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UNICEF in Emergencies & Humanitarian Action

In Greece, a family split apart by border closures in desperate bid to reunite

© UNICEF Video
Sarah Alsabsabi's family fled their hometown of Aleppo in 2013, and are trying to reunite with their father in Germany. After Sarah almost drowned at sea while crossing from Turkey to Greece, she is now learning to swim.


By Sarah Crowe

After Sarah Alsabsabi’s family fled from Aleppo to Turkey in 2013, her father’s health started deteriorating. He journeyed on to Germany where he learned that he had kidney cancer. Now, Sarah and her family are desperately trying to reunite with their father, but after finally crossing the Aegean Sea, they have found themselves stranded once again.

ATHENS, Greece, 6 September 2016 – Word finally came after months of anxious waiting from her father, Kasem Alsabsabi, in Bebra, Hessen, Germany – he had arrived, had an operation, was on radiotherapy treatment, had found a place to live and was now ready and desperately keen for his beloved family to join him.

In February 2016, Sarah, 12, set off excitedly from Izmir, Turkey, with her mother and her seven brothers and sisters. The family escaped Aleppo in 2013 and spent nearly three years in Altinozu, Antakya, Turkey, not far from the Syrian border.

Her father used to repair airplanes in Aleppo, but had not been able to work in Turkey. On top of that, his health had continued to decline. It was only once he arrived in Germany last summer that he found out he had kidney cancer. This news made the family all the more anxious and determined to join him and they started to borrow money from friends and family.

Like any child on the move, Sarah could only take a few light but prized possessions in her little backpack. For her it was the digital tablet that she had won for coming first in class as a refugee pupil in Turkey. And, being a young ‘tweenager’ of style, she could not resist packing her chunky white pearl necklace, her sequined handbag, trendy T-shirts and lots of brightly coloured ribbons. After all, they weren’t going to weigh her down and they mattered, to her.

Germany seemed so far away, so foreign – another language, another culture. But for this family from the besieged city of Aleppo it was a paradise where they could build a new life together. Her father could already say ‘Wie geht es, danke schön’ [How are you, thank you]. Sarah was up for it and her sister Sham, who loves languages, had already started showing off.

It was not the first or even the second time that the family attempted to cross one of the most dangerous sea routes on earth. And to make matters worse, it was winter.

© UNICEF/UN030621/Gripiotis
In Athens, Greece, Sarah (second from left) sits with her family inside the container where they shelter in the Skaramangas refugee camp. The family escaped Aleppo in 2013 and spent nearly three years in Altinozu, Antakya, in Turkey not far from the Syrian border.

A dangerous sea crossing

On their first attempt the smugglers suddenly doubled the price at the last minute. It was early spring and the smugglers knew the warm tide of generosity that had swept across Europe in the late summer of 2015 had started to turn distinctly frosty in 2016. They began to add extra costs, and the family, who had already borrowed US$600 from relatives in Saudia Arabia, couldn’t afford to start paying extra.

On the second attempt, Sarah and her family were just 10 minutes off shore when the rubber dinghy started to take on water. It was a terrifying moment. More than 300 migrants had perished on that same Aegean crossing in the six weeks before the Alsabsabi family tried. The flimsy life vests the smugglers charged them for were of little use. Sarah’s father knew the dangers and had taught her older and younger brothers, Mohamad and Seraj Aldeen, to swim. They helped the others get back to shore – devastated but not defeated.

Finally, it became literally a case of third time lucky and they made it across, but their luck ran out just as they arrived in Mytiline, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Across the Balkans and parts of Europe, fences were going up and tolerance was coming down. Sarah’s mum was in a wheelchair because of her bad back, so the idea of getting stuck in the mud in Idomeni, northern Greece, was daunting.

