Two Syrian refugees: a 1,500-mile journey of hope and hardship

Fleeing war, they travel a perilous route through seven countries by boat, train, bus, car, and on foot in search of a new life.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
A Syrian mother and her son walk along a path near the Hungarian border in Kanjiža, Serbia.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

It was 10 a.m., and the smuggler told them it was time to go. The two young Syrian men thought he wasn’t serious – surely they would wait to cross the Aegean Sea at night, wouldn’t they? All their hopes rested on this journey, and now they feared this smuggler was going to ruin it all by sending them across the channel, from Turkey to Greece, in the glare of day.

But they had already paid $1,000 each, so they had little choice. And anyway, they had researched this smuggler. They had found him on Facebook. They had asked around and heard that he could be trusted, that most of the rubber dinghies he sent made it to the Greek islands.

It wasn’t the first time Muhannad and Nasser (whose last names have been withheld) had tried to reach Greece. They had already attempted to enter by land and failed. Now, they would try by boat. Everything hinged on this passage. Both had saved up for the journey, and what they had scraped together wasn’t enough for repeat attempts. If they made it, the two refugees from a brutal civil war in Syria could continue their education, find jobs, and start new lives. Most important for Muhannad, his success would mean a way out of war-ravaged Aleppo for his mother and sister.

Their smuggler scanned the turquoise water through binoculars, and then signaled to Muhannad, Nasser, and the 41 others hiding in the forest with them. It was time.

The two men pulled on life jackets. Nasser also cinched an inflatable ring around his waist. He had watched, over and over again, the news stories about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe, and he was nervous. Neither man was an experienced swimmer. Their mobile phones, crucial to the journey ahead, were wrapped in layers of sealed plastic bags to keep them dry.

All 43 people, including a mother with a small child, piled into the dinghy. They were packed so tightly that Muhannad would eventually lose feeling in his legs.

One of their group, an Algerian, steered the motorized boat toward one of the Greek islands, gauzily visible in the distance.

Tense, they skimmed across the water for more than two hours. Then, suddenly, when they were not far from land, the Algerian pulled out a knife and plunged it into the side of the rubber boat. He was trying to ensure that a Greek Coast Guard vessel, now approaching, could not force them back into Turkish waters.

Escaping air hissed from the dinghy. Water gushed into the boat. Panic erupted. Passengers screamed and pushed one another in their rush to escape the sinking vessel. Nasser jumped first, into shallow water. Muhannad plunged off the other side. Both made it to the rocky shore, as did all the other migrants.

Muhannad unwrapped his phone from the cocoon of plastic. No one was sure if they had actually made it to Europe. He opened the maps application and checked: Yes, they were in Greece. They were partway to a new life.

The two friends celebrated by doing what came naturally: They took selfies. In one of the pictures, Nasser wears a wide grin, full of relief, and flashes a victory sign. Muhannad gazes into the camera from behind blue aviator sunglasses, and smiles.

“We were happy because we thought we had passed the most difficult step in our trip,” Nasser recalls later. “But later we discovered it was the easiest.”

• • •

Muhannad and Nasser are part of one of the greatest waves of people forced to leave their homes in human history. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says nearly 60 million people were displaced by the end of 2014, and the number is only increasing. One in 122 people worldwide is now a refugee, internally displaced person, or asylum seeker, according to the agency.

And many of them are seeking refuge in Europe. Fleeing the war in Syria, and violence, repression, and poverty across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, hundreds of thousands of people are arriving on Europe’s shores, hoping to find a place where they can live in safety and dignity. More than 185,000 people applied for asylum in the European Union in the first quarter of this year alone – up 86 percent from the same period last year. The world’s largest driver of displacement is the war in Syria, and Syrians now make up a large portion of the refugees arriving in European countries.

Europe is grappling with the question of how to respond to the surge of refugees within its borders. The crisis is testing the very founding principles of the EU, as some member states balk at sharing responsibility for the arrivals with countries that are receiving them. As far-right parties opposed to immigration gain ground across the Continent, debates are raging over whether countries should open their doors to the newcomers or build walls to keep them out.

Until this year, the main route to Europe was by boat across the Mediterranean Sea. But that way is dangerous – and deadly: By mid-June this year, 1,865 people had died in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach Europe. Now another path is quickly becoming just as traveled: the Balkan route. It is not as hazardous as the trip across the Mediterranean, but it is long and comes with its own difficulties and dangers. Yet tens of thousands of people are now crossing from Turkey into Greece, and trekking through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary to reach countries in northern Europe, where jobs are more plentiful and assistance is provided to refugees.

A new EU effort to attack the boats of Libyan smugglers who send migrants across the sea is likely only to increase the numbers entering Greece and traveling through the Balkans. And as the war in Syria drags on, more and more of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, weary of waiting for the fighting to end, may decide to join them.

