By Lucy Spencer
Before the war, it would only take a few hours to travel from Syria to Germany by plane. The same journey has taken Ebrahim 11 months so far – and it isn’t over yet.
Ebrahim, 18, has been living in Ritsona Refugee Camp since March 2016. Like for so many of his friends, his life took a dramatic turn when war broke out.
“I would like to be lawyer for human rights, or a doctor if I were in Syria. I have to finish my high school now… My sister is a pharmacist, and my cousin and aunt is a doctor now. But me, I am here,” he says.
On March 1, 2016 Ebrahim left his hometown of Idlib to reunite with his father in Germany. His mother, sister and two younger brothers remain trapped in Syria.
What Ebrahim didn’t know was that Europe was closing itself off: the Balkan states would soon start shutting down their borders with Greece, and in February 2016, Germany approved a two-year ban on family reunifications for those with subsidiary protection, as part of its "Asylum II" package. Thousands of Syrian refugees in Germany have sued the government for their right to be reunited with their families by gaining full refugee status.
Ebrahim’s journey began on foot. He walked from Syria to Turkey, camping with 50 other people on the border, waiting for an opportunity to cross under the cover of darkness.
Crossing the border is a matter of perseverance and patience - it took four days and close to a dozen attempts for Ebrahim and his fellow travelers to make it across.
Once across the border, Ebrahim evaded police thanks to a kind shop owner, hiding in his shop's toilet. Eventually he met a man from his hometown who spoke Turkish, and they travelled together to Izmir, where they would catch a boat to Greece.
Conditions were rough in the overcrowded plastic dinghy, Ebrahim recounts. He was sick throughout the entire trip, surrounded by terrified passengers and a vast, threatening sea.
“We didn’t have any solution; we arrive or we will die in the sea. And I was so scared,” he remembers.
Although the distance from Turkey to the Greek islands is short, it often takes hours and multiple attempts for smugglers to make it across as they try to circumvent the border police. Refugees hoping for passage to Greece are subjected to overcrowding in flimsy boats, with life jackets that are often found to be counterfeit. The greatest risk to arriving refugees isn’t drowning - it’s hypothermia.
On March 9th 2016, Ebrahim made it safely across the water, but his journey was far from over.
“We were happy when we arrived to Greece,” he remembers. “We thought before we would just stay five days then we would arrive to Germany, and we would find everything.
"Just arrive to Greece," he continues, "If you cross the sea, you have a new life.”
But by the time Ebrahim arrived in Greece, the borders to the rest of Europe had closed, separating him from his father. Countries such as Sweden, Germany and Austria, have enacted laws to limit family reunification. Coupled with a slow asylum system in Greece, refugees in Greece are in limbo, often separated from family members across borders.
Ebrahim arrived in Ritsona Refugee Camp on March 15, 2016. It was raining as the camp came into view, with tents lined up in a clearing on the former army base.
“When I saw this view, I thought that we would stay a long time,” he says.
Now, Ebrahim waits for family reunification in the Ritsona Camp. It was here that he celebrated his 18th birthday, thousands of kilometres away from his family in Syria and Germany.
While he waits for the response to his family reunification application, Ebrahim hangs out with his friends in camp and watches football games on his phone.
“I like Cristiano Ronaldo because he helped refugees,” he says.
Ebrahim has also worked with Lighthouse Relief, helping with construction projects, and more recently, engaging young people in the Ritsona Refugee Camp's "Tree of Hope." He worked on the camp’s new art installation on the I AM YOU Library with some of his friends, including Farhad and Mohammad.
The community art project engaged 13 to 18 year olds around camp who made plastic bottle flowers, painted tree branches and wrote colourful messages of hope for the future on leaves and on the bright mural. Although the project was spearheaded by Lighthouse Relief, the teenagers made it their own, and dove headfirst into the creative process.
“We love this work, because it is for children,” says Ibrahim’s friend Farhad.“We wish to make them happy,” Mohammad adds.