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Fleeing War, Syrian Refugees Trek Across a Wary Continent

Shawn Carrié Nov 11, 2015

LESBOS, Greece — At dawn, the well-metered rhythm of the boats’ arrival brings a teeming chaos to the lustrous, white sand beaches of Lesbos’s northern coast, only seven miles from Turkey. One after another, teetering rafts ease onto land and hundreds of people disembark, bending down to kiss the ground in gratitude for their safe arrival. They stretch their legs, check their belongings, then quickly bustle away on foot. Where, they do not know — they just do what everyone else is doing: walk.

On the other side of the island, the magnitude of what is happening is evident. The summer before last, Lesbos was one of the higher-end vacation resorts of the Greek islands. Now, it is the port of Europe: 4,000 people camp in the shipyard, biding time and waiting to move forward. Tents line the shore and spill over onto the streets in front of hotels, cafés and boutiques. Between 2,000 and 6,000 refugees arrive on this island in boats every day. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe in October 2015 — the highest monthly total ever recorded.

For the asylum seekers, Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos, is the first step in a long journey. Its port is a crowded 24-hour bazaar, part encampment, part maze of lines. There are lines to buy tickets, lines for the camp doctor, lines for a tiny hose that serves as the only source of water, lines to be checked and board the departing ferry. It takes at least three days to get a ticket to leave the island, and each costs 60 euros ($65). Everyone has to pay.

‘Can We Go Together?’

It was here that I met Mahmoud. He was sitting on the rocks along the shoreline, staring out at the sea. He had arrived in Lesbos earlier that day with no money, no passport, no shoes and no family. The flimsy vessel that carried him from Turkey had capsized, throwing everything to the waves. He swam in the darkness for “maybe minutes, maybe hours. I don’t know,” Mahmoud said. “I felt I was going insane. Thank God, I reached the rocks and climbed to land.”

All his possessions were gone, save for his Syrian ID card and a picture of his brother that he had safeguarded in plastic wrap. Of the 40 or so people who got in the boat with him, he saw only four others when he arrived on the beach in the middle of the night.

Mahmoud asked, shyly, if he could follow me: “Nizhab anuyak?” — “Can we go together? Me and you?” Here I was, a reporter just getting my bearings in the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere making their way north from the Greek islands to the promise of a better life in Germany. And he was asking me for directions. His innocent smile won me over, only faintly hinting at the ordeal he had endured. I knew we would become fast friends.

For Mahmoud, the war had seemed distant from the backcountry village outside Hama where he grew up. The younger of two sons, he had stayed at home to work the land and take care of his aging parents, and never learned to properly read or write in Arabic. His life was relatively undisturbed, until everything unraveled. 

This summer he turned 22 and was summoned to serve in the Syrian army. “When you are called, there is no chance to say no,” Mahmoud told me. Military service is compulsory for all men, save for those who are only sons. 

Just weeks after his deployment to a base in Qamishli, near the Turkish border, Mahmoud received a call from his mother: His older brother had been one of 10 young men beheaded by extremists in the public square.

The army gave him leave to attend the funeral. That night, Mahmoud said he couldn’t even look at the uniform he’d been given. “I didn’t want to fight. I don’t want to die,” Mahmoud said. He took his brother’s passport and crossed the border to Turkey.

People’s stories, their reasons for fleeing and their willingness to talk about it are as varied as their personalities. Some speak with vociferous detail about their journeys by boat, over mountains or under razor-wire fences. Others are more cautious. One young man, for example, seemed eager to talk about his past, but when I pulled out my recorder, his eyes darted away. “Please, no, this is just for you. Bashar hears everything,” he said, nervously invoking the name of the Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad.

Sawar, a 19-year-old from Damascus, had a bubbly demeanor among her travel companions. They could easily have been taken for a group of college kids on a spring break road trip. But she refused to talk about Syria. “All you need to know is that I have memories that are inerasable.” Her friends took special care of her and seemed like the only family she had left. It could’ve well been the truth.

A woman and her children await registration documents from the Greek authorities at a camp in Lesbos. Photo: Shawn Carrié

As for Mahmoud, his only thought is of his family. His desertion has put his mother and father in danger. Their only option is to flee, but legal routes are impossible and they have no money to pay a smuggler to take them across the border. The urgency he feels is palpable, as if time is running out. “Work! I want to work! Only work! I’ll do any job,” he would say.

