By Susan Bromley
Mary Siring traveled across the world to get the firsthand scoop on what has been a global story– the Syrian refugee crisis.
Having recently returned from Greece where she interviewed refugees from both Syria and the Congo, the Oakland University journalsim major certainly has tales to tell.
But she is frustrated that her audience here hasn’t seemed very receptive.
“Most people don’t care, they say that’s unfortunate and move on,” said Siring. “It’s more than unfortunate. The biggest thing is people just don’t know all these things, the issue is not on their doorstep and they think it doesn’t apply. But it does because you’re a human and they’re a human and they deserve the best chance they can get. Why one more story about Trump tweets when there are people dying and waiting?”
The 2015 Brandon High School graduate jumped at the chance to take what is arguably the most hands-on class she will ever have, the 480 level course “International Reporting in Greece.” It wasn’t cheap— $2,000 for the 4 credit course, $3,300 for roundtrip airfare to Athens and dorm accommodations, meals not included.
But when she left July 3, she knew she would be getting a month-long experience that would be priceless.
“I left July 3, and when I came back on Aug. 4, I was a totally different person,” said Siring, whose dream job is to one day write for The Guardian as an international reporter. “I was obviously much more ignorant, before I went. Now I am home and see what it is like here and I know I am lucky and wish there was more I could do to help… People just don’t know all these things. If the issue is not on their doorstep, they think it doesn’t apply. But it does because you’re a human and they’re a human and they deserve the best chance they can get.”
She also hoped to get a deeper understanding of her own family’s history as refugees.
Her paternal grandparents were from Poland and during World War II were taken to Russian work camps.
Once they were liberated, they also became refugees. She recalls her grandfather crying at family Thanksgiving dinners as he remembered the grass soup he ate for weeks as he suffered through a poverty his descendants would likely never know.
Refugees, persons displaced from their native countries due to violence, conflict, human rights violations, persecution and natural disasters, have been present throughout history, but their numbers have increased dramatically over the past 20 years. According to the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, “Over the past two decades, the global population of forcibly displaced people has grown substantially from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016 and it remains at a record high. Most of this increase was concentrated between 2012 and 2015, driven mainly by the Syrian conflict.”
The International Rescue Committee estimates that 62,000 refugees, many fleeing violence in Syria across the Aegean Sea, are currently stranded in Greece.
Siring met some of them and viewed their current living conditions as they wait in a seemingly endless limbo to find a place to call home.
The day after arriving in Greece with her 13 classmates and their journalism professor, Siring had her first assignment, a visit to Ritsona, a refugee camp on the mainland that is “home” to approximately 1,000 refugees, who live in isoboxes, prefabricated structures resembling trailers with two rooms for multiple families to sleep in bunkbeds or on the floor. Toilets and showers are in separate communal facilities.
“I think I expected the worst, but this was the best I saw,” said Siring. “One of the people I talked to, he said when he arrived three years ago from Syria, there were 1,300 people in the camp with only one toilet and one shower.”
Conditions have improved, and at the Ritsona refugee camp, activities are offered to keep residents busy. The refugees have a dining hall and a soccer field, where they play the sport. As Siring sat down to talk with the refugees, she was impressed with their grasp of English, which many have learned in the camps, as well as Greek and Arabic. But she also found that while the refugees could communicate well, they didn’t want their photos taken for fear of it being published and terrorists killing their families in their homeland.
Most of the refugees she spoke with at Ritsona had been there three years, still waiting for confirmation of their asylum. They told of leaving Syria after their homes were destroyed or their lives threatened; of risking death if voicing opposition to terrorist groups or leaving the home without being fully covered according to dress codes for women.
She heard story after story of the same process of getting a smuggler to take them to the coast and then climbing in a life raft holding dozens of people hoping to make it to an island. And there were stories she didn’t hear and questions that went unanswered, such as the boy who was at the camp with his sister, but without their parents. When asked where they were, he was silent. He spoke of his aunts and uncles who died in the bombings, but found it too painful to speak of his parents, who Siring believes likely met a similar fate.
