Free from fear: New life, new community for refugees in Greece

For months, every time Hatice heard a simple knock on her front door, she felt a tingling sense of dread. At any moment, life as she knew it could be upended forever.

“Every night, every morning, every knock on the door, every bell ring, every time, we were very scared that someone has come [to hurt us], that the police have come [to arrest us],” she recalls. “My children, with all this fear, [it hurt] them psychologically so much, it was so bad.”

Hatice and her husband, then teachers in their native Turkey, were being targeted for persecution by the government for their beliefs and political affiliations. They had never harmed anyone, and had dedicated their lives to fostering education and peace. Yet they lived in fear, knowing that they could be detained at any moment. 

“I didn’t have a home for a long time,” Hatice recalls. “We lived someplace. It was a place. But we were hiding and scared. It wasn’t a home.”

For a time, the family was safe. But this wouldn’t last. One night, as Hatice reclined in her chair with popcorn and tea, preparing to watch a movie with her husband and their daughter, a dozen members of the government security force suddenly burst into their home. Hatice and her husband were arrested; she remembers the security forces laughing and joking as they carried out the arrest, mocking them in their moment of terror.

In that moment, Hatice lost her freedom and saw the end of her family’s old way of life. It was the beginning of a journey that would lead her to eventually flee Turkey for Greece, where she would begin anew.

Hatice and her daughter are two of the thousands of people who have benefitted in recent years from Embrace Relief’s Refugee Relief program in Greece. Through the generous support of our donors, refugees in our program have been provided with housing, food, clothing, education and other necessities, providing these determined people the time, safety and stability they need to rebuild their lives.

Embrace Relief recently journeyed to Greece to meet with some of the refugees who are currently supported by our program. Speaking with us, they described the hardships they endured in their old lives, the risks they took in escaping those hardships, and the love, hope and faith that guided them through their journeys. Their powerful, emotional stories are reminders that we are all human. And their stories deserve to be told.

Changed names, upended lives

Freedom is a primary motivator for many refugees. Before eventually making the difficult choice to flee the land of their birth, many lived normal, average lives as teachers, doctors, and other valuable members of their communities. But when their beliefs suddenly became a target, people like Hatice were forced into hiding.

Many of the refugees in Greece who spoke with Embrace Relief described the daily grind of life under persecution. Some changed their names. Others were forced to cut off all contact with family and friends. Still others avoided leaving their homes, even for necessary doctors’ visits, while their children were often forced to leave their schools and universities.

“You cannot get married, your family won’t speak to you, your neighbors don’t even want to see you. You are not valued,” Hatice says. “You go to the market and you’re humiliated. You go to the hospital, you’re humiliated.”

The knowledge that they could be arrested at any time, for arbitrary reasons, made the situation more miserable, a feeling Hatice describes as “a slow death.”

‘I breathed freedom’

After the night she lost her freedom, Hatice was sentenced to seven years in jail for her beliefs. She described living in dehumanizing conditions – at one point, she slept in front of a toilet because 26 people had been placed in a cell designed to hold 14 – and witnessed the same for her fellow prisoners. She vividly recalls a pregnant woman who failed to receive proper care, leading to a stillborn birth; there was another woman she remembers, a middle-aged woman who was denied treatment for her cancer, who died within months of her release.

Hatice was fortunate to be released from prison just one year into her sentence. Her children had been living with their grandparents, and Hatice’s daughter told Embrace Relief of the severe depression she and her brother had experienced while both of their parents were imprisoned. As of November 2022, their father remains imprisoned in Turkey, and could remain so for another decade. Hatice is unsure if she will ever see the love of her life ever again.

But after living through her ordeal, Hatice’s only path to freedom was to flee her country and seek refuge elsewhere. She arrived in Greece with “the two most important things I had the power to bring” – her wedding ring and her daughter – and is grateful for the warm welcome she’s received in Greece. A thriving refugee community, supported by organizations like Embrace Relief, is making the transition easier.

Eventually, Hatice plans to end up in Germany, where she hopes she will be soon reunited with her mother and son, and, one day perhaps, her husband. But wherever life takes her, she will live without the fear that formerly consumed her days.

When we came here, of course it was something difficult,” Hatice says. “But, it was perfect. Because after however many years, I breathed freedom … just freedom.”