Zeinab and her husband fled Afghanistan two years ago and arrived at the overcrowded Moria refugee camp in October. Eight months into her pregnancy, Zeinab sleeps in a tent on rough terrain, surrounded by what international NGOs and the EU have slammed as appalling conditions. Zeineb is scared about the future but tries hard not to be discouraged. InfoMigrants' reporter Holly Young spoke to Zeinab on Lesbos.
I meet Zeinab Nourzehi on an unusually warm November morning, in a former ouzo factory on Lesbos.
The building is now converted into a community center, set up by local charity The Hope Project. Inside there is a make-up salon, a hairdresser, a kitchen with free meals, a place to pick up donated clothes as well as tailor to have them altered to fit. But it’s in the art studio that 26-year-old Zeinab can usually be found.
Zeinab laughs easily and speaks softly in lilting English. She loves drawing faces, but the tutors have encouraged her to experiment. Her first finished canvas is a kitten on a pastel green background, its white and ginger fur painted in delicate brush strokes.
The walls are covered in bright canvases, painted by people living a few kilometers away in Moria refugee camp. Zeinab has been coming to the studio regularly since she arrived with her husband in October. The conflict had forced them to leave Afghanistan two years ago and head to Turkey. After that too felt unsafe, they boarded an overcrowded boat to Europe.
The art space is a welcome respite from living in a place she, like many others, calls the "jungle". It’s perhaps an apt description for a place that feels largely outside the apparatus of the state and Europe, tethered mostly by the thinly stretched efforts of aid organizations and civil society groups, run by volunteers and refugees themselves.
Zeinab and her husband, like thousands of others, live in a tent in an olive grove. From outside her zipped door, neighbors hang washing between the trees’ silver-green boughs. Some people manage to get pallets to raise their tents off the ground, but the couple only has a sleeping bag each and a blanket. “You can’t imagine what it is like,” says Zeinab.
When she stands up she pulls gently down at the hem of her woolen jumper, tugging it over her stomach. “For me it is really more difficult because I am not just one person,” she says. Zeinab is almost 8-months-pregnant when we first meet. Her little girl is due in early January.
Zeinab and her husband arrived on the island amid the biggest uptick in boat arrivals to the Greek islands since the EU-Turkey deal of 2016. Before summer this year, Moria was already described as severely overcrowded and in a state of humanitarian emergency. By the end of November, I found aid workers pausing and struggling to find the accurate superlatives to do justice to what they were seeing.
There are now over 17,000 people living in a camp with official capacity of just over 2,000 people according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Zeinab describes the place as “hell”. Deadly fires, violence, and a severe shortage of all basic services -- including medical and mental health care -- are realities of camp life for everyone. In November, medical charity MSF reported a 9-month-old baby died in the camp from "severe dehydration".
Scared at night
"It’s double stress for me," says Zeinab. They have to wait in line for food she can’t stomach and walk for at least 10 minutes to get to the toilet queues. Surrounded by a sea of strangers, many women in the camp have reported feeling unsafe leaving their tents. When she ventures out she is scared of falling: the ground is uneven and slippery when wet.
But it’s the nighttime that is the worst. She can barely sleep -- woken up by children in nearby tents coughing. The cold and condensation in the tent make it hard to breathe. “Every night I wake up crying,” she says.
In November, the Greek government announced plans to move 20,000 people to the mainland from the Greek islands, and close three of the biggest camps on Moria, Chios and Samos, replacing them with new closed facilities human rights groups have likened to “detention centers”.
Zeinab is skeptical of how they will manage to move that many people. UNHCR numbers show increased transfers to the mainland, but not enough to keep pace with boat arrivals.
The last time I meet Zeinab, I find her sitting quietly in the art studio, gently lifting up the end of a paintbrush to speckle white stars onto a navy sky. Underneath she has drawn the silvery outline of figures, like ghostly constellations: “It is refugees on the move in the night,” she tells me.
She is more visibly dejected than our last two meetings, and now has a cold. Earlier in the day she met some lawyers who said they would try to find some housing. But she’s not keeping her hopes up: she’s always asking for more information, and so tired of hearing ‘sorry’.
“This is my first pregnancy,” says Zeinab. “I don’t want to lose this baby, I don’t want the baby born in a camp, in winter - in a box.”
Pregnant women at risk
"Her (Zeinab’s) case is unfortunately not at all unique," Hillary Margolis, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told me. Last week she published a report detailing the ways in which many women and girls, including those who have experienced gender-based violence or are travelling alone, live lives “defined by fear” in Moria camp.
While she also saw heavily pregnant women sleeping in tents on rough terrain on her last visit in 2017, Margolis was struck by the sheer number of them in Moria today. Many had little information of what would happen when they went into labor and after birth. She saw little evidence of pregnant women being moved to the mainland because of their vulnerable status. She met women who left the hospital with their newborns and returned to their tents.
After I leave Lesbos, Zeinab messages to say she is feeling healthy again, but that her "mind is not good". "I feel so sad," she repeats. "Pray for me." She’s been given permission to transfer to Athens at the end of the month, but it’s too close to her due date she says. She sends me a picture of her latest painting. Three faces: a mum and dad gazing down at a daughter.
A new refugee law, that human rights advocates say limits access to asylum protection, will come into force on January 1. Elli Kriona-Saranti, staff attorney with legal service provider HIAS on Lesbos, says this throws up a lot of uncertainty for everyone, including pregnant women and new mothers. "For example under the new legislation, a breast-feeding mother will not be considered ‘vulnerable’,” says Kriona-Saranti, adding this means they may not qualify to be transferred out of the camp to mainland. Light on the horizon
Winter settles on the island, the numbers of arrivals show little sign of abating, and calls for Greece and the EU to do more to resettle those stuck in emergency conditions continue. Many expectant parents live in painful uncertainty on Lesbos. But for Zeinab, there is an unexpected glimmer of hope.
I have good news, she messages.
The lawyers have found them a house on Lesbos. Whether she or her daughter will get refugee protection in Europe remains to be seen. But for now she is happy she won’t bring her child home from the hospital to sleep on the cold ground.
"I can’t believe [it ]," she messages, telling me how she feels. "It’s like I walk in the sky."
•••• ➤ Also read: Life in and around the infamous Moria camp