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10 Amazing Refugee Stories

Updated on October 14, 2015
Refugees arriving by sea in Europe
Refugees arriving by sea in Europe

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recently announced that the total number of displaced people broke all records, and almost reached the number of 60 million people. Which means that at this moment “one in every 122 humans is either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum”. Over half the world refugees today are children. It is the result of 15 new conflicts, which broke out at the beginning of the 21st century. While most refugees come from countries which are on the UN’s list of Least Developed Nations, most of them are from Syria. As the UNHCR announced, more than four million Syrians have fled war, and additional 7.6 million are displaced inside Syria. Total figures would be even higher, as these numbers do not include more than 270,000 asylum applications by Syrians in Europe, and many others who seek asylum outside their region. On this bitter list, Afghanistan holds the second place with 2.59, followed by Somalia with 1.1 million refugees.

Most of the refugees, those from conflicting countries in Africa and Middle East, seek a better life in Europe. At the end of 2014, the total number of asylum applicants reached 6.7 million. Single country with most refugees is Turkey, with 1.8 million displaced people registered in July 2015. The United States also has more refugees, with 36,800 more asylum applications than in 2014, which is growth of 44 per cent.

Behind these cold statistics there are people, with their amazing stories.

10. Awer Mabil, from refugee camp to A league

Australian professional soccer player Awer Bul Mabil was born to South Sudanese parents in Kakuma, in northwestern Kenya. This 19-year old now plays in Australian A league, for Adelaide United. In 2013 he won the National Youth League Player of the Year award and this year he was named Australia’s top Male Footballer of the Year for 2014, for players under 20. But life was not always a bed of roses for this Adelaide “winger”.

Awer Mabil was born in 1995 In Kakuma Refugee Camp, located in northwestern Kenya. Even though he considers himself South Sudanese, he has never been to that country. His parents had to flee from Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War, in which both sides of conflict had no mercy for civilians. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 Southern Sudanese have been taken into slavery during the war. While the refugee camp gave them salvation and a chance to live in peace, it was not idyllic life for little Awer. With no schools or playgrounds, he started playing soccer with brothers and friends, at the age of 5. They played using a handmade ball, barefoot, on a hot dusty field, often getting hurt by rocks and thorns. If he wanted to watch soccer on television, he had to walk one or two hours, to a place where there was a television. He would pay a small fee for watching, and then get back the same route.

His family moved to Australia with a help of his uncle, and soon his talent was discovered. He is a famous player now, but he did not forget his roots. With a help of his older brother Awer Bul (also a refugee, one of the first ”Lost Boys of Sudan” to be resettled to the US), they started the campaign ”Barefoot to Boots”. Remembering their childhood, they are traveling to Kenya and delivering hundreds of pairs of soccer boots and sports gear to children of the Kakuma camp, with the support of Qantas, the FFA, the UNHCR, UNICEF and the Australian Government.

”Barefoot to Boots” team
”Barefoot to Boots” team

9. Doaa al Zamel, Hero of the Mediterranean

Doaa al Zamel was born in south-western Syria. She was 16 years old when her family decided to leave country because of war. They settled in Egypt, but without a work permit, she could work for low wage only, as a seamstress, to help supplement the money her father made. Life was hard in northern Egypt, but she still had hopes. She was in love with another refugee, Bassem, and they planned to go to Europe, where they would marry and start a new life. Doaa didn’t even know to swim, but still was willing to embark on that dangerous route to a new, promised land. Bassem asked her father for permission to marry her, and then he paid US $5,000 to smugglers, for a one way ticket on an old boat.

There were 500 people on that boat, sailing from Egypt to Greece. After four days, September 10 2014, their vessel was approached by another boat. Smugglers from that boat commanded them to switch to theirs, a smaller rusty boat. When immigrants refused, they started throwing pieces of metal and wood at them and curse their captain. The attackers then circled them and used their boat as a battering ram, making a huge hole in the side of the hull. They shouted ”Let the fish eat your flesh”, and laughed while the ship was sinking. The ship sunk within minutes, taking 400 people into the deep with it. Bassem found a life ring and helped Doaa to move away from sinking ship.

