Mediterranean Migration: “Refugees sleeping on the streets of Kos tell me, ‘At home we had war, but at least we had dignity’”

By MSF psychologist Marina Spyridaki

Marina Spyridaki is an MSF psychologist working with refugees on the Greek island of Kos as they wait to receive papers that will allow them to leave for Athens and continue their journeys.

“I am here offering psychosocial support to people wherever they need it – I hold sessions in the park, the port, wherever there are refugees trying to live. 

There are so many young children arriving on the island. I organise play sessions for them –through play, children express their emotions. It is also a way to identify how we can help them more efficiently – we do creative activities like painting and doing puzzles. The children do talk to us about wanting to go home, but I think they mean home as in somewhere safe, away from war and away from the streets of Kos. It is one of the most common themes in their drawings: a house on a sunny day with their family around the home.

But even as the children are playing happily, their parents tell us how hard it is on them to be here. They say their children’s behaviour changed after the dangerous boat ride from Turkey to Kos, and that now they cry a lot. Often our role involves supporting the parents in how to deal with such changes in behaviour and offer comfort to their children during this process.

It really worries me that these children have endured so much, including war in their country and the trip across the sea. Unless they settle down in a stable home and are given lots love and protection, it will be very difficult for them.

I saw one young Syrian boy who was at home when the house was hit by a bomb. His parents told me that his behaviour changed after that: he couldn’t sleep at night and he stopped communicating. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are many unaccompanied children, but often they are reluctant to reveal their real age or the fact that they are here alone. Often they will insist that they are 18 and are travelling with an uncle or cousin because they were told that they will be detained if recognised as unaccompanied minors.

There was a 14-year-old Syrian boy who arrived here on his own. A woman working at the port saw him crying day after day and asked us to help him. He was desperate to go back to Turkey, where his mother was. He felt he just couldn’t survive without her. But it had been the family’s decision for him to leave, and it wasn’t possible for him to go back.

We hold group sessions for adults too, and people are very open to sharing their concerns and emotions with us. It is during these group sessions that people express their fear about both the current situation and what the future holds for them. We also hold individual and follow-up sessions where needed.

‘My two daughters died when a bomb hit my house,’ one father told me. ‘I didn’t have time to mourn their deaths as I had to save the rest of my family.’ This is something I hear often; people have endured so much and feel there is no time and energy for anything but survival.

Very often, they talk about the travel from Turkey to Kos. Some refugees say they were treated well by the smugglers; others describe being kidnapped when trying to cross into Turkey by groups who demanded ransoms for their release. Others report being tortured at the hands of people traffickers. They always emphasize the fact that they had no alternative but to pay smugglers to flee their homes ‘We could either stay in our country – where we had two choices: to kill or get killed – or we could save ourselves. There was no choice.’

After everything they have been through, here they are, sleeping on the ground, without water or food. Many people have said to me, ‘At home we had war, but at least we had our dignity.’

Parents often feel lost without their roles as mothers or fathers who can protect and provide for their children. One man said how difficult it was for him, as a father, to support his family in these conditions. Crying, he showed me videos on his phone of his family crawling across the border between Iran and Turkey. He needed to get the weight off his chest, because he felt he had to remain strong in front of his family.

Many of the refugees talks about their fears. ‘At night I feel afraid,’ said one father. ‘I and my family are sleeping in the entrance of the Captain Elias hotel. There is no electricity. I worry that my wife and my children are not safe.’

A single mother, travelling alone with her daughter, told me how scared she was to be living in the open, and how terrified she was that something bad would happen to them. She was escaping violence at home, she said, and had left Afghanistan for her daughter’s sake. 

Others express their anger about the living conditions. Mothers have to put their babies on the dirty ground, in the heat, surrounded by rubbish. One said, ‘We are people, but here in Europe they treat us like animals.’ Many are relieved to have arrived to Europe, which represents safety to them, only to become massively disappointed with the reception conditions. The lack of information also affects people, increasing their feelings of insecurity and fear. Often people are completely lost and need orientation.

There have been incidents of violence between the police, refugees and local groups. A 16-year-old Palestinian boy asked me, ‘Why did the police beat me? They are supposed to protect people.’

I often dream about the camp I would build for these people if I could, a temporary home with proper facilities. I imagine how nice it could be: a collection of small houses around a big garden. It makes me so sad to hear parents say that they can’t even feed or wash their children or take them to a toilet.

The refugees really didn’t expect to be greeted like this. One man said, ‘If I’d known it was going to be like this, I would have swum back to Syria.’

I always try to explain to people that it is not the refugees fault they are here. Surrounded by war, death and violence, they had no choice but to escape.”