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Lives on hold

The way to survive in one of Europe’s worst refugee camps

Women like Suha continue to live in tents on Europe’s shores.

Life in packed refugee camps on the Greek islands can too often mean feeling unsafe, with women being asked to share tents with men they don’t know. Many women are too frightened to leave their shelters at night to use the bathroom.

For 42-year-old Suha, who fled conflict in Iraq to seek safety in Europe, this marks only the latest leg of a perilous journey in search of hope.

“It’s in the nature of Iraqi women to be strong in difficult situations,” said Suha. “This is nothing new to me. I experienced bad situations in my own country.” Making four failed attempts to cross the Aegean Sea, she made it to the Greek island of Lesbos on the fifth attempt, with her cousin. “On the fourth try, the boat sank. I tried again and again in order to get to Belgium and be reunited with my children.”

Suha made the journey Greece, but remains separated from the rest of her family.

Photo: Daphne Tolis/IRC

It’s two years since the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, the goal of which was to halt refugees’ trajectory into Europe on the Greek islands and send all of those who did not qualify for asylum back to Turkey. Conditions in Moria, a packed refugee camp on Lesbos, mean life is a struggle for refugees left in limbo.

For Suha, it was her cousin who she felt could keep her safe. “I feel safer when my cousin is around … He takes care of us. I am happy to have him here because there are drugs, men are drinking, if you are without a man people look at you strangely.”

Recently she took it upon herself to move out of Moria to an informal camp right next door, where there is more space for a larger tent, in less squalid surroundings. “To have a shower, we bring water with buckets, warm it on the open fire and wash ourselves. I don’t go inside the camp anymore.”

But still her journey continues, and her family remains divided. Her two daughters are still in Iraq with their father. “I want to join my son in Belgium and bring my children together,” she says.

“Back in Baghdad I was a housewife,” she recalls. “If I manage to reach Belgium I am willing to work because I want to support my children. My son is about to get married and I want to be there. I want to see all my children. To be together.

Suha is persistent that she will achieve this. “I managed to get to Turkey, then Moria. Maybe Belgium is next.” 

She smiles. “This is my nature. Everyone loves me here because I dance, I cook and I share food. We had a party for my birthday recently and we all gathered in my tent to dance and celebrate.”

“This is the way to survive. We give each other strength.”

Learn more

Find out more about why refugees are living in these conditions in Europe, two years on from the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal.

Suha’s name has been changed.