Footage released by Amnesty International today shows the remarkable journey of two refugees, Alan Mohammad, 30, and his sister Gyan, 28, who travelled from Syria to a refugee camp in Greece to escape the armed group that calls itself Islamic State (IS).
Alan and Gyan, who were born with muscular dystrophy, fled their home in Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria as IS advanced. On three occasions they tried to cross the border into Turkey but each time were fired on by Turkish police. They then tried a different escape route, crossing the border into Iraq.
As IS advanced in Iraq they crossed the mountains into Turkey strapped onto either side of a horse. Their mother, brother and younger sister trailed behind, pushing their heavy wheelchairs.
They told Amnesty International how on three occasions they tried to cross the border into Turkey but each time were fired on by Turkish police. So they tried a different escape route, crossing the border into Iraq. The family stayed in Iraq for a year-and-a-half until the approach of IS made it necessary for them to flee again. From there their father carried on with their youngest sister, and eventually reached Germany.
Amnesty International interviewed Alan in July in Ritsona refugee camp, about 80km from Athens. “It was a very difficult journey,” he said. “For ‘normal people’ it is very difficult. But for disabled people it is like a miracle because all the borders between the two countries [Iraq and Turkey] are mountains.”
Once in Turkey the family managed to contact a people smuggler, who they paid $750 each for passage to Greece. The family described how smugglers assured them that there would be around 30 people travelling in a boat that would be nine meters long. But when they arrived on the beach they found that the inflatable boat was only six meters long and there were around 60 people clamoring to get on board. The smugglers told Alan and Gyan that there would be no space for their wheelchairs.
They had no choice but to leave the wheelchairs on the shore, and with the help of their family they crammed themselves into the boat.
“It was terrifying. We were in the water for around four hours,” recalls Alan. “Every time I looked around I saw babies and children crying… My mother became faint and at one point my sister told me she could not go on any more.”
They arrived on the island of Chios on March 12, just days before the EU-Turkey deal came into effect. The borders of other European countries were now closed to them.
Any hopes that they might be permitted to join their father in Germany were dashed. Instead the family were made to board a ferry to the mainland and from there they were taken by bus to Ritsona refugee camp an isolated open camp on an abandoned military base situated in the middle of a forest. They have been stranded there ever since living in extremely harsh conditions.
“This is a remarkable story of strength and resilience but it also shows the abject failure of European states to offer safety to people fleeing war and conflict in their countries,” said Monica Costa Riba, Amnesty International’s migration campaigner.
“The Greek authorities, with the assistance of other European governments, must immediately improve the living conditions of refugees stranded in Greece. But ultimately European states must accept more refugees into their countries and to ensure refugees like Alan and Gyan can be reunited with their families.”