As I weaved through the alleys of Ritsona, a refugee camp set up on an abandoned Greek Air Force base on a mountain north of Athens, I let my nose guide me. The air was filled with the scent of roasting meat. Smoke wafted through the rows of white, single-room container homes. At last I reached the source: a makeshift grill pit at the end of an alley, surrounded by men squatting to tend the fire.
“We’re making shish taouk,” explained the Syrian man I came to know as Abu Shadi. “Or at least our version of it.” (In Syria, as in much of the Middle East, people go by a moniker beginning with “Abu” or “Umm”—“father of” and “mother of,” respectively—followed by the name of their first-born son or son-to-be. Most of the people in this story will be referred to by those monikers.)
Shish taouk, a popular Levantine dish of cubed chicken marinated in yogurt, garlic, lemon, and an assortment of spices that differs depending on the region, is usually skewered like a kebab and grilled over an open flame. “We don’t have skewers or all the spices we need for it, but we make do,” Abu Shadi said. They didn’t have a grill, tongs, or spatulas, either, so they used a fork or darted their bare hands into the flames to flip the chicken over, quickly dropping each piece onto a flat grill grate raised on bricks.
Abu Shadi and his wife, Umm Shadi, lived on the outskirts of Damascus until 2012, when the fighting forced them out; they joined 6 million other Syrians who’d been internally displaced by the civil war. They eventually made it to Abu Shadi’s home village of Quneitra, near the Israeli border in Syria’s southwest, before finally fleeing Syria altogether with their children in 2016. It took 45 days to cross Syria by land; the family walked through the desert and spent thousands of dollars on smugglers to get them to Turkey and, eventually, to Greece. “This little one,” Abu Shadi said, pointing to his feisty toddler, Jana, who has her father’s olive skin and her mother’s ear-to-ear smile, “didn’t cry a peep the whole way.” By March of 2016, they’d joined the 5 million Syrians—a quarter of the population—who were now living outside Syria’s borders.
Abu Shadi rattled off the cities of origin for the others seated around the plastic dining table: Abu and Umm Ibrahim from Idlib in the northwest, near the Turkish border; Abu and Umm Farouk from Latakia, a coastal province. From a Kurdish family in the region of Al Hasakah, on the northeast border with Iraq, came Alan Mohammad, who uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy; Salah and Linda hailed from a Kurdish town in Aleppo province. There were also Abu and Umm Raed, from Daraa, the city known for sparking the revolution, and a group of single men in their teens and early 20s from a Palestinian-refugee camp in Damascus.