GRAY, France (AP) — Gray is a dying
town, its residents lament. Big businesses have moved away, taking
jobs with them. Though it still lives up to its nickname "Gray
la jolie," or "Gray the pretty," many stores now lie
vacant, with fading "to rent" signs in their windows.
But for one Syrian family, the
picturesque streets, red-tiled rooftops and quiet river walks offer
hope of rebuilding their shattered lives, away from the fear of death
lurking around every corner in their homeland.
"I will start to love life another
time," said Abd Alwahab Alahamad, a 43-year-old Damascus
oncologist. "Because sometimes (in the) last two years, I
thought it will be very difficult to stay alive."
Like hundreds of thousands before them,
the Alahamads risked everything to escape war and the dark brutality
of the Islamic State group, embarking on a perilous and uncertain
journey through checkpoints, bombs and a nightmarish sea crossing to
But after months of uncertainty and
doubt, their luck began to change. Alahamad, his wife Iman Mshanati
and their three children — 5-year-old Nora, 2-year-old Ahmed and
baby Layan, born in Greece six months ago — were among the
fortunate few accepted so far into an ambitious European relocation
Launched in late 2015, the program was
designed to relieve pressure on Greece and Italy, the main entry
points for more than a million people fleeing into the European
Union. But it has come under fire for moving too slowly. Of the
66,400 people who should be relocated from Greece by this September,
just 7,286 had been resettled by the end of December, according to
figures from the International Organization for Migration, which
organizes the transfers. France has taken in the most refugees from
Greece, 2,420. The next highest-receiver is the Netherlands, which
has taken 836.
Applicants cannot choose their
destination. The Alahamads were assigned to France, a country neither
the Russian-trained doctor nor his wife, a 33-year-old nutritionist
and beautician, had ever visited.
"We are going into the unknown; We
do not know the city, the people, nothing," said Mshanti in a
small apartment in Athens the day before the family's flight to
Paris, three small suitcases sitting neatly packed on the floor. "But
we hear from people who had left before us that they are happy, and
we felt relieved."
The family had never intended to leave
Syria. They didn't expect the 2011 street protests against Syrian
President Bashar Assad to turn into a full-blown civil war.
"At first everybody thought —
not only me — that it will finish tomorrow, the day after
tomorrow," Alahamad said of the early days of the rebellion.
The trials of their months-long journey
are etched on their faces.
In 2014, warned government forces were
looking for him after he treated a man for gunshot wounds, Alahamad
fled Damascus. He moved the family to an eastern town near the city
of Deir-e-Zor, where his parents are from, and quickly found a job in
a private clinic.
But the war followed.
The area was overrun by IS extremists
who imposed strict Islamic rule. Mshanti had to wear the
all-enveloping black abaya; Alahamad was questioned for treating
female patients, and forced to watch a public killing. A family
friend was beheaded, his body left on the street for three days.
Relentless bombings claimed the lives of relatives and friends.
After a particularly close call, when
rockets landed near their home, wounding relatives, Alahamad decided
the time had come.
"I left. I left everything
behind," he said.
With two young children and a pregnant
wife, the journey was harrowing. The nighttime treks and border
crossing, the smugglers, the ride jammed into the back of a truck
with nearly 100 others. But nothing compared to the boat crossing
from Turkey to Greece. Nora cried, clutching her father's hand. She
was convinced they would die.
Their first try failed. The couple paid
$800 each, for four spots in an overcrowded dinghy that nobody on
board knew how to drive. They went round in circles on the Aegean Sea
until the Turkish coast guard intercepted the boat and took all its
passengers to a detention center.
On their second attempt, a fellow
passenger motored for hours through rough seas to the Greek island of
Chios. The family reached mainland Greece 10 days later.
Alahamad spent months working as a
volunteer doctor in refugee camps housing some of the more than
62,000 asylum seekers stranded in Greece by border closures and a
deal between the EU and Turkey intended to stem the flow of migrants
into Europe. He and Mshanti thought of staying, but Greece's asylum
system was overwhelmed.
So they applied for relocation. Months
of waiting ensued, punctuated by interviews with authorities for the
relocation procedure and Layan's birth. Then in September, the news
they had been waiting for: Their application was successful.
The Alahamads were assigned to Gray, a
pretty, sleepy medieval town in eastern France of about 6,000 people
on the River Saone just before it flows into Burgundy. They would be
part of the second group of families sent there from Greece. The
first arrived in March, with a maximum 29 people arriving each time.
Gray Mayor Christophe Laurencot
stipulated the town would accept only families, and each would be
assigned a social worker. The families are given housing while they
apply for asylum, a process that normally takes about four months in
the fast-track relocation procedure, said Guillaume Germain, regional
director of the French Immigration and Integration Office. Once
granted refugee status, they can stay in state housing for another
six months while searching for jobs and living arrangements of their
own, but are free to move elsewhere in France if they prefer. Of the
first five families to arrive in Gray, four have moved elsewhere.
But small, close-knit towns do not
always embrace outsiders. To facilitate integration, Laurencot
decided the best tactic was full transparency and informed residents
about the program before the first arrivals in March.
"We had reactions straight away,"
he said. "Good, less good or bad, I had them all." Some
residents offered overwhelming generosity, while others questioned
why the state should help foreigners.
But, Laurencot said, "France is
after all a country of hosts, a country of reception, a welcoming
country. And it's not enough to say it; we had to do it."
So far, the mayor's tactic appears to
"It's very, very good, we see them
pass by, there are no worries on that account, everything is going
well," said Stephanie Vanhee, who runs an optical shop in Gray.
Toddler Ahmed squealed with joy at being allowed to pet her puppy,
Morito, during the family's first tour around town. "It must be
done, you know. We must receive them."
Clothing store owner Roberte Fouillot
said reactions were more or less positive, although there was some
initial reticence to the idea, what with the recent terror attacks by
Islamic extremists and demands on social services by needy French
people. But images of the war in Syria in the media shocked her.
"These poor kids, these poor
families who are suffering — it's unacceptable in our day and age,"
As for the issue of integration,
Fouillot does not foresee problems.
"They are people like everyone
else. We all have our religion," she said. "Today, if
everyone reached out to each other, well, there might be less wars,
less misery in the world."
The Alahamads arrived in Gray on a
foggy mid-December night. Allocated a bare but warm apartment,
Alahamad and Mshanti breathed a sigh of relief. They look forward to
learning French, finding work and sending the children to school.
Alahamad hopes France will recognize his Russian medical degree.
An exploratory walk, with Nora and
Ahmed playing excitedly in a small playground near the river,
cemented their impression: The town was perfect. The worst, they
hoped, was finally behind them.
"It's difficult. We lost many
things," Alahamad said. "I want to start a new life. Now, I
think we have a chance."