Throughout the region, they have become a common sight – thousands of people, carrying backpacks and children, trudging ever northward, some guided only by an inner compass of desperation.

• • •

This is the route that Muhannad and Nasser chose. They hadn’t always dreamed of going to Europe. Both had been happy in their home, Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, until the war arrived. The two met about nine years ago during the national exam students take at the end of high school. Scores on the exam determine if and where students are accepted for university. Muhannad hadn’t studied, and he wasn’t going to pass. He asked the stranger next to him for answers. It was Nasser. With his help, Muhannad passed the exam and was able to get a higher education. They have been friends ever since.

Nasser went on to study English literature at the University of Aleppo, where he came to love Shakespeare. He’s quiet, cautious, and usually wears a serious expression. When the fighting came to his city in 2012, he went to Lebanon, where he worked as a cashier at a grocery store. But he maintained his studies, and made the dangerous trip back to Aleppo in December to take his final exams so he could graduate. The university is on the regime-held side of the city. He hasn’t seen his home – on the rebel-held side – since he left three years ago. In Europe, he wants to study for a master’s degree in business administration.

Muhannad is more carefree. He has long hair that he pulls back at the nape of his neck, and he started the trip with a full beard. He’s tall, and smiles with his mouth closed in a way that makes him look as if he doesn’t want to admit how amused he is. He was accepted to a university in Latakia. But his studies were interrupted by the war, and he left Syria for Turkey in 2013. He worked as a hairdresser, and made enough to send money home to his mother and sister in Aleppo. They live on the edge of the regime-rebel divide, where the rent is low but the danger is high.

But his earnings weren’t enough for much else, and he saw no future for himself in Turkey. He had always thought that one day he would return home to Syria, after the war ended. “At first we thought it would be like Libya or Egypt, two or three weeks,” he says. “But it’s been four years now.”

When Nasser told him about a year ago that he wanted to try to go to Europe, Muhannad had already made up his mind to leave. What were they looking for? “Safety, a job, and a good life,” says Nasser. “We don’t want anything else.”

• • •

The smiles in the pictures Muhannad and Nasser took after they landed on the tiny island of Agathonissi didn’t take long to evaporate. They quickly realized that the situation on the islands is dire. Authorities don’t have the resources to keep up with the relentless wave of arrivals, whom they must register. To Syrians, they give renewable papers allowing them to stay in Greece for six months. Other nationalities are allowed one month.

Refugees must sometimes wait weeks to receive their documents. Some islands have official reception centers to provide migrants with shelter and food, but these are miserably overcrowded. On other islands, the new arrivals are left to survive on their own.

Muhannad and Nasser’s group went to the police in Agathonissi. They spent one night in jail, and then, when it became too crowded, police moved them outside, where they slept on the ground. After 2-1/2 days, during which the police fed them only once, they were sent to Sámos where they waited a week for their papers.

As it struggles to keep up with the flood of migrants, Greece’s new government, led by the leftist Syriza party, is pushing Europe to share the burden – and not just with financial assistance for arrivals, but in confronting the core issue.

“It’s not a national issue. It’s a European issue; it’s an international issue,” says Syriza Parliament member Vassiliki Katrivanou. The new EU operation to destroy smugglers’ ships in Libya, she says, may not only hurt migrants but would be ineffective. “The main thing that’s going to help is creating legal ways and safe ways for people to enter [Europe],” she says. “There are no solutions to immigration.... You cannot stop it and you cannot say you are going to resolve it. You have to face it and handle it in ways that have results, that are humane, that are according to the law, and that don’t create death. It’s a shared responsibility for all of us.”

Even though it was early in the journey, Muhannad had to confront one other problem: money. He had started out with all the cash he could muster, $1,300, and he had already spent $1,000 on the boat trip. Many of the refugees carry only enough money on them to make it to the next stopping point and then have family back home wire more funds through Western Union. That way, if they got robbed, they wouldn’t lose everything.

But Muhannad’s mother didn’t have much money. He couldn’t contact anyone. Would he have enough to finish the trip?

• • •

By the time I met Muhannad and Nasser on Greece’s northern border with Macedonia, it had been weeks since their giddy arrival in Greece. They had lost weight, and Muhannad’s beard was longer and more unruly.

The intervening time had been filled with hardship. Like thousands of others, they had ridden the ferry to Athens, and then the train north to Thessaloniki. From there, migrants head north, many on foot, to the border with Macedonia.

Macedonia is one of the most difficult and dangerous countries to cross. In late June, the national assembly passed a law giving migrants only 72 hours to legally traverse the country. But Muhannad and Nasser’s journey had been before that. At the time, police were systematically repelling migrants at Macedonia’s border with Greece. Those caught were trucked back to the border and dumped.