“When we went in the boat I was so scared but I was just thinking about my father and wanting to be with him,” recalled Sarah

“The worst part of coming here was when our boat sank and my tablet got wet in my backpack bag. My teacher gave me that prize of a tablet for coming first in class which made me very happy because my brother was the one getting all the prizes.”

“I took it everywhere with me. Now it doesn’t work anymore but I still keep it,” she said and rushed to show it to us. 

© UNICEF/UN030623/Gripiotis
Karm, 5, watches television inside the Alsabsabi family container where they shelter in the Skaramangas refugee camp.

The nowhere zone

For weeks they stayed out in the open in tents on the islands and then more weeks still in tents on the mainland at the port of Pireaus, right where luxury cruise liners would set sail for the beautiful Greek isles.

Moving to an air conditioned container with a proper bathroom in Skaramangas refugee camp just outside Athens which housed 3,000 refugees in total, was progress. But it was not taking them forward. It was not leading to a route to see Kesem. 

Even for this resolute and resilient family, the waiting is still too much. Sarah is one of more than 27,500 children in Greece who have found themselves in this nowhere zone – waiting for a decision about their lives.

“I am quite fed up being here, we are just stuck here. I miss everything about my life in Aleppo – my friends, the neighbourhood, my granny, my uncles, everything.  I loved my old school in Aleppo and my school in Turkey, they were private schools and I tried hard to do my best because my father had paid a lot of money to send me there,” said Sarah. “Sometimes when there were bombs and gunshots all around there would be no school, but I had all my friends there so we stayed together.”

“The only thing I want now is to go and stay with my father in Germany and learn German in a school there.”

Hopes for Sarah and her family soared when her father Kesem – now with a refugee passport – delighted them with a visit. They have appealed to the authorities in Germany and Greece to help them reunite. 

“It’s very hard for us right now. I will do everything I can for my children and my wife to join me in Germany. I don’t know how my health will be and they are all I have. We lost everything,” said Kasem on his visit to Greece. “Inshallah the governments in Germany and Greece will help us be together.” 

© UNICEF/UN030619/Gripiotis
Sarah (left), sits with her sisters Sham (center) and Salaam (right) in a classroom at the Skaramangas refugee camp. Her sisters Isra and Moena both teach at the school, which children at the camp attend for just 40 minutes each day.

Returning to school

As they are stuck in this limbo of waiting, the best thing for Sarah and her brothers and sisters has been the aptly named Hope School. It had been started by a few enterprising refugees, led by Basel Shrayyef, 28, a communication engineer who had just left Aleppo in March when the siege in their city was raging. They gathered together any and all of the refugees who had had some education, including Sarah’s sisters, Isra, 19, a pharmacology student, and Moena, 18,  who were among the first teachers in the school. They ended up teaching their brothers and sisters, which Sarah found a bit weird at first, she said.

They downloaded some education materials from the Syrian and Iraqi education websites and started makeshift classes – refugees teaching refugees, making the best of a dire situation. With the support of a Greek NGO Pireaus Open School and UNICEF, some 650 children in the Skaramangas camp go to classes in a small container every 40 minutes, starting from 9am until 6pm. UNICEF is providing technical assistance, classroom supplies and teacher support, and in October it will be bringing in 11 more classroom containers, and more supplies.  

For now Sarah is so thrilled with the school that even though she only attends one class a day, she can often be seen hanging about outside the small container for hours, clutching her now-defunct tablet, just to boast to her friends, a little.

And while she waits in this hot, huge refugee camp of containers and “lost souls” (as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called them), Sarah’s best thing is getting dressed up in swimming pants and a T-shirt, blowing up her rubber ring – even wearing her chunky fake pearls – and flinging herself into the grimy waters of the port where the older boys refine their dives.

One day, she says, she will learn to swim properly because she never wants to be stuck on a sinking dinghy with a flimsy life jacket ever again.

>>  Learn more about the humanitarian situation for Syrian refugees
>>  Learn more about the humanitarian situation for refugees and migrants in Europe



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