'My breath is my children': Flight from Syria splits family
IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Her children are in Germany, safe in a refugee shelter with their father. But for their mother, stuck in an increasingly fetid, overflowing camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, the separation and the uncertainty of when — or if — she will see her children again is unbearable.
In this sodden, muddy field on the edge of northern Greece, 39-year-old Syrian Layla Ali Kamal Adeen fears her dreams and hopes — of a better life for her family, of a future for her four young children — have come to an end. Curled up in a tiny tent, the relentless rain hammering down on its roof and muddy water lapping at the entrance, she has reached rock bottom. Sometimes, she wonders if she would be better off dead.
"My husband says 'No, Layla, don't say that. God will find a solution.'"
But God seems far away from these fields of desperation, through which so many have passed in recent months on their way to Europe's prosperous heartland, fleeing war, persecution and poverty. They, like her husband and children, made it through, but Adeen was unlucky. She and tens of thousands of others now find themselves trapped in Greece, after Europe essentially shut its doors.
Six months ago her family, Syrian Kurds, fled the brutal Syrian civil war and their home in Qamishli, where her husband was a dentist.
"What home? It's all gone. It's all flattened to the level of the street," she says. "There was blood in the streets. We sleep and we hear the explosions. That's why we left."
They went to Turkey, but Adeen was afraid of the sea, terrified of the night-time journey she and her family would have to take from the Turkish coast to the nearby Greek islands. Many have died on the short but perilous trip across the Aegean, often undertaken in unseaworthy boats provided by smugglers.
"My husband said: 'Come, Layla, let's go. ... We have nothing left here. But I was afraid. Always afraid."
They went to Turkey, but Adeen says she fell ill before they were to board the boat. And she just couldn't face the journey.
"He took the boat to cross but I was afraid," she said. "I wept and was angry. ... He said: 'Come, you are crazy, it's for the future of our children,' and he left."
That was five months ago, the last time she saw her children. As time went by, their absence bolstered her courage.
"I couldn't bear it any more. I took the boat and I came," she said. "For my children, my heart made me cross the sea."
She traveled with others in her extended family, including her brother Abdel Haqim Adeen, who sold a field he owned to finance their journey and pay the smugglers. They made it across Greece and as far as the Macedonian border before authorities suddenly closed it.
Now Adeen and her relatives pass the days in a field near the small village of Idomeni, where the refugee camp reached capacity long ago, crammed with thousands of people stuck just like them. They pitched their small tents near each other to create a small family compound. Days of relentless rain turned their little courtyard into a morass of squelching mud, and they struggle to warm themselves by a small campfire.
In Berlin, some 1,800 kilometers (1,110 miles) away, Adeen's husband, Nahrouz Ramadan, can only wait at the shelter and try to console his young children, Mustafa, Nerjis, Nazdar and Masaoud, all under the age of 9.
"The children miss their mother a lot," he said. "They sleep very badly and cry all the time; they want their mother back. I've tried to calm them down and play with them. I send them to school and look after them. But they long for their mother."
Adeen mailed Ramadan her passport from the Macedonian border in case anything happens to either of them, and he looks at it all the time with the children, who like to kiss it. He tries to talk with his wife every day by phone, but it's expensive using prepaid phone cards at 10 euros apiece.
"The cards last for five or six minutes, then the conversation's over," he said.
Adeen is pinning her hopes on family reunification, a process where refugees who reached European countries as asylum seekers can apply for permission for their relatives to join them.
But even applying for asylum, let alone family reunification, is a bureaucratic quagmire which can take months or even years.
Last month, the German Parliament approved a package of measures meant to speed up handling migrants and cut the number of newcomers — including a switch that means some Syrians may have to wait longer to bring relatives to Germany. Refugees who didn't face "immediate personal persecution" won't be allowed to bring relatives to join them for two years. That would apply to people who receive "subsidiary protection" — a status that falls short of formal asylum.
Ramadan has his hands full with the children and hasn't yet managed to complete the paperwork for the asylum process.
"They say reunification will happen but it could take a year or two years," says Adeen. "I can't wait a year, two years. I would die."
She worries that the children are hungry, cold and sick. Most of all she worries about Mustafa, the youngest, who is still in diapers and has a rash that has spread to his cheeks.
"My children, even in Germany, are sick and crying," she says, flipping through photographs of the children and her husband in their new lives in Berlin. When they talk on the phone they cry and tell her they miss her, she says, breaking down in tears herself.
"I love my children. This is my greatest punishment. It's beyond my control. My breath is my children," Adeen says, burying her face in her hands as tears roll down her cheeks.
"Every day I am dying 10, 20, 30 times."