By Izzy Tomico Ellis, a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Additional reporting by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.
Syrine* is sitting on the edge of a bed inside a tidy room for two, in City Plaza — a squatted hotel in Greece where solidarians from all over the world have flocked to bring respite to its refugee residents. Her little son started walking yesterday. In between our conversation, she holds out her hands to catch him as he falls down. Soothing him, she recalls, “I looked on Facebook to find out what to do when he was crying. I was alone with a baby…I didn’t know anything.”
When we asked her if we could write down her story, she smiled, “I’ve thought about telling it a lot.”
The strength with which she carried herself had compelled me to ask, and at the same time made me worry she’d laugh. For her, a 21-year-old mother, bravery comes so naturally.
When we first met in Athens in the January darkness, she explained that her husband had gone out the previous night to buy cigarettes and never came home. In the morning, she had called the main hospitals.
“He wasn’t there. I was relieved a little,’’ Syrine recounts shakily. But a few hours later, she had discovered he was in prison after being caught without the legal papers for refugees in Athens.
Too scared to return to where she had been staying, Syrine had been pushing her son, Salah*, around the streets in a buggy ever since.
Alone and homeless, remarkably she kept a clear head. She spoke calmly in English, asking for a lawyer to come the next day to try and resolve the situation for herself and her family, and arranged a room at City Plaza.
It wasn’t the first time. The young Tunisian woman has spent nearly three years running to protect herself, her husband and their son. Salah was just 8-months-old when they had to flee their country after Syrine’s relatives threatened to kill her in revenge for bringing dishonor to the family. The couple had managed to marry just before Salah was born, but Syrine’s family continues to look for her.
“My brother would do it, I know he would,” she said. Until then, she had been at university, hiding the relationship and pregnancy from her family. “I didn’t want an abortion; it’s easy, but it was my baby with the man I loved.”
She described the double-life she was leading in Tunisia, scrolling through old Facebook posts and event pages of the electronic music nights she and her husband would attend in the city of Sousse, close to the country’s capital, Tunis.
Tunisia has made significant legal advancements in the push toward gender equality, including lifting a ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men and ending a law that meant rapists could escape punishment by marrying their victims. However, systematic violence against women still persists: In 2016, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women said 70 percent of Tunisian women were victims of abuse and honor killings in Tunisia are still reported.
“One man told me there was no hope for asylum, and I should just go back,” she shakes her head . “He has no idea… My father is a famous man, he cares about what the people think, not about me — we had to leave.”
After fleeing to Turkey, they arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos. Syrine describes what she saw in the camp as unbelievable. “Everywhere children without clothes or shoes,” she says. “Some people stay there for over a year — one year!” Her eyes widen. “ I would go crazy.”
Moria camp has become an infamous symbol of the European refugee crisis where living conditions that lie behind barbed wire fences have been repeatedly condemned by leading human rights organizations.
“We went to a hotel the next day and travelled to the mainland illegally. I couldn’t live there… with a baby,” she shakes her head.
“I think he misses him. He was happier before,” she gestures to Salah, as he refuses food in a restaurant close by to where they are staying.
Syrine has spent the last few weeks trying to arrange paperwork for her husband, to no avail. As the pair had left the previous island camp without the correct documents, she was told she would have to return if their asylum case was to be processed as a couple. Though, Syrine has relentlessly tried other ways.
“Every day I wake up early, I go to this organization — Katahaki (the Greek Asylum Service) — but each day passes and nothing happens,” she says. “Every night I would fall asleep and hope tomorrow will bring a solution.’’
But it hasn’t, so today she is leaving. Her hair is more blonde, and she’s cut it shorter. Her husband is still imprisoned, and Syrine is forced to leave her safe room in the hotel — to travel back to a camp and live alone.
“It’s a dangerous step, but I must do it. I must go back there to help my husband,” she says. Her voice falters. Only a few days were spent at the camp before — but she’s seen enough to know the dangers, the difficulties, the fear — not being able to go to the toilet after a certain time, sleeping with her belongings wrapped in her arms, with her baby.
We find Syrine’s suitcase and bags parked outside the hotel. She comes out a few minutes later. Her face is made up. She looks European. It’s deliberate, for fear of police and discrimination. She pulls a hat over her son’s dark curls, speaking to him in English. Walking toward the train, she runs into friends on the street, another goodbye.
She made the same trip, just in the other direction, with her husband only months before. The closer we get, the more her face looks as if it will crumble — her nervousness at the uncertainty that awaits her and her little baby lurching closer and closer each station we pass — but it never does.
“I studied one year of architecture, then nursing, but now I think I want to be a mechanic,” she had told us in the days before.
Off the train, she gathers herself again, struggling to collapse the buggy into a taxi as the driver tuts impatiently, the hinges catching on baby toys — as ever, she holds her cool — once again methodically packing her life belongings.
*Syrine and Salah are false names used to protect real identities.
Izzy Tomico Ellis is a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Izzy graduated with a first class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster in 2016 and is currently based in Greece. Additional reporting for this article was contributed by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.