One day of respite for refugees on the Turkey-Greece border

In a hotel near the border, a group of refugees enjoys shared meals, music and a fleeting chance to feel normal.

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Sina talks on the phone to his mother in Canada. She is worried about him having no place to sleep and not enough food to eat [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

Sina Kalan, 36, walks out of the bathroom feeling like a new man. His beard is gone and drops of water trickle down his freshly-shaved skin. He has been waiting for this moment for 12 days.

On the last Friday of February, Sina packed his bags and, together with his family and some close friends, left the town of Eskisehir, in northeastern Turkey, to head for Edirne, at the border with Greece.

Like thousands of other refugees and migrants, Sina, his family and friends took President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement that Turkey was opening its borders as an invitation to take another shot at making a better life for themselves.

Following the killing of dozens of Turkish soldiers in northern Syria in late February and as Turkey faced an influx of refugees fleeing Syria’s Idlib, Erdogan announced that the country would back away from a deal with the European Union, in which Turkey agreed to stop refugees and migrants reaching the EU in exchange for 6 billion euros ($6.7bn) to help it manage the almost 4.1 million refugees it hosts. Turkey has accused the EU of not keeping its side of the deal.

Ever since, thousands of refugees and migrants have attempted to reach Greece via its land or sea borders.

In return, Greece has suspended asylum applications for a month, while Greek riot police have used tear gas and water cannon against those trying to enter.

For the past 12 days, Sina and his party of eight, have been stuck on the Turkish side of the border in Karaagac, a suburb of Edirne, sleeping under the plastic cover of a makeshift tent, cooking food on a wood fire and washing in the cold water of the Meric River. 

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Kimia rests on a bed in the hotel; they have spent the past 12 days in a makeshift camp by the border and must return to it within 24 hours [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

All of the group are originally from Iran. Sina came to Turkey some nine years ago. Back in his home country, he had spent three years in prison, from 2008 to 2011, for taking part in protests against high unemployment rates and corruption in the country. While he was jailed, his mother and sister immigrated to Canada. That is where he wants to go now.

In 2015, with the first wave of refugees that reached Europe, Sina got as far as Italy. But he suffers from heart disease, rheumatism and diabetes and illness forced him to return. “In Italy, the hospital cost was very expensive, in Turkey I was treated for free,” he says.

Two years ago, he married a fellow Iranian, 35-year-old Neda Shajarkar, in Turkey. They now travel with Neda’s cousin, Hossein Kamarrousta, his wife Mahtab and their two daughters, Ghazal, aged 18, and seven-year-old Kimia.

The last two members of their “fellowship” are Vahid Saneei, 38, and his wife Golrokh, 28, an Iranian couple Mahtab met at church in Turkey and with whom they all became good friends.

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The streets of Karaagac are full of refugees and migrants from the makeshift camp buying food and other supplies [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera] 

They were all neighbours in Eskisehir, the Turkish town where they have been making a living for the past few years. And now, they all share the same plastic roof they have set up for shelter in a camp by the border. On Wednesday, they got permission from the Turkish authorities at the border to leave the camp for one day.

“Many people want to get out of the camp, so it’s getting harder and harder, having to wait in long queues,” says Sina.

The narrow streets of Karaagac are filled with refugees heading to local stores to stock up with provisions. 

Sina and his group have their fingerprints taken as they leave the camp. They have 24 hours to return and know that if they do not, the police will not grant them entry back into the camp.

Hossein stayed back in the camp so that he could feed news through to the others in case the border is suddenly opened.

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It took 12 days for the group to get permission to leave the camp for one day; when they left, their fingerprints were taken and if they do not return in 24 hours, they will be denied access to the camp [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

The other seven tried to find a place in town that would accommodate them. Four hotels turned them down. Then one let them in.

Karaagac Green Apart is a three-storey building with a small garden, on a street bordering the town limits.

The group shared a 50-square-metre (538 square feet) two-room apartment, with a kitchenette, a toilet and a balcony.

After 12 days in the camp, the hot shower felt like a blessing.

They all took their turn, first the women and the children, then the men.

Large plastic bags filled with clothes waited to be washed, rinsed, spun and drained. 

The balcony, the radiators, the doors – all soon had clothes hanging to dry on them. 

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Being able to blow-dry their hair feels like a luxury [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

“Touch my hair,” Neda tells Ghazal, holding a strand of her freshly washed and dried dyed-blonde hair. “It’s soft again.”

The women blow-dry their hair, shape their eyebrows and apply makeup to conceal the dark circles beneath their eyes. The men shave away their beards.

“I, I love you like a love song, baby / I, I love you like a love song, baby,” the chorus of Selena Gomez’s song sounds from the TV. Ghazal sings along. On the screen, an equaliser made of columns of small purple squares alternates to the rhythm. It is Ghazal’s USB stick connected to the TV. The tune changes and some Arabic music plays. Ghazal starts dancing. “It’s Arabic, I don’t understand it, but I still dance to it,” she says laughing. Sina takes Ghazal’s little sister, Kimia, stands her on the bed and they start dancing together.

