Inside the Lives of 4 Syrian Refugee Families

18 minute read

See TIME’s year-long multimedia project Finding Home, about the lives of four Syrian refugee babies and their families, as they face an uncertain future. You can also follow the project on Instagram at @FindingHome.

A few moments after checking into the maternity ward of Ippokrateio General Hospital in northern Greece, Suad Iessa hoists herself onto an examination table. She’s nine months pregnant and is about to get her first ultrasound. Back in Syria, Suad would have had many more by this point, but the 25-year-old refugee spent the first six months of her pregnancy on the run from war and the past three in a refugee camp with limited access to prenatal care.

Suad turns her face away in embarrassment as the male ultrasound technician pulls aside her gown to run the wand across her exposed belly. He glances at the computer screen, then pauses. He calls in a colleague. They speak in rapid-fire Greek, gesturing at the screen and then at Suad. “There’s a problem,” one of the technicians says. He steps out of the room to summon the ward’s senior doctor, and Suad’s eyes fill with tears. She doesn’t speak the language, but she understands enough to know that something is very wrong.

When Dr. Efstratios Assimakopoulos, director of the hospital’s second university obstetrics-gynecology clinic, moves the wand over her abdomen, he mutters an expletive in Greek and summons Suad’s husband, Thaer Sannaa, into the cramped exam room. “It’s a very bad situation,” he says in English. The baby is O.K., he continues, but Suad’s placenta is in the wrong place–it has penetrated the uterine wall and attached itself to her bladder. She will have to have a cesarean section, followed by another surgery. The doctors could try to save her uterus, but there would be a chance that she would hemorrhage to death in the process. Would Thaer give the surgeon permission to perform a hysterectomy?

Thaer, who was a prosperous olive-oil trader back in Idlib, speaks some English but has a hard time understanding some of the more technical medical terminology. After a few attempts at clarifying what’s going on, Thaer gives up in frustration. “Do what you have to do to save my wife and my baby,” he says. “I am already broken from this refugee life. Don’t break me anymore.”

No one explains to Suad what is going on. As she’s wheeled into surgery, she understands only two things: that she might die, and that this is the last baby she will ever have.

At 4:01 p.m. on Sept. 30, the tiny wail of Suad’s newborn daughter breaks through the beeps and hisses of the surgical suite. The baby is whisked out of the room so that the doctors and nurses–12 in all–can continue with the bladder surgery for another four hours. Out in the corridor, a pediatrician congratulates Thaer on the birth of his daughter. Thaer names her Hamida, after his mother.

As he waits for news of his wife’s surgery, Thaer rails against Syrian President Bashar Assad, against the war that has caused nearly 5 million Syrians to flee their country, against the U.N. refugee system, against everything that had transpired to bring him to where he is today: a once successful businessman living on handouts in a Greek refugee camp. He’s the father of a stateless child, a parent who doesn’t know where his three children will grow up or what languages they will speak. He doesn’t even know if his newborn daughter will ever see her mother alive.

More than 1,000 Syrian refugees like Suad have given birth in Greece this year, and since September, TIME has followed four of them. These are mothers to children of no nation, conceived in war and gestated in flight. Through video, social media, photography and the written word, TIME will spend the next year documenting the babies’ first year of life. Wrapped in donated blankets and secondhand onesies, they will likely spend at least the first months of their new lives in hastily built refugee camps that offer little protection from winter’s freezing temperatures and summer’s swarms of mosquitoes. They are between worlds. In a world teeming with unknowns, about the only thing certain in their lives is that they probably won’t see their parents’ home country until they are adults, if ever.

The fall of Aleppo–Syria’s largest city–to Assad’s forces heralds not a conclusion of the civil war, but rather a new phase in what sizes up as a chronic insurgency. In the U.S., a man who campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform has become President-elect. For most Syrian refugees, that narrows the choice to Europe as the great hope for a new home.

But for the four new mothers, that hope is complicated.

