Getting to Greece: Nur and Leyla
A refugee’s desperate bid to be reunited with her husband and daughter.
In early 2004, a young Sudanese woman Nur, who had fled her homeland’s violence, found herself stranded in Istanbul without her baby daughter Samah or her husband Yussuf.
They had already succeeded in crossing illegally into Greece, but she had been stopped while traveling separately on the way to the attempted crossing.
It is a familiar tale amid today’s refugee crisis, although this one occurred more than a decade ago.
With Samah and Yussuf away, for the first time after she arrived in Istanbul, Nur was restless, scared – and still six months pregnant. She was illegal, with no job or money. “I don’t want to be begging. I will work if I can find a job. But what can I do here? Nobody would hire me.”
She pleaded for help. “Maybe I should send another appeal to the UNHCR.” She had been denied twice before.
A second attempt to cross
Not long after her failed escape from Istanbul, a new journey was under way. The “connection” housing Nur in Kumkapı had agreed to take Nur to Greece free of charge.
The Sudanese community in Kumkapı came together to help bring Nur to her daughter and husband. Approaching her delivery date, traveling was increasingly difficult and hazardous.
Days passed. I received a call from Nur.
“I am going on the journey tomorrow. I will call you from Greece.”
Nur left Istanbul with nineteen Sudanese on April 22, 2004. Near the city of Bodrum, the Sudanese were dropped off in the woods and asked to wait to be picked up and board a boat leaving for Hios Island.
The migrants waited for three days and nights without food and water. Twice, they were rained on. No one came.
They left the woods, walked for four hours, and reached Bodrum. Nineteen Africans, clad in shabby clothes, walked on the streets of a popular Turkish vacation resort by the Aegean Sea. The gendarmes rounded them up quickly.
Two days and two nights in custody, they were handed over to the police. Three days later, they were put on a bus to Istanbul. “The gendarmes were very kind. They allowed me to stay in the office and gave me better food than others. They were very kind.”
Nur was back in the safe house in Kumkapı.
A second daughter
On June 4, little Leyla was born in a hospital in Istanbul. A Sudanese migrant called me from the hospital. “Thank God Leyla is born. She is beautiful. Nur is fine,” he said.
Paid for by friends in the migrant assistance organization where I was working, Nur and Leyla were housed in a hotel in Kumkapı for two months.
There were many Sudanese migrants crowding the hallways outside her room. They brought food and flowers for Nur. Some had brought chocolate and candy. The Sudanese community was celebrating the birth.
Nur’s face was glowing. A picture of Samah taken on the occasion of her second birthday was framed and placed next to Nur’s bed.
“She is in Greece,” Nur said, staring at the picture. Holding Leyla in her arms and moving closer to the picture, she said: “Take a picture. All of us are here now.”
Leyla was a healthy baby. Her physical condition had shocked the doctors overseeing Nur’s pregnancy. Nur’s food lacked the nutrition and vitamins needed by a pregnant woman.
Throughout the winter of 2004, Nur was frequently ill. She was under medication. All of that worried her doctors, but there were no signs of physical problems in Leyla.
She quickly gained weight and grew bigger. Two months after her birth, sitting in my flat, Nur looked at Leyla and said with a beautiful smile on her face: “I have good milk.”
“I miss Samah too much,” she continued.
Samah in Athens
Samah was spending the last days of her three-month detention in a camp in Greece. Soon, she was to be freed with her father. Nur was worried.
“I cry everyday. I cry and cry, because, I think about many things. I worry about Samah. Will she get lost when they leave the house? Can Yussuf find a job? Yussuf will not be able to take Samah to his work. He cannot leave her in the house. I worry all the time. What will happen to Samah?
“I dream sometimes. I dream I reached Samah in Greece. When I wake up, I go and stay by the sea for many hours. There is a big sea between Samah and me.
Samah is in Europe, and me in Asia. Sometimes I think, maybe Yussuf lost Samah. I telephone Yussuf and cry. I tell him ‘if Samah is lost in Greece, I will come and eat you [hurt you].’” She stopped with a bitter and painful laugh.
“Does Samah know that Leyla is born?” I asked Nur. They had spoken on the phone after Leyla’s birth. “Lula,” Samah had said to her mother, she told me with pride.
“Samah always touched my stomach and talked to Lula. Sometimes I called Samah and asked her to kiss Lula. She put her lips on my stomach and said ‘Lula.’”
When the women in the safe house bought her candy, Samah would come to her mother, hold up the candy bar, and say, “Lula, Lula.”
Months later, freed from the camp, Samah and her father traveled to Athens. Hoping to save Samah from the dire conditions she was facing, I contacted the UNHCR office in Athens. A meeting was arranged for Yussuf and Samah.
A friend and a compassionate UNHCR staffer later wrote to me, “Samah is a wonderful child. I gave her a pack of biscuits and instead of her eating them alone — as is the norm with children — she opened it up and gave one to her dad, and one to the friend that was with them all the way from Patmos. Really something.”
Here I have nothing
The Summer of 2004 came to an end. Nur remained in Istanbul still hoping to someday cross the sea and embrace Samah and Yussuf. Nur was aware of the difficulties ahead. Still, she maintained her usual positive outlook. “Everything is good,” she repeated.
“Here I have nothing here. I have no money. I have no house. But, people are very nice to me. I feel like a human being when I come to your house, or when I speak to people in the church (the NGO helping the migrants with social services).
“That was not the case in Sudan. There were many tribes in Sudan. This is number one. This is number two. Here, everybody is equal. I have hope here. Things are bad. But, I think, someday, they will be different. Everything will change when I travel to another country. This will not be the same all the time. But, in Sudan, nothing will change.
“Sometimes I dream that I am back in Sudan. I am teaching. When I wake up, I am very sad. I think maybe this will happen and I won’t see Samah. I cannot see Yussuf another time. I am afraid too much for this.”
After weeks of confusion in Athens, Yussuf found a migrant family who agreed to care for Samah for a hundred euros a week. Having secured a place for his daughter, he began working irregular jobs. Nur was relieved.
Into the sea
In October 2004, she made another attempt to leave Istanbul for Greece. Days later I received an email from a mutual friend about Nur.
“Nur went traveling last week and got on a boat, and almost reached Greece, but the captain opened the doors and pushed them all in the sea… and she spent 3 hours in the sea…She was a little hysterical when I saw her, and Leyla is sick and they are back in Kumkapı.”
I phoned Nur on October 24.
“How are you, Nur?”
“Everything is ok. – No, I am not ok. Too much problems,” she said.
For the first time in our friendship, the word problem was used recurrently in our conversation. Frustrated with her situation, she was ready to leave again. “The sea is problem,” she said. She was not willing to risk her daughter’s life again.
“I want to go by the river [crossing Meriç River to Greece]. But everybody is too much afraid of my daughter. They are afraid that my daughter will cry. Going by the river is too much money. If Leyla cries, the police send everyone back.
I went to the pharmacy to get the syrup, but the doctor was afraid for my daughter. Leyla has heart problems. The medicine may kill her.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I only think about travel now. Too much control. Too much laws. Every time, I dream of reaching Greece and calling you from there. But, that never happens. I tried many times. They sent me back each time. I am thinking about this too much.”
A last attempt
Not long after our last conversation, Nur made another attempt to leave for Greece.
Days later, I received an email from Istanbul. Nur and Leyla were safe in a camp on an island in Greece.
Days later, they joined Yussuf and Samah in Athens.
Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from Behzad Yaghmaian’s memoir Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West, (Delta, 2006).