All Eida Karmi wants is to see her family. It’s the simple desire of a grandparent, but she’s no ordinary grandmother.
At 115 years old Eida could be Syria’s oldest refugee.
The country didn’t even exist when she was born. In her lifetime, she has seen two world wars and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Now after escaping her war-torn homeland she sleeps rough in a refugee camp in Greece, still hundreds of miles from her family in Germany.
“The only thing I need in life now is just to meet my children again — to see them,” she tells CNN with a gritty determination that belies her years.
A woman on a mission
Eida arrived at the Moria refugee camp over a month ago thanks to the kindness of old family acquaintances, one of whom carried her hundreds of kilometers to safety.
Her hero’s name is Ahmed and together with his wife, Berivan, they helped bring the centenarian to Europe.
It’s a feat few would have even considered. Their kind act made even more remarkable when you know the pair have four small children, all under the age of six, with another one the way before Christmas.
Ahmed traveled from Kobani to Eida’s hometown of Hasaka, a northeastern city over three hours away, collecting her before the entire party left Syria almost six months ago.
“I realized it’s really tiring for you,” Eida admits to Ahmed when asked about his superhuman effort. The bonds forged on the roads clear in their easy interactions. Eida has become a de facto member of the family.
However, she soberly adds: “But I can’t walk — and if you didn’t do it nobody would do it, so you’ve been with me the whole journey carrying me and look (sic) after me.”
The treacherous journey from Kobani to Turkey took them three months, Ahmed says, followed by another month trying various routes from Turkey into Greece.
He describes how they initially tried to cross through the northern land border, but Greek authorities refused to allow them through and sent them back. Eventually Ahmed says he paid smugglers and risked the short but dangerous sea crossing.
Eida and her surrogate family are just seven of the 94,642 souls, according to the latest figures from the UNHCR, who have successfully undertaken the perilous trip by sea. The Moria camp, where they sought shelter, is now temporary home to over 4,000 of those migrants, the Greek government estimates.
Where to next?
Eida is one step closer to her own family, who are now in Germany, after they left Syria five and a half years ago. The war was entering its second year but a defiant Eida had been unwilling to leave then.
Speaking to CNN from Germany, her grandson Samir says: “We are waiting desperately for the day we are reunited.”
When we meet Eida she is getting ready for the next stop: Athens. Slowly she hobbles into the port with purpose. With hunched shoulders, her eyes dart around looking for the nearest place to rest as Ahmed presents their documentation for departure.
Once the group reaches Athens, Eida hopes to be granted asylum in Germany under the EU’s family reunification program and sent to her family.
Giorgos Kosmopoulos, a researcher on refugee rights for Amnesty International says as shocking as Eida’s story is, she at least has options.
“In some way she’s lucky,” he says. “She has the opportunity to move on to mainland Greece and possibly rejoin her family in Germany.”
He adds that for many others, without family already in Europe, the island is basically an “open prison” where refugees wait “months on end” in “appalling reception conditions.”
‘I can’t make the journey without you’
This is the same uncertainty Ahmed and his young family face. He wants to take them to Austria — how exactly he plans on doing that is unclear.
As their time traveling together draws to a close, Ahmed has been being trying to prepare Eida for the separation. But the obstinate centenarian is not having any of it.
“Without you?” she asks him, shaking her head stubbornly. “I can’t make this journey without you.”
But this is where the journey will end for the family today. A clerical error in their documents prevents them from going any further.
“I come here they tell me you cannot travel,” Ahmed says, tired and frustrated. “Send the people back if you don’t want them.
“We sold everything we have just to be safe and now we are in this bad situation.”
With passport in hand, Eida asks Ahmed why they cannot board the vessel. He tries to explain but doesn’t know how. The look in his eyes conveys the reality of the situation and Eida disappointingly shakes her head.
“Where is the humanity? There is no humanity,” Ahmed says.
There is little choice but to leave — the ferry has departed. A local NGO comes to the rescue when the family realizes they have nowhere to go next, offering them a warm place to sleep in a privately-operated refugee camp.
Two days later, Eida, Ahmed and his family all boarded a ferry to Athens, where they will remain as they work out their next move.
The journey is by no means over but for 115 year-old Eida, she is now one step closer to completing her odyssey. And she won’t give up until she is in the loving embrace of her family.