A TALE OF TWO FAMILIES

 The twin sisters untangle their fishing wire in the early morning sun. Their family fled Iraq in early 2016. Lesbos, Greece. April 2017. 

The twin sisters untangle their fishing wire in the early morning sun. Their family fled Iraq in early 2016. Lesbos, Greece. April 2017. 

 Dimitrios and his son on their daily walk along the harbour. Lesbos, Greece. March 2017.

Dimitrios and his son on their daily walk along the harbour. Lesbos, Greece. March 2017.

This Spring, I teamed up with journalist Perla Trevizo to investigate what life on Lesbos is like for both refugees and local families. We focused on two families: an Iraqi family who were living in a hotel run by a Greek family, whose grandparents were refugees themselves in 1923.

The vivacious ten-year-old twin sisters from Iraq taught us to fish and showed us where they would stash the wire for their early morning fishing expeditions in the harbour near the hotel. They are smart and funny and mischievous. The hotel owner, Dimitrios, along with his mother and sister, shared their family history with us and gave us insight into the current challenges facing locals.

Don't miss the full story, published by Al Jazeera: A crisis within a crisis: Refugees in Lesbos

 Dimitrios Makris was the first hotel owner to take action when the snow came, as he drove to Moria camp to bring refugee families to stay in his hotel. Lesbos, Greece. March 2017.

Dimitrios Makris was the first hotel owner to take action when the snow came, as he drove to Moria camp to bring refugee families to stay in his hotel. Lesbos, Greece. March 2017.

Photos and text by Talitha Brauer, the photographer behind Brother’s Keeper International. Based in Berlin & with regular assignments in Greece, Brauer is active in helping refugees in her local community and seeks to put human faces and stories to complex social issues.

RAWDA, THE MOTHER

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Here is the voice of Rawda.

I want to be known as a mother. My nickname is Um Khalil. “Um” means “Mother” and “Khalil” is the name of my son. I should not be labeled only as refugee, my nickname even demonstrates my identity as a mother.
I would like to tell you a little bit about my life. Here are the chapters of my life.
Childhood  I grew up with a father that always supported and wanted the best for us. Although I didn’t enjoy school, I was happy during childhood.
Marriage  Then I got married when I was 22 years old. My husband was studying to be a veterinarian, and we were living with his parents, so we were doing well economically. We created our life and I worked side by side with my husband to build our home.
 

I was very happy during this time, but then the war came and everything changed.

 
Fleeing • We lost all of our livestock during the war, so we decided to leave Syria, which was not easy. The saddest moment in my life is when I was fleeing from Syria to Turkey. I remember being pregnant and walking in the forest. There were lots of twigs on the ground and it was difficult to make out landmarks. Suddenly, I tripped and began to roll down a cliff, with my daughter, Abir, in my hand. I couldn’t let her go, but luckily a tree stopped us. It really seemed as if I was going to die. I thank God everyday for saving me, the baby, and my daughter.
Then after all this fear, we finally made our way to Turkey, where we stayed for a week, then met up with my brother-in-law’s family, and continued the journey to Germany.
Remembering • Now in Germany, I always think about the happiest time in my life, when I was living in my home, with my family, and had my freewill. My two daughters would visit me every week with their husbands, and my mother-in-law would visit me every morning just to say hello. Those moments are like a dream to me now.
 

I miss my family. My happiness is tied to sadness.

 
It is interesting. Now what makes me happy is also what makes me tired: my children. They are screaming and playing all day, but I am happy they are safe and that there is hope for them in this life.
Adjusting • I appreciate everything that Germany is doing for us. I understand that it is taking a long time because a lot of people arrived at once. We just came here with higher expectations. I thought that it would be easy to get residency and to get a flat. I know it is a hard and complicated situation for both sides. I would just like to live a normal life again. I want to make a home: to raise my kids, cook for them, and wash their clothes.

What would you like to say to the people of Germany?

Recently we went to a picnic at Tempelhofer Feld.The volunteers helped by taking care of my children, taking me out of this camp, and taking us all to a picnic.
These were happy moments, because while sitting on the grass, watching my children play around me, I was reminded of similar events in my village back in Syria. I felt relieved from the stress at the camp. The volunteers gave me peace, even if just for a moment, it helped me.
To the people of Germany I want to say, God bless you all. We appreciate all you have done for us. But please try to help us get out of this camp permanently, so people will have the chance to live in peace.
 

I want to feel at home and at peace in a green field once again.

 Photo Credit: Ekvidi Photography // Link:  https://www.facebook.com/Ekvidi/photos/

Photo Credit: Ekvidi Photography // Link: https://www.facebook.com/Ekvidi/photos/

When hearing about the Syrian Civil War on the news and stories of refugees dying on their way to Europe with hopes of starting a new life, it became clear to me that this may be the worst humanitarian crisis of my time. At first, I planned on spending my summer with friends and working as a waitress as I normally do, but as my awareness of the refugee crisis grew, I could no longer stay in my small town doing nothing about it. Although I had no previous experience working with refugees, I felt that by doing nothing I was standing on the side of injustice.

I wanted to hear the stories of refugees, to know their pain, fears, hopes, and dreams. I spent my summer in Berlin, which has a high number of refugees, and I became friends with many Syrian women refugees. I asked my family and friends what they would ask a refugee if they could talk to one in person, and then I used a compilation of their questions to interview my new Syrian friends. I’m sharing their voices here in hopes that others can hear and begin to understand their stories.

 

Photos and story by Danica Simonet

MONA'S STORY

Here is the voice of Mona.

The word refugee for me is really abusive. I don’t like it. Why? Because it reminds me of what I lost.
LOSS • Once the revolution started, everything changed. I lost my flat, my husband quit his job, so we lost all sources of income and I was unable to take care of my relatives.
Losing everything in front of your eyes like that, you wish every day that you are not alive, that you had died before this moment — before all the suffering I have had to go through.
LEAVING • I had to leave everything behind, including my home and relatives. There were no words to describe how much I missed my family, even to this day I have not found the words.
Maybe I will see them one day, or maybe not. That really kills me.
 These are Mona’s hands. They will carry you through her story of loss and new beginnings.

These are Mona’s hands. They will carry you through her story of loss and new beginnings.

THE JOURNEY • The boat ride from Turkey to Greece was a terrifying experience. It was windy and there were 40 children and 33 adults within a 6 meter boat that is meant for 25 people. My husband was the captain, even though he had no experience navigating a boat. I consider this one of the hardest moments in my whole life because I did not know if I was going to live or die. I could only see my children’s heads in the middle of the boat. I was praying to God.
 

God, if you are going to let us die, let us all die together, or if you will let us survive, let us all survive together.

I do not want to feel the pain of losing one of theM

 

You do not know your destiny when you are at sea. You do not know if your children are cold. You cannot feel them. You cannot reach them. Finally, the coast guards in Greece saved us. When I found my kids, they were freezing due to the weather conditions. The coast guards gave us clothes, food, a place to sleep, and directed us towards towards Macedonia. We traveled through Hungary and Austria, and finally arrived in Germany.
LIFE IN GERMANY • Now my life here, in Germany, is simple. In the morning, I wake up my children, dress them, wait to be given breakfast, and make sure my children get to school on time. If I have an appointment with the washing machine, I do my laundry. During the afternoon, I wait to be given dinner and wait for my children to come home from school. My life is just about eating, sleeping, and taking care of my children.
To be honest, there is no life here. We are just waiting to live a normal life again.
Here in the camp, my children are unfortunately picking up the bad manners of other children. As a mother, this is a big problem for me. The only solution is for my husband and me to raise our children independently from the refugee camp, emphasizing good manners, morals, and the Arabic and German language. We want to create a healthy, normal living environment for our children…that is all we are searching for.
While I am living in Germany, I am keeping my Arabian culture by continuing my Arabian traditions such as: wearing my hijab, continuing my Islamic faith, and exhibiting my culture’s acceptance of others. Preserving my Arabian culture is part of honouring my family back in Syria.
Despite my desire to maintain my Arabian roots, I am open to learn about German traditions such as: clothing, religious practices, and way of life.
 