On their first attempt to cross the country, in the mountainous west, they walked for two days in the rain and the mud, their route constantly blocked by rivers too deep to ford. When they finally reached the city of Bitola, police stopped them on the road. Muhannad tried to bribe the officers, but this only angered them. They put him brusquely in handcuffs.

Other officers beat an older man in the group, clubbing him with batons. The police hauled the refugees to the border, ordering them to cross back into Greece with a warning. “Don’t come back,” the officer told Muhannad, “or next time I will beat you to death.”

Afraid but undeterred, Muhannad and Nasser tried to cross a second time, following a more heavily trafficked route north of Thessaloniki. After hours of walking, they were again picked up by police and trucked to the border. These attempts were not just demoralizing, but physically exhausting. The two men spent many nights sleeping outside, sometimes in the rain, and they ate mostly candy bars. Muhannad became ill.

Other refugees were doing even worse. Many migrants said police routinely robbed them of their money and possessions. Hundreds had been detained in the capital, Skopje, sometimes for months in squalid conditions. Because migrants risked arrest by using trains before the new legislation was passed, many crossed the country entirely on foot, using railroad tracks as a guide, and at least 25 have been killed when they were hit by trains. In the northern part of the country, criminal gangs kidnap refugees and hold them for ransom.

By their third attempt, Muhannad and Nasser were tired. I met them at the Hara Hotel, a dingy place just before Greece’s border with Macedonia that has become a hub for migrants preparing to cross. The rooms were full, and many people, including families with children, slept in the parking lot and surrounding fields. Laundry hung from every railing.

Muhannad and Nasser were waiting for a big enough group to form before attempting another crossing. Many of the Syrians, like them, decide to travel most of the distance without the aid of a smuggler, instead relying on smartphones with GPS and word of mouth about the routes. Everyone shared information. Friends who had gone before them would relay advice.

Along the way, social groups formed, often by nationality. Syrians helped other Syrians. Afghans often collaborated with Afghans.

The latest word going around was that smugglers were angry that many Syrians were trying to cross Macedonia on their own. Safety was found in numbers, and Hara Hotel was a place to form groups.

“There are two ways: You walk, or you pay $1,500 to a smuggler,” says Muhannad. “We don’t have the money, so we walk.”

By evening, a group of about 70 had coalesced, which the two friends planned to join. They would be leaving at 4 a.m. When the hour came, it was still dark. People hurried to stuff their belongings into backpacks. The men carried large sticks for protection.

The self-appointed leader of the group gathered the men to discuss security. Women and children would walk in the middle, surrounded by men. “Turn your phones on silent, everyone!” commanded the leader, as they trudged through a wheat field. “Children, be quiet! Not a word from you! Everyone keep together. Keep walking.”

The group crossed the field and turned to walk along a row of trees. There were no sounds but muffled footsteps in the grass and the chirping of birds just beginning to wake. The group vanished into the diffusing darkness.

• • •

The next time I heard from Muhannad, he was in Serbia. The two men had spent nearly 30 hours traversing the country. When they reached the train station to ride north to Belgrade, their group was unable to hold back. Two buskers were on the platform, playing an accordion and a drum. The refugees joined hands and danced to the music, laughing and swaying in a circle – a rare moment of levity in an odyssey that was far from over, the outcome still uncertain.

• • •

While Muhannad and Nasser had just passed one of the biggest challenges of their journey, another loomed: Hungary. EU rules say that refugees should claim asylum in the first EU country they enter and may be returned to that country if they travel to another one. Many EU states have stopped returning asylum seekers to Greece because of bad conditions there. But the same does not apply to Hungary. If Nasser and Muhannad were caught by Hungarian or EU border police, they would have to claim asylum to avoid being jailed. If they did so, they would be stuck in Hungary – not a place with bright prospects for building a new life.

Hungary’s leaders have expressed hostility to immigrants and, in late June, authorities announced plans to build a 13-foot-high fence along its border with Serbia to stop the flow of people. Leaders also said they would stop enforcing the EU asylum rules, and would not accept returns of people who had claimed asylum in Hungary but left for other countries.

By this point Muhannad had run out of money. Nasser paid for the hotel and food for both of them as they debated what to do in Belgrade. Muhannad’s plan was to try to find work in Serbia until he could scrape together enough money to finish the journey. Nasser said he would stay in Serbia with Muhannad until they could go on together. Then, Muhannad talked with a friend on Facebook, who learned of his predicament. He wired Muhannad $800.

Still, they were hardly flush. They knew some refugees who were paying smugglers to spirit them through Hungary in hopes of avoiding police. But the smugglers wanted $1,500 to take them to Vienna or Munich, and they had only about $800 each. They didn’t want their dreams dashed in Hungary by a misstep after coming all this way. Their 72 hours were running out, and a bribe to police to extend their time in the country would cost $56.

