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 24 amazing stories about the people we are so blessed to spend our everyday with.
December 19th: Walat
Written by Diana Valdecantos and photos by Nickie Mariager-Lam
Walat was just hours late. His whole life would be different if he had reached the coast of Greece barely half a day before. He even tried to do so, but unfortunately, he was intercepted by police. By the time he crossed the Aegean Sea again, everything had changed.
The European Union made a decision a couple of days before Walat set sail. “All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey”. That exact same day, in the morning, this 31-year-old Syrian arrived on Chios, a small Greek island in the Aegean. Considering the circumstances of the journey, especially the fact that he doesn’t know how to swim, Walat felt lucky he made it. He finally was in Europe, the land of opportunities. What he didn’t know at that time was that he would be stuck in the island for nine months, and still counting.
Before the Souda Refugee Camp existed, refugees were sent directly to Vial. Walat had the doubtful privilege of becoming this military-run camp’s first tenant. He occupied the container marked with “Room 1”.
For ten days, he shared this brand-new way of life with six other Syrians. However, problems are easy to find within vulnerable and desperate people and Walat decided, after some violent fights took place, to abandon Vial and search for some peace in another place around the island.
The same port where he first arrived, a few meters away from Souda, was where he found his next improvised home. Like him, many other refugees found in this spot a reasonable and safe place in the moat of the Chios Castle, and that was how Souda started becoming what it is today, a refugee camp for more than a thousand people.
Walat’s days since last spring can easily be described as a boring succession of identical routines. He wakes up to stand in line for breakfast, he walks to the city square for free wifi, then back to join the line for lunch, he charges his phone and the finally in line for dinner. Each day is similar to the next. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Trapped on this island waiting and waiting for a solution that never comes.
Lucky him, Walat is a patient man and has a story to prove it. For more than four years he has never slept in a house or known the warmth of a home. Always running away, always trying to survive.
Before Souda, he spent two and a half years in another refugee camp in Erbil, Irak. A place he shared with other 12.000 Syrians who also escaped the dangers of a cruel war that doesn’t seem to finish. In comparison with Souda, Erbil was a five-star hotel as he describes it. “We had everything we needed. A variety of food that came from a good restaurant, bigger and more comfortable tents, electricity with no restrictions, hot water, the children had proper places to play during the day, it was a safe place…” Everything worked better in Erbil. He even got a job in a NGO and was responsible to administer the camp’s machinery with gasoline. “I was happy and I asked for asylum and got it”, he remembers.
Last February, nevertheless, ISIS conquered the cities around the camp, one of them, only 40 kilometres away. A hard blow for Walat who is Kurdish and feared the terrorist group would harm him or kill him if they attacked the camp. At that moment, he thought about travelling to Europe for the first time.
But before Souda and Erbil, Walat lived for a year in a medical company factory near Damascus, where he worked almost all day long and where, like these last nine months, every day was pretty much the same. Two years before, he “only” worked twelve hours a day for the medical company and was able to sleep in his family’s house for a 15.000 Syrian pounds wage (about 250 euros).
Work and working hard is all Walat knows. He had other dreams, of course, but his father´s delicate health problems forced him to abandon his French Language Degree at the local University, and he started working, dying clothes. “I always wanted to learn many languages”, he confesses with a smile. He simply couldn’t keep up with a job which started at 11 pm and ended at 7 in the morning. And then, without a break, run to his classes at university at 8 am until six in the afternoon. It was inhuman. He couldn’t bear it.
It was also frustrating because everything he earned he had to give to his parents, which left him in a vulnerable position considering his future. No money means you can’t start your own family, your own life. And this was even so before the war started. When there were still no bombs, no checkpoints, no airstrikes, no killings.
More than a decade ago though, Walat had a normal and simple life. He enjoyed playing cards, video games, watching movies, reading history books and, of course, football. For now, this Real Madrid fan has to wait and see if Europe considers him a “proper refugee” and gives him the opportunity he, in this writer’s humble opinion, for sure deserves.