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Refugee crisis: “The water was coming inside the dinghy – I thought we would drown”

A young boy watches over the streets of Lesvos in the unofficial camp of Kara Tepe
A young boy watches over the streets of Lesvos in the unofficial camp of Kara Tepe

By Arij Boureslan-Skelton, a Save the Children child protection specialist.

It’s my job to make sure that children are protected.

But here in Greece, children are facing all kinds of threats. Most of them come from countries torn apart by violence, death and destruction. Many have witnessed or heard of the death or injury of family members, neighbours, or friends.

Many have not been to school for years, or received the vaccines they need. And too many arrive in Europe only to fall victim again to traffickers.

An all too common hardship

Khaled*, a nine-year-old boy from Syria, is one of over 244,000 people who have arrived in Greece this year, having fled the horrors of conflict in their homeland.

He had to leave his mother and his twin sister back in Syria because the family didn’t have enough money to pay the smugglers to bring them all to Greece.

Khaled suffers from a health condition that needs urgent attention. After his doctor was killed in the war, he fled with his father. The pair hoped to reunite the family in Germany, but now three months have passed and they are still separated.

Khaled is struggling. He cries most of the time. When he calls his mother he asks her why she let him leave. It is a reminder of how this war is tearing families apart and affects me deeply.

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Nothing left to lose

The hardship Khaled has faced is all too common. Children here told me about the extreme fear they experienced while at sea.

“I was screaming and crying the whole journey,” one said. “The water was coming inside the dinghy and I thought we would drown. I don’t know how to swim, and I had heard about children dying in the sea.”

When they arrive in Greece, there is very little water, food or shelter for them. One child told me, “I really like it outside here when we walk on the beach, but inside this place is really bad. There is no place to sleep, shower, or play. There is a lot of broken glass around.”

All the families we met had no choice but to make this journey. Many said they feared they would be killed – that they knew they could die at sea, but that they had nothing left to lose.

Children – some of whom arrive without their parents – talk about the horror they left behind in their homelands. About the humiliation they endured in other countries along the way. About losing the chance to receive an education.

They all hope that coming to Europe will being an end to their long suffering, and that they can finally live as children should.

It’s our job to give children back the life they have been denied. We need to provide a holistic response to the challenges these children face – shelter, food, water, health care, education, protection.

Though they show a great deal of resilience, they face both immediate and ongoing risks. We need to provide children and families with a way to live in dignity.

In Greece, it’s our priority to protect the children in the refugee camps, ensuring that they are physically safe, with adequate food, shelter and basic items.

Our teams in Greece are working to make sure children are protected, and that families’ basic needs are being met. In Athens and Lesvos, Chios and Kos, we’re providing food and shelter as well as non-food items such as nappies, soap, baby wipes and sanitary pads.

They’re simple things, but to a child whose world has been turned upside down, they can mean more than you could imagine.

I am living proof

Despite the sadness I see and the difficult tasks ahead, what compels me to do the work I do is that my family escaped civil war in Lebanon when I was just a young child.

I lived with my mother and siblings in Syria while my father risked his safety to make a living for us in Lebanon. I know what it feels like to be uprooted and the damage that this can cause. I know the kind of separation Khaled and his family are now experiencing.

I was lucky to have a community that supported us in overcoming those challenges. I want to be able to change their situation, for these children to feel it was worth the sacrifice to be uprooted. To help them find a brighter safer, brighter future.

* Name changed to protect identity.


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