Walking across the playground of a small refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, I can see a boy lying motionless on the slide; his plump body dressed in a grey vest and shorts, his hands limp by his head, his expression glazed.
Hoda, who I am walking with, sighs. This is her son, Aboudi, an 11-year-old boy who has such acute autism that he cannot speak, understand words or communicate in a way that anyone else understands.
“My child is the reason we are here,” says Hoda Dawoo. “When Aboudi was born, we didn’t realise he was autistic and sick until he gradually grew up. He can’t express his feelings except by screaming and yelling and making strange sounds.”
When Aboudi was little, he wouldn’t respond to his name. His mother and father gradually realised something was wrong. “He has strange ideas. I have no idea what’s going on in his mind,” Hoda says. “He doesn’t like anyone to swing beside him; he doesn’t like anyone to touch his toys.” He has never even wanted normal toys, preferring bottles of shampoo or Pepsi cans. Hoda speaks quickly, rattling off her son’s behavioural difficulties. She is now pushing Aboudi on a swing and I stand in front, lightly pushing him back towards his mother. He’s smiling very slightly.
“We exposed him to so many psychiatrists and so many doctors, and because I am Lebanese and my children were born in Syria, the Lebanese government won’t give Lebanese nationality to the children, so they won’t cover the expenses of his treatment.”
Hoda has two other children, 14-year-old Hamza, a softly spoken young guy, and a little boy called Adam. When Hoda rushes off to tend to Aboudi at one point during our interview, I push Adam on the swings. “How old are you?” “FOUR,” he bellows, holding up five fingers.
Hoda’s husband is Syrian and the family used to live there but, when war broke out, they left for Beirut. There, they faced extremely expensive rent ($1,000 a month), no jobs, severe poverty and no professional medical help for Aboudi. Hoda says that, because of the Syrian war, her husband headed to Germany in August 2015. “There are so many medical centres there that take care of children,” she says. She is certain that her son will be looked after.
When they were moving around – sleeping on the floor of abandoned houses or in forests – Aboudi found it difficult being in new places, and always wanted to run away
Hoda, Hamza, Aboudi and Adam had to travel from Beirut through Syria in order to reach Turkey and get their boat – challenging under normal circumstances. Hoda barely pauses for breath: “We crossed so many risky roads and the police were about to arrest us – it was raining heavily and we walked in the middle of the night and it was freezing and we slept in the forest, we slept in empty houses on the ground, we were trembling. We walked into Turkey barefoot with nothing – we had nothing.”
When they were moving around – sleeping on the floor of abandoned houses or in forests – Aboudi found it difficult being in new places, and always wanted to run away. He doesn’t get on well his brothers, says Hoda, so it falls to her to make sure he’s OK.
The boat journey was difficult, too. The engine cut out in the middle of the sea and all the children started crying and vomiting. When they arrived safely in Greece on April 3, 2016, they were put in Moria camp on Lesbos, which another refugee described to me as “worse than Syria”.
“Moria was a piece of hell,” says Hoda. “We only had a small tent and spread a blanket on the pebbles, and slept there with my children and the insects.”
They are now in PIKPA, a small camp for vulnerable people set in a former children’s holiday camp by psychiatrist Efi Latsoudi, who has recently won the Nansen Refugee Award. “Thank God we in PIKPA are living the best way. This is the best camp because we have everything. It is paradise in comparison to Moria,” Hoda says.
But Aboudi has found it hard to adjust. He runs away at every opportunity. If Hoda wants to spend any time with her other sons, he legs it. He’s torn away mosquito nets from windows and jumped out, stolen neighbours’ shoes and run away, been found by police on the highway. Hoda has no social life, no life of her own and misses her husband. Even in PIKPA, she can’t leave Aboudi for five minutes: “I can’t visit any friends. I can’t leave him alone and I can’t take him with me.”
The next day, I’m taking a taxi through Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos. The taxi driver and a fellow passenger, an older woman, tell me they’ve seen Aboudi before. The driver says she saw him being picked up by police on the highway and the elderly woman says she once took the same bus as him. “He truly does not stop,” she says. “Screaming, screaming, screaming.” Screaming, screaming, screaming. As you read this, there’s a high chance that is what Hoda is hearing right now. Hoda’s devotion to her son, however, shouts louder than he ever could.