As the UN met to discuss the refugee crisis, one Syrian family was desperate to reunite

A girl plays outside the former international airport in Athens, which is being used as a temporary camp for migrants and refugees. (Angelos Tzortzinis, AFP)

A girl plays outside the former international airport in Athens, which is being used as a temporary camp for migrants and refugees. (Angelos Tzortzinis, AFP)

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After months of anxious waiting, word finally came from her father, Kasem Alsabsabi, who was in Bebra, Germany. He had arrived, had an operation, was on radiotherapy treatment, had found a place to live and was desperately keen for his family to join him.

Sarah (12) set off excitedly from Izmir, Turkey, in February this year with her mother and seven brothers and sisters. The family escaped from Aleppo, Syria, in 2013 and had spent nearly three years in Altinözü in Antakya, Turkey, not far from the Syrian border.

Her father used to repair aeroplanes in Aleppo but had not been able to work in Turkey. He had also become increasingly ill and it was not until he arrived in Germany the previous summer that he found out he had kidney cancer. The news made his family all the more anxious and determined to join him and they began borrowing money from friends and family.

Like any child on the move, Sarah could not take much in her backpack. Her prized possession was the digital tablet she had won for coming first in class as a refugee pupil in Turkey. And, being a tween, she couldn’t resist packing her chunky white pearl necklace, sequined handbag, T-shirts and brightly coloured ribbons. They weren’t going to weigh her down and they mattered to her.

Germany seemed so far away, so foreign; another language, another culture. But after Aleppo it was seen as a paradise where the family could build a new life together. Sarah’s father could already say: “Wie geht es, danke schön [How are you, thank you].” Sarah was up for the move and her sister, Sham, who loves languages, had already started showing off.

But it would take the family multiple attempts to get across one of the most dangerous sea routes on Earth.

On their first attempt, the smugglers doubled the price at the last minute. It was early spring and the smugglers knew the warm tide of generosity that had swept across Europe in the late summer of 2015 had begun to turn frosty in 2016. At the last minute, they started to add extra costs. Sarah’s family had already borrowed $600 (about R8 500) from relatives in Saudia Arabia and couldn’t afford to pay the extra costs.

On the second attempt, they were just 10 minutes offshore when the rubber dinghy started to take on water. It was a terrifying moment. More than 300 migrants had perished on that same Aegean crossing in the six weeks before the Alsabsabi family tried. The flimsy life vests the smugglers had sold them were of little use. Sarah’s father knew the dangers and had taught her older and younger brothers, Mohamad and Seraj Aldeen, to swim. They helped the others get back to shore, devastated but not defeated.  Sadly, Sarah’s tablet got wet and she could no longer turn it on.

It became a case of third time lucky, although the family’s luck ran out when they arrived in Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos. Fences were going up across the Balkans and parts of Europe, tolerance was coming down.

“When we went in the boat I was so scared, but I was just thinking about my father and wanting to be with him,” said Sarah. “The worst part of coming here was when our boat sank and my tablet got wet in my backpack bag. My teacher gave me that prize of a tablet for coming first in class, which made me very happy because my brother was the one getting all the prizes.

“I took it everywhere with me. Now it doesn’t work anymore but I still keep it,” she said, rushing to show it to us.

They stayed out in the open for weeks, in tents on the islands. And then more weeks, still in tents, on the mainland at the port of Pireaus, where luxury cruise liners set sail for the Greek isles.

The family progressed to an air-conditioned container with a proper bathroom in Skaramangas refugee camp outside Athens, which has housed about 3 000 refugees. But they were no closer to Kasem.

Even for this resolute and resilient family, the waiting is too much. Sarah is one of more than 27 500 children who have found themselves in this nowhere zone, waiting for a decision to be made about their lives.

“I am quite fed up being here, we are just stuck here. I miss everything about my life in Aleppo: my friends, the neighbourhood, my granny, my uncles, everything.

“I loved my old school in Aleppo and my school in Turkey, they were private schools and I tried hard to do my best because my father had paid a lot of money to send me there,” said Sarah.

“Sometimes when there were bombs and gunshots all around there would be no school. But I had all my friends there so we stayed together.

“The only thing I want now is to go and stay with my father in Germany and learn German in a school there.”

Hopes for Sarah and her family soared when her father, now in possession of a refugee passport, came to visit them. They have appealed to the authorities in Germany and Greece to help them reunite.

“It’s very hard for us right now. I will do everything I can for my children and my wife to join me in Germany. I don’t know how my health will be and they are all I have. We lost everything,” said Kasem during his visit to Greece. “Inshallah the governments in Germany and Greece will help us be together.”

Stuck in limbo, the aptly named Hope School has been the best thing for Sarah and her siblings. A few enterprising refugees started the school, led by Basel Shrayyef (28), a communications engineer who left Aleppo in March when the siege in the city was raging. They gathered together any and all refugees who had some education and Sarah’s sisters Isra (19), a pharmacology student, and Moena (18) were among the first teachers. They ended up teaching their brothers and sisters, which Sarah said she found a bit weird at first.

They downloaded educational materials from Syrian and Iraqi education websites and started makeshift classes – refugees teaching refugees, making the best of a dire situation. With the support of Greek nongovernmental organisation Piraeus Open School and the United Nations Children’s Fund, which is providing technical assistance, classroom supplies and supporting teachers, about 650 children in the Skaramangas camp attend classes. They take place in a small container every 40 minutes, from 9am until 6pm. Unicef plans to bring in 11 more classroom containers in October, as well as additional supplies.

For now Sarah is so thrilled with the school that, even though she only attends one class a day, she is often seen hanging about outside the small container for hours, clutching her now defunct tablet just to boast to her friends, a little.

While she waits in this huge, hot refugee camp of containers and those dubbed “lost souls” by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Sarah’s favourite thing to do is get dressed up in swimming pants and a T-shirt, blow up her rubber floating ring and – even wearing her chunky fake pearls – fling herself into the grimy waters of the port where the older boys refine their dives.

One day, she says, she will learn to swim properly, because she never wants to be stuck on a sinking dinghy with a flimsy life jacket ever again.

Sarah Crowe is the spokesperson in Geneva for the United Nations Children’s Fund’s response on the refugee and migrant crisis.

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