If you could say one thing to the people of Europe and the United States, what would it be?

I wish they would help us by taking our problems seriously. They can help us by providing housing and giving us opportunities to learn German. We would also like to be given opportunities to work to help the societies we are now living in. Believe me, we are just looking and seeking for a better life; that is why we came here.

 

We want the world to recognize our common humanity.

 

We hope to live in a world where we can live dignified lives. I believe that Europe and the United States have the power to help us get back our human dignity, so we can start living the lives we hope and deserve to live.

My last wish is that the government of these countries would try to help the situation in Syria. I don’t know how, but I know they can find a way to promote peace in my homeland.

When hearing about the Syrian Civil War on the news and stories of refugees dying on their way to Europe with hopes of starting a new life, it became clear to me that this may be the worst humanitarian crisis of my time. At first, I planned on spending my summer with friends and working as a waitress as I normally do, but as my awareness of the refugee crisis grew, I could no longer stay in my small town doing nothing about it. Although I had no previous experience working with refugees, I felt that by doing nothing I was standing on the side of injustice.

I wanted to hear the stories of refugees, to know their pain, fears, hopes, and dreams. I spent my summer in Berlin, which has a high number of refugees, and I became friends with many Syrian women refugees. I asked my family and friends what they would ask a refugee if they could talk to one in person, and then I used a compilation of their questions to interview my new Syrian friends. I’m sharing their voices here in hopes that others can hear and begin to understand their stories.

 

Photos and story by Danica Simonet

YARA SPEAKS

Here is the voice of Yara.

Something that really bothers me about the word “refugee” is how we are all stereotyped together. When a small group of refugees or Syrians does something bad, people start to generalize us and say, “All refugees are like this”. That is simply not true.
If my life was a book, it would be just two chapters: My Happy Childhood and The Time After. My life was completely changed when my brother passed away because of the war and when we had to leave Syria. These experiences took my innocence.
He was only 14 years old. He was walking down the street in the area of the free army with his friends when a bomb fell on the building next to them. Everything exploded and particles from the building sliced my brothers neck. There cannot be a harder day than this, and the days don’t get easier.
Now when I look through my book of memories, my happiest times always involve being together and enjoying life with my family. I realize now that I didn’t appreciate how precious those moments were. I wish I could go back.
But still I have hope. There is no way to live without hope. Even a person in the worst situation clings to the idea that tomorrow will be better. Many refugees are already working, contributing to society, and inspiring others to do the same. These refugees are really showing the strength of the human spirit.
In Germany, a lot of things still bring me joy: shopping, being with my friends, learning new things, especially learning German, that’s why I’ve survived here in Germany. But in Germany, I am always thinking about Syria and trying to find a solution for the destruction there. I dream of becoming an educated women that helps bring peace. The thought of the war in Syria ending really brings me joy.
I think the only way to have peace in Syria is to forgive each other, to move on from what happened, and try to build understanding.

What would you like volunteers to know?

I want volunteers to know that everyone can help. The mental support is the most important. We need people that will listen to our stories of the past and give us hope for the future.
Also, just as refugees are trying to get to know the German way of life, Germans should to do the same. They should make an effort to get to know us personally, generalizing is not a solution. Simply going to a refugee home can be the solution.

When hearing about the Syrian Civil War on the news and stories of refugees dying on their way to Europe with hopes of starting a new life, it became clear to me that this may be the worst humanitarian crisis of my time. At first, I planned on spending my summer with friends and working as a waitress as I normally do, but as my awareness of the refugee crisis grew, I could no longer stay in my small town doing nothing about it. Although I had no previous experience working with refugees, I felt that by doing nothing I was standing on the side of injustice.

I wanted to hear the stories of refugees, to know their pain, fears, hopes, and dreams. I spent my summer in Berlin, which has a high number of refugees, and I became friends with many Syrian women refugees. I asked my family and friends what they would ask a refugee if they could talk to one in person, and then I used a compilation of their questions to interview my new Syrian friends. I’m sharing their voices here in hopes that others can hear and begin to understand their stories.

 

Photos and story by Danica Simonet

HALA'S THOUGHTS ON FRIENDSHIP

Here is the voice of Hala.

In Germany, I have a new definition of what it means to be Syrian. I think Syrian people are very strong because we try to be happy no matter what our circumstances are. We take life as it comes and accept the life God gave us.
Syrians want to get to know everybody. I saw so many videos on Facebook about friendships between Germans and Syrians. I think they live very harmoniously.
Maybe I am a little biased, but I see that Syrians really want to get to know their neighbours.
My neighbour, Neil, is very helpful. When Mohammad had an injury, Neil took us to the hospital. My children are swimming right now with Neil. He is a good man and is teaching my children a lot.
I do want to say thank you to all the people who have helped me, and even those who haven’t helped me, but simply smiled at me.
 

A smile means so much to me, to us, as refugees.

 

At times I feel normal and other times I feel afraid when I go to social events. I’m afraid because I don’t have another country to go to. I don’t have many options. I am sad sometimes when I think about my future because I don’t know what will happen.
Sometimes I hate thinking of myself as a refugee. When I came to Europe, I was afraid that people would not treat me well, but I have gotten along with everybody in Germany.
When I talk to my German friend, Cristina, I tell her that she is just like my sister. She would help me with anything. Sometimes we don’t speak for a week, then I miss her so much. We have to know how each other is doing. When someone in Syria asks me how I am doing, I always say I am happy in Germany. I am happy when people like Cristina ask me if I need help.
But it is not always easy. When Zuckerfest [an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide that marks the end of Ramadan] arrived, and I was in Germany, it was very difficult. I remembered all the beautiful memories I shared with my family in Syria. It was not the same in Germany.
 

It’s not just remembering the past. I am always thinking about where I will go in the future.

 

Will we have to go in the street? Will we have to go to a place that is not comfortable for my children?

I like being here because the people are very nice and international, but I feel like I don’t have the time to really get to know the place. I can’t play sports, I can’t enjoy life in Berlin…but I try to be strong for my children. I came here so that they can study and have a better life.
With my final thoughts, I want to say that, yes, I am a refugee, but mostly, I am a mother. I can instill morals in my children. 
Being a mother is the same all over the world.

When hearing about the Syrian Civil War on the news and stories of refugees dying on their way to Europe with hopes of starting a new life, it became clear to me that this may be the worst humanitarian crisis of my time. At first, I planned on spending my summer with friends and working as a waitress as I normally do, but as my awareness of the refugee crisis grew, I could no longer stay in my small town doing nothing about it. Although I had no previous experience working with refugees, I felt that by doing nothing I was standing on the side of injustice.

I wanted to hear the stories of refugees, to know their pain, fears, hopes, and dreams. I spent my summer in Berlin, which has a high number of refugees, and I became friends with many Syrian women refugees. I asked my family and friends what they would ask a refugee if they could talk to one in person, and then I used a compilation of their questions to interview my new Syrian friends. I’m sharing their voices here in hopes that others can hear and begin to understand their stories.

 

Photos and story by Danica Simonet

BOLD AND BRAVE – TWO SYRIAN WOMEN SPEAK

Fatima*

made the treacherous journey from Turkey to Greece with her three young children.