I offered to buy his ferry ticket so that we could continue traveling together, but Mahmoud flatly refused to take a hand-out. Instead, I went to the market and bought a camping gas burner, a copper pot, coffee, tea, sugar and cups.

In three days, Mahmoud earned almost 150 euros preparing smalls cups of coffee and tea in the camp. He bought his ticket for the ferry to Athens and pressed 18 euros into my pocket as repayment for his startup capital. Before departing Lesbos, he insisted we take a photo together in front of the ferry, but only after he’d bought a fresh change of clothes.

Mahmoud sells coffee and tea in Lesbos, Greece, to earn money for his ferry passage to the Greek mainland. Photo: Shawn Carrié

Burdened by horrific memories, some travelers still find moments of happiness and levity during their journey. A group of children swims playfully in a calm inlet of the beach, unperturbed by the sea that had almost swallowed them up just days earlier. Watching them, a bystander explains to me: “Do you see why these people do what they do? They swim because it’s like therapy — they’re no longer swimming for their lives.”

Landing on Europe’s Doorstep

The current crisis that has suddenly garnered worldwide attention is by no means a new phenomenon. The war in Syria has steadily devolved over the course of over four years, killing a quarter-million people and displacing half of the country’s population of 23 million. Instability in Afghanistan and Iraq has been producing refugees since the U.S. invasions of 2001 and 2003. What’s changed is that the repercussions have now landed on Europe’s doorstep and become visible to the Western world.

For years, asylum seekers traveled clandestinely, procuring the services of smugglers who would arrange their travel through illegal means. Sheer numbers have now brought the business out into the open: border crossings now process the registrations of hundreds or even thousands of people per day as buses line up to shuttle them between checkpoints.

After a 12-hour ferry ride from Lesbos, Athens is a bazaar of options and paths onward. Clusters of people huddle around maps in Omonia Square, parsing rumors and the latest information as they charge their cell phones in the crowded cafés. An uninterrupted trip from Athens to Berlin would normally take no more than one full day by car or train. But for refugees, who must navigate a completely alternate path, it takes at least a week in most cases.

Mahmoud and I buy bus tickets from a shifty Greek man who leads us to a remote neighborhood of the city. Buses are loading up to the brim with passengers and departing at night. We reach the town of Idomeni at the Greek-Macedonian border just as the sun is coming up, and file as a group into one of several long tents. Each one holds hundreds of people waiting for their group to be called.

Mahmoud walking through a field across the border at Gevgelija, Macedonia. He fled Syria after being drafted into the army and then survived a harrowing journey across the Aegean Sea. Photo: Shawn Carrié

In and of themselves, borders are invisible. What we see are only fences and signs. Crossing them is a surprisingly simple procedure: A group leader, himself a refugee, collects the Greek registration papers and assigns a group number. When it’s called, 50 people at a time are led through a gate to a road. The group leader hands the stack of papers to an officer, who quickly flips through the wrinkled documents. Then he waves his hand, and the group walks.


Twenty minutes later, Mahmoud and I arrive at a train station patrolled by Macedonian soldiers. “Two lines! Syrian, there! Other, there!” Bleary-eyed and sweating as we shuffle toward the train, we see that the last wagon appears to be nearly full. The crowd grows agitated.

“Documents, please.” I show my U.S. passport. Bad move. The soldier informs me that this train is for refugees only — as an American, I cannot board it. There is no time to negotiate. I tell Mahmoud, thoroughly confused, not to worry, that I’ll meet him on the other side of Macedonia in Kosovo. But when I arrive there, I can’t find him. Disheartened, I have little choice but to continue.

Further along, in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, the central bus and rail station is patrolled by submachine gun-wielding police officers. They shoo away any disheveled or tired-looking groups of people sitting on the ground with blankets and suitcases — usually refugees, but occasionally, a homeless Serbian.

