Athens, Greece – After fleeing war-ravaged Syria, waiting in Turkey, passing through a Greek island and traversing the mainland last year, Fahd al-Mekki and his family reached the Idomeni, a crossing into Macedonia, only to be turned back.
Macedonian border guards denied the family passage, telling the 53-year-old father that Jobar, his hometown near Damascus, was a safe area and denied them passage.
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Jobar has been the site of many battles and more than five years on since the start of the Syrian war, it is unrecognisable in a state of ruin.
Mekki’s wife and three children eventually made it to Germany with the help of smugglers more than a year ago, but he remains stranded in Athens, the Greek capital.
“My house was one of the first homes destroyed in Jobar,” he remembered, his eyes welling up with tears as he recalled his flight from the civil war that has engulfed Syria for more than six years.
Mekki, who owned a shawarma restaurant in Syria, is now camped out and on hunger strike with 13 other Syrian refugees who are protesting the sluggish family reunification process.
They say they have each waited more than six months to be reunited with their families, and are calling for expedited relocation to Germany.
Of the hunger strikers, half are women who have been separated from their spouses.
The group first announced their open-ended fast on November 1, when they set up tents and signs on a busy pavement near Syntagma Square in central Athens, across the street from Greece’s parliament.
‘Sitting in the camp is like being in an open-air prison’
A group of children drew in chalk on the pavement, while a handful of young men sat in a circle and sang.
Sitting on a plastic lawn chair in front of his threadbare tent, Mekki said the group launched the hunger strike after months of protesting outside the Greek asylum services office and the German embassy.
“Nobody has come to speak to us yet,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that he could no longer wait idly in a congested refugee camp. “The food [in the camp] isn’t edible, and we’re not allowed to work.”
Life on the 90-euro monthly stipend provided to asylum seekers is not sustainable, he said, adding: “Sitting in the camp is like being in an open-air prison.”
Behind him, a sign plastered on railing read: “Dreamin’ to fly.” Scrawled on a piece of cardboard hanging from a nearby tent is another message: “I want my family.”
Another banner that stretches several metres declares in both English and Greek: “Hunger strike! Reunite our families.”
More than 4,000 refugees and migrants in Greece are in the same situation, separated from their loved ones and lacking clarity about when they will be reunited, according to aid organisations and watchdogs.
According to the EU’s Dublin III Agreement, refugees are entitled to relocation and reunification with their families.
With winter approaching and the borders closed since March 2016, following an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to stem the flow of refugees, conditions in the refugee camps have worsened by the day.
That agreement left more than 60,000 refugees and migrants stuck in Greece, unable to move on save for with the help of smugglers and relocation programmes that often stretch lengthy periods.
The hardships of daily life in many refugee camps have been amplified by a recent surge in arrivals from Turkey, according to humanitarian organisations.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says that more than 25,000 refugees and migrants have taken dinghies and flimsy boats across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands this year.
More than a third of the arrivals were children, according to the agency’s statistics.
“Refugee families often become separated in their flight from violence and persecution,” Boris Cheshirkov, an associate communications officer for UNHCR, told Al Jazeera, explaining that more than 9,300 applications family reunification applications have been filed in Greece this year.
Of that total, some 5,000 applications have been accepted thus far.
“Helping them reunite as soon as possible must be a humanitarian priority,” Cheshirkov added, noting that there have been delays due to the “high number of cases”.
‘We are doing this for everyone’
Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas described the situation on Lesbos Island as “very bad” and on Chios Island as “bad”, referring to overcrowding in the camps on those islands.
Mouzalas said that returning asylum seekers who arrived after the March 2016 agreement to Turkey was “decisive for the future of Greece”.
“We would like to see more returns because that will restore the order of things,” he said.
We are not doing this for ourselves only. We are doing this for everyone who is waiting to be with their families.
Al Jazeera was unable to reach the Greek Ministry of Migration for comment.
Eva Cosse, a Greece researcher for Human Rights Watch, argued that the EU-Turkey deal has “been violating asylum seekers’ rights” by turning Greek islands into “huge detention centres where people are forced to suffer grave human rights violations”.
“The European Union and Greek government should work to restore the dignity and humanity of people seeking protection, not foster conditions that are unlawful under international and European human rights law,” she told Al Jazeera.
Back at their protest camp in Athens, Mekki said he and his fellow hunger strikers are committed to fasting until they are reunited with their loved ones.
“We are not doing this for ourselves only,” he concluded. “We are doing this for everyone who is waiting to be with their families.”