Just 10 miles from Spain’s Mediterranean coastline, with its throngs of European tourists and lines of hotels, sits a small house in a quiet neighborhood in an unassuming town. From the outside, the house looks like all the others on a residential block of one-story structures of sand-colored concrete. But it’s not just another house. It’s one of the Spanish government’s refugee shelters.
Three families live in this shelter, after being settled there by the governing authorities. It is far from major cities, and even though it’s close to the beach, there are no regular trains or buses to get there. Naturally, the refugees feel quite isolated.
One family is from near Aleppo, in the northern part of Syria that has seen some of the worst of the war. They are a mother, father and two young children. They said they had been living in Lebanon as refugees in the Bekaa Valley, but the United Nations transferred them to Spain earlier this year because the mother was having complications with her pregnancy (she ended up losing the baby in Spain). They have residency here, which means they can travel and live throughout much of the E.U. Yet they stay at the shelter because they are alone in Europe. They don’t know how to navigate the continent, have little money and only the children have learned Spanish.
Another family is Syrian-Palestinian, from Yarmouk, the Palestinian district outside of Damascus. They were living in Germany before being deported to Spain because they had first entered the E.U. through Melilla, Spain’s walled enclave in Morocco. German officials had told them it was up to Spain to determine their refugee status and transferred them to Madrid by plane. They are more educated than the other family and consist of a mother and her two teenaged children, a son and daughter. They learned German, and are now working on their Spanish, while also trying to figure out how to get back to Germany. If they had residency and free movement in the Schengen zone like the family from Aleppo, they could rejoin their immediate family members who already have visas in Germany and are living in Berlin.
The third family is a father from Libya and his two young daughters. He said he’s a chemist and claimed to have worked closely with Libya’s deposed dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The father was highly educated, spoke English well and Spanish now, too. He and his daughters fled to Spain and had been living out of a car the past two years before the Spanish government recognized their asylum claims and moved the family into this shelter.
The three families were brought together in the most intimate of environments: a home. They share a kitchen and a bathroom. They share a balcony where they pass their evenings, all waiting for governments that were not their own to determine their future. If it were not for war in their home countries, they never would have met.
One evening, after dinner, I sat with the adults, including the Palestinian teenagers, in a concrete patio outside their kitchen. The men smoked. The youngest children played with a soccer ball in the street.
The Syrian mother and father from Aleppo told me they wanted to return to Lebanon but had no idea how. They were distraught about their situation.
The Libyan father, the man who claimed to have worked with Qaddafi, chimed in.
“Who is going to help you? The government isn’t going to help you. This American [me] isn’t going to help you. You need to help yourself,” he said pointedly.
He preached for the next 10 minutes, like a motivational speaker, about how the struggling Syrian couple needed to stop depending on others to change their situation.
“You have to look into the future and ask yourself, ‘Where do I want to be in two years?’ and then make a plan for how to get there.”
Everyone was moved. The Syrian mom was crying. Her husband stared uncomfortably yet solemnly at the floor. They seemed overwhelmed, though, not empowered. The Palestinian teenagers were nodding their heads in agreement.
I was struck by the immensity of the forces that brought them together on that patio. The Libyan man had a PhD and was studying for another in Spain. Neither of the Syrians had graduated from high school. Yet they were all living together in a cramped refugee shelter in a tiny town in the Spanish countryside. Theirs is a tiny sliver of a story that is reshaping the Mediterranean region. Where will they end up? Will they keep in touch after their fates in Europe pull them elsewhere?
I have seen many asylum seekers and refugees, like the Libyan father, who are determined to chart their own courses, but when the outside world feels so unknown and governments control so much of their destinies, it’s hard to imagine where to begin. The Libyan father wants to start over in Spain, and his daughters already seem at ease in this country. The Syrian-Palestinians are looking at different avenues through which they will be able to return to Germany, and to their family there. As for the Syrians from Aleppo, the encouragement from their roommate did seem to put them in a more reflective mood. They became less talkative. They seemed weighted with options.
Meanwhile, their children, full of smiles, trotted off to school in the morning. Unlike their parents, they spoke Spanish well, and were full of optimism that their future would be brighter, wherever that future happened to be.