Al-Hasakah is a rural city in the northeast of Syria with a diverse population of Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians and a large Kurdish population. The most recent consensus data from 2004 estimated a population of 251,570 people – nearly 120,000 of those people are displaced today.
From a life that cherished family values and a sense of community, the 17-year-old Hiveen finds herself separated from more than half of her family and now lives in the Skaramagas refugee camp in the west of Athens.
“What I miss most about my old life in Syria is being with my family and going to school,” she said.
When I met Hiveen on an extremely hot Monday afternoon in late August, I just finished drinking coffee with a lonely Syrian family from Aleppo. My friend Bev from LA had introduced me to them when we visited the refugee camp together. We talked about one of the biggest issues in the resettlement process for refugees and Ahmad, the family’s father had clear answers.
“We are thankful that we escaped Syria but now we suffer in a different way,” he said. “Our families get separated all over Europe and we don’t get a chance to see each other again.”
He told Bev and me about the countless separated families he knows. His own parents were sent to Maastricht in the Netherlands with an uncertainty of when the rest of the family would be able to follow.
Ahmad suggested me to talk to a Kurdish family from Syria – Hiveen’s family – whose father was able to join their two oldest sons in Frankfurt, central Germany, while one daughter was sent to east Germany. The mother and two youngest children were stuck in the Skaramagas refugee camp in Greece. Some family members are still in Syria and “are living in fear,” said Hiveen’s mother.
While Hiveen and her mother were able to apply for documents that will eventually allow them to travel to Germany, her brother did not qualify because of his age. With 19 years, he wasn’t a minor anymore and therefore legally not required to join his family.
What the family will do about this? They don’t know yet. While Hiveen and her mother don’t want to leave the youngest son behind, remaining in the refugee camp is not an option either.
“Refugees in the camps have no future,” Hiveen said. “We sleep, eat and walk around. There is nothing we can do all day.”
Many friends and acquaintances have already left the camp and moved on. Hiveen and her mother said they have built friendships, but none of their friends were around anymore – nobody who could possibly look out for Hiveen’s brother.
“How does it make you feel seeing your friends leaving to different countries while you’re still here?” I asked.
I remembered asking Mustafa, a joyful Syrian refugee (Post to come) now living in Berlin, a similar question. He told me about the friends he had made along the way, who were distributed all over Europe, while he was still stuck in Greek refugee camps. Mustafa’s reaction to the question was positive and he responded that he couldn’t wait to visit them all.
Hiveen reacted differently.
The question seemed to hit nerves. Without translating it, Ahmad responded, “You have mixed feelings. You’re happy for your friends because they get to leave, but there is also a deep sadness. I can’t explain this feeling.”
Did he respond to the question so I would skip it for Hiveen? At that moment, I didn’t think about this and asked him to translate the question for her. She nodded and smiled softly for just a second. When Ahmad finished translating the question, there was a moment of silence.
“It’s hard,” she responded briefly, starring on her hands in her lap.
Suddenly, I could see tears filling Hiveen’s eyes. Her mother broke the awkward silence and responded how she befriended Ahmad’s mother, who recently left to the Netherlands. She explained how the two women did everything together to make each other’s lives more bearable. Now with her best friend gone, living in the refugee camp became more depressing day by day, she said.
Hiveen stood up and started to collect the empty cups from the tea she had served us earlier. She went to the sink in the corner of the room and washed the cups – wiping her upper arm against her cheek.