The first person I talked to after arriving on the Greek Island of Lesbos was an Afghan refugee and former U.S. interpreter who fled after he had received death threats from the Taliban. I was surprised.
Reading the news about the refugee crisis, I was under the impression that refugees are a pretty cohesive group, that most are from Syria and that all are fleeing “the war.”
However, after just two hours of walking around and asking people one question — “why did you flee?” — I discovered something completely different. I met so many people, each with their own story and fleeing for their own reason.
Refugees disembarking a rubber boat on the coast of Lesbos, Greece. Photo: AJ+/Hagar Shezaf
Even among Syrians, four million of whom have fled the country, the answer to that question varies a lot. Some, like 22-year-old Abdullah, say persecution is the main reason they fled. He says, “You would leave your house and you might get arrested or kidnapped from the Assad group or others…I have a brother that has been missing for two years, we don’t know in which jail.” Others from Damascus and Aleppo described life in the shadow of constant shelling from both Assad and rebel forces, which led them to lose their homes and any chance of further education.
Former Yarmouk resident Bilal, a 19-year-old Palestinian and second-time refugee, fled amid ongoing fighting and a siege on the camp which left the camp’s residents surviving on scraps. “When we even ran out of cats to eat, I knew it was time to go,” he joked. On the other end of Syria’s conflict, 30-year-old Ahmed from Raqqa fled the city that became home to ISIS headquarters as he felt his personal liberties shrinking.
When I asked if he had any problems leaving, he said, “ISIS would rather me leaving the city. They don’t want people like me in the city, they just want my house.”
Afghan refugees resting on the way to Lesbos’ main city, Mytilini. Photo: AJ+/Hagar Shezaf
The refugees I met weren’t all from Syria. The second largest group of refugees are Afghans. Women, children, teenagers and the elderly all describe a long and dangerous journey through Afghanistan, a deadly border crossing with Iran and a rubber boat trip from Turkey to Greece. Some fled the country due to threats from the Taliban. Other fled areas where ongoing fighting has cut their access to eduction and work. Some said their past work with the NATO mission in Afghanistan turned them into Taliban targets; they hope they can get asylum in the UK or the U.S.
Pakistani refugees I spoke to, though fewer in number, shared similar stories of being forced from their homes in Taliban-held areas, caught between Taliban attacks and U.S. drone strikes.
Qassem Sami, from Baghdad, Iraq, told me that he decided to leave due to the lack of basic services, such as electricity, as well as attacks from ISIS and continued fighting throughout the country.
On a bright Saturday morning in Lesbos, thousands of refugees were still waiting for a ferry to take them to Athens. They were divided into different groups based on nationality and place of origin — Peshawar, Jalalabad, Aleppo, Baghdad. Some were playing football; others sat in their tents. Nearby, children and adults swam in the blue sea, the homes they fled now hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Of those huddled together, not all of them knew each other from back home; many met along the way in Turkey or Iran, but decided to stick together during their journey because they shared a common language or understanding of the world, along with a longing for the homes they fled. Yet they all share one thing — a hope for a safe life and a better future.
Hagar Shezaf AJPlus Global Engager, Middle East & North Africa. Based in Jaffa