After their papers expired, the hostel where they were staying upped the rate from $12 each to $19. So they decided: They would cross the Hungarian border alone.

• • •

I caught up with Muhannad and Nasser in the tiny town of Kanjiža, near the Serbian-Hungarian border. The previous night, they had paid $11 to sleep in the home of a local resident. Now they sat in Cafe Venezia, on the town’s pleasant main square. The restaurant had free Wi-Fi. It was packed with Syrians.

At this point, Muhannad and Nasser had already sneaked across three borders. But this time, the stakes were higher. It was clear the two men were weary. Weary of navigating through countries they didn’t know and dealing with people they didn’t trust. Weary of being exploited by smugglers and police. Nor were locals the only danger: One Somali they were temporarily traveling with had been robbed the day before by a group of Afghan migrants. They took his money and his backpack.

“Everybody lies to us. Everybody wants our money,” says Muhannad. “I thought it wouldn’t take this long. Day by day it’s harder.”

He pushed away his plate and sipped the last of a Coca-Cola. Nasser hoisted his backpack. It was time to go.

Their group had dwindled to eight, and in the square they boarded a bus for a ride to the last village before the border, bypassing an eight-mile walk along a river. In Horgoš, they began hiking again.

Villagers stared, but the group kept their eyes down and walked quickly. One of them, Tarek, had loaded the map on his phone and walked ahead, navigating. They turned down a narrow lane where dogs barked at them from almost every garden.

Soon, they were trekking among fields of paprika and young corn. They crossed a muddy ditch, and stopped along a set of train tracks. The late afternoon light was golden, and red poppies grew along the rails. The tracks led straight into Hungary, which was now less than a mile away. The group would follow them, but not until it was dark.

They searched for a hiding place, settling on a thicket of shrubs and small trees between the tracks and more flowering paprika plants. Hidden from view, they brought out their dinner – candy bars and water. They sat for several hours as the light faded and a farmer drove a tractor in a nearby field. Then they turned off their phones, for fear police could track them. A few people clutched box cutters, for protection against thieves. Finally, they rose, ready for the next leg of their journey.

And an end neither Muhannad nor Nasser expected.

• • •

The plan worked. Muhannad, Nasser, and their group crossed the border undetected and met the drivers they had arranged in a small Hungarian village. They paid $140 each for the drive to Budapest. There, the group split up. Nasser and Muhannad decided to travel as far as their money would take them – at least to Germany, but they hoped beyond.

They paid a man $1,345 to drive them to Germany, and he dropped them on the road just across the border from Austria. They walked an hour to Passau and bought tickets to Hamburg before their good fortune finally ran out: A police officer spotted them in the station.

It was finally over, they thought. They had traveled more than 1,553 miles by boat, train, bus, car, and foot. They had survived the Aegean. They had endured bullying from police and smugglers. They had defied the elements. Now it was over, here in Germany, so tantalizingly close to where they had hoped to end up – either Luxembourg or the Netherlands.

Then something strange happened.

“Are you tired?” the police officer asked them. He gave them an apple and a banana, and explained that they needed to come to the police station to apply for asylum. They stayed there overnight, and when it was time to leave in the morning, another officer roused them as politely as a concierge.

“They were very gentle when they woke us up,” Nasser recalled later. “He said ‘excuse me, sorry,’ and woke us like this” – looking incredulous, he mimed someone gently tapping his shoulder to wake him. “We were thinking of trying to go to another country, but they were so kind,” says Nasser. “So we thought OK, we’ll stay here.”

• • •

I visited them about a week after they arrived, at an asylum center where they were staying in Freyung, a tiny town nestled in the rolling hills of Bavaria. Nasser and Muhannad shared a tidy room with two beds, a balcony, and a private bathroom. The center provided three meals a day.

We sat in a cafe in the quaint center of town, dominated by a church that towered above cobblestone streets. Muhannad and Nasser seemed relieved – happy their journey was over. But both were restless. Their asylum applications were still pending, and while their requests were virtually certain to be granted, the men were eager to start new lives. Eager to find work. And Muhannad, especially, was anxious to get his mother and sister out of Aleppo. He’s afraid that Islamic State will soon seize the city. For him, the journey is not over until he brings them to safety.

Earlier this year, Muhannad’s father, who is divorced from his mother, was injured when the Syrian regime bombed a bus in Aleppo. Muhannad found out when he saw a video of his father, bloodied but still alive, on YouTube.

“Nobody in Syria knows when they will die. For that, I’m scared. For that, I hate that I’m waiting,” says Muhannad. “I want to bring my family, and I’m just wasting time. I don’t want to see one of them in a video someday.”

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