AP PHOTOS: Burned out migrants in Greece try to keep sane
THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Kawa Mohammed lives in a small tent with his wife and his three children in the Kalochori refugee camp on the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki’s outskirts.
“It is the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room and sometimes the bathroom of the children,” said Mohammed, a 34-year-old Syrian refugee who fled the war in his hometown in Afrin near Aleppo. As he waits in the hope of settling down with his two brothers in the German city of Hannover, he and his family are mentally exhausted.
Many migrants living in this warehouse tent camp and another one nearby are also feeling burned out. They try to keep busy as they dream of a better life in Western Europe and not let boredom or depression set in.
Because of a harsh winter and bitter cold, many migrants rarely venture out and away from the monotony and fluorescent lights hanging overhead.
So the camps’ inhabitants try to find ways of keeping busy. Some draw on their professions back home and set up makeshift tailor and barber shops, for example. Women attend knitting classes and men work out in improvised gyms.
For Mohammed, it’s about dressing up his small tent.
“We decorate our tent to make it feel like home, for the children to feel (like they are) in their room,” he said. “For me and my wife to feel busy, we spend our days doing nothing but walking around the camp, talking to neighbors and play games on my phone.
“Otherwise we will suffocate while waiting here. We are mentally exhausted,” he said. “Having a home and work is what will keep us sane, and so far since we arrived to Greece last February we have none of that.”
Refugees here are able to get psychological or emotional support from nonprofit groups.
“Our main mission is to reduce the trauma and enhance the wellbeing of refugees in these camps by offering psychosocial support to individuals and families living there,” said Zarlasht Halaimzai, co-founder and director of the Refugee Trauma Initiative.
More than 62,000 refugees and other migrants have been stuck in Greece since a series of Balkan border closures and a European Union-Turkey deal on stemming migration, according to Greek government data.
These include about 15,000 who reached eastern Greek islands after the March 2016 agreement, and aren’t allowed to travel to the mainland unless they successfully apply for asylum. If they cannot prove that they merit asylum in Greece, rather than neighboring Turkey from which they traveled, they face being returned to Turkey.
“We set up group activities and help them to come up with everyday strategies to cope with their emotional difficulties and feel part of a community within these camps,” said Halaimzai, a 34-year-old British-Afghan national who fled Afghanistan in 1992.
She added: “I was a refugee myself. I know how it feels to lose everything: your home, your language and your culture.
“I understand what most of the refugees are going through that’s why as a professional for the last six years I believe that psychological help is as important as any other need. Mental scars don’t heal by themselves.”
Muhammed Muheisen is The Associated Press’ chief photographer for the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan.