Nea Kavala, Greece— “We weren’t expecting to be here very long,” Ayhan, a 28-year-old from Afrin, Syria, says, as she sits with her husband, Hozan, on a porch made of wood pallets outside their modest tent in the Nea Kavala refugee camp in northern Greece.
“I only have two changes of clothes,” she continues, pouring coffee into a row of baby-food tins that have been repurposed as coffee cups for impromptu guests. “What I’m wearing right now, and what I wore when I crossed the sea in February.”
Everything was going smoothly until the recently married couple reached the Macedonian border in March, and were told to wait in the Greek town of Idomeni—at the time, a sprawling refugee camp full of people trying to cross the border. Eventually, they were told that the border was closed and were evacuated to Nea Kavala—a former Greek military base outside the small northern town of Polykastro. Now, they are sharing a modest tent with Ayhan’s uncle, Mohammed; his wife, Alaa; and their two daughters. Occasionally they receive visits from a local red-haired stray cat, which they have jokingly named Angela Merkel.
“It was all so chaotic,” Hozan chimes in animatedly, recalling how, immediately after marrying, the couple made a snap decision to try their luck moving to Europe, due to the worsening political climate for Kurds in Turkey—where they had originally sought refugee after fleeing from Afrin, a Kurdish-majority Syrian town. Hozan thought that it was only a matter of time before the escalating violence in Turkey affected them, as Syrian Kurds.
“We thought by now we would be continuing our lives in Germany,” he continues, shrugging and smiling despite the absurdity of the situation. “But instead we are here.”
Over the past year, what it means to be a refugee in Greece has changed drastically. This time last year, it was a transit point; tens of thousands were passing through Greece on their way to Germany, where German Chancellor Merkel had just suspended the Dublin regulations, a controversial EU stipulation that asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter—making Germany the promised land, and Greece merely a stop along the way. Shortly thereafter, the European Home Affairs Committee passed a measure to resettle 120,000 refugees from Greece and Italy to 28 countries across the European Union, further fueling the European dream.
One year later, only about 5,000 of the promised 120,000 have been resettled. The need for asylum slots has multiplied since the borders through the Balkan countries have closed, with 57,000 refugees—like Ayhan and her family—who have been stranded in Greece for at least six months.
“I just can’t believe that this is Europe,” Ayhan continues, as Angela Merkel—who has arrived for a visit—rubs up against her leg. “Lebanon, Jordan—OK, you have people living in tents. But Europe?”