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International Migrants Day: Stories from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan

Refugees crossing into Europe by land and sea are set to hit the one million mark over the coming days. As temperatures plummet and winter sets in, thousands of refugees are continuing to make their way through southern Europe in search of safety.

Trócaire is supporting refugees fleeing the horrors of war from countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan with hot soup, warm clothes, shoes, hygiene kits and baby kits. As we mark International Migrants Day today, here are some of the people we have met on their journeys from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

(To support refugees this Christmas, you can donate or buy the gift of support for refugees for a loved one.)

Midiia from Damascus

Caption: Midiia (25) left Syria a year ago after her husband was taken by the army. She has not seen him since.

“We are running, running from war, she says. “In Syria, I was married but the army came and took my husband and I don’t know where he is. He disappeared. That was two years ago.”

Midiia has two young children who are staying with her parents-in-law. She has not seen them since she left and dreams of them being together again.

“I lived in Lebanon for 6 months with relatives, then for over a month in Turkey and from there is has it taken seven days to get to Presevo. I’ve walked 6-7km a day.

“Even when on the train there were no seats so I stood and I’ve spent most of my money.”

With the group she is travelling with she has slept “on the bus and mostly on the street. To sleep outside is scary. I wouldn’t usually do that.”

“I am happy to be here. I am a little closer to Germany, where my family waiting for me. I need to be with them, I don’t need anything else, just to go as quickly as I can.”

We and Caritas Serbia are providing food, hygiene and baby kits to refugees crossing from Macedonia into Serbia at the Presevo refugee registration centre.

Salem from Iraq

Caption: Salem (22) in Presevo refugee centre in Serbia

“You know why we had to leave,” says Salem from Iraq, a 22 year old maths and science student.

“Every day ISIS was killing people and students. We are all Yazidi. We had to leave.“

Salem is travelling with a group of 8 young men, hoping to begin their studies and lives again in Europe.

“My father, mother, sisters and brother live in Germany. I am following them with my friends.”

It took Salem and his group a week to get to Presevo refugee registration center, where we and Caritas Serbia are providing food and hygiene kits. It will take one more week to reach Germany.

“We are very hungry, very tired, cold, we haven’t had showers. We’ve travelled and slept on trains, ship and buses.”

While their journey has been hard, returning home is not an option for Salem, with Yazidi people facing brutal persecution by ISIS in Iraq.

“We can’t ever go home. They’ve destroyed every home. It’s too dangerous.”

Young Afghan refugees sit on a park bench in Belgrade, Serbia

Caption: Ahmed from Afghanistan and his friends aged 13-15 sit on park bench in Belgrade, Sebia.

“There is no peace in my country,” says Ahmed, sitting on a Belgrade park bench with a group of young men – all refugees from Afghanistan and its borders.

The park, which is across from Belgrade’s bus station, looks like any other leafy urban park on a Wednesday morning. Autumn leaves are turning and a steady flow of locals wander through with their shopping and children. But in the background, pockets of war-weary refugees gather, wondering where to go next, after a twelve hour journey from Macedonia.

Ahmed’s unlikely band of brothers include a medical student, an interpreter and an uncle with his 15 year old nephew and friend. Ahmed, himself, is a social science student, or was, until he had to leave.

“People are getting killed at home,” says Ahmed. “I had to escape and leave my education. I have been travelling for three months through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and now Serbia. Bulgaria was the worst time. I spent three days sleeping in the forest, with no food or water.

“Three months ago when I left my family, my mother and father cried. They are old and aren’t working. My brothers work for European companies but the Taliban keep telling them to leave their jobs.

“I won’t obey the Taliban. They’ve destroyed our country, our education, everything.”

For a decade, Afghans have been the largest source country for refugees in the world, but this was overtaken by Syrian refugees in 2014. Yet, the numbers of Afghan entering Europe is still on the rise, making up twenty per cent of all refugees.

The escape to Europe has been particularly hard on the younger boys in the group. “My parents told me to come here because they make young boys become soldiers at home,” says the youngest member, an innocent-faced 13 year old boy.

He cried every day in Bulgaria, where he was kept in a refugee camp for 22 days, followed by three days sleeping rough in a forest. His money and phone were stolen.

“In Afghanistan there is no work, no schools, no hospitals,” says his 15 year old friend. “When we travelled across the border through Iran, we were shot at. One boy got wounded and had to stay behind in the mountains.”

They’re hoping to reach Norway where they hear “they give shelter to young people” and to be eventually reunited with their parents.

“Everyone misses their families,” says Mohammad (26), who was an interpreter. “The Taliban are threatening my family every day but I couldn’t bring them here with me right now. How could my wife and child walk and do this journey? I want to apply for political asylum and bring them here to save their lives. They are in a bad situation right now.”

The group is taken to a refugee aid centre up the street for food and a change of clothes. The next stop is Croatia, where a day later they meet the Caritas team at the Berkasavo border crossing and are given food and water.  

“Everyone has his own wish,” says Ahmed, with onwards plans ranging from France to Germany. “I will go to Belgium and if peace comes, I will go home”

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