This past weekend, the She Is Syria team was super pumped to be at the UN Social Good Summit to shoot Yusra Mardini, 18-year-old Syrian swimmer who was part of the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio. There, she appeared onstage with fellow Refugee team member Yiech Pur Biel, who is a runner from South Sudan. They both spoke to press about their experiences in Rio and raised awareness about refugee issues. Here's a behind the scenes look at our crew with Sophie Edington from IOC (International Olympic Committe), Yusra and Pur.
Photo taken 8/14/16. Hevin, a widowed single mom and former arts teacher in Vasilika Camp. She's been here for 2 months with her 3 children. With the current political policies in place, she can neither move forward across the border to get to Germany where she had hoped to work, or go back.
Inside Hangar 6 of 9 in Vasilika
I just got back to Berlin last week from northern Greece, having spent a week volunteering and filming at Camp Eko. An independently run volunteer camp situated 30 minutes outside Thessaloniki, Eko is building a kitchen, women's space, and school on a farm. This farm is right next to Vasilika Camp, which shelters 1,300 Syrian, Kurdish, and Iraqi refugees.
I met Hevin inside Vasilika. She welcomed me into her tent, offering me coffee and oranges. Like so many other refugee women, Hevin surprised me with her humor. This project has forced me to check my own biases - why shouldn't she be funny and full of energy? Because she has been politically assigned the label of "refugee"?
At 41, Hevin is a widowed mother of three children - ages 12, 14, and 18. She's a former women's arts teacher from Afrin, a city in northern Syria that is predominantly Kurdish. Her husband "died" four years ago -- he went out with friends one night and never returned home. Hevin was frantic and asked everyone in the neighborhood if they had seen him. Neighbors told her he died but the family never saw his body.
Life became even harder than it already was. Now a single mom, she had to work even harder to make ends meet. With war, everyday items and food were getting more and more expensive. The last straw was when her landlord informed her he wanted to move back into the flat. She couldn't afford to move into a new one so decided to leave six months ago in February 2017.
But on March 18, EU struck a deal with Turkey - “all new irregular migrants” arriving in Greece will be returned to Turkey. Borders officially closed and now, Hevin and her family are stuck at the Greek border - first at Eko (an informal camp at gas station in Polykastro that was evacuated) and now at Vasilika.
It's really hard to describe and probably even harder to imagine what camp life is like for those who live there. Vasilika is military-run so there are officers stationed at the main gate 24/7. The camp consists of 9 huge hangars, abandoned warehouses next to a highway and barb-wired fences surround the place.
If it sounds like an open-air prison, that's because it looks and feels like one. There are 60 portable toilets that are not properly cleaned on a daily consistent basis. There are only about 20 showers, 10 of which don't have hot water and with winter coming, this will be very, very problematic.
People tried to build a kitchen on site in order to cook the few vegetables that are provided for them but the police stopped the project. There isn't much in this area besides farmland. Fifteen minutes down the road, there are a few shops and a big supermarket that no one can afford to shop at. At this point, most families have been stuck here for 6 months and counting. Many have run out of money and rely solely on what the government is providing the camp.
No one knows what will happen next. It is becoming increasingly clear with each passing day that camps such as Vasilika are not going anywhere. Rumor has it that current Vasilika residents will be there until at least September 2017.
Today is the first day of the World Humanitarian Summit. Refugees now entering Europe illegally are sent back to Turkey or worse, Syria, though this was not always the case. In January 2016, we met Sabah, an incredible mother who told us about the mishaps she went through with a smuggler to get into Turkey and across the Aegean Sea to Greece. She was traveling with 4 other young mothers and 16 children among all of them. Her 4 children are ages 10, 9, 6, and 5.
Sabah was a grade school teacher for 20 years in Damascus, Syria. Her dream is to continue teaching and nurturing future generations.
When we came to Lesvos, Greece to photograph and film refugees landing on the shore, the last thing we expected was to meet Ai Weiwei. Turns out he was there doing the same thing. Only on his iPhone.
I asked him in Chinese, "Are you Ai Weiwei?" He replied in English, "Yes. Who are you?" We explained that we were filmmakers from New York. Once we got to talking, he revealed that he'd set up a studio on Lesvos in December and was in the process of making a documentary as well.
In an interview with CNN, Ai revealed just how much witnessing the plight of the refugees coming to Europe has affected him. He explained that he's not quite sure what form his art on this subject will take: "I feel like I kind of get lost. I feel my intention, my instinct, my reactions, are not really so much associated with my experience with art in politics. It really has led me to an unknown area. I grew up in difficulty, and many experiences can be compared or the same, but still I cannot connect with those people who risk their lives going through the path of refugees to Europe. And then you see all those politicians that are not really helping, and trying to find all kind of excuses. To refuse and to even put these refugees in more tragic situations. When they get off the boats, men and women have tears in their eyes—they think they have made it. Volunteers come from everywhere and hand them a cup of tea, or a piece of chocolate. This small thing can make a kid happy. But Europe is not much more than a blanket, and a little piece of chocolate.”
We flew to Lesvos for Day 7 of our trip. At night, we drove to the shores of Skala, a prime landing spot for refugees as it is the island's closest point to Turkey. We met a few volunteers from A Drop in the Ocean, a Norwegian non profit that helps families stay together. This is rather important because of the chaos that ensues once a boat lands.
We spent the last week of our trip on Lesvos, a Greek island that is so far east you'd think it belonged to Turkey. More than 800,000 refugees entered the EU through the Greek isles in 2015 and a large percentage of those people came through Lesvos.
