At dinner with Zohra, Zahra, Elyas, Bayat and Fatima
by Julia Terner, SolidarityNow, intern – trainee
Zohra is showing me around her bedroom: “This is Zahra’s bed, this is my bed and this is Elyas’ bed. And this is where we put toys.” Three children from Afghanistan share a room in their new home, where they live along with their parents, Bayat and Fatima.
It is a typical children’s bedroom: sunny and colorful, with toys on each bed and pictures on the walls. But this bedroom has not been typical for Zohra and her family for the past year, as they have just moved into a flat in Athens, after over a year living in refugee camps in Greece. Bayat and Fatima made big sacrifices to obtain the house, selling everything they owned in order to afford it, even their engagement rings. It was a little dingy when the family arrived but Bayat painted all the walls in light pastel colours and slowly they are adding furniture to each of the rooms. Having met Zahra’s Barbies, we are called into the sitting room to have dinner. Plates of chicken, salads, flat breads and home-made chips surround a huge dish of rice on a mat on the floor.
As we eat, we discuss the most important changes that moving into their own home has brought. As well as the obvious practical improvements of space, cleanliness and facilities, Bayat tells me how important their privacy is in making the family feel safe. “It was really important for me to have a house. Now I am very relaxed when [the children] are in the house because when they were in the camp and I was out for a long time, I was really worried about them… now I know that we have our privacy and that they are safe.” A private space also means a quiet space, where Zohra can sleep. She tells me that she couldn’t sleep well in Elefsina because she was always disturbed by babies crying in the night. “Here, I don’t have problem for peace and sleep” – apart from when Zahra and Elyas snore…!”. For Fatima, a private space that is theirs allows the family to feel more united: “We can feel everybody’s love, we can be sat with each other”. Fatima smiles as she tells me that “when I return home, as I put the key in the door I feel really happy… now I realise how important a house is. When we had a house in Afghanistan we didn’t appreciate the value of it but we see how valuable it is.”
The flat is in Omonia, near the centre of Athens, and Bayat and Fatima have made sure to explore the city with their children. As we sip on our tea, Bayat and Fatima flick through photos on their phones of the children in front of Athens and Elefsina sites: The Acropolis, the National Library and elsewhere. Bayat loves the sites that Greece has to offer: “Greece has very many places that you should go and visit. Even if you’re walking, you should go and visit the historical sites that teach you more about the place.” The family’s trips to see Greece’s national monuments is not just about learning about the country, it’s also important for them that the children feel comfortable in their new city. As Bayat muses, “I always take my children out with me. I don’t want them to feel like refugees. I want everyone to have the same perspective.”
Despite their move, Bayat and Fatima still return to Elefsina regularly to gain advice and support from the NGO teams. What’s more, Fatima helps in the school that the children from Elefsina camp attend. This is not new for Fatima: she worked in a kindergarten in Afghanistan, where she and Bayat set up a kindergarten in Larisa camp; they have been living there before moving to Elefsina camp. They pitched a tent, drew the support of volunteers and slowly more and more children joined, taking part in daily classes and activities. The couple arranged art classes and games for the children, and Fatima taught English and Farsi. “We searched on the internet to learn the names [of the Greek numbers]. When we arrived at Elefsina even the Greek people were surprised that the children could count from 1 to 20!”
Part of the motivation for Bayat and Fatima in setting up the kindergarten was to create a safe space for their children. Conditions at Larissa were not good. Set in a mountain, the weather would go from extremes of hot to extremes of cold. The residents lived in tents rather than more permanent structures, and snakes and scorpions scurried through stones on the open floors. Bayat explains that “I was always the first person to go inside the kindergarten to check whether it was safe for the children or not. I always found two or three scorpions inside the tent.” Not only was safety a priority for Bayat and Fatima, but also an education for their children: “Whatever happened in this place where we lived, we tried to teach something to our children because we believed that a lack of education was part of what brought us here.” The couple show me photos of the space they created: pictures and paintings fill the space and smiling children wave at the camera. It’s a testament to the energy and commitment of the couple, and it bound the community together – many of whom were moved together to Elefsina camp. This desire to help and to create the best out of a situation defines the whole family.
As I walk home from this delicious dinner, a comment that Bayat made sticks in my mind: “I am happy that in this one year I was helpful to those children who everyone had forgotten about.
*This interview took place at Bayat and Fatima’s home. They have three young children: Zohra, Zahra and Elyas