Guest story piece by Jess Miller, who volunteered with Refugee Biriyani & Bananas in 2017, and is currently the Fundraising and Retail Manager for The Bike Project (UK)
‘We waited for 3 days without food or water. I tried everything to survive. I even tried to eat the seeds of a pine cone.’
Mohammed Azawi Volunteering in Chios Island, Greece.
In July 2017 I volunteered in Chios, Greece. For those that don’t know, there is a large refugee camp with difficult conditions. Mohammed is a young man from Iraq, who has been fighting the asylum system since 2003. He was living in an overflow camp built in the moat of old castle ruins, looking out onto the Coast of Turkey where he had come from. I remember he, and many other refugees here would look out to the shores and reflect on everything they had endured so far, how far they had come.
Speaking with him again this week via video-call, he told me about the journey he had been on only months before we had met. After one and half years of living in Turkey, he made the decision to go to Europe because in Turkey he had no rights, no life, and going back to Iraq was not safe.
‘I stayed in Izmir for about 2 weeks. Every day we tried to make the journey to Greece, but every day the police would stop us. In Izmir, we waited in a small house with 200 – 300 people, waiting for a bus to take us to the point where we would leave from. We might need to wait 2 or 3 days in this house. They would take us to the coastline, and we would hide in old homes, or in the trees, or something else hidden until it was time to make it to the boat.
I made 6 attempts. Each time we had to pay for a new life jacket because the police would take it. The 5th and 6th time, I didn’t buy one because we just kept getting stopped and I couldn’t pay. On 6th time someone gave me one for free. A woman, with a baby, was saying she was scared because she couldn’t swim, so I gave it to her. I knew I couldn’t swim, but I couldn’t believe we would make it this time. I thought If we die, at least we’ll have people together.
We left at 10am. None of us believed we could do it, but we finally made it from Izmir to Chios. We had the right moment, and the water was calm. The Turkish port police were coming so fast to us, trying to catch us, but we crossed the line into Greece and they stopped. We celebrated having ‘reached safety’, but then you realise you are 70 people on a 7m boat and the water was coming in from everywhere.’
Despite hearing many stories, and working with refugees for some time, I could not even begin to understand how scary and frightening that journey was. Incredibly, he began to tell me of another moment where he feared for his life.
‘On one attempt, the police got our boat before we had arrived. I was with 70 people including families. The smugglers said to us, we had to stay in the hiding spot until they came back. We waited for 3 days without food or water. I tried everything to survive. I even tried to eat the seeds of a pine cone. I knew that when you heat the plant, it opens and there are seeds in it. It was so hard, especially for the mothers who were feeding their babies with milk.
After 3 days, I realised we wouldn’t survive here, so I went to search for the police with 2 others. For the first time we ran towards the police to make sure they got us because at least now we would get water and bread.’
Mohammed lived on Chios for around 7 months before being transferred to Athens. He is one of 100,000s of refugees who have used this route to reach safety. When you see this smiley, energetic person, who loves to dance and be silly, it is hard to comprehend just how much he has endured. Yet still to this day, he never gives up, and always tries to see the positives and teachings from all his experiences.