Damian Mac Con Uladh

Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Mariam’s story: one Syrian girl’s journey to Europe

In Greece on 5 May 2015 at 6:31 pm
Mariam in Athens, December 2014

Mariam in Athens, December 2014

I met and befriended Mariam (who was then 9 years old) and her father, Mohammed (40), on Syntagma Square, Athens, in November 2014 during the weeks-long protest by Syrian refugees for better treatment from Greece and the European Union. They had left Damascus two years before after their home was destroyed in a bombing, in which Mariam’s mother lost her life. After a two year odyssey that took them through Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and just over the border into Bulgaria, they made their first attempt to cross from the Turkish coast to a Greek island, nearly drowning on the way. Later, they were beaten by the cold trying to walk through forests at night in the Republic of Macedonia. Mariam, who insists on her rights as a child to life, health and education, was keen that her story be recorded. The text was written by her father and translated from the Arabic by @HanaaAbusedu, Gaza, Palestine.

This is the story of Mariam, who’s now ten years’ old, who is looking for a life or, to put it simply, to avoid experiencing the same pain and suffering for the second time.

When Mariam was in the first grade at school, she was creative, pleasing and an excellent pupil, who used her academic superiority to appear older. She was best in her class at reading in English and Arabic; learning to read and write in both Arabic and English came naturally to her.

All that time, she and I (her father) were trying to overcome and pretend to forget the catastrophic events, which had started to besiege Damascus, where we lived.

She finished the first grade and moved up to the second, but the flames were approaching our area of Yarmouk in Damascus. It was as if it was raining fire on the area, and our biggest loss was when a bomb hit our house. That was a disaster that cannot be forgotten.

Nevertheless, Mariam and I were outside the house. Events began to overtake us until eventually all Yarmouk’s residents were forced to leave it after rebel forces entered it and regime aircraft started to bomb the district, sparking a mass exodus. Sometimes abbreviation is necessary, not in an attempt to exclude certain events, but to avoid painful memories. Read the rest of this entry »


Police remove Syrian refugees from Syntagma

In Greece on 15 December 2014 at 9:17 am
(Photo: Screengrab/Omnia TV, YouTube)

(Photo: Screengrab/Omnia TV, YouTube)

Fifty-one Syrian refugees, among them six women and two children, who were sleeping out on Syntagma Square as part of a protest that started almost a month ago were removed by police in the early hours of Monday morning and reportedly taken to the aliens department on Petrou Ralli street.

According to a solidarity committee that has been supporting the Syrians, a contingent of police arrived to where the Syrians were sleeping at around 2.45am and quickly ordered them into a waiting police van. The same reports said that some of the Syrians were taken away barefoot as they had not been given time to gather their belongings, including important papers and documents that they had stored in bags. The committee said one Syrian was struck in the mouth and left bleeding.

A short time later, municipal cleaning crews arrived and removed the Syrians belongings and dismantled the temporary structures they had erected.

The Syrians began their protest on November 19 in order to highlight their predicament as refugees. They are seeking ways to continue their journeys to preferred destinations in Europe, where many have family or can expect to receive the necessary support as refugees.

The Greek authorities have said they can accept up to ten asylum applications from Syrians per day but warned that apart from access to healthcare, the state is not in a position to support the Syrians in any other way.

Some days ago, a number of Syrian families were taken to municipal hostels, where they have been accommodated.

Other sources: OmniaTV

Putting theory into practice for Syria’s refugee children

In Greece on 10 December 2014 at 12:59 pm

Screenshot 2014-12-10 12.54.21

According to YouTube, this video was most-watched in Greece in 2014. Made by Save the Children UK, the tragic second-a day clip shows what could happen to a young girl’s life were war ever to break out in Britain.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent many hours talking to the Syrian war refugees who have been protesting their plight on Syntagma Square in Athens since November 19.

The Save the Children video doesn’t even come near to describing what Mariam, a wonderful nine-year-old girl, has experienced in the three years since her mother was killed in Damascus. Yet, after an ordeal that has taken her and her father though wartorn Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and now Greece, all that’s on offer for them, as they’ve been told, is asylum in Greece without any support whatsoever. A cynical offer, one that would effectively leave them homeless and destitute and without the support of relatives (in Germany and Sweden) that she and her father need.

Is that the best the EU can do for these people? Isn’t it time to translate the public’s sympathy for the plight of children made refugees by war – as the popularity of the hypothetical British video in Greece suggests – into concrete action to help the Syrian refugees?

