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 Photos by: Nickie Mariager-Lam
When Omar first set foot in Greece he was a minor, but he will become an adult in a couple of weeks. However, does age really determine when you reach the end of childhood? When are you supposed to take on adult responsibilities and reach some kind of maturity? Nothing of what this boy has gone through is meant to happen to a child. Maybe that’s why he not only looks older, but also wiser than any other teenager around. Unfortunately, Omar’s story is not only his life turned into words but an example of what millions of children have experienced and are still experiencing this very second.
This young Syrian man reached Chios on the 1st of October. After a visit to the doctor he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and severe depression. He suffers nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and panic attacks. War destroyed not only his childhood but also his innocence, his mental health, his hopes.
The world wasn’t always a cruel and relentless place to live in. Once upon a time, not so long ago, this 17 years old had a simple, ordinary life, which included school attendance, friends, games, family and even a swimming pool. Because you should know that Omar is an excellent swimmer, who used to train three times a week, at least five hours a day, and he competed all around his home city, Aleppo. Now he sleeps ten feet away from a cold and inhospitable sea that represents the beginning of the other side, the door to a different world, one filled with destruction and grief.
And he knows what the Aegean divides. He knows because he has seen it with his own eyes and touched it with his own hands. He lost an uncle in Aleppo and five very close friends, whom he still misses every day. His house and school were both destroyed by airstrikes and there were moments in his hometown were he felt unable to breathe. It was the checkpoints, the bombs, the expensive prices, the scarcity of food, the smell of death everywhere he turned. They were forced to escape. They had to get out and they did, last August.
So after paying some human smugglers, the eight members of Omar´s family hit the road to Turkey, where they spent months alternating between a relative’s house and the freezing Izmir “jungle”.
When he remembers those days, he still shivers. Omar believes Turkey is only an idyllic place for tourists. If you’re a refugee, it’s a different story, and a very unpleasant one. Violence, shouting and abuse were the only things he experienced there. All of which only worsened his mental condition and made him feel abandoned and forgotten, as if he didn’t belong to this world, as if no one cared.
From Turkey to Chios
Nevertheless, one morning, at ten o’clock, they all put on their lifejackets and were launched out into the Aegean. They made it to Chios beach, and it was some other refugees already on the island that came to their rescue and helped pull them ashore. It was a good day, although every single member of this Syrian family was sick by then and in need of medical attention.
Omar is the eldest of four brothers and two sisters and when his father flew to Athens some weeks ago, looking for a job opportunity to survive, he became the head of the family, here in Souda Camp.
Obviously, it’s an incredibly demanding job. He is not the only member of his family with terrible, invasive memories. They are all broken inside and have also been diagnosed with anxiety disorders and PTSD. The nights here are long, the pain is deep and there are wounds, which can’t be healed in a refugee camp.
Omar doesn’t remember how feeling safe used to be. Just to be able to lie back and relax for a while. After surviving Aleppo and Turkey he finds Souda still a fairly dangerous place, where anything can happen to a family and where violent fights are a frequent occurrence. So Europe isn’t that ideal place where Human Rights and tranquillity are so often associated with the name. It is still a scary place where you must beware, and always remain watchful.
Omars dream of becoming a doctor
Regardless of his difficult situation and his complicated day-to-day life, Omar attends school and cooks every day for the rest of the refugees. He has become an amazing sous chef, and enjoys chopping vegetables and the freedom of working in a simple kitchen.
But this boy has a dream that is far from these cookers and aprons. He wants to be a university student someday soon, and one day become a doctor. He repeats this idea all the time and the words, dream, study, university, medicine, achieve in his mouth a powerful meaning and message. “We need a permanent solution, not this. We can’t go back to our country, we only ask for a safe place and a future. A chance to live, to become normal people, again.”