I’m 30 years old and come from the Damascus region. We left our home for another city in Syria when the war started. We returned to our area because the government said it was safe, but after 7 days we left because the bombing started again.
My story was really difficult. My son (age 2) had a twin sister who died when he was six months old. She died of a heart condition. The doctors told me she had a heart condition because I was so afraid of the situation and the war while I was pregnant.
When the bombs came, my oldest daughter would run to the bathroom because there was a roof and it was safer there.
The injury happened 7 months ago. I lost my hand. We were still in Syria and there was an explosion. I was resting on the sofa by the window when the rocket fell and the window frame fell on my hand.
I was trapped for about two hours. I didn’t know where my children were.
They started to take out the injured people and bring them to the hospital. I waited for half an hour and then a young doctor came. I was in surgery for 10 hours. The artery was severed, so the surgery was on the artery and the veins.The nerves in my arm died and they couldn’t fix it. I did not have full anaesthesia, it was only on my hand. So I was awake for the whole thing and I could see how they could take the arteries and cut things.
These fingers here, I don’t feel them at all. If I get injured here, it feels like I have anaesthesia here. (She only has feeling in her index finger and thumb
My three kids and I left Syria and went to Turkey, where we stayed for a month and a half. The day we wanted to leave Turkey for Greece, we waited from 5AM until 10 PM to get the boat. The first time we went to board the inflatable boat, it exploded. The people organising the boat tried to fix it, but it exploded a second time, so finally they brought us a new boat. We waited 17 hours before we could leave the shore. I don’t know why they didn’t get us a new boat in the first place.
Each time, we had to walk until we were up to our armpits in the water, just to board the boat. Why didn’t they bring us a new one? We paid a lot of money for the boat, it was not for free. They tell you there will only be 30 people, but there ended up being 50 on the boat.
When we reached Athens, immediately people welcomed us, clothed the children and gave us a map.
A few days from now, we will travel to the Netherlands. We are enrolled in a program, so we will fly directly there. I’m hoping to receive treatment for my hand there. Today they told me that the moment I arrive, they will examine me to tell me what is possible.
 

Elia*

 52, is the mother of Rahel*, 17, who has suffered from a form of spastic quadriplegia since birth. Rahel traveled with her mother, father, and brother from Syria to Greece.

We came from Syria, from Aleppo. We had so many friends. We were living all together and it was very nice, those days.
We did not come because we are refugees, because we are hungry or something. We came only for safety. We loved our country and we were not thinking to leave. It was the war that made us leave our country. A refugee does not come here with his will. He is forced to leave. Not even for a moment did we think we would leave Syria to live outside our country.
We were in a situation with the sea before and the enemy behind. So we chose the sea.
We had to pay 15,000 euro to get here because of Rahel’s situation with her wheelchair, but it was not a problem because we arrived safely. How much we suffered.
The hardest moment was when we were coming on the sea. During these 40 minutes I was thinking, that’s it — if anything happens, this is it. We are in the middle of the sea. We only had God to save us and protect us. When I was in the middle of the sea I was thinking, was it a good decision or a bad decision that I wanted to come here? I was worried so much because we had the responsibility of our children. Thank God we made it.
This is God’s will, maybe there is something else for us in this life. There is nothing left from the past — only the memories.
 

Rahel

asks her mom to tell her stories of Aleppo, she misses Aleppo.

She reminds her mother of her friends and the community at “Faith and Life”, and how they would gather before the war. 

 

There was an organisation in Syria called “Faith and Life” that took care of disabled people. Families with disabled people would gather together and go on trips together. We loved to go camping. People with this organisation would gather for one week every year, we would go outside for one week together.
If I did not have Rahel, I would not have met so many people and all of these friends through this organisation.
I bless God and thank him that I have Rahel, because without her, I would not be as happy as I am now. Even though she is disabled and she has a hard situation, we are happy, even with that.
We are going places with her, having fun. She shares a lot of stories, she knows the friends of mine, of her father, of her brother…
Rahel: “I love them all!”

*names changed to protect people’s privacy

I met Fatima and her children in Athens in February 2016, while the borders were still open. They were waiting for their relocation to the Netherlands to be finalised. Elia heard me knocking at Fatima’s door while she was away. She immediately invited me in and asked if she could tell me her story. / FROM NORTH TO SOUTH • Part 8


Photos and story by Talitha Brauer

In December 2015 I received a call from documentary filmmaker Tamara Park, asking me to accompany her on a three week trek from north to south, starting in Finland and ending in Greece. We met and interviewed Syrian and Iraqi refugees who had fled their homes in hopes of beginning a new life in Europe.

STORIES OF LESVOS: CONVERSATIONS WITH A SYRIAN FAMILY

 Rami (L), brother Khaled (R) and their cousin Mohammad (center) are from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Rami (L), brother Khaled (R) and their cousin Mohammad (center) are from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Rami from Syria landed in Lesvos with his brother Khaled, sister Nawal and cousin Mohammad in February 2016.

 

Photos & Interviews by Talitha Brauer, Translation by Shady Khella

The air was brisk but comfortable in the early February sunshine. I was outside Moria camp on Lesvos Island, where independent volunteers at Better Days for Moria had set up tents, one where people could receive medical care, another where children could play, and others for serving food and tea.

I was asking a Syrian couple whether I could interview them, when their friends joined us. They were two brothers, a sister, and their cousin, en route to Germany. The men were glad to be photographed with their faces shown — they told me it was their introduction to Germany, where they hoped to soon reside.

Their interview took place before the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan, when refugees were still free to travel.

 Rami from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Rami from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Rami spoke to me about how it all began.

 
Rami: We left our homes 4 months after the revolution started. We left the country for Amman, Jordan a little over a year ago, and then we flew to Turkey. We have four family members in Germany and three (daughters) in Turkey. We hope we can live in Germany.
The revolution started in a peaceful way. It stayed peaceful for 7 or 8 months. The whole world knows that. We were asking for freedom.
Then Islamists would come, knock on the door and tell us, “You are fanatics.” We would tell them, “We just want peace.” But the next day, they would knock again and tell us the same thing.
My brother Khaled here studies psychology. Once, we were in a demonstration in Hama, where there were between 70,000 to 150,000 people — that’s just an estimate, but no less than 70,000. The army shot around 700 people, even though it was a 100% peaceful demonstration. Not one of us had a weapon; if there had been someone with a weapon, we wouldn’t have let him be among us.
On that day the army killed around 700 or 720 people from 20 meters away. 300 of them were children.
Khaled: On that day he’s speaking of, I was able to smell the blood for three full days. I keep thinking of people dying, and seeing the blood.
Rami: We held banners that said, “The people want the regime to fall”. This is what the revolution was like; everybody had signs like these. This was on the June 4th, 2011.
Khaled: I will never forget this date. I could even tell you the hour.
Rami: It was really hard because it wasn’t something hidden, it was out in the open. You could see it from the balconies. We carried a lot of children. Children of 15, 12, 10 years of age. There were around 200–250.
He (Bashar) was prepared for the streets and places we were going. He closed certain streets so no one would escape. He was prepared for it. The traffic police warned us. They told us not to go.
I could talk for 2–3 weeks. What do you expect with this regime? They were bombing schools with planes.
 Nawal from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Nawal from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Nawal and I didn’t get a chance to speak one-on-one, but she posed for me to make a portrait of her hands. 

 Khaled from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Khaled from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Khaled then picked up the story from his perspective.

 
Khaled: When the events in Syria started, I was in my first year of college. At first, I didn’t really give my studies much attention, but then I decided to give it my all and actually finished with the best grades in our school.
After that Friday when the children were killed, I left Syria. I couldn’t stay there any longer. I would go home and smell blood there. The smell wasn’t really there, but I could smell it anyway.
So I left Syria, and continued my studies in sociology. And this major is a good choice. I could use sociology to help Syria, because the Syrian people are suffering a lot and have many problems. Wanting to continue my studies is what made me leave, although there was still a lot going on at home with the revolution.
It’s hard to study about Syrian society while the events are still ongoing. All my research was on Syria and the ongoing events there. These events also led me to study economics, because Syrian economics needs a lot of work, specifically social economics (which combines both of my studies).
I want to go specifically to Germany to continue my studies and get a Doctorate degree in economics and social economics. Syria needs this a lot. My research topic was “The Effects of the Syrian Problem on Syrian Children in Education” and I took Goethe-Damascus as an example.
We are people from the heart of the event, from the centre — this gives me a deeper understanding of these topics. I couldn’t change the political situation, so I decided to focus on my studies at a higher level in order to make a social & cultural change.
 Mohammad from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Mohammad from Syria. Lesvos, Greece, February 2016.