That my native country of Ireland should feel somehow satisfied that it has resettled 201 Syrians and has plans to take in 220 more – out of a total of 3,200,000 Syrian refugees – is shameful when one considers that Greece receives that number and more every few days.

Mariam (9)

Mariam (9)

Syrian refugees’ case reaches European Court of Human Rights

In Greece on 8 December 2014 at 11:13 am
Syrian refugees prepare for their 19th night sleeping on Syntagma Square in central Athens (Photo: @NickBarnets/Twitter)

Syrian refugees prepare for their 19th night sleeping out on Syntagma Square in central Athens (Photo: @NickBarnets/Twitter)

Europe’s human rights court is expected to issue a decision early this week on an emergency case taken on behalf of some of the hundreds of Syrian refugees who have been camped out in central Athens to highlight their plight for almost three weeks.

The Syrians, among them many unaccompanied minors, families with young children and elderly, last night completed their 19th night camped out on Syntagma Square, with only rudimentary plastic sheeting to protect them from the rain and low temperatures.

They took the decision to protest in front of the Greek parliament on November 19, in an attempt to convince the government to find a solution to their acute problems. Since then, some of the protesters embarked on a hunger strike.

The application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), taken in the name of 30 Syrians, maintains that the refugees, who risked their lives in fleeing their war-torn country and in reaching Greece, should have been given automatic protection upon their arrival in Greece, according to national, European and international standards. This would also mean that they be afforded reception conditions in terms of housing, food and other support.

The decision from the Strasbourg-based court could come as soon as Monday or Tuesday, according to human rights lawyer Electra Leda Koutra, who submitted the case under the court’s rule 39 on interim measures, which are urgent measures that apply only where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm.

Among the 30 Syrians seeking the interim measure is a 12-year-old child who is an unaccompanied minor. A “holder of a Syrian passport, he has been left without information, without any kind of support, guardianship or monitoring, on the Greek streets, after having been considered ‘deportable’ to a war zone”, the application states.

Although the child has indicated that he would consider applying for asylum in Greece, he has said this would be conditional on him being promptly reunited with his brother, a recognised refugee, in Sweden. However, any such applications from unaccompanied minors would take at least eight months to process, according to the application to the court.

Although the government has said it could process up to ten applications for refugee status a day, the application to the ECtHR argues that this is a wholly inadequate response to the situation as it envisages offering homeless refugees no accommodation or support in the meantime and would thus leave them to fend for themselves and exposed to racist attacks, among other dangers.

The application also maintains that what Greece is offering to the Syrians in terms of reception conditions should they obtain refugee status is unacceptable under the country’s international obligations. In a leaflet, interior ministry officials told the Syrians that only a few women with small children would be accommodated in a hosting facility, and no subsistence or other support would be possible, “because of the Greek state’s financial crisis”.

“That documents admits in the most public – but also cynical – way that Greece cannot offer the reception conditions guaranteed by the CEAS [Common European Asylum System] on EU ground. No housing, no food, no clothing, no social and integration services are to be automatically offered, despite the opposite legislative guarantees,” Koutra told A Gael in Greece.

She adds that under Greek presidential decree 80/2006, which transposes into national law European Council directive 2001/55, the country may offer temporary protection to refugees without obliging them to apply for asylum. This would require the permission of the European Commission and Council, but Greece would need to propose it.

“This they could not refuse. This could certainly take place concerning the Syrians,” Koutra believes. “Legally, the Syrians have a chance to succeed in what they are asking, even if they don’t know the law. They are members of a large group, have come to Greece thinking it was a safe place. If Greece cannot guarantee them this, it should not obstruct them. If there is a crisis, Greece must admit this and request help.”

As the Strasbourg court has been informed by the lawyer, all the other Syrian applicants named in the case have said they will refuse to apply for asylum in Greece.

The overall situation pushes Syrians into taking unconventional ways to reach safe EU countries, the application points out, putting their lives in great danger in the process. Already, two Syrians who were part of the Syntagma protest have died while attempting to make it to western Europe on foot, including a doctor, Ayman Ghazal. On Monday, one of the Syrian protesters provided A Gael in Greece with the names of four other Syrians who died recently died after leaving Greece in forests of neighbouring countries: Nizar Sourki, who died in Macedonia, and Mohammad Aryan, Ismael Alahmad and Khaled Husain Basha, who died in Albania.

