Refugee puts skills to work helping improve life for others

01 March 2017

Syrian volunteer Mohamed Dhib strives to make the Kara Tepe refugee site on the Greek island of Lesvos a better place for everyone.

Mohamed (right) and his brother Mofeed take a break from wiring prefabricated houses at Kara Tepe. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

From the moment Syrian Mohamed Dhib set foot in Kara Tepe, an accommodation facility for refugees and asylum-seekers on the Greek island of Lesvos, he has been striving to make it a better place.

Even now, months after he and his family moved into a nearby apartment, the electrician returns to the site every day to help UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and its partners to improve accommodation for 900 remaining residents.

“We lost our lives, we need to start again to see a good future,” said Mohamed, 44, a father of four from Al-Sabinah, south of Damascus. “We don’t want to wait without anything to do. We need to work, we need to be something in this world.”

Mohamed started volunteering last summer when he spotted workmen measuring the ground. They told him they were installing cables to bring solar power to the camp. Keen to make use of his skills, he asked if he could help.

“I told them, ‘perfect, I am an electrician, can I help? I am available, I will start today’,” he said. Most days, he and his brother Moufeed, 34, have been hard at work first volunteering to help lay underground cables, then to install solar panels.

Since January, Mohamed has been helping UNHCR with a wider operation to assist authorities install prefabricated houses at Kara Tepe. He and Moufeed help connect the new units to the solar panels and disconnect empty refugee housing. To date, UNHCR has installed 150 residential containers in municipality-run Kara Tepe, with a further 142 still to come.

“It’s better for my children here,” said Horia Khalil, 35, a Syrian asylum-seeker and mother of three. “There’s more space than in the other shelter.”

She and her family have lived in Kara Tepe since September and moved into one of the new prefabs eight weeks ago.

The change has benefitted her seven-year-old daughter who suffers nightmares and anxiety after the ordeals of war-torn Aleppo, their home town. “Thank God we are safe,” she said. “But my children are still afraid of the bombs, I worry about them.”

Since January, UNHCR has transferred more than 1,000 people from a government-run site at Moria to the Kara Tepe camp and into apartments and hotels. That figure includes all families, unaccompanied children and most single women. UNHCR is now transferring another 130 women from Moria, where they are housed in their own cordoned-off area.

Mohamed (left) and his brother Mofeed, prepare electrical boxes, before wiring them into prefabricated houses at Kara Tepe accommodation facility. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

In Kara Tepe, Mohamed’s work goes on. In October, he and his family moved out of the facility into a private apartment operated by UNHCR’s local partner Iliaktida in the nearby town of Mytilene. However, he was keen to carry on his volunteering work in the site.

“I love to be in Kara Tepe,” he said. “Now if I don’t go there I miss it,” he added in English he learned from volunteers during his seven months in the facility. “Every day I want to go there. I have many friends there from all over the world. I can speak to many people, help with the work and learn.”

For Mohamed’s wife Maysoum, who suffers from back and neck pain, life in the apartment is a great improvement. She is happy the whole family, including the couple’s four young children, have been granted refugee status and a three-year Greek visa. “We are safe now,” said Maysoum, 37. “But I still worry about the future, for the children.”

The couple’s two eldest daughters Alissar, 9, and Limar, 7, are old enough to remember the harrowing journey from Syria to Greece via Turkey last spring. Mohamed said they were shot at crossing borders and had to sleep outside in the rain for nights on end.

“It was for the children we decided to leave,” said Mohamed, whose home town was devastated during the Syrian conflict. “We couldn’t go back to where we’re from.” The family had intended to travel to Germany, where two of Mohamed’s brothers and a sister live. However, arriving on Lesbos in April last year, they heard the West Balkan route was closed and decided to abandon their onward journey.

Unfazed by this set-back, Mohamed arrived in Kara Tepe and set about improving his surroundings. First, he put up a swing on a tree for his children. Next, he transformed the stony ground outside his shelter into a vegetable patch. Dutch NGO Movement on the Ground provided soil, tools and seeds. Before long, green beans, courgettes, onions, herbs and watermelons were springing up from the once-bare earth.

“I loved to see it grow up every day,” said Mohamed, who tended an allotment at home in Syria. “It’s good for your mind if you go to sleep waiting for tomorrow, to see how the garden has grown. Every day you are curious to see what happens in the garden. It made me happy.”

Mohamed also strove to make Kara Tepe better for everyone. During the seven months he lived there, he became a kind of community leader, bringing residents together for weekly meetings outside his tent to discuss their concerns with the shelter operators.

“I put tables and chairs for people outside where I stayed,” he said. “They could sit and speak together about how to make Kara Tepe better, more beautiful.”

It’s partly his enthusiasm for this work that makes Mohamed want to stay on the island long term. Daughters Limar and Alissar have started school and are rapidly picking up Greek. The couple has another daughter, Elian, 5, and a 3-year-old son, Baraa.

Mohamed is also studying the language and hopes soon to find paid work as a handyman, plumber and electrician.

“Now on the island we are happy,” he said. “It’s safe for my wife, for my children. I can go to work for the day and come back without worrying about them. This is the place for me. Now it’s a new life, a new future, for me, for my wife, for my children.”

By: Josie Le Blond in Lesvos, Greece

 

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