Mohammad, the cousin of Rami, Nawal & Khaled, was a prisoner under Bashar’s regime.

 
Mohammad: I left Syria 2 months ago. My hometown is Hama. I left it three and a half years. I went to the countryside in Syria, to a part that was not under Bashar’s regime. I was a prisoner under his regime, but I got out early and so I had to leave Hama in order to not get rearrested. The first time I was in prison, I was there for four and a half months, and the second time was only for 3 days.
I was arrested because I filmed people demonstrating and was involved with media — photographing content for news stations like Al Jazeera.
I was actually supposed to be sentenced to death, but in Syria any problem can be solved with money. So I paid money and got out of prison, otherwise I couldn’t have left. Even if somebody committed murder, they could pay money and get out of jail.
At the time, I was doing my Bachelor’s and I wanted to be a surgeon. After I left Hama, I was still filming people and how they suffered from the regime and how the government planes were bombing and shooting residential areas. I sent my photos and footage to news channels like Al Jazeera.
The second time I was arrested (again because of joining protests), they made a mistake and let me out early; they had me confused me with another guy and they released me. Two friends of mine were arrested at the same time as I was and they were killed in the place where we were held captive. They died from all the torture.
I lived three and a half years outside of Hama, still living in fear of the regime. Later even Iran and Russia came and killed people with the excuse of killing the extremists. There are even Afghani soldiers there who are paid to come; they are “paid killers”.
They all come with the excuse of killing the terrorists and extremists, and they just end up killing the Syrian people.
The Russian Airforce was even one of my reasons for leaving Syria. Bashar’s Airforce wasn’t as developed as the Russians’. For example, when Bashar’s Airforce shoots, they destroy one or two houses, but the Russians would just shoot without a target and destroy a whole civilian city or place.
No matter how one tries to share, one cannot really describe the situation in Syria, what one saw or went through there. More than 15 million people are suffering and going through this. If everyone were able to flee the country, they all would.
 
Mohammad: I want to ask you a question; we know that there is a very big problem that all Syrian children have, about 2 million children. What’s the point of knowing there is a problem and not doing anything about? What’s the point if this was shared with the whole world and everybody knows of it, yet no one does anything? You think something can happen? Do you think there is someone who could help the children in Syria? I don’t mean just blankets.
The Syrian people didn’t rise and protest so they could have blankets, they rose up to change the regime.
I couldn’t finish my studies in Syria anymore. If they caught me again, it could end up for me like it did for my friends. So I fled the country and lived in places that were not under the control of the regime.
Maybe I’ll continue in Media or Journalism or something. Maybe. Hopefully I will continue studying something. Filming became a hobby for me. I had a camera in Syria, here I don’t.
Khaled: I’m the reason why he forgot the camera at home. He told me to take the camera, but I forgot. Don’t remind him. (laughs).
 Rami, Mohammad, & Khaled at Mytilene Port. Lesvos, Greece. February 2016.

Rami, Mohammad, & Khaled at Mytilene Port. Lesvos, Greece. February 2016.

After our interview, the families and I went into town as they bought their ferry tickets to Athens, then we had dinner together. They were fortunate that they were able to leave Syria and move through Greece fairly quickly; they currently live in Germany.


Photos and story by Talitha Brauer

In December 2015 I received a call from documentary filmmaker Tamara Park, asking me to accompany her on a three week trek from north to south, starting in Finland and ending in Greece. We met and interviewed Syrian and Iraqi refugees who had fled their homes in hopes of beginning a new life in Europe.

Part 7 of From North to South, a photo essay account of their stories.

A VOICE FROM THE OLDER GENERATION

This Iraqi grandma traveled with her family to Czechia in February 2016. We had the unique opportunity to hear a small part of her story.

 

What was it like when ISIS came?

Life changed drastically because ISIS came and they didn’t want any Christian presence in the area, so they were killing, harassing, and hurting the Christians. And they obviously didn’t want us. They told us, either we surrender to what they wanted us to be, or we leave.
They killed my brother. He was an expert and director of a petroleum company, and ISIS killed him. 
We left our hometown for Erbil, where it was equally bad and we were humiliated. Then we went to Baghdad, and I thought it was going to be better. I went to stay with my other children who live there, but even that was not safe enough, so then we went to Beirut, and then they brought us here to the Czech Republic.
 

Do you miss home?

Yes, but being here now is better. At least we have peace of mind.
 

Photos and story by Talitha Brauer


/ Part 6 of FROM NORTH TO SOUTH, a a photo essay account of their stories

In December 2015 I received a call from documentary filmmaker Tamara Park, asking me to accompany her on a three week trek from north to south, starting in Finland and ending in Greece. We met and interviewed Syrian and Iraqi refugees who had fled their homes in hopes of beginning a new life in Europe.

Part 6 of From North to South, a photo essay account of their stories.

LIFE UNDER THE VEIL: A KURDISH WOMAN SPEAKS

AMINA*

left Iraq to live life in freedom.

 

February 2016: In between interviews, she and I took a break and went for a walk in the nearby woods. She spoke a little English, just a few words. But between those words and her miming and dancing, I heard her story for the first time. She had become a Christian in Iraq, where she faced serious consequences from family members for her conversion. I was an audience of one to an intimate theater piece of her story. Later I asked her to express her joy through movement so that I could try to photograph a tiny bit of her beautiful storytelling that I had experienced.

Life wasn’t easy in K-. There were a hundred and one problems, especially for women. Whatever happened, all the blame would go on the girl, not on the boy. Everything about our lives, they decided. Whether we liked it or not, they decided how we should live our lives. 
And I’m not talking only of my own life in Iraq, but in Islamic countries in general, women do not have the right to choose for themselves when it comes to life, love, marriages, rights — nothing. 
The veil was obligatory. Marriage is usually forced and arranged, despite the will of the woman. Love is considered to be haram (forbidden) — against the Islamic law. If you give your opinion or if you dare say what you think or say “I don’t want what you are imposing on me” then literally you risk being killed. But even if you’re not killed, then you live a hell of a life.
Only God helps in this case. I wanted to commit suicide many times and I tried, but I didn’t die. God helped me, although I went through a period when I hated God, because I hated my life in general. But he’s the one who helped me. 
I hated life. It was very difficult and frustrating. I especially felt it was an injustice against women. I always said, why? Why am I born under these conditions? Why can’t I be like normal women? And it’s not only me I am talking about it. When the girl hits a certain age, they put a veil on her head, whether she likes it or not.
Many times my dad or my brother beat me because I was stubborn and didn’t want to put the veil on my head. And it had nothing to do with me liking or not liking the veil, it just was that the heat was oppressive. In K- in the summer, it was above 40 degrees Celsius. The veil was unbearable to wear; I felt suffocated. But my opinion wasn’t even asked for, I just had to wear it. Especially if Ramadan comes in the summer, then the heat and the fasting together become unbearable.
In my hometown K- where the community and society is almost non-existent, it’s extremely hard to live, especially as a woman. You guys don’t know it here because you don’t watch the K- national television, but raping girls was something very common and it was a threat that was present for all of us, every day.
Without my knowledge, my father arranged a groom and a wedding date for me. I thought about committing suicide like my sister did, but I realised it was wrong in the Christian faith.
The pastor gathered a community to help me and they told me there is an opportunity to go to the Czech Republic. The pastor’s wife took me to a person who heard my story and helped me apply, and thank God, the Czech government accepted me so I could get out of the hell I was living in. Now that it’s all over, I think it was a nightmare, and I thank God for having mercy on me and bringing me safely here.
I’m happy that I could break free from all of the difficulty that society placed over me, and not live in a way that they want me live, but become a Christian and live in a way that Christ wants me to live.”