The application points to a series of ECtHR rulings that established that asylum seekers have been left in an extremely vulnerable situation and humiliated in Greece due to the failure by the authorities to act on its obligations under the EU’s reception directive. Other rulings from the court have found that asylum seekers have been subjected to “degrading treatment” in the country’s detention centres. These rulings effectively prohibit a number of EU countries from deporting asylum seekers to Greece.

She has told the court that “Recognising that Greece finds itself in a situation in which it is almost impossible to meet the needs of persons in analogous status … we requested that the Greek Government should at least recognize that fact and let them proceed to other EU countries, in any legal way possible.”

“We are of the view that, accepting to ‘gradually’ apply for asylum at this stage (as protesters), just for the ‘title’ of it, without the rights and benefits escorting the status of an asylum seeker, does not constitute an effective remedy for the applicants, in the meaning of the [European human rights] convention. It would not move them to a position of safety, and it would not redress the rights the applicants are complaining about. Moreover, it would take about two months for all the protesters to be registered, which would mean that, besides their guaranteed rights, they would have to spend winter in the Athenian streets, in a situation that is menacing their lives, bodily and mental integrity –not to mention their dignity as human beings,” she explained to the court.

Koutra hopes that whatever the outcome, the decision from the court will be extremely important. She points out that on November 26, two days after submitting her application, the ECtHR responded promptly and, applying an urgent procedure, requested the Greek government to clarify a number of points regarding the Syrians by December 5.

Firstly, the court asks the government to describe the situation the Syrians find themselves in. Second, to clarify on what measures it envisages for particularly vulnerable Syrians, such as women with young children and unaccompanied minors. Thirdly, it calls on the Greek government to explain how it intends to process asylum applications, and, finally, to explain in what conditions the asylum applicants would be obliged to wait while their applications are being processed.

Syrian from Athens refugee protest dies trying to enter Albania

In Greece on 5 December 2014 at 10:43 am
Leaflets with a photo of Dr Ayman Ghazal were distributed last night at the Syrian protest (Photo: @giorgospanagaki/Twitter)

Leaflets with a photo of Dr Ayman Ghazal were distributed last night at the Syrian protest (Photo: @giorgospanagaki/Twitter)

A doctor who was part of the protest that Syrian refugees started two weeks ago in Athens to highlight their plight has died trying to cross the Greek–Albanian border, other Syrians at the protest said on Thursday.

They named him as Dr Ayman Ghazal, who was around 50 and originally from Aleppo. Friends said that after spending a ten days at the protest, he felt it was in his best interest to continue his journey to northern Europe and what he hoped would be safety.

According to the Deport Racism website, the doctor had tried to cross the Greek–Albanian border with a group of 30 people. They had taken a bus to Ioannina, in Epirus, and from there they reached Kakavia border crossing by taxi.

From there, they started to walk towards the border. After a four-hour trek, they came to a stream which they had to cross, up to their waists in water. Sometime later, Dr Ghazal had a seizure. When his friends phoned for an ambulance, they were told to return to Kakavia. The police also told them the same thing.

His comrades then set off for Kavakia, carrying Dr Ghazal on a sleeping bag. Outside Kakavia, they came across an ambulance, which transported him to the nearest hospital, where he died.

The others in the group were then arrested and detained in a police station from midnight to 6am. While in custody, they claim police swore at them, saying things like: “Go to Syntagma where they have blankets and free food, fuckers!”

The rest of the group are now back in Athens.

Abdulghafour Tammaa, one of the protesters on Syntagma, tweeted that Dr Ghazal had died in an Albanian forest “of the cold”, adding that his “dream of Europe” had perished with him.

According to a post on the Facebook page of the Syrian protesters, the dead man’s family are in Mersin, Turkey.

About 200 Syrian refugees, among them elderly, women and children, have been camped out on Syntagma Square in central Athens since November 19. The numbers at the protest swell during the day with other Syrians who have accommodation elsewhere. The Syrians want to be allowed continue their journeys to countries they say will guarantee them protection as war refugees. According to EU rules they must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter, but the Syrians say that Greece has no infrastructure to support them.

Dr Ghazal’s death highlights the perilous nature of the journey war refugees and other migrants take in their desperate attempts to reach safe countries. In November, eight migrants were killed when they were hit by trains in neighbouring Republic of Macedonia while another man, a 23-year-old Afghan, died when the board he was strapped onto beneath a train broke.

