Europe is facing a refugee crisis of historic proportions. Since 2015, more than one million people crossed the Mediterranean fleeing war and persecution. Among the immigrants is the Darwish family. An example of resilience, courage and hope. (Read more…)
Talal Darwish has the smile of a happy man. The worst of a two-year journey to escape a bloody war in Syria ended last March when his family arrived in the Portuguese town of Nazaré from Greece. “We are finally safe,” he said.
The big waves of this seaside resort, 100 km north of Lisbon, made famous by American surfer Garret McNamara, might evoke the stormy crossing of the Mediterranean. It is only but a resemblance. Nazaré is now a paradise for Talal, his wife Mushira and their seven children after a long ordeal.
They reached Portugal under a European Union relocation and resettling program of 160,000 asylum seekers stranded in Greece and Italy. The Portuguese government offered to host 10,000 refugees, more than double its 4,486 quota.
The Darwishes are guests of Confraria de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré (Guild of Our Lady of Nazareth), a Catholic institution that is doing the utmost to provide the family with all they need.
Lodged in the local community centre until mid-June, they have now moved to a private house. It is a spacious building in the touristic old village of Sítio that was totally restored and furnished to accommodate them.
The road to exile began in 2014. They left the city of Hama, located 200 km north of Damascus that has been for decades a resistance symbol to the Syrian regime.
“I remember the 1982 massacre”, says 42-year old Talal, sitting next to his wife, three sons and four daughters in one of the community center’s living rooms.
“I was a kid but everybody talked about it. The city was completely razed to the ground and, later, rebuilt as a message to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
At least 25,000 people were killed in Hama in 1982 after several opposition attempts to oust and kill President Hafez al-Assad. His son and successor, Bashar al-Assad, brought the war back in 2011 when he violently repressed peaceful demonstrators demanding political reforms.
Since then, Syria is engulfed in an all-out armed conflict entangling internal and external forces. The country is totally destroyed. A new regional map has been drawn.
At least 13.5 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, 4.9 million are refugees and 6.3 million are internally displaced, according to the UNHCR. Half of those affected are children.
“I was a farmer,” says Talal, his words translated from Arabic by Ben Salem Khalifa, a Tunisian businessman who settled in Nazaré and volunteered to assist his new friend.
“We had a normal life until it became unbearable. It was impossible to live under constant aerial strikes, bombs and bullets. Innocent people were being arrested at their homes and schools. The streets were full of bodies. For two years we ran from one place to another looking for shelter. One day I said enough is enough.”
They left with minimal belongings – the clothes they were wearing, a few carpets, pillows, some cash and a cellphone. “Only our lives mattered.”
It took them four days to reach the border with Turkey. Here, they shared a house with 20 other people. Until 2016, Talal, his 32-year old wife Mushira and their eldest son, 13-year old Saddam, worked in olive orchards. They saved money for a bigger dream.
After two more kids were born in the neighboring country, the Darwish family tried to enter Europe. “We paid $4,000 dollars to a smuggler to take us to Greece,” recalls Talal.
“It was a wild ride in several rubber dinghies, each one carrying 70 to 80 passengers. The sea was very rough. At least three people disappeared. We were rescued by the coast guard before reaching the shore.”
They were fortunate. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 3,770 migrants and refugees were reported to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015. Of those, more than 800 died in the Aegean crossing from Turkey to Greece. The Darwishes planned to join other relatives in Germany but accepted to be transferred to Portugal.
“We are grateful,” says Mushira, gently embracing her 4-month old baby Fatima, while calming down three other daughters – 5-year old Raghad, 3-year old Shahad and 2-year old Rimas – demanding her attention.
“We will stay in Portugal until the war ends. Afterwards we will return to Syria.”
Confraria da Nazaré decided to register as one of the host institutions of the Refugee Support Platform (PAR) in September 2015, after Pope Francis called on “every parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary” to take in one refugee family.
“Tens of thousands of refugees, fleeing death in conflict, are on a journey of hope,” the Pontiff said in front of a crowd in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. “The Gospel calls us to be close to the smallest and to those who have been abandoned.”
In April, the Bishop of Rome put his words into action. After a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, he took on his plane three families of refugees from Syria. The 12 people, six of them children, were housed by the Saint Egidio religious community in Rome.
Those families had been chosen out of some 3,000 people at a detention camp “simply because their paperwork was sufficiently in order to conclude a rapid agreement on their transfer with the Greek and Italian governments,” Francis told reporters. “I didn’t make a choice between Christians and Muslims. All refugees are children of God.”
