Syrian refugee, Hussein, at the port of Mytilene in Lesbos on his 18th birthday. Photo: Claire Paccalin, January, 2019
Syrian refugee, Hussein, at the port of Mytilene in Lesbos on his 18th birthday. Photo: Claire Paccalin, January, 2019

InfoMigrants met Hussein on his 18th birthday. Full of enthusiasm, the young man told us what brought him to Lesbos and his experience of being an unaccompanied minor on the Greek island.

When conflict broke out in Syria, Hussein was 10 years old and was living with his younger sister and grandmother. His parents had divorced but despite the instability at home, Hussein holds onto good memories during this period of his childhood. "My uncles did everything they could for us, as far as the war allowed," he tells us.

In 2013, the death of his grandmother and the deteriorating situation in Syria motivated Hussein to head to Turkey, where he had heard that “"people give work to Syrian refugees." In Turkey he found odd jobs and earned enough money to look after his and his sister’s needs.

He put money aside with the aim of paying for a smuggler so they could cross the Aegean Sea to Greece. After four years in Turkey, they decided to make the dangerous journey to Europe.

When they arrived on Lesbos, a local non-government organisation (NGO), Iliaktida, helped them. They were able to bypass the overcrowded government-run reception and identification centre, known as Moria Camp. "People go crazy in there, the living conditions are awful," Hussein says.

He was given accommodation with other unaccompanied male minors in the main town on the island of Mytilene.

Iliaktida also arranged for his little sister to be given shelter in accommodation reserved for girls. Every evening, Hussein walks along the town’s port to meet her and make sure she has whatever she needs. Only 6 percent of unaccompanied minors in Greece are girls.

Most migrants living in Moria Camp do not have the opportunity to learn the Greek language. But Hussein became a pupil at Gekko Kids, a school for unaccompanied minors, and soon picked up basic Greek.

His ability to converse with locals has helped Hussein to integrate, and he has even started volunteering at Iliaktida. He works in the storeroom, helping to organize and transport food and clothing donations.

This photograph was taken on Hussein’s 18th birthday at the port of Mytilene in Lesbos. The young Syrian refugee arrived on the Greek island with younger sister after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Photo: Claire Paccalin, January, 2019

The NGO was set up in 1997 to support unemployed locals. As migrants began arriving in significant numbers on the island, it widened its scope and activities. Since 2015, the number of staff and volunteers has grown from 20 to 300. The NGO provides protection, accommodation and education to unaccompanied minors to give them the best chance of building a new life for themselves, without their parents.

Hussein is well aware that being a refugee and an unaccompanied minor is considered a double punishment, and he often asks himself "why is life more difficult for some than for others?"

Until today, his 18th birthday, Hussein belonged to the most vulnerable of refugees groups in Greece: the 3,700 unaccompanied minors. Under European law, they are entitled to accommodation, education and protection.

Turning 18 and making the transition from an unaccompanied minor to a young, single man means going from one of the highest priorities for humanitarian aid to being the lowest priority.

Hussein expects to keep his accommodation in town until he finishes his studies. Despite an uncertain future, he’s convinced the worst is behind him. "I’ll study, learn a trade. I dream of starting up my own company, perhaps in construction. I’m well aware that everything my sister and I have been through is out of the norm. But we survived, because we’re lucky."

Hussein hopes to go to Norway where "they tell me life is a little easier. When I can, I’ll return to Lesbos and give back to the locals here who’ve given me so much."

When we ask Hussein what his 18th birthday wish is, he tells us: "Find a way to reunite my family. For everything else, I’ll work it out."


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