GEVGELIJA, Macedonia — Arriving to the Migrant Reception Center, I quickly noticed a middle-aged woman cradling a small child under one of the two tents meant to provide some shelter from the elements. I greeted her in Arabic and she was thrilled to be able to speak to someone in her native language. She introduced herself as Hannah (her name has been changed for this article) and the child as her granddaughter.
I asked Hannah how she had come to be in Macedonia and she shared her story with me.
Hannah, a 47-year-old grandmother, lived with her family in Daraa, Syria. The recent fighting between different factions involved in the Syrian conflict was taking a terrible toll on her local community. “The bombing just worsened with each passing day,” she explained. “We were all afraid, but it was the children who suffered the most. They couldn’t sleep and stopped eating.”
One of the bombs from a plane flying overhead destroyed part of the family home. “We knew then that we could not stay,” she said. “We had to take the children to a place where they would be safe.”
Hannah, her son, her daughter-in-law, and three granddaughters set off from Daraa, leaving behind Hannah’s elderly mother and another daughter-in-law who was too far along in her pregnancy to travel. “My mother is too frail and I feared she would not have survived the journey to Europe, and we couldn’t risk my daughter-in-law going into labor without proper medical care. I am happy that I can still reach them on my mobile phone and we speak every day. I hope they will be able to follow us one day soon.”
The family traveled using buses and private taxis from Daraa to Damascus and then on to Aleppo, before finally crossing into Turkey. They next boarded a boat from Izmir on the Turkish coast, which ferried them across the Aegean Sea to Greece. “That was the worst part of the trip,” recalled Hannah. “It took hours and I’m convinced that’s what caused my daughter-in-law’s illness.”
When they finally reached the Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Hannah’s five-months pregnant daughter-in-law, Ahlam fell gravely ill. She was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital, where she lost the baby. Hannah and her three granddaughters continued on to the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, eventually crossing over to the reception center where I met them. They would wait there until her son and daughter-in-law finally arrived. They had already been traveling for two weeks.
When I inquired about Hannah’s husband, her eyes welled up with tears. She told me simply that he had died as a result of the fighting of Daraa. I could see that she missed him dearly.
I asked Hannah where the family would go from here. She said they hoped to eventually reach Sweden, where one of her sons had already been granted asylum as a refugee.
Over the course of our conversation, I was struck by Hannah’s calm demeanor and hopeful outlook, despite all she had lost and the challenges that remained. “Yes, we have suffered,” she said, “but we are OK and we have hope for the future of my granddaughters—that they will soon have a better life in a new place where they can be safe.”
There are thousands of women like Hannah who are crossing into Europe every day in search of refuge after suffering the effects of brutal conflicts in their home countries—places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We must ensure that women and children who are crossing over have access to essential services like psychosocial support, and safe spaces where children can play and mothers can rest. But with 2,000–3,000 people coming into Gevgelija daily, the humanitarian needs here have only increased. UNICEF and our partners are working to support these families by establishing more child-friendly spaces and water distribution points. We are making a difference, but there is so much more to do.
Towards the end of the day, I stopped to check on Hannah and was thrilled to see that her son and daughter-in-law had arrived safely by ambulance from Greece. They shared a few laughs and tired smiles—a small piece of hope that it would get better and that they would be OK.
Rajae Msefer Berrada is the UNICEF Deputy Representative to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.