Nazia and Rolian* bonded over their love for dance. The two 16-year-old girls—one from Afghanistan, the other from Syria—practice Zumba moves to videos downloaded on Nazia’s mobile phone.

“I want to become a dancer,” says Nazia with a bright smile on her face. “My favorite singer is Justin Bieber. To go to one of his concerts would be my biggest dream come true. But I don’t think it will ever be fulfilled.”

Nazia and Rolian met at Eleonas, a refugee camp outside of Athens. Their friendship developed in the International Rescue Committee’s safe healing and learning space, which they attend on a daily basis.  

Nazia and Rolian dance at the Eleonas refugee camp near Athens, Greece
Nazia and Rolian, both 16, met in the Eleonas refugee camp near Athens, Greece, where their families are neighbors. They share a love of dance and learning.
Photo: Daphne Tolis/IRC

The safe space is a place for the girls to make friends, laugh and play. There they learn Arabic, Farsi, Greek and mathematics. They also attend arts and crafts workshops, and do other activities that help them recover from the trauma of leaving home. 

When they first met last March, Nazia and Rolian connected over their passion for learning.

“I saw Nazia and her family waiting with their bags in the camp’s reception, and offered her to come to my container (a pre-fabricated housing unit) while their accommodation was being sorted,” recalls Rolian.

“She didn’t speak any Arabic and I didn’t speak any Farsi but we somehow managed to communicate. Ever since, Nazia has been teaching me Farsi and I have been teaching her Arabic, and now we understand each other perfectly well.” 

Meet Nazia

Sixteen-year-old Nazia at Eleonas refugee camp, Greece
Sixteen-year-old Nazia's family fled from Afghanistan to Iran, where she was born. Eventually they arrived safely on the Greek island of Lesbos after the boat they were in capsized in the cold Aegean Sea.
Photo: Daphne Tolis/IRC

Originally from the city of Farah in Afghanistan, Nazia’s family moved to Iran where she was born. Her family’s journey reflects many of the journeys taken by millions of refugees in what is the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Only one of Nazia’s brothers remains in Iran; two brothers reached Germany, while Nazia is in Greece with her parents, brother and three sisters. 

“I remember everything about the journey,” says Nazia. “I remember when we were going through a forest in Turkey and that it was very cold.”

“I also remember the boat journey but I don’t like these memories. We were on the boat and there was water up until our knees. It was very cold and we tried to whistle to get attention from anyone around to help us.  But the boat started to fill up with water, and we started throwing our things into the sea. 

“Then, I also jumped into the sea…the next thing I remember was waking up in a hospital wrapped up in a blanket. After my clothes dried, I put them back on and wore them for two months while living in the camp.”

Nazia recounts her story as she walks back from the safe space to her container. She lives close to Rolian, who has her own story to tell.

Meet Rolian

Rolian, 16, shows off her dance moves at Eleonas refugee camp in Greece.
After fleeing airstrikes in Aleppo, Syria, 16-year-old Rolian missed school to work in a factory in Turkey to help support her family. She now studies with IRC teachers in Eleonas.
Photo: Daphne Tolis/IRC

Rolian was born and raised in Aleppo but her parents decided to flee to Turkey after the city was hit by airstrikes, killing hundreds of civilians, including children. Rolian’s family lived in Turkey for three years. Rather than going to school, she worked in a textile factory from Monday to Friday for two years to contribute $86 a week to the family’s income. In February this year, Rolian’s family crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece, arriving safely on the island of Lesbos. 

“Our father decided to leave Turkey for our future,” says Rolian. 
Despite the relief of reaching Europe alive, Rolian still thinks about what she left behind. “I miss my friends back home and I miss my grandmother whom I haven’t seen in four years…I also miss my home; I remember we left everything inside the house but I don’t know if our house is still there.”

Looking to the future

Recently, Rolian’s family received news that they would be relocated to France. “I am happy I am going to France, as French is a language I liked since I was in Turkey,” says Rolian. “Here in the camp I also attend French classes with a teacher from the IRC.”

For Nazia and her family, future options are still uncertain. Since they are from Afghanistan, their options are limited. “I don’t know where I will go,” she says, twirling her long hair in her fingers.

“My family hopes we will go to Germany or Switzerland. I feel sad Rolian and I will be separated. When she gave me the news, I had tears in my eyes.” 

Rolian steps out of her container, some 50 yards away, and heads towards Nazia who is sitting in the makeshift living room at the entrance. 

“I will miss dancing together,” Nazia says. “Going to the park together and sitting on Rolian’s doorstep and chatting in the evening. We laugh a lot together…when we turn 18 we will meet again.”

* Last names withheld for security reasons.

The IRC’s safe healing and learning spaces in Greece are funded by EU humanitarian aid.