‘Leave this all behind me’: A refugee’s journey from prison to freedom

Rukiye was eight months pregnant when she fled her home. A few months earlier, her husband had been arrested by the government for his political beliefs and associations. So Rukiye knew the police would soon be coming for her, too.

What should have been a joyous occasion, the birth of Rukiye’s second child, was instead a time of stress, fear, and anxiety. During her daughter’s first months, Rukiye could not risk leaving her hiding place. To avoid detection, she had to rely on trusted friends to bring her baby to the doctor for checkups and vaccinations. Sometimes, there was simply no avoiding the wider world – Rukiye suffered from chronic health issues including cancer, and she needed to seek medical treatment frequently. 

The release of Rukiye’s husband from jail a few months later made life a little bit easier. But they remained constantly at risk of harassment and arrest, and two years after her daughter’s birth, the police finally detained Rukiye and arrested her. It was the beginning of a terrifying ordeal for this mother of two. Despite committing no crime, she would face inhumane imprisonment and treatment, and witness worse among her fellow political prisoners. Eventually, Rukiye and her husband understood that their family had no real future or security as long as they remained in their native country of Turkey. So they risked their lives to escape their hardships and seek a better life.

“No one wants to leave our country or family or neighbors – no one wants this,” she says from her current home in Greece. “I am at point zero. I have to learn a new language, learn a new way of life in a new country. I feel like a newborn child.” 

Rukiye and her family 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.

Mistreatment and abuse in prison

Rukiye’s story is sadly not a unique one. Many of the refugees who spoke with Embrace Relief have spent time in jail because of who they are and what they believe, enduring treatment that ranged from indifference to cruelty, and living in often-squalid conditions. Others described the sense of helplessness they felt as they heard the stories told by their imprisoned spouses.

The fellow political prisoners Rukiye met came from a variety of backgrounds. They were teachers, doctors, students; they are mothers, sisters, daughters. They included many children of the imprisoned, too – like Rukiye’s two-year-old daughter, who lived with her in jail for four months, because there was no one else to take care of her. She said guards would not even permit her daughter to have a toy to help pass the time.

“Before I went to jail, I was constantly thinking about how the teenagers, young women, older women, were in jail and how they were surviving,” Rukiye says. “The first couple of days in jail, I lived this myself and I met these women. Being in jail and meeting these women was like the river meeting with the sea.”

Rukiye told Embrace Relief of one woman she knew in jail who suffered severe burns and was not permitted to seek medical treatment. In order to stay warm overnight in her freezing cell during the winter, the woman had boiled water and put it in a plastic bottle, which exploded. Rukiye also experienced mistreatment firsthand while seeking medical care.

“It was very difficult to convince the guards in jail that I had cancer,” she says. “[Once I convinced them,] the doctor identified the area which had the cancer and told me he would have to cut off my whole leg. I could not accept the treatment plan the doctor gave to me. I refused to lose my leg.”

After eight months in prison, Rukiye was released while awaiting her sentencing by a judge. She was forced to wear an electronic monitoring device, which could only be removed – by a police officer – during the regular treatments of chemotherapy she received. Reunited with her husband, who had also been released ahead of his sentencing, the couple planned to leave the country as soon as they could. 

They were sworn to secrecy, not even telling their children in advance. And they had to move quickly, because police would be coming for them as soon as their sentences were handed down. Rukiye’s husband left first, fleeing towards the Meric River and Turkey’s border with Greece. When officers began searching for her husband, Rukiye felt an increased urgency. Finally, she could no longer wait. Rukiye gathered her children and fled, never looking back.

“Behind us were those who were persecuting us, but the Meric River is giving us a new way forward,” she says. “I will pass the river and leave this all behind me.”

 Starting over

The hardships Rukiye faced didn’t end on the day she reached Greek soil. True, she and her children could rest easy in the knowledge that they would not be persecuted. But with her husband having continued on to the United Kingdom, Rukiye would now have to provide the basics of life for herself and her children in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language.

But though she was now by herself, she was far from alone. The refugee community in Greece, including organizations like Embrace Relief, have given thousands of people like Rukiye the support she needs to afford housing, food, clothing, education, and so much more. Because of this generosity, Rukiye and her children have been able to live safe, dignified, and free lives as they await the completion of the paperwork that will reunite their family.

“We are starting over,” Rukiye says. “I know it will take time. But when we meet, we will start a new life. My first life took 30 years from me. I educated myself. I made my life. Step by step, we will start a new life.”