“We’re not bad people. We’re not robbers or animals,” says Abdul, his green eyes full of emotion. “I like to work.”
When Abdul, his wife, Saha, and their three young children arrived at the Ritsona refugee camp in March, they thought they’d spend just 2-3 days here before joining family members in Germany. Abdul, who worked for years as a marble ceramacist in Equatorial Guinea and speaks fluent Spanish in addition to three other languages, paid most of his life savings to smugglers (“la mafia”) for the family’s passage to Lesvos. The rest was soon spent on food, as they arrived weeks before any organized meal distributions began.
That was 7 months ago, and the family’s first asylum interview doesn’t take place until December. In the meantime, Abdul tries to keep his children healthy through the cold, rain, and heat of the changing seasons while assisting with carpentry projects in the camp.
“I didn’t come here to sit around,” he says.
“I had everything,” says Ragda. “A house, a car, nice clothing—everything.”
Her husband, Omar, worked in the construction business in Aleppo. They enjoyed a peaceful life and some success in the city, creating a comfortable home for their children. Leaving Aleppo was a difficult decision but a fortuitous one—three days after they abandoned their house, it was destroyed by bombs.
“But my husband can build a house out of nothing,” Ragda adds.
Shortly after the family’s arrival in Ritsona refugee camp, their simple tent dwelling began to transform, gaining first one room and then another. Now it features a garden and a wooden door. Though Ragda and Omar didn’t expect to be stranded here through three seasons and the birth of another child, they’ve done their best to create a home.
When you’re 13 years old and confined to a tent in rural Greece, there aren’t many ways to occupy your time. Jiwan decided to learn how to play the tanbour, a stringed instrument invented by the Kurdish people.
“I want to be good—very good,” he says.
Luckily, he’s a natural. Though he had never picked up an instrument before his family fled Aleppo, he has learned to read music with the help of an Iraqi musician living in a neighboring tent. Jiwan practices for several hours a day, the melodies of songs like “Kine em?” (Who Are We?), an anthem to the Kurdish identity, emanating from the tent that he shares with his mother and two brothers.
His mom looks at him proudly. “Now we have music here every night,” she says.
If there’s anyone in the camp who’s confident about the future, it’s Berivan.
“Since I was eight I have known I’m going to be an eye doctor,” she says. “I love eyes, because they show feelings. I've seen so many sad eyes.”
She whips out a pencil and draws a diagram of an eyeball with a tear duct next to it. “Did you know that when people cry, it comes from a sack next to the eye?” She pauses and points to her chest. “Of course, it also comes from the heart.”
Berivan’s family will be leaving the camp soon to continue their asylum process in Athens, a move that she has mixed emotions about.
“I won’t get to see my friends as much, because they’ll be too far away. But I also won’t have to see any more bugs or rats.” She shudders. “I hate rats."
Though Anwar is the only African refugee in Ritsona camp, it's rare to see him without a smile on his face, chatting with other residents.
"It's important to learn how to live with other people, how to be peaceful," he says.
Peace isn't something that Anwar has experienced much of in his life: When civil war broke out in the Darfur region of Sudan, he, his wife and their five children were displaced to a refugee camp in another part of the country, where his wife died of malaria. In February, Anwar left his children with relatives and traveled to Greece with the goal of applying for asylum for the family in England.
"Our government is burning everything," he says. "I want my children to learn the right path, to be able to live with others and to have hope."
“I had a tanbour [Kurdish guitar] that was much better than this one, with a better quality of sound, but it fell into the sea during the crossing,” says Adnan.
Nevertheless, the professional musician and music teacher produces beautiful melodies, putting on impromptu concerts in the camp and giving lessons to anyone who wishes to learn.
“I love people,” he says. “When I teach someone and they learn quickly, it makes me very happy.”
After three decades playing in orchestras throughout Iraq, Adnan fled the invasion of ISIS in the northern part of the country last year. Unfazed by the high unemployment and poor infrastructure in Greece, he requested and received asylum here and will soon be moving to a nearby town to rent a house from a Greek friend.
“I said, ‘The Greek people have good hearts. I will stay here.’”
Siba was two years into her civil engineering studies when a bomb fell near her university, killing dozens of her classmates. It was the last straw for her mother, who had recently lost Siba’s brother in a bombing. They decided to cross Turkey in an attempt to reach Germany. After paying the Turkish police to release them from a detention center, they eventually made their way to Greece, where authorities dropped them off in a field with 400 other people—Ritsona refugee camp.
“I told my mom, ‘We’ll only be here for two or three days; don’t be sad.’ Then someone said that we might be here for three months. I said, ‘It’s not true.’”
Now Siba, whose name means “young”, is eight months into waiting and scoffs at her former optimism. But she’s more determined than ever to excel at her studies, and has used her spare time to prepare for the entrance exams to European universities while also teaching math to the camp’s elementary schoolers.
“A lot of volunteers ask me, ‘Siba, what do you need?’ I don’t need anything. I have everything—I have respect for myself. I need to move.”
Mohammed never considered himself much of a gardener, though his family had a plot of land in Aleppo that grew beans, tomatoes, and zucchini. But after several months at Ritsona refugee camp feeding his kids the same packaged croissants and juice boxes day in and day out, he grew frustrated.
“The food the military brings is very expensive. Why not bring tomatoes and potatoes? With those, we can eat for a week,” he says.
In midsummer, Mohammed obtained seeds and dug out a small patch of the dry soil behind the camp. He planted onions, peppers, squash, and other nutritious vegetables that his family commonly ate back home. He pulls up a photo on his phone of a bowl of green beans.
“Last week we had one kilo,” he says.
Born with a hereditary deformity that disfigured his feet and legs, Ahmed has been confined to a wheelchair his entire life, making his family's escape from bomb-ridden Qamishli, in northern Syria, even more harrowing than most. A grueling journey across Iraq and the Turkish border by horseback, two weeks in a Turkish detention center, and a rubber raft across the Aegean brought the teen and his parents to the Greek islands in February, where volunteers provided him with a wheelchair when his family's raft washed ashore.
"It's the same kind I had in Syria," he says.
He and his parents hope to reunite with his sister, aunt, and uncle who are living in Germany and get back to "you know, normal life" once the asylum process is complete. In the meantime, Ahmed waits every morning on the road that leads into Ritsona refugee camp, greeting passersby and watching the camp spring to life.
"It's not too beautiful here," he observes.
“Simply put, I left for my kids,” says Yousef.
After years working in hotel management for Sheraton in Damascus and Saudi Arabia, the father of four had saved his earnings and started a dairy factory in Idlib to be closer to family. One day the Syrian Army attacked their town, killing scores of people and wiping out neighborhoods. The family happened to be in Damascus at the time; both the factory and their house were burned.
“Why? I don’t know,” he says.
He and his wife, Hanan, moved the family from town to town in the years that followed, looking for a place that would be safe from bombings. Ultimately they decided they had to leave Syria this year.
“It isn’t 10 or 20 bombs, but hundreds,” he explains. “It’s all charcoal now.”