Susana Zarro, public relations officer at Confraria da Nazaré, remembers the day she received a call from the Jesuit Refugee Service to pick up the Darwishes. They arrived at a military airport in Lisbon together with 60 other refugees. “When I saw them, looking so fragile, I said to myself: ‘I hope that you will come with us to Nazaré’. And so it was.”
Everything was ready to welcome the guests. A large room with five colorful beds, packed with toys and clothes, bicycles and some books, a white satin double bedroom with a baby crib, a sizeable kitchen where Mushira displays her cooking skills.
As part of the integration’s process, the family immediately entered Portuguese language classes. Mushira is rather fluent by now, able to easily communicate with Susana and the journalists visiting the center.
Saddam and his brothers Ali (8-year old) and Khaled (10-year old) spend the days in the primary school, the youngest sisters in the kindergarten. Talal is registered with the employment center.
The family is united in grief and joy. Children listen attentively to what their parents say, obeying every order. When Ali tries to break his Ramadan’s fast, after a day at the beach with school colleagues with no food restrictions, Talal tenderly encourages the son to be brave. They are survivors after all.
Ben Khalifa, the Tunisian translator, is helping the new Syrian friends to fulfil their religious obligations. “Every Friday I drive them to a nearby mosque,” proudly said the pious Muslim whose late wife was Catholic.
At 5p.m., Talal’s cellphone interrupts our conversation. A muezzin calls for the third afternoon prayer. It was Ben who helped install the musical app.
The Darwishes are among more than 1,800,000 refugees who have been crossing into Europe since 2015. These are numbers estimated by Frontex, the European Union external border force that monitors the different migrant routes. The war in Syria is the biggest driver of migration.
For Europe, the arrival of thousands of refugees is a challenge but could also be a game changer. They will “create more jobs, increase demand for services and products, and fill gaps in European workforces – while their wages will help fund dwindling pensions pots and public finances”, according to an investigation quoted by The Guardian.
This report, “Refugees Work: A Humanitarian Investment That Yields Economic Dividends”, was released by the Tent Foundation, a non-government organization, and the Open Political Economy Network, a new think tank.
“The main misconception is that refugees are a burden, but that’s incorrect,” said one the editor of that report, Philippe Legrain, former economic adviser to the president of the European Commission.
“To put it simply, refugees who take jobs also create them. When they spend their wages, they boost demand for the people who produce goods and services they consume.”
Refugees could solve a huge demographic problem in Europe as well. “By 2030 the working-age population is projected to shrink by a sixth (8.7 million people), while the old-age population will grow by more than a quarter (4.7 million),” writes Legrain. As such, “an influx of younger refugees could help care and pay for the increasing population of pensioners.”
In Nazaré, the Darwish family is ready for a solid commitment. Talal used to drive a tractor in Turkey. Mushira cooked for more than 70 people. “We will accept whichever jobs we will get,” she says. “We just want to be close to our children”.
If they were looking for a miraculous place they have found it. They live on the top of a cliff were, according to a legend, on the foggy morning of September 14, 1182, a man called Dom Fuas Roupinho was rescued by divine intervention.
He found himself on the edge of a rocky point suspended over the sea while chasing a deer. When he realized the danger that he was facing, he prayed to an image of Our Lady with the Enfant in a small grotto nearby.
“His horse suddenly stopped, saving the rider and his mount from a drop of more than 100 metres that would certainly have caused their death.”
The Darwish’s new house is close to the Chapel of Memory that Fuas Roupinho ordered to be built over the grotto and to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré, where the image of the black Madonna, breastfeeding baby Jesus is venerated by devout pilgrims.
The end of one journey marks the beginning of another.
2015: The year of all records
The war in Syria has been the biggest driver of immigration but the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea are also leading people to look for new lives elsewhere.
65.03 million people were refugees (21.3 million) or forcibly displaced in their own countries (40.8 million) – the first time that the threshold of 60 million has been crossed;
4.9 million refugees are Syrians, the largest group, followed by 2.7 million Afghans and 1.1 million Somalis;
6.9 million Colombians are the largest group of internally displaced people, followed by those from Syria (6.6 million) and Iraq (4.4 million). The biggest producer of new internal displacement was Yemen – 2.5 million people, or 9% of its population;
51% of the world’s refugees are children – many were separated from their parents or travelled alone;
1 in every 113 people of the Earth’s 7.349 billion population is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee;
1,000,73 reached Europe, across the Mediterranean – much more than the 280,000 the year before. Of these, 3,770 were missing, believed drowned in 2015. The death toll in 2016 (until last May) was 2,500;
3.2 million await decisions on asylum – the largest total recorded. Children represent 98,400 asylum requests – the highest total the UN refugee agency has seen;
Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refuges (UNHCR)
This article, now updated, was originally published in the “World Mission” magazine (Manila, Philippines), September 2016 edition