Suad may end up back in Turkey, so unsettled is her husband by the growing anti-immigrant rhetoric heard in parts of Europe. Even Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has taken in more than 1 million asylum seekers over the past two years, has seen fit to close the door in a bid for her fourth term as Chancellor.

Nourelhuda Altallaa, a first-time mother who goes by Nour, remains determined to join family in Germany so that her daughter can grow up among her cousins. But it’s not that simple. Asylum applicants have no choice when it comes to their relocation. Nour’s family could be sent to a country like Romania, where jobs are scarce and resources for refugees scant.

Illham Alarabi, who just gave birth to her fifth son, is torn. On the one hand, she’s desperate to move her family out of their 100-sq.-ft. tent in a Greek refugee camp. But she also fears leaving the tight community of neighbors that have made the camp feel like home for the past seven months.

For her part, Taimaa Abazli, a former music teacher, is so defeated by what appears to be postpartum depression that she says she doesn’t even care where she goes, as long as “it’s not here.” Greece, already one of Europe’s poorest countries, has some 60,000 refugees now awaiting settlement. Many, like Nour and Illham, are still living in primitive camps, with no water for washing, sporadic electricity and no heat, despite freezing temperatures.

“When I was young, I expected to have a happy life, with a nice house, and to get an education,” says Taimaa, who worries that her 2-year-old son is starting to think that a tent is his real home. “I didn’t expect any of the things that are happening to me. It’s an ugly life.”

Think of a refugee, and you might picture someone destitute, living on the fringes of an already disorganized society, perhaps someone who was homeless or even stateless to begin with. But the Syrian refugees in Greece are by and large middle-class and well educated. They’re accustomed to first-world medical care. Many had good jobs and nice homes before war tore their country apart, sending them fleeing.

Before Suad and Thaer left Syria, they had a spacious apartment, two cars and a washing machine. Doctors monitored Suad’s first two pregnancies closely. She took prenatal vitamins and went to birthing classes. In Greece, where she and Thaer arrived by rubber dinghy from Turkey on Feb. 20, she waited out the last days of her pregnancy subsisting on packets of food provided by the Greek military. She didn’t even have easy access to a bathroom, which, as any pregnant woman knows, is essential.

To ensure a safe birth, the World Health Organization recommends that all women have at least eight visits with a health worker or midwife during a pregnancy. Refugees on the move rarely have that opportunity and, like Suad, often get to see a doctor only on the day of their delivery. Suad survived the four-hour surgery that followed her cesarean-section birth, but had she gone into labor naturally, she likely would have bled to death, says Assimakopoulos.

“People think refugees only need food, water and basic health care, but reproductive health is a lifesaving intervention,” says Felicia Jones, the sexual- and reproductive-health specialist for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) project in Greece. “If you don’t make sure that women have access to basic emergency obstetric and newborn care–including prenatal care–women and babies can die.”

Prenatal care has now arrived at the camps, thanks to humanitarian organizations such as UNFPA, Doctors of the World and the Red Cross, and many expectant mothers are making the most of the resources on offer. For her part, Nour, a first-time mother at 22, visits the clinic every time the midwife comes to her camp.

Nour has been dreaming of having children ever since she was a child. When she met her husband, Yousef Alarsan, in college, she knew they were meant to be together when they realized they had the same favorite name for a future daughter: Rahaf. War put their plans for marriage and family on hold, however. In 2014, Yousef left their school in Deir ez-Zor and fled to a small nearby town so he wouldn’t have to join Assad’s army. No sooner did he get there than ISIS took over.

“One morning, we woke up to black flags and long beards,” he says of the ISIS soldiers who had moved into the area. “They said, ‘This is the Islamic State,’ even though everybody knows they have nothing to do with Muslims.” Yousef was arrested and flogged for smoking cigarettes. Then ISIS started beheading dissenters. Fearing for his life, Yousef fled in late 2015. He and Nour had a quick wedding in Deir ez-Zor, then started their journey to Europe, via Turkey.

