Wheelchair refugees brave boats, border guards, flat tyres on way to Europe

Wheelchair refugees brave boats, border guards, flat tyres on way to Europe

Hassan Omar from Iraq and Radwan Sheikho from Syria have had to rely heavily on the kindness of strangers to make the treacherous journey to Europe this winter, fleeing the conflict wracking their home countries.

The pair have formed a firm friendship along the way, negotiating perilous boat trips, train rides and finally making their way together along muddy paths to Greece's border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – no mean feat for two men in wheelchairs.

"Sometimes tragedy and despair bring people together," said Omar, 48, who teamed up with 30-year-old Sheikho the day they met on the island of Lesvos, a short crossing from Turkey but one that has cost hundreds of migrants their lives in flimsy boats.

The two then traveled by ferry to the Greek mainland and from there north by train, Omar with his daughter and Sheikho with his sister, hoping they might have a better chance of crossing through FYROM’s closed border due to their disability.

Instead, they have become stranded in a squalid makeshift camp at Idomeni where they share a tiny tent, enduring long days of rain, wind and cold, with little food and poor sanitation, Omar's daughter and Sheikho's sister in another tent next to them.

At least 10,000 people, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, are estimated to be in Idomeni, with over 45,000 more stuck at ports and camps across Greece as countries along the so-called Balkan route close their borders to the flow of migrants hoping to reach Western Europe.

"There are disabled people here and (Europe should) help them," said Sheikho, who made ends meet in Syria by selling cigarettes as he did not receive state disability benefits.

"We got here, and now we can't turn back. What will happen to us?"

Some of the obstacles they face are mundane – Omar has spent the last two days stuck in his tent with a punctured tyre and is waiting for a replacement from local relief organizations.

Others are more daunting. On Monday, the four along with hundreds of others tried to cross illegally into FYROM, streaming out of the camp and attempting to cut their way through the razor-wire fence separating them from FYROM.

Omar and Sheikho relied on men to carry them on their shoulders for hours, sinking into the mud, wading through rain-swollen rivers and climbing hills to the border, they said.

"The man who carried me didn't give up," Sheikho said. "He would put me down for a bit and then carry me again. He was so tired, but he kept going."

But once across the border, FYROM army surrounded them at gunpoint and sent them back to Greece.

Back in Idomeni they wait, hoping that the borders to the north will open up again.

While Sheikho and his sister dream of reaching their parents and brothers in Holland, Omar and his daughter look forward to the day when his wife and eldest daughter can join them from Iraq.

Omar, a former weightlifter, said he fled the sectarian violence gripping Iraq after his brother and nephew were killed.

"If there was hope to stay in Iraq, we would have," he told Reuters on Thursday. "Minorities, women and the disabled are the ones who suffered the most in Iraq. I am one of the victims."

Sharing a plate of food with Sheikho inside their tent, Omar says the two will stick together until their paths mean they must separate, wherever that may be.

"Our friendship has its ups and downs, but we both have the same goal, so I choose to ignore all the negatives and focus on the positive," he said.


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