*names changed to protect people’s privacy

Photos and story by Talitha Brauer

In December 2015 I received a call from documentary filmmaker Tamara Park, asking me to accompany her on a three week trek from north to south, starting in Finland and ending in Greece. We met and interviewed Syrian and Iraqi refugees who had fled their homes in hopes of beginning a new life in Europe.

Part 5 of From North to South, a photo essay account of their stories.

DID YOU EVER THINK OF CHANGING YOUR RELIGION?

Mariam* left Iraq with her husband, daughter and son. They arrived in Czechia in February 2016.

After the Finnish leg of our adventure, Tamara and I traveled to Czechia to meet a group of nine Iraqi refugees who had arrived just days before we got there. They were the first refugees to be welcomed in, belonging to a group of persecuted Christians; a Czech Christian NGO had advocated for their relocation. Here is Mariam’s story.

 Mariam stands in a field in the Czech countryside. February 2016.

Mariam stands in a field in the Czech countryside. February 2016.

We had a normal life, living in safety and security. After Daish came in, it all changed. It started changing little by little, and then it came to a point where it couldn’t be tolerated anymore. It was the worst for Christians.
Already in the past couple of years there was a dislike of Christians, and then it got worse when Daish came in. We were given 3 choices: 1. Give up our religion. 2. Get up and leave or 3. Pay a fine to live there. So we didn’t have a choice, the only choice was to get up and leave. The persecution was in the form of be killed, pay or leave.
 Mariam’s husband shows images of his wounds from ____. Czechia, February 2016.

Mariam’s husband shows images of his wounds from ____. Czechia, February 2016.

There is not a single Christian in Mosul anymore. It became impossible to live as a Christian in Mosul. It is our home, our families, our origin, and we had to just leave everything and just go. It wasn’t a voluntary choice; we had to go.
 Mariam’s son plays outside the cabin. Czechia, February 2016.

Mariam’s son plays outside the cabin. Czechia, February 2016.

The present wasn’t what was worrying me the most, it was the future. I was thinking, how are my children going to live in this country? What kind of a future are they going to have? That was the most difficult part. As soon as we came (to Czechia) and we saw that there is safety and security, I realized that my kids could finally have a future.
 Mariam and her daughter outside the cabin. Czechia, February 2016.

Mariam and her daughter outside the cabin. Czechia, February 2016.

Did you ever think of just changing your religion?

It’s impossible, the thought didn’t even cross our minds to change our religion. 
Throughout all my life, whenever I had problems I realised that God was with me. He was only a prayer away. Of course this was highlighted during the recent events of ISIS. But even before, whenever I was in a difficult situation, I would pray and he would prove to be with me, despite the difficult situation.
We believe that God is the one who helped rescue us from Iraq to come all the way to this country. It was a miracle and I am eternally thankful to God for keeping my family safe and bringing us to safety here.
 Mariam and her family. Czechia, February 2016.

Mariam and her family. Czechia, February 2016.

Was it difficult to forgive your enemies?

It wasn’t difficult to forgive because God taught us to forgive. Jesus himself said to forgive our enemies. If that is God’s commandment, then I do it willingly. Revenge belongs to the Lord and in the end, he will judge everyone and that is his job, not mine.
 

*names changed to protect people’s privacy

Photos and story by Talitha Brauer

In December 2015 I received a call from documentary filmmaker Tamara Park, asking me to accompany her on a three week trek from north to south, starting in Finland and ending in Greece. We met and interviewed Syrian and Iraqi refugees who had fled their homes in hopes of beginning a new life in Europe.

Part 4 of From North to South, a photo essay account of their stories.

"GOD RESCUED ME."

Jibril* fled Iraq and now lives in Finland.

God rescued me. He fled through Europe after experiencing unspeakable things in Iraq. He survived the journey, including soldiers in the woods in Serbia randomly shooting into the underbrush after dark, killing other refugees who were also hiding there.
I was a peaceful person, I didn’t make any fights with anyone. Then later, those in power took me and arrested me, and punished me because I was a Sunni. Yes, I respect the Iman Ali, but why must they force me to pray to him?
They don’t treat us like humans. There is no humanity at all.
They did horrible things to me, disgraceful things — they attacked me, they violated me, and they beat me. They kept me for three days, then released me, but told me, ‘You are not acceptable here. You need to leave Iraq, because Iraq is not yours.’
 Outside an army barracks converted into refugee accommodations. (February 2016)

Outside an army barracks converted into refugee accommodations. (February 2016)

I got married in 2006. We were without child for 7 years. We prayed to God for a child. God stayed with me.
We went to the doctors because it had been seven years and we still believed that God would do something. Then God told me, you have a child. Finally he gave us a baby girl.
She is the whole world for me. But now she asks for me every night.
My wife was pregnant and I didn’t have money. A Christian friend gave me money so I could escape. My wife left our home to go to her family region and stay in her family house.
 J. weeps as he shows us an image of his daughter back home. (February 2016)

J. weeps as he shows us an image of his daughter back home. (February 2016)

Then I left, I went to Turkey, twice I tried to cross the sea and twice I sank in the water. There were people sinking with me, I was listening to them scream all around me. There was no one, no one there to help us. The Turkish coastguard came to take us and send back to Iraq to die.
They told us, “If we catch you again we will send you back to your country.” But thank God, they arrested us just for one day and then released all of us.
I tried crossing the sea for a third time with no success. The fourth time, they started shooting us, but God rescued us. Finally, we reached Greece on the fifth time, hamdullah (praise be to God).
God saved us from death.
We went to Greece, to Athens, then from Greece to Macedonia. Then on to Serbia. In Serbia, we were in the forest at night and we could hear people coming towards us. People were crying and shouting, as if it were Judgment Day. The Iraqi and Syrians were saying, “I will give you everything, all that I possess, but can you leave me alone and keep me alive?”
The soldiers were really close to us in the forest, but they didn’t see us. God hid us from their sight.
 Driving through the woods outside of Helsinki (February 2016)

Driving through the woods outside of Helsinki (February 2016)

I am so thankful to God that he protected me through all of this that I could even reach Germany. I crossed Germany and Sweden. The people were really kind and helpful there. They even gave me money to get on a boat from Sweden to Finland — I am still in awe, who are these people? I want to know who they are. Then I came to Finland and I am so thankful that I am here.
[In Finland] the people of the church came to invite us to the church. I wanted to know, who are these people who are so loving like this? I have never known people like this, they are so kind.
My wife gave birth to a son in January 2016. I called him “Nour” which means light. Light of the world. Light of Jesus.
I have this hope that one day I will meet my family, that I will defend them, that I will be able to take care of them.”
 J. walks back to the home after our interview. (February 2016)

J. walks back to the home after our interview. (February 2016)

Jibril became a Christian as a result of God protecting him on his journey and experiencing the kindness of Christians in Finland. His wife, three-year-old daughter and newborn baby are still in Iraq. He is heartbroken to be away from them.
Finland changed the laws after he arrived in country, making it much more difficult for families to reunite. But he prays every day that his family will be able to join him one day.

*names changed to protect people’s privacy

Photos and story by Talitha Brauer

In December 2015 I received a call from documentary filmmaker Tamara Park, asking me to accompany her on a three week trek from north to south, starting in Finland and ending in Greece. We met and interviewed Syrian and Iraqi refugees who had fled their homes in hopes of beginning a new life in Europe.

This is part 3 of From North to South, a photo essay account of their stories.

A SYRIAN IN HELSINKI

It was very good for me, this experience…

We met Michael in a church in Helsinki. He patiently waited while we interviewed two other men, and then he shared his story with us, clearly and deliberately.

