She is the First and she is a Girl

The event ’She is the First and she is a Girl' held on the 8th of March, organized a several days’ program with different happenings, in order to celebrate Women Fighters. This year, the event  wants to portrait women during times marked by loud whistles, chanting and protesting in the streets, women who become an emblem of the female ‘NO’ to injustice, violence and crime. Women who fearlessly and tirelessly have taken onto the streets and are very close to gain freedom!

On March 13th, a discussion was held at the Youth Cultural Center with the title: “Women of the Refugee Crisis”.

The speakers who intervened to this discussion were:

Uranija Pirovska, from the Helsinki Committee

Lence Zdravkin, humanist

Mersiha Smailovikj, from the NGO Legis.

Each of them spoke about refugee women and their suffering.

Mersiha chose to speak in the first person singular, as a refugee, as if she was Lejla from Aleppo, inspired by her friend, Lejla Rida Sejari, who still lives in Aleppo. From all the other stories that she heard and from what she saw on the field, she presents this story in such a touching way that no one in the hall remained indifferent.

We decided to report her story in full here:

“I am Maryam from Aleppo, Syria.

I graduated in Mechanical Engineering. I come from a famous family. My parents both held a PhD in Medicine and had a good status in the society and we were financially well off. My brother just enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine.

In 2011, silent protests began against the regime of Assad and his family, which has ruled our country for over 40 years.

I wanted new elections, so that I could choose for whom to vote. I wanted to attend political meetings, debates, to think about who had the best program...

Then protests became bigger and bigger, and therefore the violence by the police and the army became more brutal.

In January 2012, when returning from a protest march, the police arrested my brother and me. They kept us without food and water for days. I was raped and humiliated every day. My brother was tortured under the most monstrous methods.

We lost track of the time spent there. Seconds seemed like days to us...

Our parents kept looking for us for days. After a month, they finally found us! No lawyer could be of help - because there is no democracy in Syria and this means we were unable to condemn these acts! Our parents had to give almost all our savings to get us out of prison.

Because of the terrible mistreatments he was under, my brother lost his hearing.

Life in Aleppo became harder. Assad attacked every day with barrel bombs (barrels filled with gunpowder). They have a terribly destructive power. There was simply no safe place in Aleppo!

One day, as I was sitting with my mother in the house, we heard a terrible blast. We knew that the bomb must had fallen in our vicinity. Like other doctors, we also lived near the hospital!

We learned that the bomb had fallen in the hospital, where my parents worked. No survivors were left, neither among the staff or the patients. My father was among those killed, that day! He died at his workplace, while helping people.

Our entire world collapsed before our eyes. We had no more tears to cry, we did not even feel any pain. I just watched my mother silently, she was holding strong only in front of us! But we could see the pain in her eyes. Every day life became harder and harder in Aleppo. My mother had no more strength to fight. There was no place where she could work or help out. And every time we heard a blast we had panic attacks and relived the trauma.

We knew we had to leave.

But where to go? No country would accept Syrians. My brother was in need of operations that would get him back in shape and perhaps even restore his hearing. I still wanted to continue my studies. My mother is a top heart surgeon.

In Turkey, we would have no right to work or study. Besides, my brother would not be entitled to free treatments... Turkey is the closest country to us, however, there would be no opportunities for us there, we could only have sit in refugee camps and become completely dependent on humanitarian aid.

I wanted to finish my studies so much! I was the best of my entire class.

We started thinking about going to Europe.

Through Facebook groups, we found out a way to go there. First we had to enter Turkey and cross the wired fence. Although Turkey accepts refugees, there is a fence with Syria, which is very difficult to cross.

We gathered all our savings, but we ​​had to put all the memories of a lifetime in one small backpack. We had to leave everything behind, our house and all our memories of a happier life. But I knew one thing: one day I would be back to a free Syria! I felt as if I had betrayed my country, but I didn’t have any more strength to fight. The wounds inflicted during my prison abuses had yet to heal. Especially when I looked at my 20 year old deaf brother, I recalled times of terror in prison. When I looked at my mother, and the wrinkles on her face, I recalled the detonation that killed my father.

In the early hours of the morning, with only a backpack on our backs, we entered Turkey.

We had no time to rest, so I immediately began to plan our next step. My mother is not very good at using technological equipment and my brother lost faith in any activity a long time ago, so I had to fight alone.

