By Arif Nurhakim and Ann Esswein
In a sea of tents in Ritsona refugee camp in Greece, the white tops look similar to one another but in the midst of uniformity, there is still space for creative personalisation. And the most noticeable of all belongs to one particular big family - The Noh family.
We visited the family recently, and discovered a world of inspiration. With their living area merged together, they have created a big frontal space for everyone to gather for tea, with a self-made dinner table set in the middle where they can enjoy the shade under a tarp which they have put up using a pole. There is also a television to keep the little children entertained at the front. They even recycled a container, discarded by one of the NGOs operating on-site, into a food storage space. On the outside of their tents and by the track, a bright hammock hangs tied in between two trees, which some of the family members can relax on.
Craftsmanship and artistic expression are clearly central to all these unique features of their living area -- from the colour of the benches and tables to the paintings on the exterior of the food storage space -- and it certainly makes anyone who enters it feel warmly welcomed.
But beyond the aesthetics, there is a story behind why they have put in so much effort into beautifying their living area.
The Nohs arrived in early March of 2016 after they left their home in Iraq. They are part of the Yazidi community, a religious and ethnic minority group which traces its roots back to ancient times in the region and is often ostracised, accused of being “devil worshippers.” In June, the United Nations human rights panel concluded that the Islamic State of Iraq was committing genocide against the Yazidis.
When news of the deliberate targeting of the Yazidi community around Mount Sinjar by the ISIS regime began intensifying, Mr and Mrs Noh decided that it was time to leave with their nine children and seek refuge in Europe.
However, it was not easy for them to leave their home in Iraq. Salam, the second-eldest son in the family, describes to us how hard it was for the family. “We love our home. We made it ourselves. Our father was the main builder and I helped design it. When the construction was complete, we even used Photoshop to decide together what colours we wanted for the house,” he says as he passes his phone with pictures of the house to us. Sahil, the younger brother, added, “We had people asking who was our architect, designer and engineer? We laughed and said it was all of us who built this house together.”
“But it broke our hearts to leave a house like that,” Afra, the eldest daughter reminds everyone solemnly.
Nevertheless, through sheer resilience and an unbreakable spirit, the family has managed to overcome all of the adversities. They have rekindled the missing sense of home by extensively personalising their living area.
Their experience as Yazidis also explains why the Nohs are a close- knit family despite their large size. Used to being a minority, they only had each other to rely on in many situations. We hear them share stories of the sacrifices Esmaeel, the eldest son, made for his younger siblings. Esmaeel has always had a passion for the arts. Even when we visited him in his tent, he was busy painting a new piece of work. But a career in the arts was not a well-paying one in Iraq. He decided to pursue a degree in economics, but had to put his studies on hold to work as a checkpoint officer on the interstate highway. This allowed him to support his younger siblings to complete their own studies first. However, the war broke out soon after that. Salam, who was studying Arabic, was three months away from graduation, and Afra only had one year more to go before graduating in engineering. For this, all of his younger siblings are grateful to him.
With no job opportunities available to asylum seekers until their applications are completed, Esmaeel finds his silver lining in his reignited passion for the arts again. Many members of the camp have seen his talent as he has now completed two life-size mural paintings: one on the side of a warehouse and another at Cafe Rits, a location on-site.
“I painted these to remember the thousands of Yazidi women who were kidnapped by ISIS in 2014. The colours show the beauty of the people and yet, they still have no freedom because they are still behind bars somewhere,” Esmaeel explained.
Likewise Jason, another member of the family, has been working hard on a script for a documentary he plans to film about their journey.
From the stories they share, it is clear that the Nohs have been through a lot on their journey from their hometown in Iraq to Greece. Now that they have safely made it across the Aegean Sea, they are looking forward to the future. Sahil said, “Even if it’s possible, we actually do not want to return to Iraq because of the memories of the genocide there.”
To them, family is everything. “Family is like oxygen for me. I can’t breathe without my family,” Salam says. Sahil agrees. “It is my life. When I see my mum happy and my sisters safe, I am happy.” Afra also chips in: “They are like angels Got sent to me. I am who I am because of them.” For Esmaeel, it’s the same. “My family is why I live now.”
Since we visited the Noh family the first time to talk about how their creativity helps them endure life in camp, they have been some of the first refugees in the Greek camps who have been granted asylum and accepted into the relocation program. Half of the family got their asylum decision first and there was a period of worry for the family members remaining in the camp. “We are happy, but not excited that we are leaving to France, because not all family members were accepted,” Jason said. “We cannot be split up as a family. We are more than a family; we are friends.”
Yesterday, after being stranded for half a year in the Greek refugee camps, the whole Noh family moved to France. Jason says they are eager to return to their normal lives, attend school and go to work. They are already missed in the camp, but their beautiful creations are still brightening Ritsona.
Jason is planning to seek work with NGOs to act as a link between refugees and aid organisations.
But before they left, he had unfinished business. “My first reaction when we got the notification was to take out my camera,” he said. “I had this strong urge to finish the movie before we left Ritsona. I want our story to be heard.”