By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
In recent weeks, we’ve posted three stories by ChildFund’s global communications manager, Julien Anseau, who traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia with our assessment team as they collected information on the needs of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly children.
Julien and Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Zachary Reid, who also went on the trip, did an excellent job putting a face on the migration crisis facing Europe. Like the global scope of ChildFund’s work with children and family members who live in poverty, the problem in Europe is vast. But in both cases, real people are suffering. We just need to take a moment to learn their stories and see their faces.
By Julien Anseau, ChildFund Global Communications Manager
Julien Anseau has worked with ChildFund in Asia and specializes in emergency communications. In January and early February, he joined our assessment team as they traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to take stock of needs among Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants, particularly children. In Julien’s final report, he continues the journey from Macedonia to Serbia.
Since the events described here, Macedonia and other European countries have limited the number of migrants allowed through their borders. This has caused a major bottleneck in Greece and occasional violence at border towns.
At least four trains arrive daily in Tabanovce, a Macedonian refugee camp near the Serbian border. But when we arrive, it’s deserted. The place feels eerie and empty, showing the transient nature of migrant camps.
Most migrants coming through here arrived from Greece, their landing point in Europe; they pass through Macedonia to Serbia and then, if they’re fortunate, on to Germany and other western European countries. Others take a route through northwestern Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. Both roads are well known to smugglers, who often make the journeys possible — at a steep cost.
But also present along the migrants’ trail are ChildFund, our partner Terre Des Hommes-Lausanne, and other non-governmental organizations, which are trying to keep children safe on their journey.
“We focus on the special needs of children,” says Marija, a social worker with La Strada International, a group of organizations focused on human trafficking in Eastern Europe. Its member group in Macedonia staffs children’s centers at refugee camps in Tabanovce and Gevgelija.
“They come here to play, draw, sing and take part in games,” she says, “so that, for a while at least, they can forget the situation back home and the stressful journey ahead. It’s great to see smiles on the faces of children. It is important to allow children to express their fears and concerns; many are traumatized by war. For younger children, we provide diapers, milk, formula and blankets, as well as a warm place for mothers to rest and breastfeed in privacy. We also give information to mothers about preventing separation from their children along the journey. We ensure children know the full names of their parents and have copies of their parents’ identity papers.”
Often, Marija offers a listening ear: “We listen and support parents as they express the hardships they have faced along the way, the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect next, the fear that they will get stuck at a transit center, and anxiety of not knowing if and how they will keep going to reach their destination. Children’s stress often mirrors their parents’ stress.”
Along the Turkey-Bulgaria-Serbia route, we see migrants in Dimitrovgrad, a town in southeast Serbia near the Bulgarian border. They’ve walked through forests, over hills and across fields under cover of darkness to reach this point. Many migrants are men, but it’s not uncommon for women and children to travel this route, too.
Today, temperatures have plummeted, and it is snowing. I speak to a young man from Afghanistan who doesn’t want to be named. He is shivering, his pants are ripped, and his shoes are broken down. I ask why he has no belongings.
“My bags were stolen in Bulgaria,” he says. “A group of men took my bags, money and phone, and they beat me. Still, it’s better than braving the sea.” As of March 8, 444 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The young man looks exhausted, but he continues: “I’m happy. I’m a free man now. I have a cousin in Germany. I don’t know which city he lives in, but I’ll call him once I arrive. I want to find work and settle.”
Later, we see 38 more migrants, including 14 children, arrive at Dimitrovgrad’s police station to get their papers stamped. We walk through barn-like doors to a large, open room with bunk beds covered by blankets.
There’s also a yard, just beyond the station. Clusters of girls and boys engage neighborhood dogs in play. Despite the harsh conditions they have faced, the children appear happy for a moment — a testament to their resilience.
By Julien Anseau, ChildFund Global Communications Manager
Julien Anseau has worked with ChildFund in Asia and specializes in emergency communications. In January and early February, he joined our assessment team as they traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to take stock of needs among Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants, particularly children. In Julien’s second report, he speaks with people at camps in Greek and Macedonian border towns.
Since the events described here, in the past week violence has broken out in Idomeni, Greece, because of a bottleneck caused by Macedonia’s new daily cap on the number of migrants allowed into the country, as well as other restrictions. Thousands are now stranded in Idomeni and nearby camps, causing serious tension and questions about what will happen next.
In Idomeni, 350 miles north of the Greek capital, thousands of migrants are waiting to cross the border into Macedonia. Only a few hundred are permitted to cross the border at a time, yet more and more buses continue to drop off migrants eager to keep moving and reach their destinations. A Greek policeman tells me, “Today is busy. Very busy. As always. Five thousand people are waiting to cross the border. We can only accommodate 1,200 in the camp. And still they keep coming. There is no end in sight.”
