Survival of the Unfittest – Escaping Syria Presents New Challenges to Disabled Muslim
March 26, 2015
Syrian refugees await a chance for scarce affordable housing in Greece.
Not many of Syria's 3.7 million refugees try to make it to Greece, and of those that do, many perish in Mediterranean or Aegean waters or elsewhere on the hazardous route. A Syrian Muslim who has no use of his hands or feet, however, managed to flee to a Greek island off the coast of Turkey, where he faces new challenges to survive.
A doctor on the Greek island of Lesbos recently called the director of a ministry to Syrian refugees in Athens, called Bridge, to say that the disabled Syrian, Sami*, was going to be released from an immigration detention center the following day – and that he had no accompanying relatives, friends or money. He had left his wife and daughter in Turkey.
Syrian refugees who survive people smugglers' exorbitant fees and death – more than 3,000 people died or went missing at sea last year, according to U.N. estimates – arrive to a less than warm welcome in Greece. Greek authorities arrested more than 2,000 Syrian refugees arriving illegally last year.
Bridge personnel explained that it had no place to house Sami, but they found a wheelchair and some Syrians who could accompany him to Athens, said Voula Antouan, wife of Bridge Director Ilias Antouan. After three days of searching without success for accommodations and people to house him, Voula Antouan said, Sami and his Syrian travelers showed up at a Bridge gathering.
"They arrived at our meeting carrying him and saying, 'We've been told that you can take care of him. We do not know him, and we cannot keep him,'" she said. "Again we explained that we have no facilities for this, but their argument was, 'Actually, we are leaving tomorrow, so where will he stay?'"
The Syrians agreed to put him up that night, if Bridge would take care of him thereafter.
"We asked him how he came to Greece, and the answer was, 'My co-travelers were carrying me on their backs on the mountains of Turkey till we reached the beach, and then I came by boat," Voula Antouan said. "Easily you could see the despair and the questioning in his eyes, thinking that coming to Greece he would find everything waiting for him."
The manager of an inexpensive hotel that previously had taken Syrian refugees told Antouan that he could not stay there, even with Bridge paying his bill; the manager said the elevator was too small for wheelchairs. When Antouan said they would handle the wheelchair and would provide all his meals, the hotel manager balked.
"No, you do not understand," the manager said. "There is not even a handle in the bathroom. How can he manage it himself?"
"Listen," Antouan told him, "if you do not offer him a room, which I promise that we shall pay, he will stay homeless."
The hotel manager finally consented, but the ministry's search for more permanent housing was equally challenging. Lack of vacancy in an economically depressed country overrun with refugees, no facilities for people with special needs, and Sami's unresolved legal status all blocked Bridge's efforts.
Bridge arranged to send Sami to another agency for legal and social help, and to a hospital for diagnosis. But neither these organizations nor the refugee asylum office could come to Sami; he had to go to them, which meant someone had to take him – including carrying him up and down the hotel stairs.
A Muslim Syrian refugee, who had been attending Bridge's fellowship meetings, stepped up to take Sami to the various agencies.
"Our beloved Syrian friend, Ammar, was diligently attending every meeting and has a great, compassionate heart," Antouan said. "He had applied for asylum in Greece, but as he was still looking for a job, he also had the time to help."
Ammar provided meals to Sami each day at the hotel and took him to a humanitarian medical agency, the hospital and the refugee asylum center – each time carrying him up to and down from his hotel room. In addition, an Iraqi woman from the Bridge's fellowship offered to share her daily meal with Sami.
Bridge arranged and coordinated help to the humanitarian medical agency, the Greek Council of Refugees, the refugee asylum office, and a nephew of Sami's in Germany, his desired destination.
Housing, however, remained elusive; no organization could provide him a place to stay.
"Unfortunately, in Greece there was nothing appropriate for him to stay in, so no organization could offer accommodations for him," Antouan said. "At the beginning the answer was, 'Yes, he will apply for asylum and then he will be offered accommodations.' In the end, no one was willing to accept him!"
Bridge asked for a small reduction in the hotel bill, "as it had become very hard on us," Antouan said, and the owner accepted.
Syrian refugees generally pass through Athens to seek asylum and transit to other parts of Europe.
A Bridge worker named Angela volunteered to cook for Sami each day and wash his clothes, and Ammar continued to take him lunch daily. Ammar went the extra step of going to his hotel each Wednesday and Friday to put him on his back, carry him to the lobby to get his wheelchair and take him to worship services. Karam of Bridge offered to visit him, spending time and sharing the gospel with him.
At the end of the second week, Antouan, her husband, Ilias, Karam and Ammar visited Sami in his hotel room, she said. They learned that his wife and daughter were in a refugee camp in Turkey. Sami's desire was that they, too, make it to Germany so the family can be reunited.
Antouan saw a New Testament next to his pillow and asked him what he was reading.
"I started from the beginning, and now I am at Luke chapter 12," Sami said. "I am searching ... I keep reading ... Maybe Islam is the best, I do not know.... May I ask questions when I come to your meetings?"
They told him he certainly could.
This month, and after many discussions and interventions of public and private organizations, a place has been found for Sami, Antouan said. He lives in a new building with modern facilities, but he still needs food provided for him, cleaning supplies, cleaning and tidying of his bedroom, transportation and interpretation.
"The whole church gathered together, and many got a part of responsibility to cover the needs," Antouan said. "Ammar, as a very compassionate person who just 10 days ago accepted Jesus as his Savior, agreed to keep helping him."
Ammar put his trust in Christ during a worship conference, she said.
"He is serving in worship, and he feels happy serving our Lord," Antouan said. "We can see his life changing gradually, but we also pray for him, as he is really concerned for his family back in Syria. He is jobless, and he looks really broken."
Bridge Director Ilias Antouan asked for prayer for Ammar, for Sami, and for the growing number of refugees from Syria who are staying longer in Greece before moving on to other parts of Europe – in large part because they wish to know more from Bridge personnel about this Jesus they have come to know.
*Name changed for security reasons