I registered to a Facebook group of smugglers from Turkey, they promise anything in exchange for money. The main place where we had to go was the city of Izmir. Before the war, we used to go there on vacation with my parents, and now this same place became the city of my salvation. We arrived in Izmir by bus from Gazi Antep. The whole city was full of refugees from everywhere! Shops were full of orange rescue vests!

That night, for the entire time, I was writing to a smuggler and we agreed to meet in a cafe. The deal was very simple, € 1.000 per person for ‘shipping’ to the Greek Islands, to Europe. No discount for 3 family members.

We would have given them our money once we would get onto the inflatable boat! We had to be on the coast at 3 am.

Our next step was to buy a waterproof mobile phone. Inflatable boats have no captains, we have to drive them. And the thought of frequent sinking and drowning in the sea persecutes you.

I bought a Samsung S5 for €800 and 3 rescue vests for €600, hoping they were genuine and not fake. The seller swore that they were original, but how could we know if he was telling the truth?

We slept in a cheap motel, because we took the last money from our savings. At 2.30 am we were on the coast. There were about 60 other refugees. Toddlers, infants, elderly and disabled people... And then the smuggler and his team arrived. They brought a small boat with them, designed for 20 people, but we were 60. The babies began to cry and the smuggler started to yell, he feared the police might come. They made us get on the boat quickly, they took the money from us, started the engine and one of them showed us the direction by just pointing his hand: Greece.

We could see the lights off the Greek coast, Europe was in front of us! A trip that normally would take 20 minutes, and for which the ferry would cost €15, lasted hours for us and cost €1.000. I put the coordinates in my mobile phone and the little boat slowly began to move, it was overburden. We were all scared, nobody said anything. I tried to be brave because of my brother and my mother. The crying of the babies would not stop. In that very quiet night that was the only sound you could hear. Then, the boat began to fill up with water. We started to panic and tried to remove the water with our hands, but the boat was sinking more and more.

We sank... and remained floating on the water. We were terrified and frozen, but happy because the floating vests were real, not fake! There were activists from Unitet Resque standing on the shore and monitoring vessels. I sent them our details before we got on the boat and then they constantly monitored our route. After 30 minutes their boat came. We were so happy! They told us that we were in Greek waters, which meant that we came out of Turkey. Had we been in Turkish waters, Turkish Coast Guard would bring us back to Turkey and we would lay in prison from 3 to 7 days!

The women wanted to hand over their children, but the activists shook their heads: “No, no… We cannot take you on our ship, or we would be accused of illegal trafficking of migrants. That is forbidden”. We had to wait for the Coast Guard to arrive. While floating in the water, the children began to scream from the cold, the elders were scared, I calmed down my mother and my brother, “It's OK”, I said “We made it!” Time passed slowly and the activists were trying to keep us calm, to give us courage and resist. I wondered how saving human lives could be a crime. So this was Europe, the place where human life has a value! Where we all have equal rights! Was it not like this?

After 3 hours, a big boat finally came to our rescue. In 10 minutes we were on the Greek coast, Lesbos! Some activists immediately ran towards us to offer blankets and warm clothing. I took blankets for my mother and my brother, we put on some dry clothes and we started walking for 20 km to reach the town. I felt mixed feelings. Finally I was in Europe, I walked freely, despite my sneakers being destroyed, I did not think about that at all. And now here comes the Balkan route. Refugees say it is safe, but it became unsecure when a country closed its border for us.

I bought 3 tickets for the ferry which would have taken us to Athens. From there, there would be a bus to Idomeni, a village on the border with Macedonia. This would have been our next challenge.

When we arrived in Athens a sense of panic dominated. All the refugees panicked, because they had heard that Macedonia had closed its border and we could not go on. Fear, panic, desperation. But we still continued our trip to Idomeni. Once we arrived there, there were already 5,000 refugees waiting. The smoke from bonfires made our eyes itchy, there was mud everywhere... And a huge wire fence in front of me. How humiliated I felt! Why such a razor fence against us, who run away from war, terror and torture? Why would they treat us like cattle, when all we want is moving forward? I saw my mother was struggling, she was not used to stand in a line for hours to get a piece of bread! My brother just turned his head around, trying to figure out where he was. I repeated slowly to him: “Europe”. But it was as if he did not believe me. Mud, smoke, fences, hunger, tents... I never imagined Europe would be like this! People from the humanitarian network gave us a tent.  It was so small we had to kneel down to go into it and try to keep ourselves warm. We set our little tent close to the fence, hoping that if they open the border, we would be the first to cross.