A hundred survivors gathered, praying for rescue. As the next day came, some of them lost hope. “One man took off his own life vest and sank. Some died of fear, some of cold. The weather was rough”. A Palestinian approached Doaa and Bassem, handing them his 9-months old granddaughter, Malek. “Please take the baby. I’m very tired”. Then he let go and gave his life to the sea. Day after that, Bassem also lost his strength. Doaa begged him to hold on to their hope, to future, told him that they will make it… He could only say “I’m sorry my love, that I put you in this situation. I have never loved anyone, as much as I love you”. Then he released himself and drowned in front of her eyes. Later that day, a mother approached Doaa, handing her 18-months old girl, Masa. Her older sister just died, and the mother knew that she must save this one. She said to Doaa, “Please take this child. I will not survive”. And the mother drowned.

She was in cold water for four days, unable to swim, terrified of water, taking care of two hungry, thirsty and scared babies. On the fourth day, one merchant ship passed by, and miraculously, they saw her in the water. Unfortunately, little Malek died in the boat’s clinic, but Doaa and Masa were taken by a Greek helicopter to the island of Crete, where they were saved at the hospital. They are two of 11 survivors, out of 500 people from the refugee boat.

Doaa al Zamel
Doaa al Zamel | Source

8. Ahmad, the boy with the bicycle

Ahmad says he was happy in Syria, he went to school there. His family had to flee from war, and he doesn’t attend school in Lebanon. He is only 15 years old, but already has an enviable work experience. He worked at a pastry shop, then in a bakery, and he tried to work in construction. Now he is working at a Lebanese NGO “Himaya” (protection) as a facilitator, helping organize recreational activities for younger children. Every day he is the first to show up at work. Every morning he rides his red bicycle through narrow cobbled streets, and at 8:30am he unlocks the gate of the NGO premises. Ahmad got his bicycle from his friend from “Himaya”, young man Nizar. Ahmad dreams of becoming a mechanical electrician, and Nizar is searching for another job for him at a car mechanics shop.

Ahmad with children at NGO Himaya
Ahmad with children at NGO Himaya | Source

7. Christina, 10, loved Facebook “likes”

Christina left her home in Qaraqush, Iraq, with her family, when war came close to her village. After UNICEF Iraq posted her story and picture on their Facebook page, people started to “like” and share the photo. When they showed it to her, she loved it so much that they printed that page for her, so she could proudly hang it in the middle of her refugee tenth. For those who wish, here is the picture to like.

Christina, with her picture printed from Facebook page
Christina, with her picture printed from Facebook page

6. Safaa, a normal child in a crazy world

Safaa lives with her family in Kawergosk refugee camp, in the Kurdish part of Iraq. When UNICEF Iraq found this Syrian girl in 2013, she looked like an ordinary kid, like any other girl living anywhere else in the world. She was a little sad because they lived in tents, and because she didn’t have any relatives to visit during the holidays of Eid, but she seemed cheerful and optimistic. She wanted to deliver a message to all the children in the world. “I hope you thank God for this grace you have in your home and countries. Thanks a lot, and don’t forget us.”


Two years later, UNICEF found Safaa in the same camp, living in the same tent. She still sounds like she has hope, still goes to school every day, has plans about the future, but two years of life as a refugee have taken its toll on that little girl. Again she has a message, and she has no doubt about whome is to blame.

