Up Close and Personal

Coming into this trip, I knew I would be dealing with covering the Syrian refugee crisis. Greece is the entryway for many of the refugees seeking asylum in Europe, and thousands of them are stuck here waiting to be relocated or reunited with their families. It’s easy to read articles and watch videos and think you have a grasp on the situation, but the past couple weeks have shown me that’s really not the case.

Last week, we visited Elpida Home, a refugee center on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. It was great experience. The facility was in good condition, there was a communal kitchen with fresh food and lockable dorm-style rooms. The building itself was covered in art drawn by the refugee children themselves and blown up by professional artists. The children, which make up two-thirds of the home, were running around outside with smiles on their faces. “Elpida” means hope, and it truly was an uplifting visit. Here’s a short look into the home that I shot while we were there.

Things got a little more personal when I went along with Gwen, Paxtyn and Bridget to visit a refugee family that had been placed in an apartment in Thessaloniki. There has been a push by the European Union to move refugees out of camps and into their own apartments. The family had luckily remained intact: the husband, wife and their six kids all madeit to Greece after leaving Syria six years ago and going through some harrowing experiences along the way. It felt so much more real than our visit to Elpida. To actually see the conditions they’re living in and hear their stories firsthand was an incredibly moving experience. After we interviewed the husband (for four hours, Syrians love to talk in circles, as Carlene warned us) we played outside with the children, kicking balls and playing monkey in the middle, laughing the whole time. I left feeling sad for them, but also happy that we will be able to share their story.

Finally, yesterday Gwen, Paxtyn, Sydne and I went to visit a camp far outside the city called Softex. The residents there live in “iso-boxes” which are essentially cargo containers with windows. There was no running water, and one young man we spoke to said that the camp “was for animals, not for humans.” We interviewed another family, this time with three kids, about their journey from Syria and it was equally as devastating. Still, all the kids we met were happy, playing on bikes and scooters and asking to see the photos Sydne was taking of them.

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Meeting these people, being brought into their homes and fed by them, playing with their children…it struck me how open they are. These are people who have almost drowned in rubber boats, had scissors sewn back up inside them after giving birth in a camp hospital and lost loved ones along the way. It would be easy to shut down and give up hope. Yet they still want to talk, they want to have their stories told, they want to be listened to. A running theme across all these visits was the happiness of the children. When we asked the mother of the family in Softex about her kids’ state of mind she smiled and said “they adapt.”

It’s easy to feel guilt about being welcomed into these families’ upturned lives, when we get to return to our cushy ones in just a few weeks. But these people want their stories to be told. Our connection for these interviews and visits, Alex (who is a Syrian refugee himself), wants their stories to be told. Even if we only reach a few people back home, that will be more than if we never came at all. We came on this trip as journalists, not tourists, and we have a responsibility to report what we’re seeing here, difficult or not. If these children can be happy given all they’ve gone through, I think I can handle this feeling of guilt. I know as a group we will use it to tell their stories in the most authentic and meaningful way possible.

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