Editor’s Note: Theo James is a UNHCR supporter and actor best known for his roles in “Divergent” and “Downton Abbey.” His grandfather fled Europe for Syria as a refugee during World War Two. Theo is supporting UNHCR’s World Refugee Day campaign and is standing #WithRefugees and asking others to stand with him. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
Ahmed has a thoughtful elegance to him and his black roll neck makes me think he should be playing trumpet in a basement jazz bar somewhere. He hates his teeth though, which are in poor condition after almost four years of living on the road, in railway stations and refugee camps.
Like many of the 57,000 refugees in Greece, Ahmed is waiting to have a future.
We are in Northern Greece in Alexanderia at one of the many refugee sites run by the Greek government and supported by the UNHCR. After the borders with Macedonia closed in March and the EU instated its one-for-one deal with Turkey only two months later, the options for Syrian refugees have become extremely limited.
Ahmed has already lost his two eldest sons to the civil war – both were killed in an explosion near Aleppo, where they once lived. Now he lives with his remaining family in a frustrating stasis, neither able to continue forward any time soon to the rest of Europe nor go back to his homeland.
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‘Everything beautiful is dying’
Like Ahmed, Wafaa too is waiting. Waiting to re-unite with her young husband who crossed into Germany just before the borders closed.
She is tired and a little hesitant but once she begins to open up she is staggeringly eloquent. A fashion designer and henna artist back in Syria, she has covered the interior of the space with impressive pieces of art made from discarded boxes and paper.
For a moment it feels like we could be at an exhibition rather than in a small tent alongside eight hundred others in a refugee site near Lagadikia, a small town in northern Greece.
Her children play with an impressive dolls house she has made them from corrugated cardboard. Like Ahmed she desperately wants them to have a future, a reality that seems more and more distant with each passing month.
“We feel like everything beautiful inside us is dying,” she says, “just like our country.”
Like Ahmed and Wafaa, my grandfather travelled a similar refugee route back in 1941 – though his took him in the opposite direction.
As the Nazis swept into Athens he escaped Greece in a small boat, making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Turkey in mid-winter. From there he made his way by land to the safety of Damascus.
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Even I had to remind myself how incredibly recent this was and how quickly we tend to forget our own history.
Not that long ago millions of Europeans were seeking refuge and safety from the devastation of war.
This is what meeting Ahmed, Wafaa and countless others reminded me of – these are people exactly like you and me, just trying to live, trying to survive.
We are in the middle of one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War Two and still Britain, Europe, and the wider world are slow to respond.
Families like Ahmed’s and Wafaa’s cling desperately to the hope that maybe, just maybe their children have a future. I think they deserve one.
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Editor’s note: Theo James is a UNHCR supporter and actor best known for his roles in “Divergent” and “Downton Abbey.” His grandfather fled Europe as a refugee during World War Two. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.