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Rahima Yousofi, 45, stands looking down at the charred remains of her family's home in Moria refugee camp, Greece, after the camp was destroyed by fire.
Crisis in Greece

After fire destroys a refugee camp, a mother’s hope survives

Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/IRC

“People used to tell me, ‘I wish I had your strength,’” Rahima Yousofi says. “I’ve been through a lot of hardships in my life. Even if I fall down a hundred times, I’ll get back up again.”

Rahima sits inside a tent in the refugee camp where her family lives in Lesbos, Greece
Rahima escaped the conflict in Afghanistan and made it to Greece with her five children. She is determined to build a new life for her family. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/IRC

Rahima is tough and she’s had to be. The 47 year old from Afghanistan has worked as a prison manager in Kabul, escaped death threats from the Taliban, and survived a fire in Greece that destroyed an entire refugee camp—all while bringing up her five children on her own.

“It’s difficult to be a woman alone raising a family,” Rahima says. “The reason I left Afghanistan is that it isn’t safe—especially in Kabul. The Taliban would threaten us: Our lives were always in danger. I wasn’t afraid of losing my life, but I was afraid of losing my children.”

Rahima and her children traveled from Afghanistan through Iran and Turkey, finally landing on the Greek island of Lesbos in December 2019 to seek asylum in Europe. En route, they were lied to by smugglers, robbed of all their belongings, and had to risk their lives crossing the Aegean Sea in a dinghy.

I wasn’t afraid of losing my life, but I was afraid of losing my children.

“We came here thinking that we would stay for no longer than two months on the island, that we would get our documents and interviews and leave—go somewhere, anywhere, else,” says Rahima. Nearly a year later, however, she is still waiting for that chance to rebuild her life.

When Rahima and her family first arrived on Lesbos they stayed in Moria camp, home to more than 19,000 refugees at the time, yet built for just 3,000. “We had to wait for one or two hours to get a shower, sometimes we would stay for three hours to get food,” says Rahima. “It wasn’t safe. For single women with children it was very hard, they wouldn’t sleep at night for fear of being attacked.”

Rahima walks past tents in the refugee camp her family was relocated to on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Relocated to a new camp after the Moria refugee camp fire in September, Rahima is nervous about what winter may hold. Her family’s new tent floods when it rains.

Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/IRC

A few months ago, Rahima was forced to uproot her life once more when an enormous fire destroyed Moria. “The night of the fire, I was asleep,” Rahima says. “When my children saw it they started screaming that there was a fire in the camp. It was very windy and all of the neighbors were running away and telling us to get out of our tents. We didn’t even have time to get our passports or documents.”

The night of the fire, I was asleep ... we didn’t even have time to get our passports or documents.

The fire destroyed everything they owned. Rahima and her family spent a week sleeping on the streets before they were moved to a new camp on the island.

Rahima and two of her children sit together facing the sea in their refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

After nearly a year of living in camps on Lesbos, Rahima hopes the day will come soon when she finally hears that her family can leave the island.

Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/IRC

But things have remained difficult. Their new tent leaks when it rains and the lines for food remain painfully long. “The winter is cold, but we’ll have to endure it,” says Rahima.

It is this unwavering resilience that has led Rahima to volunteer in the camp to help raise awareness about COVID-19 and teach other residents how they can keep themselves safe from the virus. She goes tent-to-tent giving COVID-prevention advice she’s learned from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and distributing kits from the IRC that have soap, shampoo and toothpaste inside.

Wearing face masks, Rahima and a colleague talk inside a tent serving as an IRC office in a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece

Rahima volunteers with the IRC to help combat the spread of the coronavirus in the camp, distributing prevention information and soap to other refugees.

Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/IRC

“I love to be able to help people, do good,” Rahima says of her volunteering. “I am happy to be working, no matter where I end up—I’ll always keep working.

I feel exhausted but I have hope in life. It’s hope that keeps us alive.

“We cannot keep living like this on the island. I feel exhausted but I have hope in life. It’s hope that keeps us alive.”

Rahima supports the IRC's work to help raise awareness about COVID-19 in the camps on the Greek islands. In Lesbos, we're also providing clean water, toilets, and waste management services to keep people safe.

A version of this story was first published by IRC-UK.