LESBOS, Greece -- Among the flood of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece this year from war-torn countries in the Middle East are thousands of unaccompanied minors. These children made the difficult journey alone.
Some of the young refugees lost their families in war or on the way to Europe. Others with relatives still set out on the journey by themselves. Families who can’t afford to pay smugglers for each member sometimes send one child -- often the eldest or a son -- to make the arduous trip.
The journey is full of risks, both to the minors' physical safety and to their psychological well-being. They have to cross the Mediterranean and deal with traffickers who don't care about their vulnerability. While some have relatives waiting in Europe whom they plan to join, others have come to work and send money to their families back home.
When the unaccompanied minors reach Greece, they are entitled to housing in reception centers, although they’re not obligated to stay there, and they can apply to be reunited with family members already in Europe. Because the reunification process takes several months, however, many children choose to continue their journey and find their relatives on their own.
Since 2011, METAction has been working with Greek authorities to escort those refugee children who arrive alone to suitable reception centers across the country. The nongovernmental organization has helped relocate scores of children, including 735 this year alone.
"For 20 years, unaccompanied minors stayed in detention centers or months on end. METAction took a risky step and since 2011, 2,672 children have been escorted," Lora Pappa, president of METAction, told HuffPost Greece. She explained that in detention centers, minors can fall prey to trafficking networks.
The way Greeks have rallied to help refugees is moving, Pappa said. “People wanted to help. And they did.”
METAction also provides interpreting services and works with the United Nations refugee agency to help refugees and migrants contact authorities and educate them about their rights. Pappa said that four months ago, METAction was providing around 100 interpreters, but because of the refugee crisis, that number has risen to 180.
Last month, HuffPost Greece joined a METAction team on a trip to relocate 11 children who had reached Greece from Turkey, though they started their journeys farther away. They were being moved from the island of Lesbos to an accommodation center in the port city of Piraeus.
The children looked happy on the drive to the port of Lesbos. They were about to board a cruise liner ferrying refugees and migrants from the Greek islands to other parts of the country.
Once aboard the ship, which carried hundreds of recent arrivals to Greece, they kept so busy with cards and painting that even when food arrived, some of them didn't want to stop playing.
With the help of the interpreters, METAction team leader Christina explained to the children where they were headed. She tried to engage them in conversation and learn more about their lives and families.
There were eight boys and three girls. Ahmed had met Omar, Anas, Mohammed and Hussein at the reception center on Lesbos, and the five of them, all from Iraq and Syria, had become friends. Omar is the eldest. While he told authorities in Greece that he is 17, he later admits he's actually 19. Anas, the youngest, is 14 but looks even younger. Rahel, Bilen and Ayana came from Eritrea. Amir, Ehsan and Ali from Afghanistan. (The children's names have been altered for this story.)
Anas is polite and sweet. He has light-brown hair and hazel eyes.
He grew up in Syria but has lived with his family in Iraq for the past three years. Anas has epilepsy and said he embarked on the journey to Europe because he couldn't receive proper treatment for his illness in Iraq.
Omar is protective of Anas: "Will he be able to find his medication where we are going?" he asked the team. "Don't worry, there will be medication there," Christina assured him.
Anas' aunt, who lives in northern Europe, sent the money for his trip. He set out with some neighbors, but they got separated in Greece and he was left alone, until he met his new friends.
Christina urged Anas to contact his aunt when he reached Athens. He promised her that he wouldn't hurry out to find her on his own. He'd wait, especially after the terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent closure of some borders.
At this point, some of the children were asleep. The girls were painting. A few of the boys were playing a Syrian card game with the interpreter and Christina. Omar, however, was not playing. "What's the matter?" Christina asked. He answered with the little English he knows: "I keep thinking about my mother. I am going crazy."
Omar's brief life has been riddled with difficulties. He grew up in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where all of his relatives lived near one another. Now they are scattered across five continents. Some uncles are left in Syria, others are in northern Europe, others are on their way there. His parents have been stuck in Turkey for the past three years. They are young -- his father is 42 and his mother is only 35. Omar also has two younger brothers.
Omar said that before the family left Syria, he was jailed by the government. He didn't say why but said he was tortured for six days. When he managed to escape, his parents gave him a forged passport, which showed him to be two years younger than his real age, so he could avoid the military draft in Syria.
His girlfriend, his teenage love, was left behind in Aleppo, Omar said. One year ago he heard that she was killed by a bomb. "What can you do? This is what war is like."
Despite all he has been through, Omar has dreams for the future. He wants to reach northern Europe safely and reunite with his uncles there. He would like to finish school and study to be an engineer.
Sixteen-year-old Hussein wants to be an interpreter when he grows up.
His parents are the only ones left in his home country of Syria. Other relatives are in northern Europe.
Hussein paid traffickers $800 to get to Greece. That price is not fixed. It varies based on different factors. In bad weather, for example, the price drops to half.
"Foreign lands feel like your father has married another woman. She will never be your mother," Hussein said.
Mohammed has a bruise below his left eye, and blood is visible in that eye when he looks to the left. He didn’t say how it happened.
The boy was constantly cracking jokes, so fast that even the interpreter couldn't keep up. And he kept on smiling.
Until he started talking about Syria.
"Everyone is against everyone else. If you were out at night and a car came by, you would hide. If you encountered someone from ISIS and wore short sleeves, you were in trouble. One of my cousins worked in a poultry farm, they dropped a bomb and he was killed. You can't live in that place," Hussein said.
Mohammed interrupted: "If things were like before, nobody would leave. Things were good five years ago."
Mohammed's parents didn't know he was in Greece; they thought he would stay in Turkey. But Mohammed wants to go to northern Europe.
"I have 100 euros left. Is it enough to get there?" the boy asked. “Someone I know said it took him 120 euros." He had paid a trafficker $1,200 to get to Greece.
RAHEL & BILEN
Cousins Rahel, 16, and Bilen, 17, set out together from Eritrea. They didn't talk much during this leg of their trip, although Bilen turned out to be very observant.
AMIR, EHSAN & ALI
In the early hours of the morning, the children were finally asleep, except for 14-year-old Amir. Unlike many of the others, Amir didn't have relatives in northern Europe or anywhere to go. He just wanted to get a job and send money to his parents, whom he left behind in Afghanistan. It's hard to imagine who will give a 14-year-old a job and what sort of job that will be.
Two other 14-year-olds, Ehsan and Ali, were neighbors in Afghanistan and had started this trip together.
The ship reached Piraeus early in the morning. The three boys from Afghanistan followed one of the team members and an interpreter to one accommodation center.
We went with the others to their new home, an old hotel turned into a shelter for unaccompanied minors. The children ate breakfast and were briefed on the rules and procedures at the center. Again, they were told it is best for them to stay there until they can make contact with family members and all procedures for family reunification are completed.
When we left, the kids said goodbye, and some were a little sad.
"The hard part of our work is that, because of the official nature of our designated role, we are not allowed to exchange contact details with the children," Anna, one of the team members, had told us at the start of the trip. "We don't know what will become of them. We want to believe that everything will go well."
This story originally appeared on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English and adapted for an international audience.
CORRECTION: Due to a translation error, an earlier version of this story said unaccompanied minors in Greece previously stayed in prisons. Rather, they stayed in detention centers.
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