At its narrowest point, the two countries are separated by only 10 km of sea, making Lesvos a preferred location for many of the refugees who attempt the crossing. The boats that come in are overcrowded with up to 70 people and are often made from cheap materials with knockoff motors and Japanese brand names misleadingly plastered on them.
On the day we spent at Skala Sikamineas (just one landing point on the island), we witnessed 6 boats arrive. A total of 1,300 refugees were registered; in warmer weather, the daily count has been known to reach up to 9,000.
Watching that first boat come in and make it to shore safely was an emotional experience for our team. But while this leg of the journey may be the most dramatic, in reality, it is only the beginning—as many of the women we spoke with in Athens and Berlin attested to.
Over the next few weeks we'll continue to release videos, words, and pictures that document the experiences of the many women and families who opened up to us.
We stumbled upon a family of Afghan refugees in Athens' Victoria Square. Refugees only stay momentarily before moving onto the next destination: Macedonia. Though the border is now closed, we discovered a group of 5 to 6 families planning to travel with their English-speaking Afghan guide to Macedonia.
We interview Christiane Beckmann, volunteer coordinator for Moabit Hilft at LAGeSo. In response to the ever growing restrictions in letting refugees into Germany, Beckmann asks: "What if you have a family? And your sister is the 200,001st person who is not allowed to come inside? You let her die?"
Opinions in Germany are split over the refugee crisis and not every citizen supports Merkel's policy of welcoming refugees with open arms. At Haus D, however, we met ordinary Berliners who are doing what they can to alleviate the conditions at LAGeSo, whether it's a hot cup of coffee or a pair of winter boots. But more than that, they are building a community of volunteers and refugees from all over the world—a place that feels like home.
Christiane Beckmann is the coordinator at Moabit Hilft, a local citizens group that began bringing clothing, toiletries, diapers, and other necessities to the refugees at LAGeSo this past August. Over the course of the last 6 months, she's become close with many of the refugees who volunteer at Haus D every day.
(left) A little boy stands in the hallway as his mother picks out clothing for him. (right) Clothing donations from the community come in on a daily basis. This pile of baby clothes still waiting to be folded and organized.
Elly is an Iranian refugee who volunteers in the folding room at Haus D. While she is grateful to have made it to Berlin, she still struggles with the fact that she has had to leave her parents and the rest of her family behind.
(left) Skrollan is a 22-year-old college student and regular at Haus D. She runs the kitchen where they prepare the coffee and tea that they pass out to people waiting in the long lines outside. (right) Alex and Ayham, both refugees from Syria, volunteer and help translate. Alex has only been in Berlin for 4 months, but learning German has come quickly to him; he's also pretty good at taking selfies! (example above) Ayham in the bright yellow vest now lives with Christiane and her family; she says she's gained a new son.
Wenzel Michalski, Germany Director of Human Rights Watch, explains the dangers faced by female refugees on their journey to Europe and within the camps. They can become targets for sexual assault, rape, and trafficking. Authorities need to recognize and address the problem, and policies should be implemented to better protect women and young girls.
Hamida and her husband Mohammadi, who stands at her left, are refugees from Afghanistan. They have two young children, an 8-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl who is very sick. It's been 5 months since they made the 40-day journey through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria and arrived in Germany.
They are living at Haus M, LAGeSo's medical center run by Caritas, where the doctors are still trying to diagnose their daughter's illness. As Dari-speaking Afghanis, the language barrier is particularly difficult. Most of the translators available at LAGeSo speak Arabic.
Their dream for Germany, once their daughter gets well and they receive their papers, is to give their children a better life here, one they could not have had in Afghanistan where the Taliban and ISIS continue to make war.
Here, Hamida hopes to work as a hair stylist—something she never would have been allowed to do under the Taliban. Germany may be the family's final destination, but it's clear that this is just the beginning of their new life.
Sahar, a 28-year-old Syrian woman, talks about her frustrations with the crowded refugee camps and slow proceedings for papers. We met her at noon, though she had been waiting in below freezing temperatures since 4 am. A fairly new arrival to Berlin, she hopes to be able to work soon to provide for her 3-year-old daughter. For security reasons, she wouldn't let us film her, but you can hear her energy and determination in this interview.
For many refugees, Berlin is the final stop in a long series of border-crossings and large sums paid to smugglers. Once they arrive at LAGeSo, they are faced with endless bureaucratic procedures and long, often unbearable, waits in the cold. Yet despite the travails they have faced and the loved ones they have had to leave behind, most are grateful to have made it this far. They see Germany as a new beginning, a land of opportunity. The chance to start anew is especially meaningful for women, who are able to realize lives here that they never could have in their home countries.
Azula is an Iraqi Kurd. She arrived in Berlin 20 days ago by way of Lesvos, Greece. In Iraq, she would not have been able to work because she is a woman; in Berlin, her dream is to become a hair stylist.
(left) A young girl picks out much-needed clothing from a local charity housed at LAGeSo. About 20 volunteers come here every day to organize clothing donations and pass out hot coffee and tea to the refugees.
(right) These refugees stand at the entrance to the tent designated for women as they wait for appointments to renew their papers.
(below) Many refugees can be seen carrying bright red pieces of paper like this one—official documents issued by LAGeSo.
A father holds his baby daughter as he waits in the chilly 28-degree weather. One hopes that Berlin will offer her a better life.
Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales or LAGeSo, as it is typically referred to, is one of two refugee centers in Berlin where new arrivals must go to register their status. Each month refugees stand in line for hours, if not days, often staying on the grounds overnight in order to renew their papers and receive basic stipends.
Follow us as we document the lives of refugee women and girls from Syria and other countries in the region who have made the perilous journey to Europe and beyond. We'll be posting photos, videos, interviews, and more as we travel through Berlin, Athens, and Lesvos.