Our Love and Life Stranded in the Asylum System
By Freya Young and Noah Al Ramadan
Labyrinths have been at the heart of the Greek story since Ancient times. But today the heroes of the story do not feel much like heroes at all, as thousands of exhausted refugees try to work their way out of the maze that is the Greek Asylum process. It is meant to serve those who have crossed the dangerous seas, in search of a better life. Instead it serves -as we feel it- only to deceive, confuse, and crush down. Adriane’s ingenious piece of string is no use here, when trying to navigate this modern-day bureaucratic labyrinth.
To give you an insight into the reality of this maze, we want to share our story.
We are Freya and Noah – a British girl and a Syrian boy. We met in January2019, at Eleonas camp in Athens, and became friends fast. We used to walk the streets of Athens together, talking at length.
Noah: This friendship was important to me. It took me out of the darkness of my life. After 2.5 years stuck alone in camps in Greece, it meant everything to have someone listen to my story. I felt finally I was not alone.
Freya: Noah’s story touched me deeply. I couldn’t believe how much he had survived, and how strong he had been. Despite all the dark stories he shared from his life, he was constantly making me laugh. It wasn’t long before we realized this was more than just a friendship.
In many ways we were just like any young couple, freshly in love. However, we soon had to face the harsh truth – Noah’s future ahead was entirely uncertain, his only hope was to get granted asylum in Greece, but this offers refugees no real prospects. There is mass unemployment in the country as it is, and with an undercurrent of racism towards the refugee population here, it is almost impossible for them to find work. A life for us in Greece didn’t seem possible under these circumstances. If we were really going to have a future together, the only option seemed be to marriage.
Freya: I knew if we married, we could apply for a UK spousal visa, and if granted Noah could live and work in the UK with me. I never planned to marry, but this felt like the man I wanted to share my life with. I knew I could offer him the chance of a real future. And so that’s what I did.
Noah: I felt confused by this offer. All I wanted was to spend my life with Freya, but I felt sad that she had to make this sacrifice for me. I knew it was a big responsibility she was taking on. I wanted to be the one to offer her something. It reminded me of everything I had lost. But I knew the idea made sense.
The concept seemed simple, but in practice it proved to be a drawn out and painful challenge, that is ongoing to this day.
Freya: After having waited more than two years for his asylum interview, Noah was finally granted refugee status in Greece in February 2019. We assumed that from here things would flow smoothly. Noah would be entitled to a Greek residence ID and a travel document, which would permit him to travel, although not live and work, outside of Greece. (Unless he could get a visa to do so, as was the plan).
According to Greek law the issuance of official documents should take no more than a few weeks. This law does not seem to apply to refugees. Noah waited over 7 months for the ID card to arrive. When it finally did we were elated. The municipality had said this was what was needed in order for Noah to legally marry in Greece.
Noah: When we arrived to the municipality, with all the documents to marry, they had changed the staff in the office. The new head of the office looked at my ID and just shook her head. She said it wasn’t a real identification, and that I would need a travel document to marry. I was still waiting for this to process and had no idea when it would be ready.
Freya: We had the support of the NGO HumanRights360. We thought that with the help of some native Greeks we would have more luck navigating the infuriating system. The team checked the law, and could find no evidence that it was legal to refuse this marriage on the grounds that Noah had no travel document; his ID is meant to give him the same rights as Greek citizens, and Greeks only need their ID to marry. They came to the municipality with us to argue the case, but it was fruitless. The lady at the desk kept on shaking her head.
Noah: The ID seemed to offer me no more rights than before. The only thing that changed when it came through was being promptly kicked out of my accommodation on the camp, and the money from the UN immediately cut off. I now had no home, no income, and I was not able to marry or leave the country.
There is one program available to help refugees who find themselves in this awful position: the Helios Project offers to pay 160 euros per month for 6 months towards your rent, if you can find a house contract.
Noah: in the end this support is quite useless. It is hard as a refugee to get someone to rent you a house. And even with the help of Freya, we were unable to find a house contract for less than 3 years. That means that for 2.5 years we would have to pay all the rent ourselves, with no income here. Anyway, our plan was to leave once the travel documents came through.
The travel documents are processed in two stages. First you must wait for the police and asylum service to issue a ‘Decision’. If they decide yes, which they should so long as you haven’t broken any laws, it means you are eligible to give fingerprints and apply. Then begins the second stage of waiting, for the document to actually be issued.
Noah’s decision came through in July 2020, 17 months after being granted Asylum… slightly longer than the legal maximum of a few weeks. And that was only the decision.
The pandemic had hit Greece in the meantime, which was in part responsible for the massive delay. But prior to the lock down we had already been waiting over a year. During these months of waiting we volunteered on farm projects in exchange for food and a bed. It was not ideal, but it was the best solution we could find for our situation.
Noah: It was a hard time. You don’t know when the decision will come through, so you check every week, hoping, only to be disappointed. This drives you mad. My mental health suffered. We still had no idea if I would ever be legally allowed to leave Greece. It feels like a prison. It makes it impossible to plan for the future.
But finally, the confirmation came through that Noah could apply for the documents that would allow him to start a new life. However, this elation was yet again soon dampened. Instead of giving fingerprints right away, refugees are now given an appointment to come back later and apply. The appointment we were given was after 10 weeks’ time.
So, our wait continues, and many more obstacles lie ahead. There is still no certainly that the grand plan of moving to the UK together will come to fruition. The looming threat of another lock down this winter, forcing the whole system on hold again for multiple months, hangs heavy over us. We just hope we can give the fingerprints before something like this happens, and finally move on to the next stage of waiting.
Freya: Our lives have been on hold for so long. I have left behind my home, my business, and all my friends and family. It gives me a tiny taste of the pain the refugees suffer here.
But there is a home, a job, and a community waiting for Noah in the UK. It is beyond frustrating that we are forced to wait here, doing nothing, because of an inhumane and nonsensical bureaucratic system.
Noah: My only wish is to throw all this mess behind me, and to start a normal life. I want to stop wasting my time and be able to contribute to a society again. Our relationship has faced many challenges, but we refuse to give up hope. Hope is the only thing that keeps me moving forwards through the darkness of this maze.