Abdul Ramadan, an Egyptian Serb, mans an information kiosk in a tent-filled city park in Belgrade where refugees congregate and camp as they await buses to Croatia. He spends his days rushing about, trying to provide reliable advice on navigating the labyrinth of semi-underground transportation and talking down prices with bus drivers looking to profit off the surplus of confused customers. “A lot of these drivers are trying to cheat the people,” Abdul explained to me. “So I have to work with them to make sure people get the right information and pay the agreed price to get to the border.”

At the Croatian border town of Bapska, there is little more than a dirt path lined with 30-foot-wide tents and surrounded by cornfields on both sides. It is said to be littered with mines left over from the Serbo-Croatian War of the 1990s. The usual NGOs are present, but it’s clear that a different group is in charge here. A self-organized network of volunteers called the “Czech Team” manages the operation with meticulous precision. In one tent, two women with headlamps sort clothes by gender and shoes by size; next door, a man sporting a mohawk, latex gloves and a surgeon’s mask is diligently focused on an assembly line of peanut butter sandwiches. Above a detailed cardboard mosaic of schedules and task lists are spray-painted stencils declaring the group’s credo: “NO ONE IS ILLEGAL — FIGHT FORTRESS EUROPE.”

Coming from all over Europe, many of the volunteers have left their jobs or studies to devote their time here. Eschewing bureaucracy, they have no funding or titles and make decisions by consensus. They are known throughout the Balkans as the most effective aid group in the region.

‘Why Do We Even Call Them “Refugees”?’

I manage to hitch a ride with a group of volunteers making a supply delivery. Nerissa Hadzic, a reporter for a Croatian radio station, is on the phone placating an editor who seems upset that she hasn’t turned in any material. “I’ll give you something good soon — you know, immersive.” Satisfied she’s bought herself more time, she brushes off the call and resumes drafting a trilingual Facebook post calling for donations.

“This is where I belong. These are my people. I feel the same as a refugee,” Hadzic says, without irony. When she was a child, her parents brought her from Bosnia to Croatia to escape the Serbian army’s bombardment of Sarajevo.

Volunteers of the “Czech Team” at the Serbo-Croatian border work through the night, after staff of other NGOs return to their hotels. Photo: Shawn Carrié

I get the sense from those who feel called to help that they, too, are seeking something to connect with. “Why do we even call them ‘refugees’? These people are running away from hell. It’s no different from what anyone else would do,” Hadzic reflects as we’re driving through the eastern Croatian countryside. “They are searching for safety. They are us and we are them. Everybody is searching for something.”

Arriving in Germany or Belgium or Sweden only marks the beginning of a new chapter. Asylum applications, language classes and cultural integration will be discussed and debated by politicians and the media for the next 20 years.

What we are seeing is an entirely new generation of immigrants. This year alone has brought over 750,000 asylees to Europe, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. Many of them will someday gain citizenship. Their children will grow up speaking another language, forming friendships and making ties to their new home. Some will return to their homelands, as many say they would like to, whenever the wars end. But hope is scarce that it will be soon.

I heard from one of the Syrian contacts Mahmoud saved in my phone that he had made it to Germany and was staying in the northern port city of Hamburg. I find him in an old tennis gymnasium converted into a reception center for asylum seekers.

Mahmoud is thrilled to see me, beaming as he tells me about the new friends he’s made among the families who he shares the communal space with, and even a few Germans. He’s grateful to finally stay in one place and have a bed to sleep in at night. “God is great, I have a pillow to lay my head on!”

Another Syrian who settled in Hamburg two years ago has taken Mahmoud under his wing and is showing him the ropes of German life. He gave Mahmoud an iPhone, which he uses to send photos to family and friends in Syria, posing proudly, to show them that he is comfortable in his new home. He doesn’t want them to worry, but though he has reached his destination, Mahmoud is still preoccupied with his family. It will be at least six months until he gets a permit to work legally, and he is anxious that the clock is ticking.

“Work! Work! I need to find work,” Mahmoud repeats. “I am not important, all I want is my family safe.”

In a few weeks, he will be transferred to more permanent group housing in another town in rural Germany. He will start taking classes in German language and culture, and begin the long process of integrating into a very foreign reality. Until then, he doesn’t know what to do, other than what everyone else is doing: wait. 


War, Refugees & Regime Change
By Robert Parry

Immigrant Voices: After the Arrival, More Challenges
By Elia Gran

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