One year ago I decided to leave Syria, and it was not an easy decision for me, because my wife had to stay there. I had a small apartment, which I had to sell. I left from Syria to Lebanon, from Lebanon to Turkey. In Turkey, I found a person who was helping people leave Turkey for Greece. It was very difficult, especially because we had to go by boat on the sea to Greece. It was scary to work with a trafficker, but I had no other option.
He brought us to a boat that could take about 70 persons… but they put 170 on the boat. I was scared to get on. There were three decks and I was afraid to be on the bottom one. There were windows and because of the pressure, I could see some water coming in. The captain told us, “Some of you will have to leave — this boat cannot take anymore, we will go down.” So 20 people left and went back to the beach. 
But still, water was coming in, and we left anyway. It took us 2.5 hours to arrive at the island we were going to. Of course, 2.5 hours seems like 2.5 years, it was a very long time for us. All the time I was praying. It was very good for me, this experience...
…I was praying to my God. The God who I know. And He promised me that He would bring me safely, alive. This is what I did the entire way to the island. Once I arrived, I called my wife. She had been waiting for my call. I informed her that I had arrived on the island and we prayed together on the phone and thanked God. 
In my life with Jesus — before leaving Syria, when the bombs were coming down in Damascus — I took my wife’s hand and we said — we are walking, and Jesus Christ is walking before us. He was opening the way for us and he was taking care of us. 

And it happened too in the boat — the hand of Jesus Christ was taking care of us.

Photos and story by Talitha Brauer

In December 2015 I received a call from documentary filmmaker Tamara Park, asking me to accompany her on a three week trek from north to south, starting in Finland and ending in Greece. We met and interviewed Syrian and Iraqi refugees who had fled their homes in hopes of beginning a new life in Europe.

This is part 2 of From North to South, a photo essay account of their stories.

Tough Love, Soft Hearts

The final post of a three part series by an American aid worker demystifying the process of refugee relocation in the USA.


No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. No one wants to destroy someone's dreams.

Working in refugee resettlement, you would expect to feel a bit like Santa Claus, helping dreams come true. But in reality, we actually spend a big chunk of our time telling people no.

Having to enforce American laws alongside agency policy can be difficult. At first, it can be uncomfortable when you have to give a client an answer they don’t want to hear. You squirm, awkwardly trying to smooth it over, and reassuring them you will try hard to meet future requests. But it doesn’t take long before those conversations become so frequent that we grow hardened. Remaining compassionate can be tricky, especially when dealing with angry clients who take out their frustrations on you.

Of course there are joyful moments as well, but the mood can quickly shift when expectations are not met.

While driving a client home from a doctor’s appointment, the man asked me to take him to the grocery store so he could do some shopping. Having to be at another appointment, I explained that I was not available to do so. I could drop him off, but he would have to take the bus home. He had gone through bus training. Frustrated that I was being “selfish”, he called one of our interpreters to come and get him. Out of cultural obligation practiced in their homeland, he knew that the interpreter couldn’t say no.

Problem solved. But I saw it more as a problem created.

Sitting with a family to do some initial paperwork, they kindly brought me tea. Highly educated, they spoke excellent English. I was learning all about their family, and I found myself laughing with them. It felt good to laugh.

They had been here about a week and half, and started noticing some things that had gone wrong with the apartment. I told them to wait until the office opened at the apartment complex the following morning, and to file their complaints then. This was not the response they wanted to hear. They wanted me to tell my boss to call the office for them. What they didn’t know was that there was a long list of maintenance issues, and we tell all our clients the same thing. As they could see that I was not going to budge, more and more members of the family started telling me their opinions on the matter, and how our agency was not doing its job. 

I sat there, trying to remain compassionate, but sort of tuning them all out. Sometimes, it’s the only way to appear calm, especially when things start to escalate.


Although experiences like this occur almost daily, we get attached to our clients. When they feel as if they are in danger, or discriminated against, we fight for them. We want them to understand that we value them as individuals. It scares us that maybe they do not realize our commitment to them.

People in the community will call the office demanding that we stop bringing the clients to our city. We do our best to explain that we do not bring them here, but the State Department carefully places them. However, the threatening language used by community members can be scary. How do we shield them from this? How do we help them understand that we want them here? That we are on their side…

When it comes to their children, it is critical they know they can trust us. However, the majority of our clients will stand in the parking lot and argue with us about car seats. Either the women want to hold their babies, or they insist their child does not need a booster. The funny thing is that threatening the police does not always work. Their prior experiences with police might not push them into compliance. But the threat of paying tickets…that seems to work.

While visiting an African family, one of their neighbors met me getting out of my car. She is doing our hair for us, your African friend. Confused, I later learned that after being in the States less than a month, our client, who didn’t speak a word of English, had befriended the neighbor ladies by braiding their hair. I was so proud of her for reaching out.

Every client handles their situation uniquely. And we never know what to expect until we meet them. So often, I want to ask each family to tell me their story, but I can’t. I wonder why they came, what happened to them over there. But generally, they do not speak of it.

My brother was killed by Taliban, he was on his way home from Primary School. During a conversation about family, one of our clients blurted out this statement. Shocked…I froze. She looked at me and smiled gently, as if to communicate she was okay now. I didn’t know how to respond. A smile in return didn’t seem appropriate.

Agencies who do refugee resettlement must remember the kinds of situations that bring our clients to us. It can become easy to get frustrated with their constant demands, tantrums, and tardiness. But remaining compassionate is the key to doing our jobs well. These are hurting people, and they did not choose this life. Nor did they choose to come to us.

Their worlds were destroyed; they left everything and everyone.

Communities of refugees live all over the United States, and some in the most unlikely places. They want to be part of our culture; they want friendship. But they often do not know how to reach out.

It takes regular people reaching back in, willing to serve an hour or two a week, even in potentially uncomfortable situations.

Jack and Melissa got involved with refugees after seeing a story about them on the local news station. They had no idea that refugees lived in their city, so they did a Google search to figure out the agency to contact if they wanted to get involved. After a couple weeks of having their volunteer application processed and training was conducted, they met their family. 

Melissa goes into the home one evening a week and helps the mother with English while, her high school daughter helps the kids with homework. About once a month, her husband will get a call from the refugee resettlement agency, asking if he can help with an apartment set up, moving furniture. 

In Melissa’s own words — 

This family has become very close to us. They’ve even allowed us to take them on picnics and one day we went to the beach. The mother of the family cooked a native dish very popular in their culture, and then we all sat down together on the floor to eat it together. Now our friends have gotten involved, and they have families assigned to them as well. They love it!

Working with our clients has not only taught me to be more patient, it has forced me to change my priority from the task at hand, to the person in need. As an American working hard to do a job well, this does not come naturally to me. But after a while, I started to realize how calm the client would become once she saw that she mattered to me. Following the long months of being just a number on a list, she was finally a face with a name.

She wasn’t simply a task to check off or an appointment on my schedule. She was my friend.

Connecting refugees to community, either from their homeland or similar cultures, is always our goal. They need one another. We often miss the tribal or racial tensions between them — and it's probably good that we are oblivious for part of the time. The beautiful thing is, they start relying on one another. When you see the mothers from more than 8 countries gathering to have tea, or teens from all over the world meeting to play soccer, you can’t help but feel like you’re doing something right. We don’t have to join the Peace Corp to make a difference; in fact, we don’t have to go at all.

We can offer peace to the world as it comes to us…family by family.


This is the final article of a three part series. Don’t miss Parts 1 & 2, Road to Resettlement: They Are The 1% and Relocation: Where the Rubber Meets the Road


Sammy P. is an American aid worker who has worked with a US nonprofit for 2 years in the field of refugee relocation. Her focus is on educational development for refugees & the local school districts. Sammy’s first introduction to refugee work was during her years living in the Middle East, where she worked with refugees in both urban and rural settings.

She writes under a pen name for confidentiality reasons.

 

Relocation: When The Rubber Meets The Road

Part two of a three part series demystifying the process of refugee relocation in the USA.