Families sit and wait around the train tracks and in the surrounding fields. Some sleep around the dying embers of a fire; others hang their washing while children play soccer. Many line up for medical assistance, warm clothes and food for their children. The long journey is starting to take its toll on people, particularly women with children, disabled people and the elderly. People are exhausted and lost. An Iraqi woman with four children tells me she wants to give her children freedom and a brighter future.
In one corner of the overcrowded camp, amid the chaos one can hear the laughter and singing of children. ChildFund’s partner organization, Terre des Hommes, a group of Swiss non-governmental organizations focused on children, provides a child-friendly space staffed by social workers, psychologists and translators.
Under the supervision of caring adults, children draw, play and sing — activities that help them cope with stress. The center is well-equipped with toys, drawing supplies and child-sized tables and chairs. It also has a private room for mothers to breastfeed, change diapers and rest.
Mazen, a 15-year-old Syrian boy traveling with his uncle, proudly pins his drawing on the wall. They want to go to Germany. They have a phone number for some relatives there, but they don’t know the name of their city. Mazen dropped out of school and hopes to complete his education. He is the oldest child in his family and the only one his father could afford to send away.
Seventeen-year-old Amani is also from Syria. She is traveling with her cousins, and they are on their way to Sweden, where her brother lives. She is both excited and scared about her uncertain future. Like many others, she has left part of her family behind in Syria.
UNICEF reports a growing number of children traveling without a parent or guardian; they are claiming asylum in Europe as unaccompanied minors.
Kyriaki, a social worker with Greece’s Association for the Social Support of Youth (ARSIS), explains how her organization assists young migrants: “We coordinate with La Strada, an organization on the Macedonian side, in ensuring unaccompanied children safely cross the border. ARSIS sends lists of names and photos to La Strada and asks the unaccompanied children to walk across the border hand in hand. The group is then picked up by La Strada on the other side and taken care of in Gevgelija camp.”
La Strada International is a network of non-governmental organizations addressing human trafficking in Eastern Europe; its member group in Macedonia works in the Gevgelija refugee camp near the border of Greece. Stojne, a La Strada social worker, has heard many heartbreaking stories, especially from the youngest migrants.
“I’m a humanitarian aid worker, but I’m still a human being, and I can’t help but be touched by people’s stories,” she says. “I recall meeting a 16-year-old boy who fled Syria because he didn’t want to be recruited as a child soldier. His father gave him his life savings so that he could make it to Sweden. He left behind his parents and five brothers and sisters, including one sister critically injured after a bomb blast. He carries the responsibility on his young shoulders to make a go of it in Sweden so that his family can join him later. He was very stressed out.
“I hear these stories every day. I know I cannot solve all the problems and help everybody, but I try my best to make a difference as much as I can.”
The number of migrants, including children traveling alone, is expected to rise later this year as weather warms, experts predict. To protect young migrants, ChildFund child protection adviser Maggie Zraly says, improvements are needed in child-friendly accommodations and identification processes for unaccompanied children and those separated from family members during their journey. Children also need legal aid assistance, accurate information and referrals to people and organizations that can help them reach safe and stable homes.
Meanwhile, in Macedonia, Stojne has noticed a new — and more vulnerable — wave of migrants arriving.
“Before, it was mainly men traveling,” she says. “Now I am seeing more and more children, with families or alone. I am also seeing more and more elderly and disabled persons. The situation in their countries must be terrible for them to leave and embark on such a long and dangerous journey.
“People are tired. They just want to arrive. Migrants are grateful to the staff in the camp. They just want a better life.”
Read Julien’s first story, and stay tuned for a third post next week.
By Julien Anseau, ChildFund Global Communications Manager
Julien, who has worked with ChildFund in Asia and specializes in emergency communications, joined our assessment team as they traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia earlier this year to take stock of needs of migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, particularly children. This is the first of Julien’s reports from the field.
Thousands of Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians are fleeing their war-torn countries and embarking on a perilous journey to Europe seeking refuge and a better life. In Izmir, a western port city of more than 2 million people in Turkey, many throng the streets, desperate to get to Greece — the entrance to the European Union.
It’s an anxious and fearful time for many. The most dangerous point of the journey to Europe is the illegal boat crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands.
According to the International Organization for Migration’s last update on Feb. 19, 413 people — including children — have died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016. Migrants pay smugglers anything between $500 and $1,200 and take their chances aboard unseaworthy rubber boats in a desperate bid to reach Europe.
Around Izmir’s Basmane Station, shops sell everything migrants may need, as well as things they don’t. Merchants do a brisk trade in lifejackets, which cost about $25 each and are sometimes useless. This is just one of many examples of people making a quick profit on migrants’ desperation.