She started the day with a blank notebook and by the end of the day, it was nearly full.
“You would ask, ‘What do you want to do when you leave here?’ And they would say they don’t want to think about it because they don’t know if they’ll ever leave and they don’t want to get their hopes up. They had relief that they weren’t there anymore, but they want to move on with their lives, they are young, they want to have careers. A lot of them still don’t know if they will be sent back or not.”
Over the next few days the OU students had lessons in photography and recording video as they prepared for a project on Lesvos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey where more refugees had landed. The students took a 12-hour overnight ferry to reach the island themselves, and traveled to Moria, a camp where they arrived to find refugees angry. A riot had taken place there the night before when a man from Haiti was denied asylum and deported.
“People from the Congo and Syria get priority to stay because their countries are in more turmoil, but if its not deemed as much turmoil as appropriate, you get sent back,” said Siring. “In the riot, they burned down the asylum building and were throwing rocks. The camp was still on lockdown, and we were allowed in a fenced area with vulnerable parties— children, women with children, unaccompanied minors. The mood was very angry. You understand more, when they tell you, ‘If I go home, I’m gonna die.’ I felt awful, I can’t help them. They are living in constant fear.”
The refugees on the island, one of five hot spots in a buffer zone, are stuck there as they are processed. A deal between the European Union and Turkey keeps them there, said Siring.
The camp had women from the Congo who had become tired of sharing their stories. One told the students that anything awful they could imagine had happened to her in her homeland and she refused to repeat what she had already told to asylum services. She formed the shape of a gun with her hand and told the students all of her family was dead.
“They are frustrated,” notes Siring. “They have told their story before and it doesn’t benefit them.”
That night, back at their hotel on Lesvos, they slept for just three or four hours before going to spend time with the Greek Coast Guard. The 14 students and their professor joined about 7 members of the Coast Guard crew on a small boat that patrols the border between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean Sea. Those trying to escape Syria often take this route and the Coast Guard brings them aboard boats not to intercept their passage, but to offer them safe refuge on Lesvos if they are discovered in Greek waters. Those found in Turkish waters are taken to Turkey.
The students learned that the Coast Guard crew they were with had all been present in 2015 as thousands of Syrians made escape voyages nightly, told by smugglers that when they reached Greek waters, they should rip open their rafts, under the theory that the Greek Coast Guard would rescue them. But, the crew told the students, there weren’t enough rescue boats and the bodies washed up on shore as the Coast Guard lacked the resources to save them all. Siring notes that was when many people worldwide saw the heartbreaking photograph of a dead 4-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach.
“They would try to pack as many people on that boat as they could—200 or 300 people,” said Siring, who said that with only 20 of the students and crew on the boat as the Coast Guard members recalled the initial surge two years earlier, it felt crowded. “They have seen it so much, it just becomes normal. When they see refugees now, they can save them. There aren’t 10,000 each night.”
The students left the boat before they saw any refugees pulled from the water, but they learned later that 99 more people were rescued from a inflatable raft that night.
Siring and her classmates would go to another refugee camp on Lesvos, Kara Tepe, with 800 people, for more interviews, before returning to the mainland and going to their final camp, Skaramangas. The shipyard was filled with isoboxes, yet she saw only three or four people walking around that afternoon.
“This was the saddest camp, no one was out or wanted to be out, they had nothing for them to do there,” said Siring. “This is where they stay in bed and stare at the walls.”
With their visits to refugee camps completed, the students spent the remaining two weeks touring the country and also interviewing elected officials in Athens, learning more about the political fallout from humanitarian aid. In Greece, there is 25 percent unemployment, said Siring, and citizens are angry. Meanwhile, the refugees, of which she estimates there are 50,000 still displaced, wait to learn their fate.