A guest post by Sammy P., an American aid worker who has worked Stateside for the last two years with a nonprofit in refugee resettlement.


“We thought it was going to be different,” Ali stated. “This wasn’t the plan.”

Coming out of a war torn country such as Somalia, Syria, or Afghanistan, one might think that any chance to start over would be warmly accepted. But that is not always the case.

Back in his country, Ali was a pediatrician. After years of studying in university, and excelling at his practice, he had built a comfortable life for his wife and children. After arriving to the States, he quickly learned his medical license was useless. He was not allowed to practice here. Instead, he was asked to work as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. His English was good, but there just weren’t that many jobs available. He received counsel that he could return to school to update his education and license, but as a 56 year old man, starting over in that capacity wasn’t a likely option. He wondered if this was it for him…if he would be ever be proud of his work again.

Parents are the same no matter where they come from. They want to provide for their children, they desire a strong education, and most importantly, they want their children to be protected.

 Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/ clio1789

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/clio1789

“Mirah bus no come.” It was 5:45pm when I received a frightened call from a father wondering where his daughter was. Trying to remain calm, I assured Lian that his daughter’s bus was probably stuck in traffic. But what if it wasn’t? I didn’t know what to do, or who to call. The bus company wasn’t picking up their phone. I kept trying. Thirty minutes went by and Lian called again, this time, more panicked. I assured him she would be there. Fingers crossed. Fifteen more minutes passed, and he called back. “My daughter home.” By this point, it was 6:30pm. I wish I could say this was the only time this occurred, but it became a pattern. “No problem,” he stated. But is was a problem. It was a very big problem.

We don’t realize how much these families put their faith in others to protect them, to be their voice when there is no where else to turn.

“Our oven no work,” Mahmoud stated. I found it strange that the apartment complex hadn’t fixed the problem that had been reported weeks ago. Frustrated, we contacted the office. “The wife won’t allow the workman in her home when her husband isn’t present,” the office manager stated. “But we work when he works, there is no way around it.” The cultural expectations were set, but someone was going to have to give. 

 Photo credit: Talitha Brauer

Photo credit: Talitha Brauer

It’s not as easy as one might think. We can’t simply throw away the traditions that allow our clients to feel secure. There are reasons for those tight standards, and breaking them is more complex than the West often realizes. “This is America, they must adjust to their new culture!” Although I listened respectfully, I could not bring myself to agree. It takes time, and they are frightened…they don’t know who to trust. Gentle grace is critical.

Staying positive is game changer when interacting with refugee families.

Moments of laughter can be few and far between. Upon arrival, they expect the nightmare is over as they begin their life in their new homeland, which in many minds, is literally a replica of the American dream portrayed in the movies. It’s not. They struggle at all that is required of them to start over.

When talking with parents about what they most look forward to when they arrive in the USA, the responses have been identical, “My children will be educated in America. This is the best part of this new life. They can be whatever they want. They will be treated with respect, even our girls.”

But even that reality seems to come crashing down when their buses fail to show up 25% of the time, or when being allowed to begin school is delayed two weeks from the day they register. They want to stand up for their children, but they can’t. Who is looking out for them?

Cultural misunderstandings often cause trouble, and sometimes it can get ugly.

“He was my hitting daughter, so I slapped his face.” One mother is now dealing with charges being pressed against her, because she stepped in to protect her young daughter from the neighborhood bully. She must now face the local court who sees her as a child abuser. In her mind, there was no choice but to step in. She did what she knew.

I couldn’t read the bathroom sign, and I guessed. I guessed wrong.” Sharif is on suspension from work for using the women’s bathroom. Not only is he dealing with the public humiliation of being pinned a pervert, he is also missing several days of work he needs to pay his rent.

“I’m pregnant,” her eyes lit up as she shared her news.

“What?!” I asked. “I will have an American baby,” she said as her giant smile wrapped around her face.

After years of processing paperwork, interviews, and being bounced from place to place, she was welcoming her baby into its new home…America.

They are fighters…every single one of them. It would be impossible to accomplish the tasks of the journey required, without an incredible amount of courage. But it is hard. Every one of them tells us how difficult it is to be here…if not with their words, then with their eyes.

We see it in the fear on their faces as they scan the crowd at the airport looking for us to meet them.

We see it as we say goodbye, closing the front door, leaving them alone in their new house, hoping the next day someone will return as promised.

They grow weary…tired from not ever knowing where they are going, what is being said, when they will gain control of their own lives again.

They are strong, but they still human. Like the rest of us, they want a chance to prove themselves, to start again. When others around them couldn’t, they got out. They want our respect, our trust, our support. We should be honored to be on this side of their journey, offering them hope…a new chance at life.


Refugee relocation is not only a difficult process for the refugee himself, it’s also a tough adjustment for the community receiving them. What goes on in the minds of those working with refugees? How does one cope with what they see and experience in the stories unfolding around them? 

I'll look at these questions in Part 3 - Tough Love, Soft Hearts the final instalment which explores the impact refugees have on the locals who walk alongside them during this first stage of their relocation journey.



Sammy P. works with a US nonprofit in the field of refugee relocation, with a focus on educational development for refugees & local school districts. Sammy’s first introduction to refugee work was during her years living in the Middle East, where she worked with refugees in both urban and rural settings.

She writes under a pen name for confidentiality reasons.

Road to Resettlement: They Are the 1%

How do refugees access America’s borders and what happens once they arrive? An aid worker answers behind-the-scenes questions in this three part series demystifying the process of refugee relocation in the USA.

A guest post by Sammy P., an American aid worker who has worked Stateside for the last two years with a nonprofit in refugee resettlement. 

Refugee resettlement is a term producing a combination of fear and confusion these days.

However, there is a carefully tailored process that has been in effect for sometime here in the USA. Intentionally developed to be selective, protocol is set in place enabling refugee clients to transition to life in the USA safely and efficiently. But many Americans find themselves trying to put the pieces together of how this process really works. Those of us currently working in the refugee resettlement field are faced with many questions such as:

What is an official “refugee?”

How are they chosen?

How do they get here?

Are they living off handouts?

Do they work?

Are they safe for us to be around?

Refugee applicants must first prove their lives are in danger for reasons having to do with:

· religious affiliation
· sexual orientation
· nationality
· political association
· race
· war
· social affiliation

After fleeing their home country to a neighboring land, they apply to be resettled to a permanent country.

Surprisingly, only 1% are selected to receive the resettlement services of moving to a third location.

Those selected begin a long process of interviews, background checks, and medical screenings. There are time frames associated with these screenings, so if one expires before the client is cleared, they must start again in order to maintain fresh records. A “quick” process can be as little as two years from the time the client applies until they receive travel arrangements.

We recently served an extended family who fled a country in western Africa, who lived many years in a refugee camp while awaiting their departure. Between the families, there were a dozen children born during their time in the resettlement camp; the culture of camp resettlement was all these boys and girls knew. After arriving here, the children refused to eat potatoes at school, unless they were served raw.

Once a client is approved, they receive the legal title of refugee. Contrary to popular belief, refugees do not decide which country will become their new home. This decision is made for them. However, if family members have already been resettled, an effort is made to assign them to the same city. Agencies work hard at reunification. Learning side by side with family is a simple joy that makes the transition process much more manageable.

In the US, there are nine resettlement agencies under the State Department. These agencies have affiliate organizations under them that they work with when distributing the cases to be resettled.

Once families are assigned and accepted by an agency, travel is booked and it’s “go time!”

 Photo credit: Pixabay.com

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

The first order of business is to secure affordable housing. This can be complicated because many landlords require background checks on their tenants, something our clients are unable to offer. Homes are set up with supplies that are either donated or purchased with welcome funds allotted to each client. A strict list is provided ensuring the family home is ready upon arrival with specific items. Volunteers from the community play a primary role in accomplishing tasks such as these.

