For four years the slightly built chemistry student stuck out the war in Aleppo, four years that left a quarter million Syrians dead and turned much of the northern Syrian city into a ruin.
Wrestling taped-up duffle bags onto a bus in the Turkish port town of Taşucu, Mohamed tries to explain why he chose now to leave his home and become a refugee.
His simple answer sheds light on one reason Syrians are marching toward Europe – and why there may be millions more behind them.
“Before I could stand the situation, but now I can’t,” he says after arriving on an overnight ferry from northern Lebanon that was packed with fellow Syrians fed up with war.
No single incident or atrocity prompted his decision, Mohamed says, just a grinding build-up.
“It’s like a cup of water when it is overflowing,” says Mohamed, on his way to Istanbul to join his family, which left Syria last month. “It is too much.”
The mass migration of Syrians has shocked Europe, as the largest movement of people since World War II. Yet the many more who could follow are a sign, say Syrians interviewed along the start of this refugee trail, of how far Syria’s social fabric has ruptured beyond immediate repair, and how they now despair like never before.
The despair has been felt on both sides of the border. Some of those interviewed, like Mohamed, tried to hold out in Syria. Others survived as refugees in Turkey for years before losing hope of ever going home. For some, the stories and images of their countrymen flowing into Europe and making it as far as Sweden have exerted a pull of their own.
“‘When the war ends, we will go back to Syria.’ We have been repeating that same sentence for years,” says Umm Fadi, a Syrian widow who has moved back and forth between Syria and Turkey for months at a time, alternating being at home with relief from Syria’s threats and stress in Turkey.
Sitting in a dusty parking lot in the town of Kilis on the Turkish-Syrian border – a 285-mile drive east of Taşucu – Umm Fadi says she knows, finally, that the sentence isn’t true, though in conversation she repeats the word “hope” three times in a row. She says she is returning to Aleppo to finally sell her house “in a hurry” and bring out an adult son and daughter.
“It has been too long,” says the matriarch, clad in a flowing black abaya and surrounded by relatives, a cardboard box bound with nylon cord, and duffel bags. “Now people hear of better conditions in Europe, houses, food, water, health care. We have had no electricity or Internet for seven months!”
What will be left of Syria?
“So many people want to go to Europe to continue their lives – maybe five million more will come,” she says. “Young people are more desperate because they want to have their life, get married, and have children. Old people, they want to stay – some say even if they get killed in their house – because it is not worth it to start all over.”
Umm Fadi’s biggest fear? “That my country will disappear without a sign,” she says.
Syrians along the restless borders with Turkey say the exodus reflects a broader disintegration after years of violence and dislocation.
Some are escaping the barrages of government barrel bombs, others the terror of Islamic State rule in rebel areas. Still others the boredom of life in refugee camps in Turkey.
Sagas include losing everything, from houses to children to a proud sense of nationhood, yielding confusion about where to go and how, and who and what to take. Disbelief has sunk in – made clear in the hundreds of thousands of Syrians already risking their lives on the trek to Europe – that such loss is now permanent.
Dreaming of reunited families
Families have been atomized – torn by the violence, political disagreements, and the wrenching spectacle of children moving away from elderly parents – and are now spread across the region and Europe. The family unit, what was once a bedrock of support in Syria, as elsewhere in the Middle East, is for many now a source of heartache.
“In the past we had the dream of building Syria. Now we have the dream of just seeing each other,” says Bassim, an opposition activist and Alawite who was jailed three times even before the Syrian uprising started in 2011.
For him, a family reunion may never happen. He is in the Turkish city of Gaziantep not far from the Syria border with $1,000, and had to borrow money to send his wife to Sweden a year ago, where she gave birth to a daughter.
“I have never held her, except on Skype,” he says of his five-month-old daughter. Bassim tried to get there last week, but the boat he was told would only carry 20 people was dangerously overloaded with 43. He will try again, perhaps this week, but still needs much more cash for the journey.
But Bassim’s wider family has also been atomized by the war. His sister lives in Sweden, one brother lives in Germany, another in Holland, and still another with his parents in Aleppo, where he is hiding from the Syrian military for failing to do mandatory military service.
'Maybe everyone will go to Europe'
“My mother cries every day,” says Bassim. He says she used to favor the revolt, but the rise of IS and Syrian state TV’s coverage of its atrocities have changed her mind.
“She sometimes says [the revolt] is destroying the country,” he says. “She says that her sons are destroying the country, by bringing Islamist groups to Syria.”
Hassan, a small 20-year-old with facial fuzz and a big watch, is among hundreds at the Kilis border post. He holds the essential tools of the modern migrant: his Syrian passport, its pages lightly printed with images of Palmyra, the ancient Roman site destroyed by Islamist State; and a worn mobile phone in need of a charge.
“Maybe everyone will go to Europe,” he says. “So many people haven’t come yet; they need only to have the chance.”
But Hassan hasn’t taken that path yet, and instead has been working in Turkey. “People are insulted on the way. Police in some countries beat them, they sink in boats and die along the way; they face inhumane conditions,” he says.
No more than 3 months in one place
That does not deter a young media activist nicknamed Nol, who filmed two close fighter friends take a direct hit last year that killed one and took the leg of the other.
Nol, who hasn’t seen his parents in three years and often drinks heavily to forget the war, says he “just got tired of everything.”
“I spent three years running from place to place, no more than three months in any place, sometimes with no money. It’s too much.”
He gave his fiancée a ticket to France, and will join her via Germany. But first he has to take the uncertain boat route from Turkey to Greece, and up through Europe.
“I will survive,” says the slight 26-year-old Syrian. “If I survived IS and Jabhat al-Nusra and the regime, then I will survive.”