Children’s laughter fills the playing yard in Alexandria refugee site in northern Greece, as teams of young refugees snake their way to activities from face painting to hula-hooping. Many are dressed in their finest; flowery dresses with lace white socks and smart checked shirts. One little lad even sports a bow tie.
Today is Eid, the Muslim festival that follows the holy month of Ramadan, and the children are celebrating with a day of games organised by the International Rescue Committee.
At the tug of war, an all-girls team grimace as they pull and heave, heels dug in and kicking up dust. They win – and jump in the air with glee. In front of the stage, children dance to booming music as homemade coloured lanterns bob above their heads.
“My favourite was the sack race,” says nine-year-old Zakariah.
His smile, beneath a silver twirling moustache belies the tragedy he and his family have been through. Zakariah was one of five siblings. The family fled Aleppo after his brother was killed in an airstrike as he was retrieving dead bodies from the street. He was 26 years old, and the second brother Zakariah lost to the war that has raged in his country for over five years. The first was shot by a sniper when he was just 22 years old.
Stranded in Greece, grieving families like Zakariah’s are all too common.
In every tent there is a story of tragedy, which left these families with no choice but to flee their homes, their jobs and their loved ones. Almost all of the 730 people that live in Alexandria are from Syria, and nearly three-quarters are women and children.
The closing of the Balkans borders halted their journeys to the rest of Europe, often where they hope to reunite with family. Their anguish continues as they live in tents waiting for asylum to be granted. With up to 57 000 refugees making applications in Greece, many will be here for months before they can move on and begin to rebuild their lives.
“The heat is the worst — and the mosquitoes and flies,” says Zachariah’s father, Ahmed as he and his wife Fatima sit under the shade of a tree, waiting for the day to pass. Fatima pulls back her sleeve to show the aggravated bites all over her arms.
Ahmed continues: “In Syria we had a car and a house, our life was very different.”
Zakariah’s eldest brother, Mohamed-Nour, is one of nine volunteer facilitators at the International Rescue Committee’s 'Safe healing and learning space'. He led the organisation of the games day: “I wanted to let the children be happy and enjoy themselves,” he says. “They haven’t seen the joy of Eid and the happiness it brings.”
Around 130 children aged between three and 17 years old attend the safe space every day, where lessons and games help them to build social skills and cope with trauma while also having fun.
The 'Safe healing and learning space' in Alexandria site is one of three set up by the International Rescue Committee in Greece who also runs five safe spaces for women. All are funded by EU humanitarian aid as part of a €10 000 000 grant to the organisation for the refugee response in Greece.
Deborah Nicol, Acting Protection Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in northern Greece said: “Women and children are amongst the most vulnerable in this crisis, and their protection is at the heart of our response. Activities like this are important as they help children just be children once again.”
As he watches over the activities, Mohamed-Nour reflects:
“I hope for a good life for the children . Not like here, nor in Syria where we saw war every day. I hope that soon they can study and live well.”