While leaving a client alone in his new home, it was evident he was terrified. After asking us about dangerous animals he may encounter in his new neighborhood, we were able to deliver the news that a roommate would be joining him two days later. What we didn’t know, was that it was his best friend. Oh the relief, the excitement!

After meeting the family at the airport and taking them to their fully furnished home, things get crazy. The hectic schedule starts immediately with meetings and services on a strict schedule based on mandated deadlines. This timeframe does not allow families to even get over jet lag, and can be stressful for the clients, as well as the agency.

Services offered are:

· school registration for students
· English class enrolment for parents
· medical screenings
· job interviews
· cultural orientation
· transportation orientation
· lease signing and utilities
· social services: Medicaid, social security card, food stamps

Clients can receive agency assistance with the startup services up to ninety days after their initial arrival. They are also given some money to use for basic needs, until their first pay check arrives. But it is critical to emphasize careful spending from the very beginning, in order to stretch the funds as long as possible. Some agencies have a pool of additional funds that can be pulled from to assist with emergency situations clients may find themselves in.

Finding adequate employment is often a challenge. Clients are expected to earn their own income to pay for basic necessities and bills. One burden they face is the airfare they are required to pay back within a certain amount of time living in their new country.

As exciting as this process may be, it is not always the fairy tale often expected.

Building a new life from scratch requires you to be a fighterwilling to do whatever is necessary to succeed.

On one occasion, I noticed a client pushing a shopping cart full of groceries down the street for two miles…seven months pregnant. The cart was full of food for her five children.

 Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/ greggavedon.com

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/greggavedon.com

Many leave their home countries with university degrees which provided a high standard of living, but securing work in their field is not a guarantee, and is often impossible. It is common to be assigned a low entry position in hopes of learning enough English to move up to a higher paying job, but this can take years. They end up relying on social services and donations, something they may not be accustomed to. Changing their careers late in life has created some emotional struggles that often result in depression.

While sorting through donated school uniforms, one family told me their daughter was not to be given anything previously worn by another child. As a frequent second hand shopper myself, I was confused. But it did give me insight into all the change that they are was dealing with. Trying to maintain a sense of normalcy and dignity is critical in helping these families to assimilate as quickly and smoothly as possible.

The mental health component of refugee resettlement is one of our largest challenges. P.T.S.D., culture shock, depression, suicidal behavior and personality disorders are all elements of resettlement, which are often left in the dark. Receiving quality services can be difficult due to a lack of resources, language barriers, and the cultural taboo associated with identifying and treating mental health problems.

Spreading awareness of refugee life in the United States is a key factor in growing the number of services offered to them. The more that our society learns, the better we can utilize the resources we have in serving this community with their unique needs.


Now you’ve seen the legal process of refugee resettlement, but what about when real life begins? 

Stay tuned for Part 2, Relocation: When The Rubber Meets The Road, in which I answer these questions and share stories of struggles faced by real refugees as they adjust to life in the USA.


Sammy P. works with a US nonprofit in the field of refugee relocation, with a focus on educational development for refugees & local school districts. Sammy’s first introduction to refugee work was during her years living in the Middle East, where she worked with refugees in both urban and rural settings.

She writes under a pen name for confidentiality reasons.

AN IRAQI MOTHER IN FINLAND

In December 2015 I received a call from documentary filmmaker Tamara Park, asking me to accompany her on a three week trek from north to south, starting in Finland and ending in Greece. So in early 2016 I quit my day job and volunteered to be her second shooter as we set off upon a faith-filled journey on a shoestring budget.

Our first stop was Finland, a winter wonderland with temperatures hitting -20. Helsinki’s austere buildings sparkled in the winter sunshine as we drove to a refugee transit centre. The first family we met was an Iraqi family of five, all sharing a room with two bunk beds.

 

Farah* fled from Iraq to Europe with her three toddlers.

My husband left 4 to 5 months before I did. If [the militia] caught my husband they would kill him right in front of my eyes. But he left.

Farah’s husband played with their son while she bravely told her story. Their life in Iraq was good before. Then the militia threatened her husband for being Shia and he had to flee. When they knew her husband was gone, they attacked Farah in her own home, so she ran with her babies to her parent’s home.

I crossed the sea and didn’t know if I could survive with me and my boys.
We waited in the dark. I had to come with my babies…no one talking. We took a car to the edge of the sea. After that we took our vests. We had to be calm. It was 20–25 minutes – then water came into the boat. The water was so cold and my babies…their clothes were wet and they were sick.
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The island was very dark and no one was there. We used the flashlight. It was so dark. We had to walk 7 hours. We didn’t know the way. I carried two babies on my back to the police station to Greece.
The journey from Turkey to Finland took two weeks. We made the rest of the journey by bus and train… it’s such a hard time. We could not sit in the train, we had to stand because of all the refugees… we were very cold. All my baby sons were sick. Thank God we made it.
I left my big home, with bedrooms for me and my husband, and rooms for my babies. We left that all to be here in a small room. But we are safe here."

 

WE LOST OUR HOME. WE LOST EVERYTHING. I CAME HERE TO STAY IN ONE FAMILY AND TO LIVE IN PEACE.

 

It amazes me how resilient the kids are. This wee boy from Iraq was full of mischief and joy. He’s safe in Finland, but there are many other children like him who are not safe yet.

Please keep the refugees in your thoughts and prayers and if you live near a refugee home, consider stopping by and visiting for an hour or two.

For further reading, check out this article from the Irish Times on the Christian response to the refugee crisis. / FROM NORTH TO SOUTH • Part 1

*names changed to protect people’s privacy

 

 

Photographed and written by Talitha Brauer

HOW I MET MY SYRIAN FAMILY

 

The largest movement of refugees since WW2 is not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a massive demographic change.

I wanted to see it with my own eyes, to try to comprehend what was going on. I packed my bags and took a night bus to Budapest. Bleary-eyed and adrenaline pumping, I arrived at the central station.

 

 

Thousands were making their way through Budapest with one aim in sight: Germany.

Gathered by a pillar in the metro station was a Syrian family who had traveled together with others from their village. I asked if they needed anything, but before I knew it, they were the ones inviting me to join them for a breakfast of bread, butter, and jam. I told them I was an artist and asked if I could take their photos. They said I could. But they would soon be on their way to Vienna. I asked if I could travel with them and they answered, "Yes! You are family!"

 

 My Syrian family traveling on the train from Budapest to Vienna.

My Syrian family traveling on the train from Budapest to Vienna.

 

The journey was long. 

We transferred trains twice; the second train was so crowded it was almost unbearable.

 

 Emotions ran high when we arrived in Vienna.

Emotions ran high when we arrived in Vienna.

 

It was the first time the family felt safe since leaving Syria.

 

 We were able to rest on makeshift cots in the station, with sheets draped on dividers to give some small semblance of privacy.

We were able to rest on makeshift cots in the station, with sheets draped on dividers to give some small semblance of privacy.

I met a bright young Egyptian-Viennese student at the train station, who was translating for the refugees. With her help, this corner became a safe space for the Syrian mother to tell her story: the family's journey from Syria to Turkey, on a treacherous boat to Greece, and then through unknown and often unfriendly territory in Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary. 

 

TO READ HER STORY, CLICK HERE

 

 

ATHENS / GREECE

An Athens Tale

Met Aysha, a lovely human rights lawyer from Kuwait. She brought a team of volunteers to help translate at Athens Port and on Lesvos. I admire her outgoing and courageous spirit. She is not only making a difference in the refugees' lives, but she is a woman on a mission to inspire other people to volunteer.

Often we make volunteering or helping out in a crisis more noble than it really is. All it takes is to go out your front door and go to a place where people need help. Maybe that is at the port where refugees are just arriving and need clothes and food. Maybe it's at your neighbourhood community center where teenage kids hang out. Or you can find a tandem partner and help an immigrant learn English while picking up some of their language as well.