5. Mazoun Almellehan, “Malala of Syria”

Mazoun came to Jordan after war in Syria came close to her village, in 2013. She has been called “Malala of Syria” for her fight to keep children in school. Her nickname is a reference to the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, a teenage Pakistani who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen because of her activism. Mazoun is going door to door in refugee camps, trying to persuade parents to send their daughters to school, instead of forcing them to marriage, which is a common practice. When she first came to the Azraq camp, she lost hope. But then she decided to continue her education. “Education is important to me because I know that with education I am strong, I am aware of what is happening around me, I won’t be dependent on society, I will be independent and society can depend on me as an educated person.”

Mazoun Almellehan, “Malala of Syria”
Mazoun Almellehan, “Malala of Syria” | Source

4. Melilla, “the fortress of Europe”

Melilla is a small Spanish city in Morocco, and the only European land on the African continent. Many refugees from Africa and Middle East are trying hard to reach that small enclave. Entering Melilla would mean a chance to apply for European asylum. But there are obstacles between African poverty and European freedom. Faced with numerous African refugees, Spanish government has built three rows of fence, each 20 ft tall and topped with barbed wire. The fence is seven miles long, monitored by many cameras, motion sensors, watchtowers, heavily guarded by Spanish police. It doesn’t stop refugees, though. Hundreds or thousands of them storm the fence almost every day, seeking a better life. There are many reports about beating and shooting. A human rights lawyer Jose Alonso reports: “It was the closest I have ever been to a war. There was a helicopter over the Spanish side with a huge light shining down on the Moroccan side. There was shooting. From where I was, I saw hundreds of people trying to get over the fence. Both sides were shooting down at them.”

Melilla triple-fence
Melilla triple-fence

3. Safdar Ahmed, a refugee artist

Many refugees from South Asia see Australia as a promised land. People from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Myanmar are coming in thousands every year, and each year their number increases. Because of the Australian government’s strict refugee policy, the number of refugees accepted for resettlement didn’t rise much over the years, in spite of increased demand. It is estimated that this year there will be 6,000 visas granted. Compared to a decade ago (5,511), or 1975 (4374) it is not a big increase. It is ten times less than refugees resettled in US.

The Australian refugee policy is often targeted by human rights organizations , which draw attention to changes in strict immigration laws, intercepting refugee boats at sea and returning them, and conditions in controversial detention camps for asylum seekers. Safdar Ahmed, a Sydney based artist and academic, this year made a documentary web-comic, a moving inside story about detainees in the Villawood Detention Center.

2. Refugees “On the bride’s side"

After five Palestinians from Syria fled from war and reached Italy, they didn’t know how to continue to their final destination, Sweden. Without papers, they were doomed to stay in Milan, until eventually they would get caught. Then they met a Palestinian poet and an Italian journalist, who wanted to help them, in spite of risks of being arrested as being traffickers. They all came up with the only idea that might work – they decided to fake a wedding. Because, “Who would ever stop a wedding procession?”. They dressed a Palestinian girl as a bride, and after a dozen Italian and Syrian friends joined them as “wedding guests”, they made a road trip across Europe, from Italy to Sweden, a journey to remember. Camera was with them all the time and the result of their adventure is the 3 Venice Film Festival winner documentary “On the bride’s side”.

1. Children, “A Lost Generation” of wars

The biggest victims of any war are children. And not only because they can lose their health, family members or goods. In most cases, they also lose their future. A few years of war perhaps don’t mean much in an adult’s life, but for any child, it means precious years lost forever. Those are the years when their personality is formed, years for education, a base for adults of a future society. They can never come back. Luckily, many children are strong. Like Neeroz, a 10-year-old girl from camp Domiz in Iraq, who brings water and food to her family every day and helps her disabled father.

Or Issa, a little Syrian boy who, instead of begging for money, plays his little flute on the streets of Istanbul. Even though he is poor, he offers to share the orange a passerby gave him. After a policeman took his flute, he spent half of his daily earning money to buy a new one.

Or an unknown brave kid from Syria, more mature than most adults, in a situation in which no person should ever be. There are many stories to be told, and most of them never will be, but all of their protagonists have hopes and wishes for better future.

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