Leaving their devastated homeland behind, Alan Mohammad and his sister, Gyan, embarked on a journey that would see them negotiate hazardous mountain terrain and cross perilous seas.
A challenging journey for many, made even harder as the two siblings are bound to wheelchairs.
Both have muscular dystrophy, a hereditary disease that causes muscles to weaken and degrade.
“Until now I cannot believe it… I was very afraid,” Alan, 30, says. “My friends here say, how (did) you cross the border between Iraq and Turkey with mountains, with valleys… It’s very difficult.”
On the rugged and brutal trail from their home in Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria to Iraq, to Turkey and onto Europe, they were strapped atop horses — wheelchairs and all — and smuggled to a small boat destined for Greece.
But this is just a pit stop in a longer flight to freedom. Ultimately, the pair hope to head to Germany, where they wish to be reunited, under the EU’s family reunification program, with their father and sister who, they say, arrived there about 10 months ago.
For now, this is home — Ritsona refugee camp, a temporary site set up about 50 miles from Athens. Alan and Gyan, along with their mother and two other siblings, have been stranded here — along with around 500 other fleeing refugees — for about six months, at the junction between desperate need and European failure.
Around 60,000 people are stuck in Greece — mostly Syrian refugees. That may seem low in number when compared to the hundreds of thousands that applied for asylum in Germany last year. But that doesn’t make the feeling of limbo any less legitimate for the people stranded here.
“Waiting is very difficult because you don’t know what the next step will be for you,” says Alan. “Just waiting, waiting, waiting.”
The EU may be a wealthy union of some 500 million people, but the 28 member states have been unable to fairly distribute the millions of refugees fleeing war and poverty at home.
And so the reality is that countries that can least afford it, such as economically troubled Greece, which is struggling through its third EU bailout, are shouldering a difficult burden.
“We, the Greeks, are paying a huge toll — financially, economically, socially — but we are still in Europe and standing up for it,” President Prokopis Pavlopoulos told me. “Unfortunately, other peers of ours, other members of the EU lack this mentality. They have to acquire it.”
That aid slowly trickles down directly to Alan, Gyan and their family along with the other refugee families sheltering at Ritsona’s rugged campsite. When they first arrived, they say they found just two hot showers to accommodate “about 1,000” people, although that has improved over time.
They also limited access to electricity and the internet — key assets for those living here as it is through these resources they are able to apply and file forms for asylum.
Last week, the EU pledged to more than double emergency aid to Greece by providing 115 million euros ($129 million), in addition to the 83 million euros ($93 million) it gave earlier this year. These funds have been earmarked to improve living conditions and, importantly, to make education available for refugee children. These fleeing youngsters have been out of school for an average of 18 months, according to research conducted by Save the Children.
But for those sheltering here, like Alan and Gyan, their vital need is asylum and legal status. Amnesty International is trying to raise the profile of their case to pressure European states to swiftly accept refugees from Greece. But it remains a slow and arduous process that can take weeks or even months just to get the first appointment with the right officials.
Despite all he has seen and endured, Alan is an optimist. Greek authorities have now set an interview date for September 26 — and with this development comes hope. Hope that he and his family can continue on to Germany, where his father has just received his refugee papers allowing him to reside in the country for the next three years.
“Now I feel I have a chance to be with my father (and) my sister in Germany,” he says. “Maybe it will take a few months more, but we still have the chance.”
In the meantime, here at the Ritsona refugee camp, Alan, who worked as a teacher back home, is sharing the only wealth he has: his knowledge of English. He’s teaching the children, knowing they and their parents may need it as they try to navigate the bureaucracy of life as an asylum seeker.