A few days later, in Athens, Greece, we see many more migrants, but this time, the mood is of elation and relief. They’ve made it to Europe. In Victoria Square, a central meeting space in the city, I met a group of young Afghans taking their first steps on European soil.
Hamid, who says he is 20 years old but looks younger and may in fact still be a minor, describes his harrowing ordeal on the boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos.
“I’d been trying for three weeks to reach Greece,” he says in English. “I was losing hope, and then one night at 4 a.m., the smuggler came and said it was now or never. I grabbed my bag and followed him to the beach. Forty-seven of us piled up on a small rubber boat. The smuggler stayed on the beach and told one of us to steer the boat straight towards the lights on the island in the far distance. What was supposed to be a one-hour journey took five hours.
“A Syrian guy steered the boat into the darkness of the night,” Hamid continues. “None of us had ever driven a boat before, but he was brave. The high waves were crashing against the boat, and I was cold and wet through. Everyone was afraid, screaming and crying because we thought we were going to turn over. Some people were praying together. I can’t swim, and I thought I was going to die. When we arrived on shore, I was exhausted and lay down for a while, too tired to realize I made it.”
I can’t swim, and I thought I was going to die. When we arrived on shore, I was exhausted and lay down for a while, too tired to realize I made it.
Mehdi, another young Afghan man whom Hamid met earlier in the journey, jumps in: “We tried a few times to cross by boat. When the weather is bad and the sea is rough, smugglers drop the price. But we didn’t want to risk our life. We know some boats never make it. This time we were lucky. I’ve met some people on this journey who have lost friends and family at sea.”
Just that morning, as the city of Athens woke up, came news of yet another boat that didn’t make it to Greece. The boat capsized, killing several people, including children.
For most people seeking asylum in Europe, Germany is the destination of choice. Usually people have friends or relatives already living there, and the government has been welcoming of migrants fleeing political turmoil.
Ali, a man in his early 30s from Bamyan Province in central Afghanistan, says he hoped to complete his studies so he could rebuild his life away from the pervasive violence of his homeland. He was anxious to recharge his phone so he could tell his family that he was safe and learn the latest news on the migrant crisis.
“There are a lot of rumors and hearsay,” he says. “I heard that countries are closing their borders. I want to check online for myself.” Ali has kept in touch with friends further along the route to Germany, who relay practical information and advice.
Reaching Germany takes a great deal of planning and money, as well as procedures to protect migrants from losing their savings to dishonest smugglers.
Instead of paying smugglers directly along the route, Ali keeps his money in trust with a middleman back in Afghanistan. After hearing from Ali, this man released a payment to the smuggler who got Ali to Greece and made arrangements with the next smuggler along the route to Germany. If Ali had not reached Greece, the smuggler would have had to keep trying, or he wouldn’t have been paid.
The expense and trouble are worth it to Ali. “The insecurity in Afghanistan drove me out of my home,” he explains. “It’s a war zone. There is no education, no jobs, no safety, nothing. I am sad to leave my parents behind, but I have to save my life. This is not my first attempt to leave Afghanistan for a better life. The first time, I was caught without papers by police in Iran. I was beaten and sent back. This time I made it through.”
A few weeks after I met Ali, Hamid and Mehdi, the situation suddenly changed for Afghan migrants, who are no longer allowed to travel through Macedonia. Many are now stranded in Greece.
Stay tuned for more blog posts from Julien, and also check out Richmond Times-Dispatch staff writer Zachary Reid’s reports from his time spent shadowing ChildFund’s needs-assessment team in Europe.
To find out more about the children and families undertaking this journey — and to help — read more on ChildFund’s website.
Reporting by Ahmadullah Zahid, ChildFund Afghanistan
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Malik Nader fled to Pakistan and lived there as a refugee for 20 years before returning to his homeland. Now 41, the father of eight lives with his family in Sheikh Mesri New Township, a refugee resettlement community near Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. ChildFund is at work in Sheikh Mesri through its RESTART program, a collection of services designed to help meet the needs of the community’s youngest children for education, nutrition, water and sanitation. In this remote, dry landscape, water was the greatest challenge. Malik shares his story as we mark World Water Day on March 22.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, we lost everything. We had to take our last option ― migrating to Pakistan ― and it was very difficult to live with no basic services in another country. We settled in a refugee camp, where we were provided tents and some food items.
Like other Afghan refugees, I started working as a laborer to feed our family. Twenty years of my life passed without any promotion to any other work, but still we were happy that our families and children were safe.
But after a while, the Pakistani government began destroying our small mud houses and camps, and we became afraid again. Nothing in our lives was guaranteed, and we had to deal with the Pakistani police every day. Tired of this, we finally decided to return to our home country.
Arriving in Afghanistan with only a Voluntary Repatriation Form from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we received a piece of land from the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations. And so we began our new lives in Sheikh Mesri New Township.
