LONDON - For anyone fleeing Syria’s civil war, the journey to safety is hazardous, sometimes deadly. For disabled refugees, the challenges are immense – but as siblings Alan and Gyan Mohammed proved, they are not insurmountable.
Alan, 30, and his sister, Gyan, 28, both have muscular dystrophy and are confined to wheelchairs.
Their extraordinary journey began in 2014 as the terror group Islamic State advanced toward their hometown, Al-Hasakah in northeast Syria.
The entire family tried several times to escape across the border to Turkey, but each time they say they were fired on by Turkish border guards and forced to turn back.
So they fled instead to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. A year and four months later, Islamic State fighters swept across the region, forcing Alan, Gyan and their family to escape once more across the hostile, mountainous border with Turkey.
“When we arrived at the top of the mountains, we took two horses, one for me and my disabled sister and one for our wheelchairs,” Alan said.
With Alan and Gyan strapped to either side of a horse, they eventually reached Turkey, where they paid people smugglers $750 each to take them on a boat to Greece. Alan says their small inflatable dinghy carried 60 refugees.
“Every time I looked around I saw babies, children, crying inside the boat. It was a very difficult moment.”
The engine cut out soon after they left the Turkish shore. After 4 hours, they were spotted by EU patrol boats and taken to the Greek island of Chios.
Monica Costa Riba of Amnesty International found the disabled siblings and their family living in a makeshift refugee camp an hour outside Athens. She says their story is inspiring, but it also highlights policy failures.
“This is a remarkable story that shows strength and resilience," said Costa Riba. "But also it shows the failure of the European states to offer safety to these people that are fleeing persecution and war in their countries.”
The Mohammed family’s arrival in Greece came just days before the European Union struck a deal with Ankara to return all refugees back to Turkish soil. But the route to Western Europe was now closed, and like 60,000 other migrants and refugees, the Mohammed family is now stranded in Greece.
“What needs to happen is for the Greek authorities, with the assistance of the EU, to improve the living conditions of these people stranded in Greece. But ultimately, what really needs to happen is for the European governments to accept more refugees in their countries,” said Riba.
The EU’s proposed refugee relocation scheme is delayed amid growing opposition in Europe.
Alan Mohammed passes the time teaching English to refugee children. His family’s escape from terror marks a victory over adversity; but he says his journey is not yet finished.