In the morning, we were woken up by loud voices: the refugees, who had been there for more than 10 days, started protesting and shouting to open the borders. At one point, they began to push the fence. In just 10 minutes, the Macedonian army and the police came, armed to their teeth. They had the same weapons that Assad had used against us! My brother and my mom got scared, we wanted to run away, but we did not know where and from whom we run away. In just a few seconds, they started throwing stun grenades and tear gas at us. I could not move, I could not see where I was... I began to choke. My mother soaked her T-shirt with water and put it into my mouth. But the tear gas did not stop falling... Children began to cry and men too. The last time I had seen a man crying was back in Aleppo, and now, again, in Europe, I saw helpless men and women weeping in despair and fear. After several hours the situation was calm again, but there were many wounded women and children in need of medical care.

I stood in line to wait for food.

Why is everyone asking me with whom I’m traveling? Why do they ask me where my father is? Every time, this question only reminds me of the good life I had! And it starts to hurt and I have no strength to say it, that my father was killed in Syria. You do not have the strength to explain that you know how to use a brush and toothpaste, while activists explain how to do it! You do not have the strength to wait for hours for a pair of clean socks! Fatigue and hopelessness overwhelm you. For days your eyes are directed towards the gate, towards the fence. Are they going to open the border now?

After two weeks of waiting in Idomeni, the Macedonian border reopened and they gave us a piece of paper with a waiting number written onto it. We were moving slowly, but our eyes couldn’t come off from the gate. We could not wait for the moment our turn to enter Macedonia came.

It finally came. On entering, we were asked for our passports and documents in a language we didn’t know. They pointed where to go. After walking for about half a kilometer, the police again asked for documents and told us something in an unknown language. I saw the camp, surrounded by high wire. At the entrance, smiling faces greeted us immediately and people offered food. They said: “Welcome to Macedonia!”. A little phrase that warmed our hearts. We hadn’t seen smiling faces until then. Nor had we heard the word "Welcome". I moved on to seek medical help for my brother, he was exhausted. Everything was in order in the camp. I saw there was a place where we could get clothes and shoes. My shoes did not survive the sea. After the doctors took care of my brother, I went to ask for a pair of shoes. They gave me one pair, 2 sizes bigger, but they were still better than my broken ones. When I was about to put the shoes on, I noticed a piece of paper inside one of them. I tried to read it, but I couldn’t understand. I went back to the girls who gave me the pair and asked them to translate for me what was written on the piece of paper.

"Engineering 2012 – Best student of the year - Best engineer of 2014". They explained that nearly half a million citizens of Macedonia had left, they were economic migrants who went to Europe and to other destinations. After the exodus, the capital city organized an event where everyone could donate shoes of their loved ones who had gone away. So my new shoes had belonged to a young engineer who had left Macedonia. “Oh God”, I thought, “What a similar fate! Who knows, maybe when in Germany I will meet this young man and he will recognize his shoes!. In Germany both of us would be equal, he as an economic migrant and I as a refugee, but what counts is the fact that we will be talented engineers”.

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a coming train. We took the money out. They had told us the ticket costs €25. It is not that expensive, for a train in Europe. When the train stopped. We could see that it was completely destroyed on the outside, and the insides looked even worse. Everything was dirty and stinky. We got into it, and the ticket man kept beckoning us to go in, he wanted to get more and more people on board. But there was no more room, we began to squeeze and push. There was no place for us to stand. The train finally departed. Children cried in the suffocating air, my mother could not bear the sickening stench of the train, and we could not get off because the door was locked from the outside: they did not want us to get off the train, as if they were afraid we would remain in Macedonia!

After one of the most difficult 4 hour journeys of my life, we finally arrived to Tabanovce, at the border with Serbia. Again, we were met by the smiling faces of volunteers who gave us food. Everywhere there were happy people who gave us full assistance. This time, my mother asked for medical help as she was completely exhausted. When she was done, we moved on quickly to continue our trip. No rest, no stops; we had to hurry while borders were still open.

We would still have to cross Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and finally we would get to Germany.

I could finally sleep in a safe place, and now my home is for us to continue living together in Germany, find a job for her so I can continue my studies.

Everyone deserves a life!”