LESBOS, Greece — Hala Hilal, 32, is sitting on a foam camping mattress inside her white prefabricated refugee hut in the Kara Tepe camp as if it is a plush velvet sofa.
“Sit, sit,” she says, smoothing out the space next to her. Her younger sister, Hala Maloud, comforts her baby in the corner of the hut and then joins us on the mattress. A large purple silk scarf hangs in the doorway and smaller bright orange and yellow handkerchiefs cover the window holes “to give the place some color,” Hala Hilal explains.
Soon a younger woman rushes in with paper cups full of sweet hot tea that Hala Hilal offers, as any proper hostess would do when guests call in. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything to offer you to eat,” she says apologetically. There is no kitchen or refrigerator in the hut, just a heating stove and mattresses.
She starts flipping through photos on her phone. She smiles when she reaches one of her and her friends having dinner at a fancy restaurant in Damascus. There is one of her house, which was an enormous villa with colorful tiles and ornate chandeliers. Then another of the rubble her house became. Then she gets to a picture of her husband, who was a jeweler. “He was killed by Daesh,” she explains, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Her English is good, but she doesn’t know the word for “decapitated” so she slowly runs her index finger across her neck. Her eyes well with tears. “He was not shot with a gun. They removed his head. He was such a good, good man,” she says. “He was my hero.”
“A few days after they took him out to the fields to kill, they put me in a prison,” she says. She managed to send her six children away with her brother, who brought them to Greece via Turkey before the borders all closed. They are now in Sweden with his wife and their six children. She shows a picture of four of them in bright puffer coats in front of a snow-covered mountain. “We Facebook and keep in touch on Whatsapp,” she says. “But it’s not the same as being there. I need to be with my children.”
There was a time when she never thought she would see them again. She was meant as a gift for the man who killed her husband. “Not a wife, because I am too old,” she says. “I was to be a sex slave. That’s what they kept threatening.”
Then, 2½ months after she was captured, a bomb destroyed the place where she was being kept and she escaped. She found her sister, Hala Maloud, at her parents’ home and the two of them left for Turkey with Hala Maloud’s tiny infant in tow. Her sister has no idea if her husband is alive or dead. “He left to fight ISIS to avenge the death of his brother,” she says. “He has never seen our baby.”
Then, the women explain, their luck ran out.
In Turkey, they found a trafficker who would take them to Greece on March 20 for around $250, a considerable discount considering many who previously crossed paid 10 times that figure. But prices were cheap because it was the very day that the accord between the European Union and Turkey drastically changed the way refugees reached Europe. No longer would they be allowed to stay a few days on Lesbos and then take a ferry to mainland Greece and make their way to northern Italy.
As of March 20, no refugees—no matter where they are from—are allowed to leave the tiny island until and unless they qualify for one of three categories. Previously, Syrian refugees of a certain social class would essentially skip the line and be swooped off to a better place, leaving those with fewer resources to suffer longer and harder. As unfair as that may have been, it was the unwritten rule. The aid workers in Lesbos have plenty of stories about private cars waiting to pick up certain refugees as they got off the rubber dinghies. The new EU law has equalized everyone.
No matter who they were in Syria, refugees will have to apply and be accepted into the European relocation program under which they will be moved to a country, not of their choice, that is accepting refugees. They could also be accepted into the much more difficult family reunification program, which allows them to join family members already in place in Europe, but it puts any family members who may be living under the radar as unregistered immigrants at risk since everyone must be vetted. Plus, the reunification procedure can take six months or more. Many people opt for the relocation option and just plan to move to join their families once they have been placed. Or they could be deported back to Turkey in exchange for Syrian refugees in camps there who have already been accepted into the relocation program.
One might think that either of the sisters would automatically be accepted into the family reunification program, given the fact that they have family in Sweden. And they might be, if their cases are ever heard. There are around 60 agents with authority to make decisions working in Lesbos, and there are more than 2,500 refugee applications to process. The two sisters have been given waiting numbers in the mid-4,000s. The agents are still working through the 2,000s at a rate of about 45 applications a week. Before the new law, it took Greek authorities about 10 minutes to register their names and send them on their way, essentially to fend for themselves. Now Greece has to do the heavy lifting on the bureaucratic side, too.
An aid worker for the American International Rescue Committee who has joined us in the tent to help translate, explains that almost all of the people in the encampment have similar versions of the sisters’ stories. “They are all equal victims, they are separated from their husbands or children,” he says. “There can be no priority when every story is as bad as the next. And they all have to be vetted. It all takes so much time.”
He says that every day there are around 20 new legal cases that various aid agencies try to find lawyers for, to help in any way they can to expedite the process. In the meantime, they seek to try to find some semblance of normality in the tent. A young teenage girl comes in to escape from her own mother. “You know how teenagers are,” Hala Halil says. “It’s even harder to go through all those things when you are living like this. They have their first loves, their first kisses, all the problems of growing up in a refugee camp. People get divorced, people fall in love. Babies are made. Life goes on.”
Still, most of the refugees who find themselves now stuck between borders are not at all equipped to live this way. “I have never slept in a tent, or on the ground like this,” Hala Maloud says, and all the women emphatically agree. They are all wearing makeup and their hair is all coiffed by a woman in a tent down the aisle who has opened a little beauty salon. Pictures of refugees slogging through mud, fighting for bread crumbs and breaking down border fences somehow defies the truth about who they really are.
“Look at this!,” Hala Maloud says, touching the cubicle wall. “You should have seen my house in Syria. All we worked for is now replaced by plastic walls.”
But what is perhaps the saddest side of the story is that, despite the fact that all these women want right now is to get into Europe and find their families, it is the last thing they ever thought they would want. These women, like many of the Syrian refugees on the move, never ever dreamed of coming to Europe. “We are different from Europeans,” Hala Halil says. “It is not our culture but I suppose we can try to learn it if we have to. I would rather be in Syria without war than have to do this. Syria is beautiful. I had such a good life there. I was a happy woman. I loved my husband. I had it all. And now it’s gone.”