ATHENS, Greece — The bus winding its way through the pre-dawn darkness of Athens’ empty streets marks the end of months of danger, hardship and uncertainty. After surviving war, smugglers and perilous sea crossings, its 31 passengers are finally about to start new lives in Europe.
The 27 Syrians and four Iraqis, all families with children, are heading to the airport for a flight to Madrid. With muted but palpable joy, they snap family photos of their last few minutes in the Greek capital and bid tearful farewells to friends who have to stay behind — some of the more than 60,000 refugees and migrants trapped in Greece.
The group is among the very few accepted by a European country as part of a sputtering relocation program designed to relieve pressure on Greece and Italy, the main entry points for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and hoping for better lives in the European Union. But European countries have come under fire for dragging their heels, accepting people at a far slower rate than promised.
The program should have seen 66,400 people from Greece relocated across the EU over two years from Sept. 16 last year, but to date just over 4,130 people have been resettled. Last week, rights group Amnesty International slammed Europe for failing to live up to its commitments, saying only 6 percent of promised relocations had actually taken place. At this rate, it said, it would take 18 years for European countries to fulfill their pledges.
In the check-in zone at Athens airport on Monday, Sumeya Akdrou, her husband Fadi Ehmood and their three young boys, aged 8, 5 and 1 ½, wait for the flight that will mark the end of their desperate odyssey that began in January in the besieged Syrian city of Deir el-Zour.
Their eldest son, Eyad, suffers from a congenital heart problem and is losing his sight in one eye as a result of an accident he had as a baby. The doctor in Deir el-Zour said there was no way he could perform the necessary surgery there, and the Islamic State group controlling their area of the city wouldn’t allow the family to seek medical care elsewhere.
With bombs raining down and brutal executions on the streets becoming routine, they decided to flee.
“We had to leave, because to stay was to die,” said Akdrou, a 30-year-old English teacher, while cradling her sleeping 1 ½-year-old.
Under the cover of darkness they sneaked out of the city, only to be stopped and turned back. Undeterred, they tried again.
They sold their car to raise enough money to pay smugglers. The second time they made it and walked about 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the city of Aleppo. “We could only walk at night, and it was January. It was very cold,” Akdrou said.
From there, they made their way north across the border into Turkey, where they waited for 20 days for seas calm enough to allow the brief but dangerous crossing to a Greek island. They landed on Kos, where Akdrou said the people treated them kindly, and three days later arrived in Athens.
They tried to get to Greece’s northern border with Macedonia but by then Balkan countries were gradually shutting their borders to refugees. Instead, the family found itself initially in a refugee camp in northern Greece for a few months, and later in a hotel in the country’s northern city of Thessaloniki because of their son’s medical condition.
They applied for relocation, and eventually were told they had been accepted by Spain.
Their joy and relief is clear.
“It is the end of suffering after six months,” says a smiling Akdrou.
They hope their son will finally have access to medical care. In the chaos and confusion on the crossing from Turkey, Eyad lost the glasses he needs to keep his eye condition from deteriorating. Without them, his mother said, he loses a bit more of his sight in his right eye each day.
“They will allow the children to go to school there. We can learn Spanish,” said Akdrou. “We will try to make a life.”
Thousands of other refugees stuck in Greece, who have fled war and are entitled to international protection, were meant to do the same. But despite the promises, places have been few and far between.
“If from our part, as Europe, we don’t honor our commitments, if we don’t implement a difficult agreement, then we will once again be faced by major deadlocks,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said over the weekend after an EU summit on the refugee crisis.
About 8,000 refugees in Greece have been approved for the relocation program but are still waiting for a spot, Tsipras said. Meanwhile, the financially strapped country struggles to care for the tens of thousands stuck in the country, and has faced criticism from rights groups for the conditions in some of its hastily built refugee camps.
So far, France has received the lion’s share of people being relocated, taking in 1,581 from Greece and another 231 from Italy. It has promised to resettle 17,000.
“France, Spain, the Netherlands and in some way Portugal are in the top places” of countries accepting relocations, said Christine Nikolaidou of the Greek office of the International Organization for Migration. “From there on, for sure the targets of the program and the numbers they had said a year ago are not being fulfilled at this time.”
For those accepted for resettlement, the IOM organizes basic language and country orientation courses and pre-departure medical checks, and pays the cost of the tickets on commercial flights.
Once someone is cleared for relocation, it takes 2 ½ weeks at most to complete procedures, Nikolaidou said.
Akdrou and her family don’t know exactly where in Spain they will be resettled, if they will be able to get their son the surgery he needs, or if they will be able to find jobs. But finally, they have hope for a new life.
“First, we will finish a language course,” the teacher said. “It’s the most important thing, to be able to communicate with other people.”