Nour realized she was pregnant the day they arrived in Greece, on the 29th of February. “When I found out, I was very happy at first, because I wanted a baby,” she says. “But I didn’t have my mom by my side, so my happiness was incomplete.” She never imagined that her life as a young mother would start in the gloom of an old tobacco warehouse converted into an ad hoc shelter.

In the Syrian tradition, says Nour, the maternal grandmother provides the baby’s clothes. “Now I have to prepare them myself,” she says. So she unraveled donated blankets to recover the yarn, then taught herself how to crochet charming hats and booties by watching instructional YouTube videos. As is the case for most refugees, her smartphone, brought over from Syria, is a lifeline. The camps offer free wi-fi, and residents, who don’t even have heat, spend precious euros buying battery packs to keep their devices going when the power is out. A few days before she gives birth, Nour holds up a tiny ruffled dress she crafted out of red wool from a pattern she saw on the Internet. “I make things because I don’t want my baby to lack for anything. Later I can show her the pictures and say, ‘I made this for you.'”

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The closer she gets to giving birth, the more anxious Nour becomes. She obsessively watches birth videos on YouTube and looks to Facebook groups for guidance. What she really wants is to speak to her mother. “In Syria, you have your mother to look after you,” she says. “She shows you how to take care of your baby.”

But her parents are trapped in ISIS-held Deir ez-Zor, where cell phones and the Internet are forbidden. Once a week, her father rides a motorcycle for two hours to reach a town with Internet cafés. There, he downloads his WhatsApp messages and sends out the voice memos he records secretly with his wife. Nour replays the recordings constantly.

When Nour is five days past her due date, doctors at Thessaloniki’s Papageorgiou Hospital decide to induce labor rather than risk a midnight birth in a camp with no reliable ambulance access. The biggest challenge with refugees is language, says Elizabeth Gkery, the midwife on duty during Nour’s labor on Nov. 1. “As a midwife during a delivery, you have to build a relationship of trust in the first hour, so they know to listen to what you say when the pain gets bad. We can’t do that. If I were in her position, giving birth in a foreign language, I would be scared too.”

Instead, midwives make do with pantomime. When Nour’s labor becomes so intense that she starts to panic, doctors present her with pain-management options by miming a spinal injection or a gas mask. It isn’t until TIME’s translator intervenes that Nour is able to understand the choices. She picks the epidural.

Seven hours later, when the drugs’ effects have worn off, Nour’s screeching is replaced by the cries of a newborn. A nurse wipes baby Rahaf clean and places the child on her mother’s chest. Nour beams. “Oh my God,” she says in English. “Baby. Baby.”

Three days later, Nour and Yousef wrap their daughter in layers of blankets and prepare to leave the hospital for the camp. “I am afraid,” Nour says. “I don’t know what is normal, but I will look on the Internet. I learned from YouTube how to crochet dresses. I learned about childbirth. And now I will look up how to take care of a new baby.”

At the camp, visitors crowd into the tent to coo over the new arrival. Nour, nursing Rahaf, stares at her phone. She has sent news of the birth to her parents, along with photos she took with her phone, but she can tell by the lack of blue check marks next to her messages that they haven’t been received. There’s no telling when her parents will get them.

Like new parents anywhere, Nour and Yousef had tried their best to make a welcoming home for the new arrival, but the Oreokastro camp, where they have lived since June, makes that all but impossible. The camp consists of a vast warehouse approximately the size of two football fields. Inside are regimented rows of army tents, 250 in all. Children race down the long corridors on donated bicycles and fight in narrow alleys. There is no playground and no formal school–only a tent where volunteers offer classes on an ad hoc basis.

In the winter, residents must brave sleet, snow and icy winds to reach the toilet. In the summer, the smell of excrement washes over the camp. The permanently illuminated overhead lights aren’t strong enough to defeat the daytime gloom of the near windowless structure–but they are bright enough to prevent sleep at night. Home to about 800 people who have nowhere else to go, Oreokastro is never, ever quiet.

When the camp opened, each family was allotted one tent. Now that several families have moved out, residents are able to spread out a little, taking over empty tents to make ersatz kitchens and dining rooms. Nour’s neighbor Illham Alarabi leads the charge, mostly so her four young sons have a safe place to play in the winter. Her fifth son, Faraj, was born on Oct. 2.