Last night, their 16th camped out on Syntagma square, Syrians and their supporters lit candles and held up photographs of Dr Ghazal in his memory.

This video, recorded by the MultiKulti website on the rainy night of December 3, shows the difficult conditions faced by the Syrians on Syntagma Square: 

Remembering the Greek refugees in Aleppo by helping the Syrian refugees in Athens

In Greece on 25 November 2014 at 10:28 am
Greek refugees at Aleppo (Photo: Library of Congress)

Greek refugees at Aleppo (Photo: Library of Congress)

My article in yesterday’s Irish Times on the protest of Syrian refugees on Syntagma Square in Athens generated a mixed response on Facebook, where, among other places, I posted it on the page of the sadly defunct Athens News.

The Syrians, among them dozens of children, including a baby, have completed their sixth night sleeping outdoors. Yesterday, a number of them commenced a hunger strike. They want Greece to allow them continue their journey to other EU countries where many have family or know they will receive protection.

From the comfort of their keyboards, a number of commenters on the Athens News page expressed their view on why Syrians deserve no help from Greece, with common arguments being that Syrians are somehow incompatible with Greece or Europe for religious reasons (an opinion shared by a number of expatriate Greeks) or that Syrians should seek refugee with neighbouring “Arab/Muslim” countries. It seems they are unaware of the facts: the statistics show that the vast majority of Syrian refugees have sought refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

One commenter, possibly from Syria, reminded them, however, that there was time when Greeks sought refugee in Syria by posting a photograph from the Library of Congress photo archive. The undated photo, entitled “Greek refugees at Aleppo”, shows a group of raggedly dressed people, young boys to the fore, lined up, waiting to be fed. In the foreground, a woman, with a can of some sorts at her feet, stands next to a cart on which something is being cooked. Underneath the scanned photo, what’s left of a caption states “12,000 Greeks were fed by the Americans”.

A close-up of the photo (Library of Congress)

Whose ancestors are they? A close-up of the photo (Library of Congress)

According to one account of the forced exchange of population between Greece and Turkey (full book here), as agreed under the 1923 Lausanne treaty, there were 17,000 Greek refugees from Asia Minor in various Syrian cities. So grave was the situation, that in August 1923, the head of the Greek refugees in Aleppo cabled the foreign ministry in Athens, requesting that it prohibit any more Greeks from reaching the city, where “it has become impossible to admit further refugees”.

The situation in general for Greek refugees in the summer of 1923 was described as “tragic and precarious”, which is also the case for the Syrians on Syntagma, as these photos show:

No doubt, just as the Syrian refugees protesting in Syntagma don’t want to be in Greece, the Greek refugees in 1923 did not want to be in Syria. They wanted to reach Greece, a country most of them had never seen but hoped would at least put them out of danger.

Reaching Greece did offer them protection, even though many of the refugees would admit that they were subjected to discrimination by the indigenous population for years after their arrival. People like Katina, one former refugee from Asia Minor, who days before her death at the age of 92 in 2010 recalled how her destitute family was treated when they reached Greece: “They [the neighbours] wouldn’t give us any coal. Yes, there was a lot of racism.”

In 2014, it’s obscene that refugees fleeing a brutal war should be sleeping on the streets of a European capital city. This is Europe’s shame and the Syrians deserve better.

Syrian sleep-in on Syntagma completes sixth night

In Greece on 24 November 2014 at 8:55 am
Syrians on Syntagma (Photo: Damian Mac Con Uladh)

Syrians on Syntagma (Photo: Damian Mac Con Uladh)

I spent just under two hours listening to the Syrian refugees on Syntagma Square on Sunday, where they’ve been sleeping out since last Wednesday to highlight the conditions they have faced since arriving in Greece.

Most seemed anxious to tell their story, to have it recorded somewhere that their wife was killed in a bomb blast or to say that they have no idea where their families are. Or to explain how their sister has been in a Greek jail for six months on false charges of trafficking. And how her two children, who came to Greece subsequently, are now in a Greek orphanage and how their uncle had to battle to get to see them (he’s now allowed visit for an hour every ten days).

Some of their stories I managed to include in an article entitled “Syrian refugees seek fresh start from Greek destitution”, published in today’s Irish Times, which you might like to read.

More testimony from the Syrians is available on the Greek Crisis Review blog.

For the latest updates from the Syrian protest, follow #SyrianRefugeesGR on Twitter.