By Brillian Bao

ATHENS — Abdelrahman Abudan has been seeking asylum since 2006. That year, he left Palestine for Greece following a family disagreement. But Abudan was turned back upon arriving, told that he did not have a compelling case for asylum here.

As fighting raged in his hometown, Abudan left for Greece once again in 2018. Though his wife and six children successfully made their way across the Mediterranean, Abudan was detained and arrested in Turkey. He was permitted to join his family once they were granted asylum. Abudan, who now lives with his wife in Tripoli, hopes his case will be settled within the next month.

Abudan is just one of thousands of asylum seekers who have spent recent months waiting for an asylum decision. According to the Asylum Service, the section of Greece’s government responsible for processing asylum claims, more than 58,000 applications remained pending at the end of last year. Applicants in Greece wait 258 days for a decision on average, even though the European Union has ordered that the examination of applications be completed within six months. Countries are not penalized for failing to meet this time frame.

But while the wait for asylum can be frustrating, it is often just the first of many challenges ahead for migrants who choose to remain in Greece long term. These problems are varied and can feel overwhelming at times: paying for housing, securing employment, battling wage theft, schooling children, and finding a community.

Because of these issues, Abudan and other applicants say they are worried about how they will survive if they receive asylum. Earlier this year, the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy decided to enforce a 2017 policy limiting cash and housing assistance provided to refugees. Since 2015, more than 58,000 people have received accommodations and more than 100,000 have received cash assistance through a United Nations-sponsored assistance program called the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) program.

Under new enforcement, however, these benefits end six months after applicants receive an asylum decision. Hundreds of refugees have already been evicted from their ESTIA accommodations.

“Day and night, all I think about is how I’m going to afford life after we get asylum,” Abudan said. “I need to save money. The real problem is that six months after you get your approval, the government cuts you off. They send you on your way. What am I going to do?”

At the moment, Abudan’s family receives 480 euros per month, just enough to cover food and diapers for his youngest child, who is a few months old. By comparison, the average household income in Greece is around 1312 euros per month, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Abudan receives 90 euros per month, the amount allocated to single males. His wife receives 150 euros per month, the amount allocated to heads of the household. Each of their children receives 40 euros per month, the amount allocated to dependents. The cheapest home in Tripoli currently listed on the Greek property website is a one-room studio that costs 9,000 euros.

And Abudan can’t afford to save any part of his stipend. He uses his cash allowance to pay for his travel expenses to Moria Camp, an EU-sponsored refugee camp located on the island of Lesbos. Though he lives in Tripoli in an ESTIA accommodation, he must return to the camp to complete each step of his asylum application. Each trip costs 130 euros: 17 euros to bus from Tripoli to Athens, 48 euros to ferry from Athens to Moria, 48 euros to ferry back from Moria to Athens, and 17 euros to bus back from Athens to Tripoli.

“I only get 90 euros a month,” Abudan said. “I had to take from my wife and kids. And I have another appointment coming up. How am I supposed to make these trips and feed my family?”

Asylum applicants and refugees present their cash cards to receive their monthly allowance from the U.N. refugee agency. Photo by Brillian Bao.

Abudan has tried to find work, with little success. He said that the closest available jobs are in Athens, two hours away from Tripoli, and his chances of getting a job are slim. Though asylum applicants have the legal right to work, with the national unemployment rate hovering around 18%, they are unlikely to be hired over Greek citizens.

“Only around four or five refugees here have a job,” said Patric Mansour, who works for the Norwegian Refugee Council at Moria Camp. “Unemployment is high, especially in Moria. People would not dare hire a refugee.”

Even if Abudan were to find an employer willing to hire him, he lacks the appropriate work permit. When he requested one at the Asylum Service’s office in Moria, he was told that he would have to wait six months because of a “paperwork issue.” He said he doesn’t know much beyond that.

Many asylum applicants and refugees who do manage to find work are employed illegally, leaving them vulnerable to low wages and long work hours. The Greek government does not keep track of the number of refugees who are employed. The closest estimate one could get would be from Turkey, where similar cases persist: there, only 15,000 of more than 3.4 million Syrian refugees have formal work permits, according to the International Crisis Group. An estimated 750,000 to 950,000 Syrian refugees work in the informal sector.

Joseph Baluku, a refugee from Uganda, said one of his former employers withheld his wages. During his second week in Athens, Baluku paid a friend 50 euros to get a job picking oranges at a grove in Sparta. The job seemed promising at first: the workers were picked up at six in the morning and finished by four in the afternoon. But when Baluku’s employer took him to set up a bank account to be paid, Baluku was told he had to return to Athens to open a bank account. (The four major banks in Greece have been criticized for refusing to open bank accounts for asylum seekers.)

Baluku says the workers who managed to set up accounts were never paid.

“My friend was told, ‘We will put money. We will put money,’” Baluku said. “But the account was never made active.”

Though workers may sue their employers, such cases require legal fees. Baluku estimates that a single case could cost more than 500 euros.

“I don’t think it’s something to go for,” he said. “Where would I get the court fees?”

Baluku is lucky, though. He received asylum 89 days after he arrived in Greece. He has guaranteed housing. He has a job that pays.

Abudan doesn’t.

Abudan worries that his family’s lack of money is negatively affecting his children. Since schools are closed during the summer, his children spend most of the day at home. Abudan said he also finds it hard to integrate with the community himself, lacking the disposable income to frequent cafes or join in on other activities.

“I feel so bad for my kids,” Abudan said. The family recently celebrated all of the children’s birthdays on a single day because there was not enough money to celebrate each birthday separately. “They’re trapped in the house. There’s not even a TV in the house. I can’t take them out with me when I go shopping because they see all the things that they want, and it breaks my heart to have to tell them ‘no’ all the time. They want for everything.”

Abudan talks to two of his daughters on a video call at a café in Athens. Photo by Amy Abdalla.

His eldest daughter, who is 13 years old, dreams of becoming a doctor. Though she attended English classes at Moria, she was unable to finish them — the family left for Tripoli shortly before her exams.

“She’s dying to go to school,” Abudan said of his daughter. “She went for two months in Leros and then was pulled out when we were moved to Tripoli, and now it’s the summer, so she wasn’t able to finish the year.”

Cases like these are frequent. Mansour, who works in Moria camp, sees the unstable education system as the biggest problem in refugee camps. Last year, approximately four million school-aged refugee children did not attend school, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

“If you arrive at 14, you’re here for six months to one year, then sent off again,” said Mansour. “You lose four, six years. This is a loss of life for people here.”

Baluku, who is now 27 years old, said he dreams of going back to school one day. But he has already been turned away by the Netherlands, which requires that he hold a Dutch permit, and France, which requires that he hold a French permit. Baluku says the Netherlands would have allowed him to start his first year at university, but he would have had to pay the full price of 10,000 euros before being able to apply for a scholarship during his second year. He has no idea how he would save up that much.

“Maybe I will just give up the dream of going back to school,” Baluku said. “Maybe I will just concentrate on seeing what destiny brings. Because the more I make my hopes high, the more I’m frustrated, the more I get upset.”

Joseph Baluku, a refugee from Uganda, is the project manager of the Athens Housing Collective. Photo by Brillian Bao.

For his part, Abudan hopes that his asylum application will be approved soon. Then, he and his family plan on saving up money to leave Greece. But Abudan said that leaving is expensive, too — each Greek passport costs 85 euros. Photographs for the passports also cost money. With eight of them, Abudan admits that he does not know how the family will manage.

“I pray that God will bless me with the chance to bring my kids to another country and get them educated,” he said. “I don’t care where we go, I just want to go somewhere where my kids can get a good education.”