For Illham, childbirth was a welcome break from camp life. “At the hospital someone else does the cleaning, you only have one kid to take care of, and there is a bathroom in your room. It’s like a spa,” she says as she lays out the evening meal. The Greek military provides a daily juice box and a pre-packaged croissant to each resident, along with a hot meal that usually consists of potatoes, pasta and vegetables. Complaints about the food are common. “When a baby is born in Syria, we slaughter a lamb and eat meat,” says Illham on the day of her son’s birth. “Here we will slaughter a croissant.”

The camps were never meant to serve as long-term housing, and the refugees were never meant to stay in Greece for so long. When they first started arriving, in 2014, they were widely welcomed and ushered onward to mainland Europe. European attitudes began to sour when 2,000 migrants a day started flooding in from Turkey. The Balkan countries next to Greece–the gateway to the destination countries–shut their borders, cutting off the asylum seekers from the rest of Europe.

Now, the flow has all but stopped. In March, the E.U. negotiated a deal with Turkey that brought the number of migrants down to less than 100 a day in exchange for $6.4 billion in refugee assistance through 2018. But that left tens of thousands of refugees bottlenecked in Greece. E.U. member states pledged to resettle up to 66,400 of Greece’s refugees elsewhere in the bloc, but under pressure from anti-migrant movements at home, they are dragging their feet. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) original plan for winter was to cycle the asylum seekers through hotels and short-term rentals while they waited for relocation elsewhere in Europe. But “the revolving door is moving much slower than we had hoped and had been promised, so now we don’t have enough housing to go around,” says Roland Schönbauer, UNHCR’s Athens-based spokesperson. So far, only some 6,500 migrants have been relocated from Greece. At current rates, it could take more than a decade to resettle the rest.

For Yousef, like most of the refugees, it is the uncertainty that has been the hardest to take. “I am going crazy,” he says. “Just be honest with us. Tell me that I will have to stay in Greece for two years; I will accept that and will manage. But I can’t just keep waiting not knowing. I would rather face ISIS, the Syrian army and the Russian bombs than this kind of life.”

For Suad and Thaer, the more immediate problem is what to do with their school-age sons. Do they immerse them in the Greek school system and risk confusing them with a language that won’t be of much use down the line, or do they wait, indefinitely, until they know where they will be settled? “We are lost,” says Thaer. “Kids need school, they need something to do to keep them out of trouble. But what language will they learn? Maybe we will leave in two months, we don’t know. So do they need to learn Greek? What if we move to Germany?”

These dilemmas are still far in the future for the newborns. Not long after Nour returns from the hospital with her baby, she invites other camp mothers over for tea and advice. The conversation soon turns to Rahaf’s ears. In Syria, tradition dictates that baby girls get their ears pierced with gold studs at three days old. Nour knows she doesn’t have money for gold, but even if she scrapes together enough for cheaper studs, she’s not sure if Greeks will pierce the ears of a baby who is so young.

Illham bounces her baby Faraj on her lap. “Where can I get him circumcised?” she asks. Unlike Syria, where circumcision is a religious obligation for Muslim boys, the Greek public health system doesn’t provide the procedure. Private clinics charge $1,700–the same amount smugglers charge for passage to northern Europe. “So he will grow bigger and bigger, and then get cut?” Illham winces in sympathy. “There will be a big pain in his future.”

Despite the challenges of raising her children as refugees, despite the uncertainty over their future and the loss of their past, Illham doesn’t regret leaving a country at war. She wants for Faraj what any mother wants for her child: that her son is given every chance to become the best version of himself.

Babies adapt no matter what, she says. They don’t know, unless they are told, that life should be any different. She and her husband may be suffering now, but by the time Faraj is old enough to know better, she hopes the family will be in a better place, wherever it is. “It’s too late for my husband and me,” she says. “But the kids still have their whole lives ahead of them.”


Continued reporting for this project is supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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