Hungry Ramadan: Refugees in Turkey See Steep Decline in Holiday Charity

Over a year ago, when much of the world shuttered as the pandemic swept the globe, Mohammed al-Awas, 46, a Syrian refugee, was stranded with his wife and five children at a gas station in Turkey. Not far from the Greek border, some families were sheltered nearby in an area usually reserved for fixing cars, their personal belongings in black garbage bags piled up along the walls. Dozens of men, women and children, mostly refugees from Syria, loitered outside the station, not sure where to go next. Like the others, al-Awas wanted to cross the river to Greece. Turkey had declared the border open, so he had sold his furniture to make the journey. But Greece never opened its side of the border and many families were pushed back into Turkey, or were not able to cross at all. Mohammed al-Awas, 46, says while Turkey is safer than Syria, he has no way to support his family in Istanbul, April 17, 2021. (Heather Murdock/VOA)Asked if they were afraid of getting the coronavirus, most refugees at the gas station that day were blasé. They had survived war, abject poverty and life on the streets. The virus couldn’t be worse, they said. Moments later, police officers arrived, saying everyone would be boarding buses to Istanbul, whether they liked it or not. After a few weeks passed, al-Awas found himself in a small apartment in Istanbul, paid for by a charity. It was Ramadan and, as is common during the Islamic holy month, donors were eager to provide food and shelter for the poor. Still, al-Awas was despondent. “I stay up all night, every night, worrying about how to keep my children off the streets,” he said. Ramadan 2021 A year later, it is once again Ramadan, but humanitarian aid for refugees is scarcer than ever. Some aid workers say collections are down as much as 90% and the piecemeal food aid they have to distribute is not nearly enough to go around. “Last year, businesspeople were sending extra support for refugees because of the pandemic,” explained Aya Sultan, an aid worker. “But this year, when we called the same people, they said they had a terrible year economically.” Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world. These children are pictured in Istanbul, April 17, 2021. (Heather Murdock/VOA)In Istanbul, like in so many places, many businesses have failed, many shops have closed and people who once had more than enough face an uncertain future. Traveling to Europe to seek asylum has become more difficult and more dangerous, but al-Awas recently returned from another attempt, where after 14 days of walking through the forest, he injured his leg. When Greek authorities caught him, he got into their car without a word. He couldn’t go on. “We walked through the forests at night and drank water from rivers,” he said. “It was snowing and my feet were wet when I twisted my ankle and fell.” Weeks later, al-Awas still walks with a limp, but says he will keep going back until he either reaches Europe or finds a way to work and educate his children here in Turkey. At the moment, they cannot even enroll in online schooling, and he works sporadically, making barely enough for food. “I spent a lot of money to go but then I was forced to come back, broke,” he explained. “There is no work here, nothing to do. It is terrible.” Pushbacks In 2015, Greece was an entryway to Europe and refugees who reached Greek shores swiftly shuttled across the country en route to more prosperous countries, like Germany, which was publicly welcoming newcomers. In the same year, more than a million refugees made their way to Europe in a matter of months, and as their numbers swelled, borders closed. Now, Greece’s 50,000 refugees are likely to remain in the country, according to the International Rescue Committee. Many of the nearly 120,000 asylum-seekers in Greece are stuck in camps, sometimes for years, with applications pending. Meanwhile, many of Turkey’s nearly 4 million refugees are still trying to get into Greece, and they are often expelled shortly after their arrival. The expulsions are often violent and some families return beaten, without money, mobile phones and sometimes without even their shoes. The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, has expressed alarm over the pushbacks, and European Union officials have called for investigations into Greek breaches of international human rights laws. Greece staunchly denies any such breaches and defends its rights to secure its own borders, and the borders of Europe. At a press conference in Greece late last month, Ylva Johansson, the EU Home Affairs commissioner, partially blamed the continent’s “lack of a Europeanized migration policy” for the alleged abuses. “That means that member states at our external border have been under huge pressure … in the absence of a European solution,” she said. Marwa al-Awas, Mohammed’s wife, fears travel to Europe but sees no other way to educate her children, April 17, 2021. (Heather Murdock/VOA)Al-Awas, however, doesn’t plan to wait for a solution as he prepares once again to attempt to walk into Greece and make his way to northern Europe. When asked if they want their father to try again, his children grimaced and his eldest son barked, “No!” But his wife, Marwa, smiled sadly, and said it is their only hope for a sustainable future. “I am afraid, very afraid,” she explained. “But he won’t give up. He will make another attempt.” VOA’s Shadi Turk contributed to this report.

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