A Journey to Safety: The story of one mother seeking a better life for her child.
By Ophélie Lawson
I am sitting at the Moms2Moms shelter in Mytilini, Lesvos and drinking tea with Soraya, who is peacefully holding her baby in her arms. She is currently living in the Moms2Moms shelter, operated by Safe Place Greece. The shelter supports single migrant women and mothers with basic needs like food, shelter and daycare. It enables them to gradually rebuild their life, foster resilience, take gradual steps towards integration and feel supported by other women.
Soraya was born in Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Sudan and Djibouti with a population of 5.3 million people. In 2015, UNHCR estimated that 5,000 people per month flee Eritrea from totalitarian rule, slavery and torture. Many seek asylum in Sudan and Ethiopia, while thousands more have fled to Europe.
This is the story of Soraya’s journey to safety and a life of dignity.
“Erythrea is no good,” says Soraya. “Crossing the sea, me really scared. It was the first time in my life I saw so much water and I was pregnant. I was scared, not only for me, but also for my baby.”
Soraya was three months pregnant when she attempted the perilous Mediterranean journey. It was a long and dangerous journey to safety. “I had no choice,” she continued. “But I was really worried. I take the risk for the safety of me and my baby. Erythraea is not safe for me, Turkey is not safe for both me and my baby.”
To make money, Soraya went to Izmir in Turkey where she found work to cover the cost of the crossing. Her husband, who is currently in Turkey, also supported her. “(It was) lots of money, we had to pay 1000 EURO. We did not have enough money so only I could go. My husband is still in Turkey. Waiting. But now I don’t want him to come here. It is not a life.”
"The Mediterranean crossing from Turkey to Greece is not cheap, and it takes away lives; lives of those we love, of those we could love, and the loves we have."
In her first attempt to cross the sea in September 2018, Soraya was arrested by Turkish border control and taken to a Turkish prison. Despite the difficult trauma she endured there, Soraya tried to cross again because she had hope that she would find safety for herself and her child in Europe.
When the engine of the boat left the Turkish shore in complete darkness in November 2018, Soraya thought that she would die. "I cried,” she says. “A lot of us cried. It was cold and dark.” There were about 50 others on the boat with Soraya including women and many children. The boat departed at 3am and reached the Aegean shore of Lesvos at 9am. Cold and in distress, the 50 passengers walked for over an hour on the Lesvos shores, until they encountered the Greek police.
"The situation is comparable with what we see after natural disasters or in war zones in other parts of the world. It is outrageous to see these conditions in Europe – a supposedly safe continent – and to know that they are the result of deliberate political choices," Dr Christos Christou, International President of Médecins Sans Frontières after visiting the camp in November 2019.
Soraya continues, “I never want to have an experience like that again. My time in Moria, now I think I don’t want to remember,” she paused. “It was cold, toilet disgusting. People not nice. I didn’t feel safe there. How can we live like that?”
After a gruelling two months in Moria camp, Soraya was taken to the UNHCR ESTIA accommodation program, operated by Iliaktida, a Greek NGO. This is where she gave birth to Isaac. After nine months she was granted asylum and asked to leave the accommodation. This meant she would become homeless, with an infant in her arms. As per Greek law, once someone is granted international protection or refugee status, they are no longer able to reside in the UNHCR ESTIA program.
A friend gave Soraya a phone number and she managed to speak with Chloe, the Director of Moms2Moms. Chloe realized the severity of Soraya’s case and immediately took all precautions to transfer her to the Moms2Moms shelter in Lesvos.
"I thank Chloe every day, she saved me really. She is so nice and she helps us with everything. Without Chloe I don’t know what I do. Chloe, she helps us with food, everything. Without this home I don’t know what I do. I could not live in Moria. Not safe for me as a woman, not safe for baby."
On an island where there is a high level of hostility towards refugees, the Moms2Moms shelter succeeded in providing a safe home for Soraya, as well as other women, single mothers and their children. Focusing on community care and shared values, the Moms2Moms shelter is a collective solution promoting cross-cultural bridges. It underlines the importance and healing power of compassion and community care as well as sisterhood.
Although she reached a safe place away from neglect and abuse, Soraya’s journey does not end here. She is now waiting for her geographical restriction to be lifted so that she can move from the island to the mainland of Greece where she hopes to find a job.
“I don’t want to stay here. My dream is to one day go to London. Maybe one day I can open my own restaurant.”
“I thought Europe would be better. That we would be safe. Life in Erythraea is really hard. I left home with hope one day I can provide for my family and have better life,” she continues.
“In Africa, you know, for every people Europe is so much better. Easier for your family, to find jobs, make money, better government. I think of this when I crossed. Now, every time I speak with friends in Africa, I tell them - do not come to Europe. Do not come.”
According to UNHCR data, there was a 50% increase in arrivals in 2019 compared to 2018, with an estimated 74,600 people arriving in Greece, mostly families with children from Afghanistan and Syria. Female asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, particularly single mothers and pregnant women, face a unique challenge as they are very often victims of violence, exploitation and human trafficking. After surviving the difficult Mediterranean Sea crossing, they find themselves stranded in places where they have no legal rights, and where their fundamental human rights are not respected. They also face further dangers of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) such as inappropriate behaviour, sexual harassment and attempted sexual attacks.