DRIVEN BY LOVE
Risking it all to give her children a future
HOME ON FIRE
It crashed through the house near her daughter’s room, sparking an electrical fire that sent the building into flames. Walaa, 21 at the time, escaped with her husband and their son, Sami.
Together, they watched their home burn. Walaa can still remember it, the house in front of them overwhelmed by flames, and the sinking feeling that something was not right. Inside, her 8-month-old daughter Fatima was asleep in her bedroom upstairs.
Walaa ran back into the house. Pregnant with her third child, she climbed to the top of the burning staircase, entered Fatima’s room, and looked down.
“My own daughter was on fire,” Walaa says. “I had to take her out.”
Walaa grabbed Fatima in her arms and ran toward the door. The girl’s face and hair were badly burned. Fire scorched Walaa’s skin as she held Fatima close.
Outside, they would face nothing but questions. Would Fatima live? Where would they all go? What had this done to the child still inside her? Burned and exhausted amid the chaos of war, Walaa had only one answer.
“We had no choice but to leave Syria,” she says.
The day you become a refugee you begin to make choices without knowing where they will take you.
A HUMAN CRISIS
For Walaa, there was no other option: For her family’s safety, she knew they had to leave.
Her story is the reality for millions of other mothers and fathers, who every day weigh the safety of their families against the harrowing decision to flee. They are driven by love, the same force that drives them back into burning homes, through deserts and across the sea.
They do it not for the promise of a better future, but for the hope of a future at all — a place where their children no longer live their lives to the soundtrack of falling rockets.
“Once a family is separated, it takes a lot of effort to find these people and then reunify them,” says Javier Alvarez, senior team leader for Mercy Corps’ Strategic Response and Global Emergencies. “We should be working to keep families together at any cost. At the end of the day, this is the last form of emotional support these people have — their families.”
The refugee crisis is a global crisis, but it is foremost a human crisis. Nearly 65 million people are displaced around the world, more than at any other point in human history. Around the world, 24 people are displaced every minute, in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and Colombia.
To get a sense of the magnitude of this crisis, think of it this way: If every displaced person and refugee lived together in a single country, it would be more populous than the United Kingdom.
After the attack, Walaa and her husband made a plan: He would sell their car and leave on foot to seek asylum in Germany, where he would find work and a place to live. She would stay behind to care for their children and join him there as soon as possible.
Walaa’s husband left Syria in July 2015. Six months later, Walaa and her children — 4-year-old Sami, 3-year-old Fatima and 2-year-old Salma — left, too. They walked the desert for two days to Turkey's border, where smugglers took them across the country and across the Aegean Sea.
They arrived in Greece on March 19, one day before Europe’s borders closed to all refugees coming from Turkey.
Today they are living in a converted hotel for vulnerable refugees on the island of Lesbos, waiting to hear whether they will be granted asylum so the family can reunite in Germany.
“We are basically homeless, vagabonds,” Walaa says. “We do not know what will happen to us. We are trapped in the middle, far from our family and far from my husband. The kids are away from everyone they know: their uncles, aunts and friends, and far away from their father.
“We are alone, and it’s tough.”
To ease that burden, Mercy Corps provided Walaa an ATM card she uses to pay for food, clothes and transportation. In a life of unknowns, cash has given Walaa a feeling of freedom: the ability to choose how to provide for the things her kids need most.
Mercy Corps’ response to the refugee crisis extends far beyond Greece, reaching more than 8 million refugees in 22 countries with food, water, shelter and cash. While many refugees are in camps, most of them are not. In host communities, we are building playgrounds and youth centers, training workers to reduce conflict, and supporting small businesses to lift up local economies.
Mercy Corps sees a future for every one of those 65 million displaced people. We see a day when men and women like Walaa can build stable and productive lives for their families. Until then, we have an opportunity to provide the immediate help they need to care for those they love most.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Though it may be behind her, war is never far from Walaa’s reach. Fatima still cries at the sound of an airplane. Sami is often afraid to play outside, worried he won’t have a home to come back to.
Her children will carry these scars for years. Walaa tends to them by focusing on their individual needs. Now she can afford healthy food for Salma, who must eat a special diet. She can buy Sami a clean shirt to wear on the playground.
And she can be there for Fatima. Two years after the attack, Fatima cannot speak, hear or walk. Half of her head is covered in scar tissue where her hair never grew, and her legs are covered with the web-like scarring of burned skin. She needs a special stroller to stretch out her legs and have a better quality of life.
But the war couldn’t touch Fatima’s smile.
“It’s true that my daughter got affected by the war like this,” Walaa says. “But there are many families who have lost everything. They have lost their families, they have lost their children.”
Though Walaa has had several asylum interviews, she still expects the process to take months. The cash from Mercy Corps has helped bridge the gap, but it’s also given Walaa something she thought she had lost: a sense of dignity.
On sunny afternoons, with her kids alongside her, Walaa walks the streets of Lesbos, window-shopping. She doesn’t feel like a refugee when she looks at a dress through the window. The stone street, the clear sky — it feels like a normal life. That feeling is enough to keep her going, for the sake of the three children who go beside her.
The world is facing the largest refugee crisis in history.
Our work is far from finished.
We need your help.
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Humanitarian Response Fund.