At first, we lacked even the basics for life such as water, health care, food, decent roads and jobs. It was just like 20 years ago, making a start in Pakistan.
The most difficult problem was drinking water. We spent as much as five hours a day bringing water from far away to meet the needs of our children and families. Awhile after we arrived in Sheikh Mesri, the UNHCR built some wells, which helped to some degree, but they were often out of order, and water would be unavailable.
Then, last year, ChildFund built seven solar-powered water systems in Sheikh Mesri. The design is great! It’s very easy to collect water, and it’s accessible to everyone ― enough water 24 hours a day. We had dreamed of seeing water flowing in our camp, and the solar-powered water systems made our dream come true.
In fact, the UNHCR is building similar solar-powered water systems in Sheikh Mesri, which will solve 100 percent of the water needs of the Afghan returnees who are making their lives here.
Now life feels more stable, and Sheikh Mesri feels like a place where we can stay.
Were you inspired by today’s blog? Share your thoughts on the subject with your Twittter followers! This week, ChildFund is encouraging its supporters to “tweet-out” for World Water Day using the hashtag #Water4Children. Top tweeters will receive water gifts sent to a family in their honor. More details here.
by Jacqui Ooi, ChildFund Australia
Over the course of January’s 31 days, we’re making a blog stop in each country where we serve children, thanks to the generous support of our sponsors and donors. Today, we meet Ahmadullah Zahid, who was forced to flee his native Afghanistan at age 13. Now 28, Ahmadullah is working for ChildFund Afghanistan, assisting other returnee families and their children.
I was 13 when we fled to Pakistan. At this time, the security situation in Afghanistan was very bad. There was fighting everywhere. I remember when I was a kid, every night suddenly a fight would start between two commanders – very huge fighting around our houses and we were unable to sleep.
Several times at school, we were busy studying and suddenly the fighting started, and everybody started jumping from the windows and running out the doors, running toward home.
Then slowly, slowly the school was closed and there was no school to go to, and it was also difficult to work. So that’s why we decided to go to another country. At least we could study and we could live safely.
We returned to Afghanistan in 2005. I came back first to repair our house – the doors, windows, everything was broken. Of course, we were happy to return, very excited. After such a long time, we were returning to our home country and the situation was completely different. We were seeing the changes in the faces of the people – good changes, happy changes.
I first started working as a monitoring officer for a ChildFund project in my home province of Kunduz. When the project was completed, I was promoted to operations officer. Now I work at the head office in Kabul as the program support manager. I love my role because I go to the field and talk to the people who are served by ChildFund and see the happiness on their faces, and I really feel that ChildFund is doing something for them.
The situation now for children in Afghanistan depends on where they live. In some places, it’s still very hard, especially in areas where the security’s not good and the government and NGOs still don’t have access to these places. So you can imagine there’s no school for the children. Most of them are helping their fathers with the farm work. From the age of 7, they are taking their cows and goats to pasture in the morning and returning in the evening, without any break.
The children would prefer to go to school but they also feel, “If I don’t do this, who will? I have to support my father. He’s all alone feeding our family.” In Afghanistan, it is typical to have a big family – the average number of children is seven – with only the father earning income.
In other areas, where the security is good, children still support their fathers but also go to school part-time – girls included. In most areas, especially in the north where ChildFund is working, there is access to school.
I recently started working on a new project – the Resettlement Support for Afghan Returnee Families – in Nangarhar Province, bordering Pakistan. The Afghanistan government has established a special camp for these returning families. Currently, around 3,500 families are living there, but there is capacity for 10,000 families.
ChildFund is building five early child care centers, especially for 3- to 5-year-olds. These centers offer three-hour sessions twice a day, preparing the children for school. We also offer parenting sessions for approximately 1,000 mothers of 1,200 young children.
The other priority in this community is drinking water. It’s a mountainous area, so we are building seven solar-powered water systems. As a result, we’ll be able to provide water for around 1,400 families.
ChildFund has also provided resources for Afghanistan children through the Gifts of Love & Hope, including water mugs and jugs. These are especially needed so that children can carry water with them when they’re going to school. The weather is extremely hot during summer, up to 47 degrees centigrade (116 Fahrenheit). We have also distributed football equipment so children have an opportunity to play again.
In addition, we are establishing Child Well-Being Committees to provide children with training on issues such as child protection, child rights and domestic violence. Recently, we provided 750 of the most vulnerable families in the community with winterization kits, blankets and other items for the cold weather.
Overall conditions have improved for the children who returned to Afghanistan in the last few years. They tell me: “Before we returned, we were very much afraid that we wouldn’t have a place to live, that we would not have any income.” But when they returned, the government provided land. Then UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) came and built houses. And now many of these children are going to school and receiving assistance through ChildFund. A pathway has opened for them.