Syrian Refugees Try to Adjust to Camp Life: Part 5 of Six Degrees of Separation

Mar 2, 2017

Every day activities help Syrian Refugees cope with lie in camps.
Credit Anjali Alwis/WAER News

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

Survival was the goal in the camps. It was something that Dr. Sam Song saw a lot of in her time as an OBGYN with SAMS, Syrian American Medical Society, on trips to both Jordan and Greece. There were two women she met that really stuck out to her for very different reasons --- one who was so grateful to not have to worry about having children and the other who wanted a child to help her maintain a sense of normalcy.

Anjali Alwis is a Syracuse University graduate who spent two weeks working in a refuge camp in Thessaloniki, Greece. She went on a medical mission with SAMS, the Syrian American Medical Society, and was able to interview camp residents, volunteers, and doctors while there. She put together this six-part piece which details the arduous and challenging journey that refugees have to face in their search for safety. 

Sam recalled the ecstatic reaction from the woman she offered birth control :

“She thought the heavens opened up and gave her a gift.”

If you walked through the camps, you could see clear signs that people were trying to survive. There were soccer matches played. People would collect around the main courtyard and watch the young men play. They picked sides and rooted cheerfully for their team.

In one camp, the refugees set up a panel of elders to represent them and communicate their needs to the humanitarian aid groups. The first thing asked for was a school for the kids.

Eventually people were able to settle into the new military camps, but the beginning was not easy. Madi, a former field coordinator in the Greek camps, remembers the first two weeks being horrendous.

“The first two weeks in the military camps, it was horrendous. I totally understand because one of my worst experiences was going to these camps down dirt roads, in the middle of nowhere, I’m sure they had reasons but it felt like they were putting them in the middle of nowhere, sweeping them under the rug where people didn’t want to live.” - Madi

The formal camps were in the middle of nowhere; it was cripplingly hot; the mosquitos were horrendous; there was no running water, not enough toilets; the food was horrible, and morale overall was low. At the beginning there was no working relationship between the military and community.

Once things began to settle and resources improved, there was a boost in morale. But Madi recognizes that is beginning to plateau as people start to feel a sense of permanence in this new location.


Greece is affectionately referred to as the paradise of the world. While refugees probably do not view their current lifestyle as paradise, there is clearly a working relationship between the Greek government and military and the refugees. Both sides are making efforts to get along and be amicable. Dr. Afsana ‘Affy’ Safa remembers the ways in which the Greek people truly opened their hearts and doors.

“Greece is a country that is going through its own struggles. There are stories about army doctors before medical help arrived. The army doctors were doing all they could. They were using their own supplies and raiding their children’s medicine cabinets.”

Similar to Affy’s experiences, Madi was acutely aware of the relationship between the military and refugees in the camps. She had seen the change from the large informal camps to the smaller military-run ones. The kids could charm anyone and they slowly developed a playful relationship with some of the military personnel. Madi remembers seeing the kids put stickers all over a military vehicle.


Everyone seems to appreciate the volunteers and what the Greek government and military has provided but the sadness and anger is apparent. After being in the Greek camps for 6 months, Abdulazez, along with many others, is beginning to get frustrated.

Dr. Wael Berro is a physician in Ireland, born and raised in Lebanon. He is good friends with Abdulazez and many others at the camp. He has noticed the ways in which Abdulazez has been changing; he is an ambitious, intelligent, talented 18 year old and being in the camps is difficult on anyone and it is especially apparent in young people.


Abdulazez is not the only young person being negatively impacted by life in the camps. Fifteen year old Simav is a Kurdish girl from Aleppo, Syria. Her mother is an artist and her father was a professor of Arabic Studies in Syria. Simav’s father took 8000 euro and traveled from Turkey to Italy. When the war got especially bad, her mother took her and her three siblings to Turkey. From there they traveled by sea to Greece. It took them four tries because they kept getting caught by the Turkish military. They finally made it to Greece.

Many people have tried to walk out of northern Greece into FYROM, which stands for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. There is a regional debate over what constitutes Macedonia, but the point is – leaving the refugee camp once in Greece is not easy.

Simav does not think anything is going to change anytime soon. She says that all she wants is to be free and see her father again; she has not seen him in a year and a half.

Simav’s mother wants her to go to university.

She said that she wants to be a plane engineer. When I asked her why she said it is because she always dreams of having a plane so that she can fly out of the camp.

Madi and Wael reflect on their biggest concerns. Madi believes that for anyone over the age of 13, the biggest concern is mental health. And for the younger ones, the fact that many of them are not going to school or have not been to school at all is very worrisome.

Wael echoes Madi’s statements; the hardest part for him is recognizing that what they truly need is freedom but all he can give them is medication.  

“(It) gives them metaphorical anesthesia – numbs them for a few days – and then the effect is gone and they realize they are still in a tent, being bitten by mosquitos, surrounded by nothing, and awaiting people to help them”.