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Sina and Kimia dance to an Arabic song. Sina’s wife, Neda, and Kimia’s father are cousins. Sina and his family want to reach Canada. He has family there, his mother and sister, who left Iran while he was imprisoned [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

For a few moments, the border camp seems far away.

A little while later, Sina and Vahid head to the A-101, a local supermarket in the centre of Karaagac, to buy groceries for lunch and dinner. There are long queues of refugees at the cashier. It has been like this for days. The store has lower prices than others, people say, so residents of the camp prefer to buy their supplies there. 

At the entrance, photojournalists and TV crews wait to take photographs or film short interviews with the refugees.

At nearby coffee shops and restaurants, old local men sit around drinking tea, chatting and playing backgammon or rummy. They seem unfazed by what is going on around them. Among them, though, are policemen dressed in civilian clothes who keep a close eye on the refugees.

Back at the hotel, behind door number 12, the smell of pan-fried onion fills the room. Pasta drains in the kitchen sink. Tomato sauce and pieces of mutton will be added to it.

Someone knocks at the door. It is a neighbour from apartment 11, where other refugees are staying for the day. Vahid hands the neighbour a can of tomato sauce. The neighbour takes a few spoons and then returns it. 

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Prayer before eating; they do not know when they will next be able to cook a proper meal [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

When lunch is ready, everyone gathers at the table. Mahtab divides the food into portions. On each plate, she places a piece of burned crust from the bottom of the pot, as though it is some sort of delicacy.

Hands join around the table in an irregular circle and Mahtab says a prayer.

They were all born Muslim. Some five years ago, Mahtab and her family converted to Christianity. They say life is hard for Christians in Iran, that it is difficult to find a job. Ghazal says she was forced to quit school after changing her religion. In Turkey, she went back to school and hopes to study graphic design at university.

After lunch, Sina returns to town to buy a plastic cover and some rope for a new shelter in the camp. He walks slowly and is quiet. He seems tired. He buys the plastic and rope and stops at a grocery store to buy some potatoes for dinner.

When he returns to the hotel, he finds his friends talking on the phone with family back home. The word coronavirus comes up in more than one conversation. Iran is one of the countries hardest hit by the virus.

Mahtab bursts into tears on the telephone. Her parents back in Tehran are safe for the moment, but “I miss my father, I miss my mother”, she says.

They have not heard of any coronavirus cases in the camp. But given how crowded it is and how unsanitary, they know that a single case could be catastrophic. 

Sina goes out onto the balcony to call his mother in Canada. The weather is cool but Sina is sweating. Drops form on his forehead and temples. His eyes fill with something else. His mother is worried. “I cannot go to sleep thinking that my son and his family have no place to sleep and not enough food,” she tells him. 

On the light wooden bed with its floral tapestry headboard, Mahtab puts a pillow over her knees and starts rocking Kimia to sleep. Ghazal starts to sing a lullaby. Vahid and Golrokh extend the couch in the kitchen. Sina and his wife lay in bed in the other room. It is late afternoon, and soon, they all fall asleep.

A couple of hours later, everyone is awake again and it is Adele’s turn to play on Ghazal’s USB stick. Further away, the sound of the evening call to prayer makes its way through the open balcony door.

Sina and Neda return from the children’s playground in the town, where they took Kimia to play.

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Sina collapses on the floor, losing his consciousness for a few minutes [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

Sina sits at the table, his face hidden in his palms. A few moments later he is on the floor, unconscious.

Vahid, who used to work for the Red Crescent, rushes to help him, slapping his face until he wakes up. They help him to bed and make him drink some water. Initial scare out of way, Sina’s wife is now upset with him. He has been eating too much sugar for a diabetic these days, she says. Sina insists he is OK. The exhaustion etched into his face suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, a short while later he is back on his feet, playing “guess which hand” with Kimia. He has a magician’s moves, hiding the small piece of orange peel with which they are playing. 

Sina has no children of his own yet, but he knows he wants five of them. It is another matter on which he and his wife disagree. Neda wants only one – and not yet.

But they all treat Kimia as though she were their own. They care for her, and for each other. 

Mahtab says even though they may not all be family, their bond has grown strong over the years they spent together as neighbours and friends in Eskisehir. The men, who were mechanical engineers back in Iran, worked together repairing elevators in Turkey. Mahtab worked as a tailor and Neda as a manicurist.

But, when the chance arose for them to leave Turkey, they left everything behind and rushed to the border.

They will soon have to return to the camp.

“I feel so bad about going back to camp,” Ghazal confesses. “I don’t want to go back, but my father is there.”

She believes they will open the borders. “Not now, but maybe in one or two weeks they will open it.”

If they do not, the group will eventually have to return to Eskisehir.

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Ghazal and Kimia sleep. In the morning, they will return to the camp [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

For dinner, they eat a kind of stew with rice and potatoes, pickles and yoghurt. They do not know when they will next be able to cook a proper meal or sleep in a bed.

The next day, at 9am, they will have to pack their things and return to the camp; return to the thousands of others waiting for the borders to open. 

But, for now, Kimia nestles against her sister in bed, and they sleep. 

Source: Al Jazeera