Helen Nianias | Contributing writer | Thursday, 3 September 2015

Make-up, period pains and mobile phone reception – what it’s like to be a refugee in your 20s

'Some Women Have Just 1 Sanitary Pad For 3 Days' - The Reality Of Being A 20-Something Female Refugee In Greece

The Debrief: It’s not just Syrians who are refugees in Europe. Debrief speaks to persecuted Afghanistani refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos to hear their stories

Fatima is sitting on a metal bench in Lesvos airport, a bright blue rucksack on her lap and playing with her phone. She has long, dark hair, and is probably one of the more glamorous people in the terminal full of tourists in scruffy holiday clothes. Fatima wears pale blue frosty eyeshadow, black eyeliner, mascara, pale face powder and a hint of blusher. Fatima is also a refugee.

She is in the middle of a perilous journey that she hopes will take her to Germany, to be reunited with her family. 'I lost my mother and two sisters when we were crossing the border from Afghanistan to Iran,' she says. 'I have not seen them for two years.'

The journey for Fatima has included six months living in a camp at the Afghanistan-Iran border, dangerous horse-back rides, climbing for two days with no food across mountains to get to Turkey, paying $2,000 for a boat to get to Lesvos. When The Debrief speaks to her, she’s preparing to board a flight to mainland Greece, and from there she will do the treacherous journey through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, to Germany. She doesn’t know what she wants to do in Germany yet – she just wants to be with her mother. Fatima had no idea where they were until she got in touch with another family member, who had managed to track them down to Munich.

Make-up, period pains and mobile phone reception – what it’s like to be a refugee in your 20s

Thousands of refugees will make the same journey, and it has been nicknamed 'the Black Trail.' It is a huge undertaking and lots of people will be making the same trip. Every day, the International Rescue Committee estimates that 3,000 refugees arrive in Lesvos alone, hoping to end up in mainland Europe. Last week alone, 71 refugees were found dead inside a truck in Austria. She knows it won’t be easy.

'I hope to have a safe journey, but I cannot predict the fate,' Fatima says.

She’s in her 20s, but Fatima won’t discuss her surname or divulge her exact age – like many refugees, she is worried about potential jigsaw identification and being found out by authorities.

Like a great many Afghanistai refugees, Fatima is from the Hazara ethnic group. Despite the fact that there are almost three million Hazaras in Afghanistan and sizeable populations in Iraq and Pakistan, they have been singled out for ethnic purges across generations and are considered a sub-class.

The international Rescue Committee estimates that some 80% of the refugees is Syrian and the other 20% are mostly Iraqi, Pakistani, and Afghanistani. It is unclear precisely how many of these are Hazara.

They are Shia Muslims and are distinctive because of their high cheekbones and more East Asian appearance.

I do not know how I will be able to do this journey. I have not slept for two months.

When asked why it was difficult being a Hazara in Afghanistan, Fatima looks at us like we’re slightly mad. 'We are not equal, so we cannot live there,' Fatima explains. There are no good jobs or prospects for Hazaras and they have suffered the worst under the resurgence of Taliban violence. 'There is very much racism – not only in Afghanistan but in Iran and Turkey, too,' Fatima says. I believe her - no-one would have undertaken the journey she's doing unless they really had to. 

En route to Greece, Fatima spent three days in the mountains, with the threat of rape and death constantly in the front of her mind.'I am hurting in my leg and my arms. I do not know how I will be able to do this journey,' she says. 'I have not slept for two months.

'I was very afraid that the man who guided us on the horses would touch me. I told the group of men I was travelling with to say to him that they were my brothers so I could feel more safe.' 

During the horse ride, Fatima fell off twice, once hurting her leg and the other time hurting her head badly. 'I fell when I was in a valley. It was so scary because I had no signal on my phone and it meant I couldn’t contact my mother. She thought I had died,' Fatima says.

In Lesvos, she spent one week in a camp in Moria, which is full of Afghanistanis, mostly. She shows us photographs, and says that the men’s and women’s toilets in the camp are only separated by a flimsy piece of loose fabric. She spent one week there and says 'everything is dirty' and that there was a big problem with ant infestations.

Fatima says there were 1,000 people in the camp when she was there, she says, with being about the average amount of time most people stayed for. There were more than 10 fights while she was there - people fell out over  bread and the long queues for food.

Make-up, period pains and mobile phone reception – what it’s like to be a refugee in your 20s

'It’s a competition to get food,' she says. 'There were many pregnant women, too.'

But it’s not just the big perils that make every day a struggle. It’s things like not feeling or looking like herself that chips away at Fatima’s confidence. She complains that spending so much time under the sun has damaged her normally pale skin, and rolls up her sleeves to show me her natural colour and lament her tan. Being exposed to the sun at a high altitude for many days meant that her skin started peeling off to expose raw pink flesh.

Fatima also had her period when she was climbing through the mountains. 'I had aches through my back and my legs when I was climbing. The men I travelled with helped me – when I was tired or sore, they would move my hands and feet for me and help me up.'

You sometimes see women with red shoes, or red marks around their ankles where their boots finish

How do most refugee women cope during their period? 'It is very difficult,' she says. 'Some women, they have just one sanitary pad for three days – that’s all they have. You sometimes see women with red shoes, or red marks around their ankles where their boots finish, because there is no way to stop it.'

And Fatima isn’t the only Hazara refugee in the airport. The Debrief speaks to a group of young men who look about 25 but are all aged 17-20. Like Fatima, they won’t give their full names or be photographed.

The group met in Turkey, and have been travelling together since. One man tells of his journey across the Afghanistani mountains and getting into Iran illegally. He says he climbed for 30 hours with no food or water, spending two nights sleeping rough in the cold night air.

Another has come from Turkey. 'I stayed four years there – I’m 18 but I left home in Afghanistan when I was 14. I lived in a UNHCR underage camp near Iran.

Make-up, period pains and mobile phone reception – what it’s like to be a refugee in your 20s

When he turned 18, he left the camp with money he’d saved from his low-paid carwashing job and escaped from Turkey.

Sweden is their destination. 'I want to live an equal life,”' he explains. The group plans to walk to Austria, then hopes to get a train to Sweden, and they estimate the journey will take one month or maybe longer. Not one of them finished school, and they were all pulled out of education to start manual work when they were aged between 10 and 12.

Despite only having met recently, the men take care of each other. They go through security together at Lesvos airport, and are each pulled out of the bag scanning queue to have their paperwork and belongings checked over. One takes longer than the others to be questioned, and the other three boys are visibly anxious – walking over to check on him, and waiting for him outside the frosted glass door where officials are examining his credentials. One is wearing a pair of counterfeit New Balance trainers, with the “N” positioned like a Z. Are these the shoes that took him through the mountains?

When we get off the plane at Athens, we spot the boys walking towards customs. We wave. 'Good luck!' They shout back to us. 

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