Zaina, 26, her husband Osama, 36, and their two young children fled Aleppo in northern Syria last year when the school opposite their home was bombed. They tried to get to Sweden where they heard that Syrians were being granted asylum but ended up in Greece. The smugglers they contacted to get them out of Greece threatened to kill their children and stole their savings. They are stuck in Athens, desperately hoping the war will end so they can go home. This is Zaina’s story.
“My six-year-old son Ali was playing Playstation when a rocket struck the building next to us. We knew the war had hit us. I hugged my crying kids. Their hearts were beating fast. We packed our passports, money, luggage and got ready to escape at a moment’s notice.
During the bombings, I used to hide with my children in the bathroom. Just leaving the house to buy bread was dangerous. We had to pass checkpoints to get to the bakery. We often just wished for even one hour of calm.
The day the school in front of our home was bombed, we decided that was it. I love my country, my family, our friends. When my husband used to say let’s leave this country, I wouldn’t say anything, but after the bomb struck I used to look at my children. They were scared. My daughter Roya couldn't sleep. She would cover her ears to block out the sound of gunshots. I realised we had to leave Syria for the sake of our children.
We rented a car and drove along what they call Death Road to make our way to Turkey. We heard that Sweden was granting asylum to Syrians, but how could we get there? How was I supposed to get a visa from Syria to Sweden?
The only way to get to Sweden was by paying huge amounts of money to smugglers and risking death. It would have cost 40,000 euros. We didn't have that. From Turkey, we travelled to Greece by sea. We paid the smugglers 7,000 euros.
Human smugglers are worse than drug traffickers. They only care about their pockets. Once in Athens, we got in touch with a smuggler to get us out of Greece. He said we should pay 25,500 euros. We agreed we would give them the money when we reached Sweden and we hid it under my veil. The day we were supposed to fly to Sweden, the smuggler said he had to get a few things from a house before heading to the airport.
There were other people at the house. They tied us up and threatened to kill our kids if we didn’t give them our money. They beat up my husband and told him they would chop up our children into pieces and give them to him bit by bit.
One of the smugglers showed me a gun and asked me if I knew what it was. I was terrified I didn’t speak. He repeated: “I am talking to you, do you know what this is?” So I said a gun. Then he asked: “Have you watched movies?” I answered yes. “So you know what 'the end' means?”
They pressured us until the morning. I gave them the money because I couldn’t bear it any more. The important thing is our children's lives.
The smugglers had beaten my husband and stolen our money and passports, but the Greek police then put us in a cell. We hadn't done anything wrong, but the smuggler was free outside and we, the victims, were jailed.
It was the first time I ever saw a prison. My bed was made of stone blocks. We didn’t deserve this. Osama was held separately from us. I’ll never forget the first time we were allowed to see him in a square outside the women’s section. Ali went up to him and asked: “Daddy, have we reached Sweden?”
We were released after a few days. My husband has tried to find work. Some Greeks are very nice. They hang bags with unwanted clothes near the garbage. He sells them for 50 cents or a euro just so we can get something to eat. A Syrian businessman is paying our rent. But our bills have piled up and we cannot pay them.
In Syria, we were afraid of the war. In Greece, we are afraid of the police and being detained.
When we left Syria, the only thing we thought of was the future of our children, nothing else mattered. If there was no war in Syria, we would never have left our country.”