienced any comfortable times”, she says. Even school was a luxury they couldn’t afford and that is why these two women, like so many other Somalis, are unable to read or write.
Ayaan got married and gave birth to a son ten years ago. It was an unhappy marriage where she was beaten and mistreated, which only ended after she begged her husband to divorce her. Not only was she miserable, but she suspected that the man she once loved was an Al-Shabaab collaborator. This Jihadist group pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and have been terrorising the region for almost a decade. They fight the so-called official Somali Government every day, and their armed confrontations have forced millions of people to flee their homes to avoid death or submission to an Islamist ideology.
Ayaan was even arrested by Al-Shabaab and detained for three days, waiting for the terrorists to decide her fate. It was then when she realized that her husband did not care about her, he didn’t even try to visit or find out what had happened. It is extremely dangerous to collaborate with the Jihadists in Mogadishu – you instantly become a target for the Government. Ayaan explains that they only have to suspect you are passing information to terrorists, or that you are sympathetic to Al-Shabaab’s aims, to face kidnapping, torture or death.
After those endless 72 hours, they let Ayaan go with only one warning: “Cover your whole face”. She then knew that her time in the land of her birth had come to an end. There was nothing she could do to protect herself, nothing she could really hope for in Somalia anymore. And her husband’s camaraderie with Al-Shabaab members was far too risky for her to handle anymore. Samira felt the same way, so, with no viable future in their country anymore, the two sisters decided to try their luck elsewhere. Yemen, at that time, seemed a good alternative. And it’s at this point, six years ago, that their odyssey began.
A perilous jorney
As they would end up doing several more times, they drew upon the help of smugglers to escape. This first step included a petrifying and dangerous boat trip, just like the one that brought them to Europe seven months ago. With no knowledge of sailing, or even the ability to swim, they set sail in a simple wooden boat and for 24 hours they dodged around pirates and Somali authorities along the coast of the Indian Ocean. A perilous journey that, fortunately, ended up with both of them safe and sound at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.
First stop, Yemen
Once in Yemen, they found rather pleasant jobs as nursemaids at a wealthy family`s home, where their days passed in tranquillity and they received a 150 dollars a month in salary. One day, however, they received a terrible phone call. Somali Government forces had broken into their house in Mogadishu and had shot dead their three brothers because they were suspected of helping Al-Shabaab. Their broken-hearted mother at the other end of the line was quite explicit: “Never come back here, it’s not safe for you”.
They overcame their grief as best they could and continued working for a couple of years, while Yemen’s revolution was taking place. The situation started to deteriorate and danger again entered their lives. They really didn’t know what to do or where to go to feel safe, but they kept seeing Yemenis and foreigners running away to Saudi Arabia’s mountains. And after weighing up the pros and cons, one day they decided to follow them. Two days later, they reached what they thought was their destination, but everything was just beginning.
Crossing Saudi Arabia on foot
This was the hardest part of their journey. For more than a month, they crossed Saudi Arabia on foot, with nothing more than their own will compelling them to survive. They slept outdoors and ate whatever they could find. Sometimes, farmers gave them food and water, and let them sleep in their houses or barns. They were very tired, very vulnerable, and exhausted.
The problem was they knew they couldn’t stay in that country. Refugees are not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, and without a job they couldn’t survive. So they kept walking and walking, only able to read the numbers on the few traffic signs they passed. As explained earlier, Ayaan and Samira are illiterate and couldn’t even pronounce the name of their destination – they just followed the smuggler’s instructions and counted the kilometres to their next stop, Jordan.
From Jordan to Syria and Turkey
They knew they had to continue. Here was the same problem as before: no job, no life, no future. And although Syria was disintegrating, they had no other choice than to cross the border and enter a terrifying warzone, in order to seek out a future. This time, the smuggler was waiting in a bus and helped them cross them over to Syrian territory. They were shocked the moment they arrived. Huge guns, checkpoints, airstrikes, bombs, death, and destruction – everywhere they looked on their journey to Damascus.
In the capital, they stayed fifteen days, and were beaten and slapped by Syrian soldiers several times. They were trembling and afraid they had reached the end of their lives every time they were stopped at a new checkpoint. To their surprise, they survived their crossing through Syria and made it all the way to Izmir, in Turkey, where they shared a large, overcrowded house with more than a hundred other people for another two weeks.
From Turkey to Chios
They were still afraid. Racism, especially towards black people, is very common in Turkey. Ayaan and Samira avoided the streets after the sun went down and were very cautious during the daytime. They had to be. After paying 200 dollars each, the two sisters started the next leg of their long journey and set sail for Europe. They feel they were very lucky: they made it to the Greek island of Chios on their first attempt. However, it was, again, a very dangerous journey, which took them five hours instead of 45 minutes. The journey took so long because a Turkish ship tried to intercept them en route. The Turkish authorities brandished their guns and manoeuvred their ship violently so that the little boat was buffeted by the artificial waves.
Fortunately, two more refugee boats appeared and the Turkish ship decided to try and stop them instead. Once the other boats disappeared, the rest of the journey became easier, and they finally made it to Chios. The refugees were so happy, so grateful to have another chance at life, they quickly phoned back home: “We are in Europe”, they said. This was on the 15th of May, and Samira and Ayaan have been living in Souda Camp ever since.
They are sometimes still scared, especially with all the fights that go on at night, but they feel more free and safe today than ever before. They don’t even know where they want to go in the future, they don’t really care. Anywhere will be better than what they have known and experienced in their lives until now. Now, almost 10,000 km away from where they started their pilgrimage, they are waiting for an answer from the Greek Government, and a solution to the question of where to go next. They seem considerably more happy today. “No one has the right to beat me here”, says Ayaan with a smile. For her, that is more than enough.
*This was written in december 2016.