The decision to leave Najaf in central Iraq was not an easy one. It was home, the place where Henen had met her husband, raised her young family and built a support network of family and friends.
The dream had always been to stay there and give the children every opportunity to succeed in life. But when the family lost their house due to a local dispute and work opportunities dried up, Henen (26) knew what they would have to do.
More than a week ago the family embarked on a perilous journey to Europe – first flying to Minsk and then boarding a bus to take them to the tri-border area between Poland and Lithuania. Upon arrival in Belarus, a country Henen had never heard of, the authorities were welcoming. At the Victoria Hotel on the outskirts of the capital, where many of the migrants were staying, everything was comfortable, and the mother of three began to believe that the journey could be a smooth one. Then everything changed.
Henen in a migrant shelter in eastern Poland. Photograph: Amanda Coakley
“From the moment we were moved up to the border area, the Belarusian police became so aggressive,” she says from a safe house in eastern Poland. “We were told we could not go back to Minsk and that we had to cross the border. At first, we made two attempts to cross into Lithuania, but we were pushed back. After that we focused on Poland.”
On the third attempt the family crossed and began to trudge through the dark forest that separates Poland from Belarus. For three days they had no access to food or clean water. It was cold and wet, and Henen, who is nine months pregnant, was terrified she would fall.
“It was tiring, and we didn’t know if we were going in the right direction. What gave me strength were my children. They did not cry. They understood why we were doing this and looked after each other,” she says.
This Iraqi family is one of many who have paid hard-earned money to travel to Europe and seek asylum. More than 2,000 people are now trapped on the Belarusian side of the border after the country’s strongman leader, Alexander Lukashenko, pushed people to the frontier with the European Union in retaliation for sanctions imposed on the country following widely discredited elections in August 2020 and the subsequent crackdown on opposition protests.
With more people due to arrive to the border in the coming days, Poland has responded with heavy-handed tactics. The crossing at Kuznica has been sealed off, and people caught attempting to enter the country have been pushed back, contrary to international rules on asylum.
A state of emergency has been declared all along the border region, resulting in an information blackout. No journalists, NGOs or activists have been allowed to witness the situation first hand. Poland has said it has the right to protect its border as it sees fit.
Those that do sneak past the Polish border police are usually picked up by a network of local activists who give the people warm clothes, food, and asylum papers. Not everyone accepts the latter, instead choosing to cross Poland undetected and file for protection in Germany.
In Michalowo, a quaint Polish village near the forest, the local fire station has been converted into a safehouse for emergency supplies for people in need. There are stacks of chocolate, tea and dried goods. All sorts of people, from famous Polish actors to students, have descended on the station to help sort through the mountain of black bags that have come from good Samaritans across the country.
Migrants gather for humanitarian aid being handed out by the Belarusian military at the camp at the Belarus-Polish border in the Grodno region. Photograph: EPA
“We have to do something,” says Lukasz Hyra, a volunteer from Warsaw. “Our ruling party is openly populist ... and they have not done enough to educate people across Poland that our nation is becoming more attractive for migrants. Instead they have seen them as a threat and responded as such.”
Some locals I speak to voice their support for the government’s hardline approach to the crisis. “We cannot allow what Germany did in 2015 to happen here,” one man says, referring to Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees and migrants. At Thursday’s independence day gathering in Warsaw, far-right groups are keen to voice their support for the ruling Law and Justice party.
At the shelter Henen and her family are grateful for the kindness shown to them by the activists who run the facility. When they were found in the forest by border police, they were not taken back to the border as they feared, but delivered to a centre for processing.
“I feel anxious and of course I’m afraid of the unknown but, God willing, it means that the children’s future will be better than what was waiting them in Iraq,” she says.