Calling Syria to check my family is alive

Activists across Europe are protesting today against how people fleeing war and poverty are being treated at the EU border. One protester, Inaam, is a Syrian refugee living in Greece. She worries about her relatives still living in Syria. But she is also afraid of what might happen to them if they make it to the gate of ‘Fortress Europe’.

By Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Amnesty’s Campaigner on Greece

She speaks Greek perfectly, clearly and with confidence. Inaam, 32, has lived in Athens since 2006. Her mother and brother are with her, but three of her sisters and their families are still in Syria. She follows the news closely.

“Every time I see a new image of the war, I rush to call them to calm myself down, to see if they are alive,” Inaam tells me. Their hometown, Al-Rakka in northern Syria, has been ravaged by violence.

“Sometimes we can’t get hold of them because communications are down, and my mother cries all day. She often says she wants to go back and I try to explain that it’s impossible.’’

Inaam watches with horror the images of ‘’barrels falling from the sky’’. “I put my hand to my heart and worry,” she says. “People look to the sky to see where the barrel will fall.’’ She says one bomb destroyed her aunt’s house and injured her niece.

Her sisters and their families are thinking of fleeing, but it isn’t easy, Inaam says. “They want to save their own and their children’s lives, and provide them with an education. But I’m afraid of what will happen to them if they take the journey to Europe’s borders. It is very difficult for refugees here’’.

Inaam is a passionate activist. In January 2014, she and others protested alongside Amnesty against refugees and migrants drowning in the Aegean Sea. The Greek coast guard was allegedly trying to illegally turn their boat back to Turkey. When it sunk near Farmakonisi island, eleven people – eight of them children – lost their lives.

They also try to help new refugees arriving from Syria.’’ We try to do what we can – buy them some food and find them a place to sleep. We also send medicine and food to refugee camps in Turkey,’’ she says.

Today, Inaam is taking part in Amnesty’s SOS Europe: People before borders action in Athens. ‘’If just one more person learns what is going on, that’s enough for me,” she says. “Because then he or she might take action’’.

Right now, we have a crucial opportunity to tell European leaders that we disagree with how refugees and migrants are treated at the EU’s borders. Amnesty supporters across Europe will be putting pressure on their national candidates ahead of the European Parliament elections in May. In June, government leaders will meet to agree their strategy on asylum and migration for the next five years.

We want them to come up with policies that save people’s lives and treat them with dignity. People shouldn’t have to be locked up for months or even drown to reach safety in Europe. We can do better than that.

With an education, a job and documents showing that she is legally resident in Greece, Inaam is one of the lucky ones. In Syria she used to be an arts teacher for schoolchildren, teaching them painting. Now she works in one of the biggest hospitals in Athens as an interpreter. She graduated from university in January, after studying business administration.

Before we say goodbye, Inaam tells me she wishes for Syria “to unite in one heart again, in freedom and democracy for all people”. Meanwhile, she urges Greece and Europe to put people first and help Syria and its refugees. “Because if Syrians aren’t refugees,’ she asks, “then who is?’’